When we talk about exercise, intensity invariably becomes a discussion topic. I don’t think exercise intensity is well understood by most people. I think a large part of that, is because the word intensity is a poor word to describe what we really mean. I think difficulty or challenge would be a better option.Essentially, when I’m talking about increasing the intensity of an exercise, I’m simply talking about making it harder. The obvious answer is something like lifting more weight or running faster. But this is a very limited approach and may not even help you toward your goals. There is almost an unlimited number of ways you can make an exercise harder.
And here I’m talking about exercises because exercises are the way commonly think when it comes to fitness. But I prefer to think in movements. I’m going to talk about a simple squat and a few ways you could increase the intensity.
Say we’re starting with a body weight squat. We have “proper” squat form, which is the prescribed position for a squat. Simply changing this position will increase the intensity. If you use body positioning that is less familiar, your body has to work harder to perform the movement. You could set your feet further apart or closer together.
You could also change how deeply you squat. The deeper the squat, the more challenging the squat. You could add a balance aspect. Squat while standing on a balance board. Or create an awkward position by having your feet on objects that are different heights. You could practice squatting on a hill. You could face uphill or downhill. Or like the uneven footing, you could have one foot uphill and one foot downhill.
To add a little fun, you could have someone throw you a tennis ball you have to catch while you squat. To up the challenge again, combine the tennis ball with one or more of the above suggestions. An extremely challenging movement would be to squat on a wobble board while trying to catch a tennis ball at the same time. If this is still too easy, change the tennis ball for a weighted medicine ball.
A really simple way to make a movement more challenging is to just close your eyes. This way you eliminate a reference point that helps maintain balance.
All of these options make the movement more challenging without adding weight. If you’re a competitive powerlifter then adding weight makes sense. It’s progressing toward your goal. However, for the average person, building a more integrated body should be and probably is the primary goal. All of the above options will help toward that goal better than just adding weight.
Coming from a lifting background, it took me a long time to figure this out. When thinking purely as a gym workout, adding weight, or more reps, or more sets was the obvious answer. This may make me stronger and provide more muscle endurance. But this system specializes my body into a particular movement pattern. There isn’t any movement variety and makes it more likely that I will get injured or perform poorly if executing the movement differently than I do in the gym. Our bodies need all the movement variety they can get and we don’t get it in our daily lives any more.