When it comes to lifting weights, I think everything that needs to be said probably has been. There is nothing new. Everything is a remix or resurrection of ideas someone else put forward years or decades ago. With that disclaimer behind me, let me tell you how I have adjusted my HIT workouts in the last few years. What I am calling Hedged High Intensity likely has another name.
Free Weights vs Machines
Longtime readers know that I abandoned the free-weight Pavel style lifting years ago for a more High-Intensity machine-based approach. Both methods are valid ways to gain strength, but for me, the decision to embrace HIT was for safety.
I’m not going to repeat my viewpoint for the 50th time. Instead, I’ll direct you to the post Knock Yourself Out, Bro! for an overview.
Because of my long history with gym injuries, I admit to my biases both towards the Body By Science approach and against the classic compound exercises. I like being able to target my muscles in a controlled manner with minimal risk of joint injuries that became more common with me with classic free weight exercises as the weight increased.
To me, this was a trade-off. I traded all the things I liked about classic free-weight lifting for a drastic reduction in injuries. I traded in my sports car for a Volvo. Which is a decision that I do not regret.
However, I still like the primal feeling of picking up something heavy and moving that weight using a combination of strength and balance. Although it can have a higher injury risk, it does capture my focus in a manner that machines don’t. There is a seriousness that translates into a different aspect of intensity that I do not get with machines. With machines, there are no consequences if I can’t do another rep on the leg press. With free weights, there can be.
That is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is great if you can leverage that seriousness without getting injured and awful if you can’t.
I like the safety of machines and High-Intensity and I like moving free weights. Is there a way to get the benefits of both and in a way that has low injury risk? I believe so.
One of the biggest benefits of High-Intensity for me was an understanding of how to use a slower more controlled repetition with a lower weight that can target the muscles as effectively as a normal speed rep using a higher weight. For a background on this understanding please read my post Muscle on Weight or Weight on Muscle?
The problem many others have discovered with free weights is the muscles get stronger and stronger, while the joints can’t keep up. Then a bad rep in a fatigued state that the joints could have handled with ease at a lighter weight suffer when the weight is too much.
Deadlift by Victor Freitas. I prefer the Trap-Bar deadlift if you have access to one.
My fellow HIT lifters can probably see where I am going with this post. The solution is obvious.
The first half of the workout will be traditional High-Intensity machine-based work. But not go to failure. Go to deep fatigue. Use the Big 5 Workout from Body By Science as a template.
Engage in a few traditional free weight exercises using a much lower weight. Because you are already deeply fatigued, you no longer need a heavy-ass weight to get the job done.
Use weights that you can safely control at a slightly slower pace than normal free weight reps. Then if you get into trouble on a rep, squeeze the weight and increase the speed to complete the rep. Increasing momentum will make the repetition easier.
Because the weight at this point in the workout is sufficiently reduced, should a rep be less than perfect, your joints will take less of a hit.
The free weight exercises I use are:
- Dumbbell bench press (regular and incline)
- Trap-bar deadlift
- Goblet squats
- Shoulder Presses
- Dumbbell curls
Notice that I still don’t do barbell back squats or barbell bench presses. Even though I am using free weights, I still don’t want to get trapped under a bar on a rep that has gone wrong. It is not worth the risk.
The Hedged High-Intensity has made going to the gym more enjoyable for me. As much as I love the Body by Science approach, the modern Glitter Gyms are simply too hot for me to generate that much intensity without getting screaming headaches.
This approach will not work for someone motivated by numbers and getting PRs. This is not a quantitive approach. It is intuitive. Intuition is a skill that I have spent years developing in the gym. If you don’t know your limits before you start any given set, this method may not work for you.
Scaling back on the machine intensity and adding some lower free weight moves to finish has been a good choice for me. I still err on the side of using less weight. If it turns out I didn’t push myself hard enough, that just means I’ll recover quicker and I can return to the gym one day earlier. It all works out.