The Internal – External Intensity Continuum

One of the more common responses I get to the early phases of my programs is that they look too easy, especially for those riders who have some strength training experience under their belt. For a rider who has built up to doing 50+ push ups at a time (although I have yet to see 50 perfect push ups from anyone) only doing 5-20 reps seems like an insult to their pecs. Surely they should do more, right?

Not so fast…I am not impressed when someone tells me that they are not challenged by an “easy” exercise. In fact, when I hear this I know that true strength has eluded that person since strength consist of the ability to not only make heavy weights feel light but also the ability to make your light weights feel heavy.

You should be able to do 50 reps and be able to wear yourself out in 5 reps. When you can make 5 bodyweight reps feel like the hardest thing you’ve ever done then you truly have control of your ability to produce tension, which is the root of strength. If you are always relying on the load or the number of reps to tell you how strong to be then you don’t really own your strength.

This leads us to the Internal-External Intensity Continuum. This is something I made up one day while trying to explain this concept to a ride who trains at my facility. In a nutshell, explains where the “hard” is coming from during an exercise or workout.

If you are Internally producing the Intensity – like getting really tight and staying that way during bodyweight squats – then you are purposefully producing more tension than you need to in order to complete the movement. If you are Externally producing the Intensity – like doing a max effort lift or amount of reps – then the load is causing the body to reflexively produce tension in response to it.

You want every workout to be “hard”, you just don’t need or want to be going to the External side of the Intensity Continuum every time you train. Being able to benefit from the Internal side will round out your strength and support the other side of the spectrum.

This explains how you can have a “hard” workout without training balls-to-the-wall every time you hit the gym. When I tell riders that they should walk out of the gym during week 1 of a new program knowing that they could do more the old bodybuilding mindset starts to creep in – how can you get results if you don’t max out every time you train?

Notice, though, that I didn’t say that the workout should be easy; you should simply not max out how much weight and how many reps you can do. If you don’t have the ability to internally produce more tension than the weight or reps call for then this sounds ridiculous, however, for those who have learned the art of strength this makes total sense.

For example, during my current training phase I have a workout that calls for me to do 3 sets of 8 reps on the deadlift. I wanted to use week 1 to set up the next 2 weeks and so I didn’t want to go too heavy or I would not leave myself anywhere to go. So, I used conservative weights and built up to doing 185 pounds on the last set.

During week 2 I built up to 205 pounds and then in week 3 I hit 225 pounds for 8 reps, which was my max effort – I walked out knowing I couldn’t have done 1 more good rep. While a bit off topic, I’m going to finish the cycle with 3 sets of 5 reps with 205 pounds to back off a bit after my peak effort.

The point is that if you look at the weight progression (185 pounds to 225 pounds) my week 1 effort looks easy – its 40 pounds less than my max weight. However, I can tell you that week 1 was not easy (I was there). Week 1 was more on the Internal side of the Intensity Continuum, Week 2 was in the middle and Week 3 was on the External Side of it, making every week “hard” in its own way.

This concept also applies to training phases and plans. You have to spend some phases focusing more on the Internal Side and some on the External side of the Intensity Continuum. This is why the early phases in my workout programs confuse some riders – my programs advance from Internal Intensity focused phases to External Intensity focused phases and since they have never been told the value of working on the Internal side of the continuum it makes no sense.

Unfortunately, our training culture seems to have largely forgotten and dismissed the Internal side of the Intensity Continuum. Go heavy and hard or go home is the battle cry for thousands of well meaning riders limping their way to the gym or “boot camp”, never realizing that there is another side to the strength coin that is needed to complete and round out their strength.

So if you have an “easy” workout then take that as a chance to work on the Internal side of the Intensity Continuum, not as a chance to breeze through it and tell yourself how super fit you are. For a lot of people it will be very humbling to realize how little body and tension control they really have but with focused practice it will come pretty quickly.

Make sure that you have a balance of Internal and External Intensity focused exercises, workouts and phases in your overall program. True strength demands a balance between the two sides of the Intensity Continuum so make sure you respect and practice them both.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Dan says:

    Hey James, great article. Just wondering have you had a try of the TRX rip yet?

    Reply • December 23 at 7:36 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I have got one and played around with it some but haven’t really found the “must use” exercises that will find their way into my programs. I mostly use it for metabolic circuits but I have not spent a lot of time with it yet.

      Reply • December 23 at 1:31 pm
  2. Miles Gibson says:

    What you say is so true. My workouts with my trainer are always hard. He is continually pushing me to work harder, more reps, more weight, combination exercises and so on. Some of the hardest exercises I have done have been with 15lb weights in each hand. If I don’t leave feeling like I have put everything into it (regardless of reps/weights), then I really haven’t pushed myself as hard as I should.

    Sub-note: For those of us living in Northern climates, spin class has been a great way to get cycles in. Our spin class instructor has us working in watts, starting with watts = body weight, then moving it up from there. It is hard but very worthwhile. I really noticed a difference in my biking (both MTB and Road) after a winter of spin class.

    Reply • December 23 at 10:22 am
  3. Excellent article! When training for improvements in strength, your “Internal-External Intensity Continuum” is spot on – leveraging the principles of strength as a skill.

    Question: I’m a mountain biker and rock climber. In both, efficiency of movement is critical (as well as strength). In my experience, it is often the most efficient climber, not the strongest climber, who makes it to the top. While in the gym, do you have any techniques to work on movement efficiency (or minimizing wasted energy)? Maybe shooting for very high tension in short hard intervals vs just enough tension to get the work done in longer sessions (20 minute circuits)? Any thoughts?

    Hopefully my question makes sense…its kind of hard to describe…

    Reply • December 23 at 10:40 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The Functional Movement Screen is the best tool I have seen for ensuring efficient movement. If someone has a clean screen then odds are they are using pretty efficient movement when training, if they don’t then I can guarantee you that something is off when they train. Beyond that it is just being mindful of how you are moving and being present during training – if you listen your body will tell you a lot of things. That is one of the benefits of working on the Internal side of the continuum – you get a chance to connect with and refine your movement where as if you are always training all out you tend to do whatever you need to in order to survive.

      I know what you mean but it is tough to “train” without making the mental connection.

      Reply • December 23 at 1:35 pm
  4. Jukka says:

    Great article once again! This point couldn´t be delivered enough or too often.

    I´m the first one to admit that I was once again lost from “the true mindset of strength” when starting the Phase 1. Now I´m happily back on tracks.

    Reply • December 23 at 10:54 am
  5. Dave K says:

    James, when you say internally producing more tension, does this mean that while doing a movement to produce more tension you would contract your agonist muscles to counteract the movement of your prime movers, or does it mean producing more than enough tension in the concentric phase causing you to get light, almost like a jump squat?

    Example of what I mean by antagonist contraction:

    In the case of the squat you would contract the hamstring group to antagonize the movement of the quadriceps, therefore produce more tension, rather than lifting your max weight and just rely fully on the weight lifted to produce the tension?

    I’m just confused by what you actually mean by internally producing more tension…



    Reply • December 23 at 3:18 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I guess it would be contracting the antagonists to resist the prime movers. The look and speed shouldn’t change, in fact I tell people they need to be a world class actor and convince everyone looking that they are lifting the heaviest thing they could when doing “light” weights. Hope this clears it up…

      Reply • December 24 at 8:03 am
  6. Bruno says:

    Nice article 😉

    But, how does creating lighter workouts a hard ones relate to actually having a workout dedicated to be a light one (during, for example, first weeks of linear periodization)? I mean, if we make a load of 50% of 1RM feel like 80% 1RM, than the intensity of both workouts will be similar and there will be no easy one. But what if we actually need a light day?

    Reply • December 26 at 3:24 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      That would be where you program in a back off week. For me, every 4th week I will cut the volume down and give my body a break after my hardest External Intensity Effort in week 3. Even then, I am still trying to be strong and efficient – I think that if you need a real break you are better off not going to the gym at all.

      Reply • December 27 at 7:37 am

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