3 Ways to Mix Up Training Intensity for Results

Liz Merritt
January 16, 2018

Walk into any big-box gym, and the choices can be overwhelming. In fact, it may be enough to send beginning exercisers running out the door. Mixing up training intensity is essential for the best results and to keep us coming back for more.

Getting started can be as easy as stepping into a group fitness class or climbing aboard a treadmill. The key is to have a plan and respect your starting off health and fitness levels.

Building Blocks of Training Intensity

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Key to any successful training program is building a proper foundation, or base training. According to Jeff Lockwood, cycling coach and owner of Lifesport, Inc., the physiology of older athletes requires a longer progression of training and adaptation, especially if they are new to exercise.

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Base training is the time to establish the fundamentals.

Base training is the time to establish the fundamentals. Attention goes to practicing proper technique and form, understanding soft-tissue integrity and establishing muscle symmetry. “You need enough time to learn how your body responds to the stimulus of the training,” says Lockwood.

“We take a look at what an athlete’s foundation is built on and assess chronological age and athletic age.” People in their 50s who have never exercised need a different approach. It’s especially important, Lockwood says, that older athletes take more recovery time to get the most out of their training.

Low-Intensity Training

If it has been awhile since you’ve done any form of exercise and you have no known health issues, then starting off slowly is best.

Your heart-rate zones can be tested with the assistance of a trainer or athletic coach, or you can follow the following formula from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) for a rough baseline: 220 – Your Age = Maximum Heart Rate.

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A very basic heart-rate monitor is a solid investment for anyone starting out.

A very basic heart-rate monitor is a solid investment for anyone starting out. You’ll be able to keep your heart rate in check and not inadvertently over do it. One of my favorite brands is Polar because they make a variety of basic models that get the job done.

A heart-rate zone between 55 percent and 65 percent of maximum will improve cardiovascular fitness. The bonus is when you work out at this intensity, a greater percentage of the calorie burn comes from fat.

Steady State Exercise

Research from the American Council on Exercise in partnership with the Department of Exercise Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin explored the best forms of exercise for people who are just starting out an exercise program.

What they found was 20 minutes of steady-state exercise, which they describe as moderate-to-vigorous intensity, accomplished nearly the same cardiovascular fitness benefits as very brief, high-intensity intervals. Steady state training is an endurance pace, or a perceived exertion rate of about six out of 10, which equates to 65-70% of your maximum heart rate. It’s a pace where you can still have a conversation, while improving your fitness.

High Intensity Efforts

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High-intensity classes offer variety later in your training program when cardiovascular fitness improves.

Starting off in a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) class may not be a beginner’s best choice. That’s because high-intensity classes offer variety later in your training program when cardiovascular fitness improves. Even then, take it in small doses.

HIIT training is wildly popular and marketed as a way to get an intense workout in less time. It generally involves intense work periods of a few seconds to a few minutes followed by a recovery period of the same interval. HIIT classes can go for 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the program.

ACSM experts say HIIT training can improve aerobic and anaerobic fitness, blood pressure, cardiovascular health, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol profiles and loss of visceral fat.

First, Build a Solid Base

HIIT classes are a great add after a foundation of fitness is down. ACSM considers a solid base fitness level as consistent aerobic training three to five times a week for 20 to 60 minutes at a moderately hard intensity. “Establishing appropriate exercise form and muscle strength are important before engaging in HIIT to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal injury,” the organization states.

As Coach Lockwood says, base training requires a variation of well-timed low-intensity and high-intensity training. “Variation is the key, or you will compromise your body. We want to create a stimulus as opposed to a stress. And the older we get, the more careful we have to be to understand that. It all corresponds to how the body reacts to the training and making the right adjustments.”

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