Tip: Intensity vs. Effort – The Real Story

People use those words interchangeably, but experienced lifters know better. Do you? Info here.

Intensity and effort are not the same in the strength and conditioning world. People usually assume that intensity is the amount of effort put into a workout or an exercise. Or they assume intensity is how hard the workout is to complete. Nope, not in the strength training field at least.

Here's a quick breakdown of what each word means when talking about resistance training:

Intensity refers to the weight used relative to your 1RM (1 rep max) in a given exercise. For example: Your 1RM squat is 275 pounds. If the program calls for 80% intensity, it means you're doing 80% of 275 pounds. That's 220 pounds. Simple. If it called for 100% intensity you'd be using your 1RM weight of 275.

Effort is how hard any physical work feels, which is independent of load. Consider these two scenarios:

  • Scenario 1: Heavy squats for sets of 3 reps at your 3RM. This will feel like a massive amount of effort, like you have to lift this weight to save your life and not get crushed under the bar.
  • Scenario 2: Much lighter squats for sets of 15 reps at roughly your 15RM. This will ALSO feel like a massive amount of effort. If you've ever done a set of squats for a 15RM you'll recall lots of shaking, panting, and "just a couple more, come on, you got this" thoughts in your head.

The point being, both will feel like a lot of effort because you're going to expend a lot of energy to complete the set in either case. The difference is that the sets of 3 are high intensity (about 90% of 1RM), while the sets of 15 are lower intensity by comparison (closer to 60% 1RM).

Effort can also be quantified by using the RPE scale. This is used to determine how hard a set felt or how much effort you had to put into it.

There are a few versions of the scale but the easiest is the scale of 1-10. One being the least amount of effort and ten feeling like you're fighting for your life throughout the set.

Let's use the light weight squats at 60% 1RM as an example. If you do them to absolute failure your RPE should be at a 9/10 or 10/10.

Let's say that rep count was 15 reps to failure. If you perform 5 reps at 60% 1RM you're clearly not putting in as much effort as the set to failure, but the intensity is the same because you're using the same weight (60% of 1RM).

There are more simple scales like "easy, medium, and hard." Depending on your goal it might only be important to note when you've taken a set to failure. You've clearly hit a max effort then.