Don’t you hate when people grunt and moan and yell at the gym?

No, I don’t. And neither should you. You should be grunting and moaning and even occasionally yelling, too. At the very least you should be pulling funny faces.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. There are drama queens and attention hogs who engage in unnecessary operatics and death metal screams. Mental focus is an important part of lifting. These foolish people are a distraction, and in a perfect world they wouldn’t be making unnecessary noise, but, the world being what it is, take it as an opportunity to practice your mental focus.

But my point is – those noises are often necessary. Often, the people making those noises can’t help it. They should be making those noises. If you’re training with sufficient intensity, you can’t help but groan, grunt, moan, and, yes, occasionally let out an involuntary yell.

Well, what is sufficient intensity? It all depends on your goals. If your goal is just general well-being, disease prevention, that kind of thing – then you don’t ever need to make a peep. You can stay perfectly composed during your workout.

If you want to change your body’s composition and shape, though, then you need to get intense. Because the body doesn’t want to change, and it won’t, unless it thinks it’s necessary to its very survival to do so.

When I was younger and spinning my wheels in the gym, I didn’t know what intensity was. I thought I did. It’s not sweating. You should obviously be sweating. Intensity is the knowledge that when it starts to burn, the work is not over. When it starts to burn, the work has begun. All the repetitions up to that point were just laying the ground-work.

“Resting” between sets. I’m not a drama queen. I don’t like to draw attention to myself. I am not that good an actor.

It took working with other people for me to learn, in a visceral, and yes, sometimes loud, way, what intensity feels like. It’s doing a set of leg press, struggling for the twelfth repetition, and hearing the other person say – give me five more – and you giving him those five, even though you don’t know how you even manage it. That very last repetition, number 17 when you thought your limit was 12, requires that primal energy, almost like the hysterical strength that lets the 110 lbs mom lift the car off her toddler.

Not every set needs to be to failure – that means, repetitions performed until you literally cannot do another (and you have to try to do another and have it fail – don’t trust your brain when it says “I can’t,” because, almost always, you can, your brain just doesn’t want to). But every good workout that’s not a rehab or a deload workout has several sets that are to failure.

A thousand-yard stare when it’s all over is also not uncommon. Remember, this is fun! (and it is!)

For people who haven’t yet learned how to get really intense, the brain is often the limiting factor, rather than your true muscular strength and endurance. There are different ways of tricking your brain, or defeating its objections. But a lot of them will involve you making noise, because, well, you’re doing this under mental duress. It’s kind of scary. It definitely hurts. It’s supposed to hurt. It will leave you a shaking mess. You might even cry. You might even laugh (I sometimes break into wild, hysterical laughter when the set is over). You might even throw up. Or you might do none of those things – you might just lie on the floor, dazed. But if you can stand cheerfully by the squat rack and have a calm conversation, well – you might think about doing a few more reps next set, or adding a little more weight to the bar. And maybe making a little noise.
NOTE: Intensity coupled with bad or incorrect form is a very dangerous combination. Make sure you are doing the exercises correctly before you take your intensity to the next level. The body doesn’t want to change, so, if change is the goal, we have to make it think it must change – but an injury is the wrong kind of change, for sure!

2 thoughts on “Intensity

  1. Eric Holzenberg

    I found your “Forbidden Iron” piece and was blown away. I can still remember the encounter that launched my own muscle fetish — a furtive look through a copy of Muscle Builder (Arnold on the cover) in a Miami drugstore, ca. 1968. I’ve known other myophiles, but never one who writes as compellingly about “the symptom” as you do. Sorry, but I have to say it: you ARE inside my head. After getting very modestly swole in my 30s a series of shoulder injuries kept me out of the gym for two decades, but with the help of an amazing trainer I’m finally back at it — building muscle efficiently for the first time in my life, injury free (if not pain free …) grunting, and giggling maniacally, loving Every. Fucking. Minute. Good luck with your own “growth journey,” I’ll look forward to seeing how far you get!

    • Mikey

      Thank you so much for the kind and encouraging comment, Eric! There is definitely a kind of deep joy that comes from pushing your body toward this deep desire that we’ve been holding on to for so long, answering the call that has long been unanswered…. keep pushing!

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