High-Intensity Resistance Training

Complete Guide to Maximizing Muscle Gain Efficiently

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: February 27, 2024

High-intensity resistance training, or HIRT, is a form of strength training focusing on maximum effort with minimal training volume. As a personal trainer, I find it’s a great option for busy schedules and anyone struggling to gain muscle with traditional workouts.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the fundamental principles of high-intensity resistance training. I’ll also show you how to use HIRT workouts to build more muscle in less time. Let’s get started!

High-Intensity Resistance Training

Fundamentals of High-Intensity Resistance Training

Arthur Jones introduced the concept of high-intensity resistance training in the 1970s. Later, professional bodybuilders like Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates popularized it during the 80s and 90s.

In recent years, HIRT has had a resurgence as an alternative to lengthy and frequent workouts. You might be wondering what it is exactly, so I’ll break down the essentials of HIRT, comparing it with traditional methods and covering how it works effectively in less time.

Defining High-Intensity Resistance Training

High intensity resistance training workouts involve lifting heavy weights with an all-out effort to achieve muscular failure. This extreme effort is very taxing on the body, requiring workouts to be shorter and less frequent.

The idea of high-intensity workouts is to stimulate muscle growth with minimal wasted effort or excess energy expenditure. Then, you leave the gym and allow ample time for your body to recover and build muscle mass before training again.

High-Intensity Resistance Training (HIRT) – weightlifting workouts where the goal is achieving complete muscular failure in fewer sets using heavy weights and maximum effort.

Traditional vs. High-Intensity Resistance Training

In contrast to HIRT, traditional resistance training typically involves a higher number of sets per workout and is performed with more moderate effort. Additionally, traditional weight training usually has more frequent workouts and more sessions per week.

  • Traditional Resistance Training: More sets, longer sessions, moderate effort, more frequent training
  • HIRT: Fewer sets, shorter sessions, all-out effort, less frequent training

You could think of traditional resistance training as a moderate jog that you can sustain for an hour or two. By comparison, high-intensity resistance training is the equivalent of several full-speed 100-meter sprints.

More on steady state vs interval training for cardio.

Dorian Yates High-Intensity Training

Dorian Yates used high-intensity resistance training to become the first “mass monster.”

Key Principles of HIRT

High-intensity resistance training focuses on maximizing muscle gains through strategic and intentional workouts. While you will get stronger with HIRT workouts, the primary goal is muscle hypertrophy or growth.

To explain, I’ll discuss three fundamental HIRT principles: Intensity and Volume, Rest and Recovery, and Progressive Overload. Each component plays a vital role in the effectiveness of HIRT.

Intensity and Volume

The main components of HIRT are intensity and volume, which are closely linked and inherently opposite. That is, when one goes up, the other typically goes down.

Resistance training intensity represents the work done within a given rep or set. High intensity is associated with more effort and a higher perceived level of exertion.

On the other hand, training volume is the total amount of work done in a workout or a series of workouts during the week. It is often described in terms of the number of sets completed for a particular muscle group.

HIRT, by definition, is high-intensity and low-volume.

  • High Intensity: Executing exercises with maximal or near-maximal effort on every rep.
  • Low Volume: Keeping the number of sets lower to maintain quality and aid recovery.

Generally, it’s best to aim for either high intensity or high volume in your workouts. Trying to do both often results in less than optimal results and potentially overtraining or injury.

I know about this firsthand because I tore my pectoral muscle due to overtraining.

Rest and Recovery

Rest and recovery are crucial for muscle growth. The intense nature of HIRT training can necessitate more rest days between workouts, and the more intense the workout, the more time off you may need.

Typically, allowing at least 48 hours between HIRT sessions is a good idea, but this will vary based on your experience and workout split.

  • Rest Days: A true high-intensity workout typically requires at least one day off before the next workout to ensure muscle and nervous system recovery.
  • Adequate Sleep: Getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night ensures optimal muscle recovery.

In contrast, lower-intensity resistance training workouts permit training on back-to-back days. Striking the right balance between training and rest supports sustained progress and health in any program.

Progressive Overload

The cornerstone of any progressive resistance training program is the principle of progressive overload. The goal is to regularly increase the demands on your muscles to continually promote strength and size improvements.

This can be achieved by:

  • Increasing Weights: Gradually adding more weight.
  • Reducing Rest: Shortening rest periods between sets to increase work capacity.
  • Using Intensity Techniques: Adding difficulty with drop sets, slow negatives, etc.

You’ll notice the one factor that isn’t increased with HIRT is training volume. Again, you can either train harder or longer, but you can’t do both!

To illustrate, here’s an example of a training program where I progressively increased workout volume instead of load or intensity.

By consistently challenging your muscles with added resistance, shorter rests, or intensity techniques, you ensure ongoing progress in a HIRT routine.

Progressive Overload With High-Intensity Resistance Training

Executing an Effective HIRT Routine

A successful high-intensity resistance training routine hinges on a well-structured workout plan, the proper selection of exercises, and adherence to safety protocols. Let’s take a closer look at each of these critical components.

Workout Split

​HIRT programs tend to focus on full-body workouts or divide the body into larger movement groups. For example, typical HIRT routines involve a push/pull or upper/lower body split.

However, you can also segment the body by individual muscle groups. Here are the various types of workout splits commonly used with HIRT.

  • Total Body: Each workout trains every muscle group.
  • Push Pull: Each workout focuses on either push exercises or pull exercises. Upper and lower body trained together.
  • Upper Lower: Each workout focuses on upper or lower body movements.
  • Push Pull Legs: Individual workouts for upper body push, upper body pull, and lower body.
  • Bro Split: Each workout focuses on one or two individual muscle groups (i.e., chest, back, hamstrings, etc.).

I’ve used a 3-day total body high-intensity resistance training program in the past, and it was a great way to open up more free time. However, I also felt there wasn’t enough volume to maximize muscle growth.

I’ve also successfully used a 4-day push-pull split, which balances intensity and volume. This HIRT split works well for many intermediate to advanced lifters.

Recently, I implemented HIRT with a 5-day bro split workout routine, which enabled me to train more frequently while keeping my workout duration shorter. However, I wouldn’t consider this option a hardcore minimalist HIRT plan.

Remember, the right HIRT split for you depends on your experience level, training goals, and schedule.

High-Intensity Resistance Training Split

Exercise Selection

Choosing the right exercises for a HIRT routine is crucial to its effectiveness. I pick movements that allow for heavy weights to be used safely and also target a specific muscle group.

On top of that, I also believe it’s essential to consider different exercises based on the type of resistance and movement pattern. Here are some examples:

  • Free Weights vs Machines: Free weights like barbells and dumbells offer greater overall muscle activation for many exercises. However, machines and cables are the best way to provide constant tension and are great for performing rapid drop sets.
  • Compound vs Isolation: Multi-joint compound movements like squats are king for total body strength and moving heavy weights. But I also recommend including single joint isolation exercises like leg extensions to better target specific muscles.

Creating your ideal HIRT workout may include combinations of one or two different exercises to help you exhaust the target muscle. I recommend experimenting with multiple variations to find what works best for you.

Safety Considerations

Safety is paramount when performing HIRT workouts. Here are some steps to prevent injury:

  • Proper Warm-Up: Before lifting heavy weights, include about 5 minutes of dynamic stretching or light cardio.
  • Form and Technique: Focus on maintaining proper form for each exercise to avoid strain or injury.
  • Appropriate Weight Selection: Choose challenging yet manageable weights to lift with proper form for the prescribed number of repetitions and sets.

It’s okay to use partial reps and cheat reps in high-intensity training. But do so on exercises where this technique won’t compromise safety.

High-Intensity Resistance Training Workout

When I incorporate high-intensity resistance training into my routine, it’s all about maximizing effort in a short amount of time. Here’s an example of how I recommend putting HIRT into practice.

Sample HIRT Workout Routine

This HIRT example is a push-pull-legs split with Monday, Wednesday, and Friday workouts.

Monday: Upper Body Push

Wednesday: Upper Body Pull

  • Back: Lat Pulldown – 3 sets x 6-10 reps
  • Rear Delts: Upright Row – 3 sets x 8-12 reps
  • Biceps: Barbell Curl – 3 sets x 8-12 reps
  • Abs: Rope Crunch – 3 sets x 10-15 reps

Friday: Lower Body

Each workout should take approximately 30 minutes, with 60-120 seconds of rest between sets. Keep in mind that this example is at the extremely low end of volume with just 3 sets per muscle group, so each set must be performed with the highest intensity.

Mike Mentzer High-Intensity Resistance Training

Benefits of High-Intensity Resistance Training

The main benefits of HIRT are that it saves time and cuts out “junk volume” that doesn’t contribute to additional gains. The minimal number of sets can also feel less daunting than marathon high-volume workouts.

However, the flip side is that HIRT requires extreme effort and focus. Therefore, some people may find it less enjoyable than traditional training methods.

Pros

  • Workouts take less time
  • You only have to train a few days a week
  • Can reduce the likelihood of overtraining
  • You can focus on getting really good a few basic movements

Cons

  • You must be able to push yourself to the limit on every set
  • The extreme exertion may not be enjoyable for everyone
  • Volume might be lower than optimal for maximum hypertrophy

High-intensity, low-volume training can be an effective workout for gaining muscle size and strength. The successful implementation by world champion bodybuilders is proof of its merit.

However, that doesn’t mean HIRT is optimal for everyone. A recent study suggests that higher training volumes are likely more beneficial for building muscle size.

Therefore, trying different training routines for yourself is pivotal to discover what works best for your body, schedule, and goals.

Mike Mentzer High-Intensity Workout

Mike Mentzer was an Olympia-level bodybuilder and a pioneer in exercise philosophy and practical application. He was also the most dogmatic supporter of the high-intensity training method.

By the end of his bodybuilding career, Mentzer had developed his own minimalist methods, which he called Heavy Duty training. He literally wrote the book on high-intensity training.

Read my complete guide to Mike Mentzer’s high-intensity training principles.

Share with your community and get the conversation started!

Go to Top