High Intensity Training – HIT

By Kieran Fisher – Contributor to MuscleTalk

The Basics of Abbreviated Training

Today bodybuilding and weightlifting routines commonly extend into 4, 5, 6, or even 7-day fests of isolation and compound movements. These often use many sets, ‘scientific’ methodology, and if what can be seen in most gyms is taken as evidence, provide little results.

This hasn’t always been the case, and if we look back to turn of the century strongmen we can see that they focused on short, hard workouts utilising basic movements and heavy weights.

Don’t take my word for it, here are some examples of what people did before steroids and supplements came to the mainstream:

  • Hermann Goerner deadlifted 734 ½ lbs with one hand on October 8th 1920, at a bodyweight of no more than 290lbs (he also had a 1 rep max two handed deadlift of 830lbs, less than 100lbs off the current world record and his was accomplished without support gear or drug use).
  • John Davis, two-time Olympic champion competing between 1937 and 1956, capable of squatting 500lbs fully for 10 reps, deadlifting 705lbs, strict curling 215lbs, and overhead pressing 375lbs. All without support gear or drugs.
  • Paul Anderson, possibly the strongest man who ever lived, squatted 1206lbs, push pressed 600lbs, and still holds the all time record for heaviest weight lifted by a human, of 6270lbs in the backlift (check in the Guinness Book of records if you don’t believe me).
  • Reg Park, won the NABBA Mr. Universe title three times in 1951, 1958 and 1965 as well as many other bodybuilding awards from the 1940’s to 1960’s. The second person ever to bench press 500lbs, regularly squatted and deadlifted with 600lbs, and behind the neck pressed a 1 rep max of 300lbs. He was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hero, and was also British! How long did he train for? About 3 times a week, for about an hour.

There are many more examples if you’re willing to look into the iron game’s illustrious past.

During the mid 1960s and 1970s the influence of anabolic steroids became more prevalent in bodybuilding – they had been present before from about the 1950s, but took some time to take off as even into the late ’60’s, many lifters had great worries about the potential for ill health as a result of taking them.

It is, if we look back, about this time that routines began to change and evolve into what we see today where a typical workout may consist of 25 sets, attempting to work each muscle independently and without thought to the body’s own biochemical reactions. In my mind not only is this type of training counterproductive for the great majority of trainees, but also makes it impossible to put forth the level of hard work that is essential for muscular growth and physical advancement.

Let us look at it this way, we have two people, one of whom trains 20 sets in a chest and triceps workout, he spends about an hour and a half in the gym, in which time doing 4 sets of flat bench, 4 sets of incline, 4 sets of cable cross-overs, 4 sets of skull-crushers on the ez-bar, and 4 sets of cable push downs. He feels his workout has been productive, takes a shower, and goes on his way.

On the other hand we have a guy who trains twice a week for less than an hour each time. He does cardio twice a week also and is in good shape, but lifts only on Monday and Thursday.

His Monday workout consists of squats, to at least parallel, bench presses on a flat bench, bent over rows, barbell curls and sit-ups. Starting with squats he warms up then proceeds to a working weight of 300lbs for 20 reps, he always goes to the point where he has to drop the weight on the support bars of the squat rack, which means some weeks he gets 18 reps, some 24. If he gets 19 or better he moves the weight up 5lbs next week.

Going to failure on hard squatting has the addition effect of occasionally meaning he has to sit down for 10 minutes afterward, or run to the toilet and puke – both sure signs of hard work, the type of hard work that is a prerequisite to solid muscle building. After the squats he moves on to bench presses. He sees no need to do incline, decline, flyes, cross-overs and endless other accessory movements for he already benches 250lbs for 8 full and smooth reps, and has a chest measurement of 45 inches with little body fat (not amazing, but easily a 300lb single and better than most of the people reading this I’d wager, and also better that the vast majority of people you’ve seen training in your gym!).

Each set here is taken to muscular failure, where the spotter must take the weight from him on the last rep. Our lifter does not do forced reps, he doesn’t see that need to pretend he lifts more than he does, and knows it can lead to over-training. The spotter only interferes with the set if the lifter asks and can’t do anymore.

Bent over rows come next, 2 hard sets with 240lbs (far too many people have benching strength massively in excess of their pulling strength, and it is this kind of stupidity in training that helps lead to the multitude of shoulder injuries that are seen today). After this again, 2 sets of curls hard and to failure, and then 1 set of sit-ups for 50 reps. Sometimes he does these holding a disc on his stomach and going to failure, but today felt like simply repping it out.

The lifter above did just 8 sets, who has worked harder? Let me give you a test, if you don’t believe that 2 short workouts each week can work, go to the gym and do this:

  1. Take your ten rep squatting poundage and squat it for 30. If you fail and have to drop it on the squat rack pins, unload it then put it back up, load it again and keep going until you reach 30 repetitions!
  2. Move on to deadlifts, take your 10-rep poundage and do the same, keeping your back flat and your form good.
  3. Do one set of overhead presses to failure.

Do this and then come back and say you had an easy workout.

The basis of High Intensity Training

Arthur Jones created HIT back in the 1970’s as an alternative to the high volume routines that often gave its gym followers little results. He scientifically tested his methods in order to convince others in the training industry, and also to help sell his machines. They became popular and Nautilus centres sprung up all over the United States.

Mike Mentzer and others that he trained took what they learnt from Jones and created their own twists to the system, which at the time was heavily based on pre-exhaust techniques and sometimes negatives. In some cases they improved it, sometimes they didn’t. The most influential spokespersons for modern day HIT training would likely be people like Dr Ken Liestner, the sadly departed Mike Mentzer, Stuart McRobert, and others who you’ll no-doubt find if you do a simple internet search (or alternatively go to www.cyberpump.com, commonly referred to as the HIT mother ship).

A basic HIT workout in its modern guise would look something like this,

Day 1

Day 2

  • Overhead press 2×8
  • Deadlifts or straight leg deadlifts 1×15
  • Chins 2×8

Abs done on both days for 1 or 2 sets, and all sets taken to failure.

This workout runs on the same principles that Bob Whelan (trainer, powerlifter, and respected iron writer) espouses in his programs (see naturalstrength.com) – you’re doing squats, some form of deadlift, a vertical pull/push, and a horizontal pull/push, in so doing, working all the available musculature of the body.

Here’s a split of how it works:

Legs and lower back (the most important muscle groups for any accomplished bodybuilder or weightlifter) deadlifts, squats
Back and biceps rows, chins
Chest, shoulders and triceps Bench press or dips, overhead press
Abs sit-ups or crunches done on both sessions
Forearms deadlifts, rows, chins

With these exercises you keep in mind poundage targets that are hard but achievable, and when you accomplish them, raise the stakes and set new ones. “Ah”, you say, “but I’m a bodybuilder! Unconcerned with strength, I merely want big arms and bulging pecs, big enough to make the girls drool over my Adonis like body!”

Nope. The reason why poundage targets are used is that for the beginner at least, and in most cases for everyone that isn’t a top-flight professional bodybuilder, is that poundage targets are not only the simplest indicators of progress, but also the best.

There may not be a linear relationship between size and strength, but one does exist and if today you can curl 80lbs for 4 repetitions, yet in 6 months you manage 140lbs in the same fashion, your arms will undoubtedly be bigger. Focus on getting stronger in the “big basics” and your body will develop much better than it would by measuring yourself each week, using trial and error to work out “what sort of pump benefits me?” Plus, in my own meagre opinion, poundage targets are manlier!

Here are some good targets to work to over the medium to long term, once you reach these you will have surpassed 99% of all weight trainers all over the world, and will likely be one of the stronger guys in your gym.

Squats to at least parallel: 300lbs or 1.5 x bodyweight x 20, 400lbs x 1
Deadlifts: 350lbs x 20, 500lbs x 1
Bench press: 240lbs x 8, 300lbs x 1
Standing shoulder press: 180lbs x 6
Bent over rows: 220lbs x 8

Lifting these poundage’s at 200lbs bodyweight (14lbs in a stone), would roughly equate to an arm of over 16 inches, and a chest of over 45 inches. Do these sound small? Arnold Schwarzenegger’s arms were 19 inches, he may have claimed otherwise but at his peak they were measured by Arthur Jones in what most believe to have been fair and controlled conditions.

Nowadays bodybuilders still claim measurements that are far in excess of what they truly are, and if I were you I would take those (and their poundage claims) with a pinch of salt. Part of their business is the business of disinformation in order to sell supplements, so bare that in mind the next time you read of a 675lbs incline press.

The other HIT conditions for growth

In brief:

1) Hard work

Not long work, but hard work. You must work harder than you have ever done at any point in your life. If you do not put every ounce of effort you possibly can into each and every set, then you will not get the results that you could. This is especially true of squats and deadlifts, as the very big moves have a much greater carry-over effect to total body development than any other.

2) Good nutrition

Eat well. You must have an adequate intake of all the essential vitamins and minerals your body requires each day, as well as fats, the essential fatty acids. You must also take in adequate calories each day, if you’re eating 2000 calories a day as a fully grown adult male, the chances are you are eating far too little to grow your body or to maximise the benefits that weight training can bring.

Adjust your calories by eating more if you want to grow, and less if you want to cut body fat, and make sure to take in adequate protein, fresh vegetables, and fresh fruit. There’s much more on bodybuilding/weight training nutrition elsewhere on www.MuscleTalk.co.uk, so go there and learn, as it’s not my personal area of expertise.

3) Include cardio-vascular work

This is not just for health – though that is it’s most important benefit – but also to allow you to grow better in the long run. A healthy body is an adaptable body, and ultimately, by doing just something along the lines of 2 cardio sessions a week for 30 minutes or so will help keep fat off and aid recovery times between weights workouts.

4) Rest

If you aren’t getting at least 7-8 hours sleep each night your body will find it much more difficult to repair and progress. There’s no way I can believe someone without the benefit of drugs or incredible genetics would reach notable levels of muscularity and fitness without adequate sleep and recuperation. You grow when you sleep, end of message.


If at the end of this article you take nothing more away from it than the message of consistent progressive training, then the article will have been a success. There’s no use in using the greatest routine ever devised, if you only workout one week in three, or working harder than anyone else in the gym, if you never increase your poundage’s.

Work on getting to good numbers in the big lifts, in good form with a good range of motion, setting both long and short term goals, and keep at it. To sum up, squat hard, deadlift hard, eat, rest and grow – the secret’s out, good luck!

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