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The Complete Beginner’s Guide to High Intensity Resistance Training (HIT): full-body workouts, types of exercise, technique and momentary muscular failure (part 2)

After writing the last post, I have been excited to get on with detailing the practical elements of HIT for you to use. But before I do that, we have some ground to cover on the theory and science behind High Intensity Resistance Training. In this post, I will detail the fundamentals of a HIT workout, including the types of exercises used, correct technique and discuss momentary muscular failure (MMF), the role it plays and how to get the most out of it.

This is the second in a series of articles that makes up the complete beginner’s guide to HIT.



The guiding principles of HIT can be summed up in three words: effective, efficient and safe.

Firstly, HIT is effective, it provides a stimulus that induces hypertrophy. Other approaches to resistance training can stimulate hypertrophy too, so what is it that makes High Intensity Resistance Training unique?

The answer to that lies in HIT’s two other foundational principles: its focus on efficiency and safety. You train no more frequently than is required, select only the best exercises, use a controlled tempo, and minimize the skills required to achieve the stimulus.

Efficiency and safety are two sides of the same coin, and it is out of these two principles that HIT’s effectiveness is optimised.

Let’s now look at how these core principles are fleshed out in some of the practical fundamentals of a HIT workout.


This is what makes HIT hit!



    1. A HIT routine will usually consist of five to ten exercises that target the body as a whole.
    2. The workout prioritizes multi-joint exercises over single-joint exercises.
    3. With HIT, we aim to minimize the skill required to stimulate muscle tissue.
    4. Only a single set, consisting of multiple reps, of each exercise is performed.
    5. It is crucial that each exercise is performed with excellent technique.
    6. In order to optimize physiological adaptations, each set must be taken to momentary muscular failure.
    7. The trainee’s mental focus is paramount to successfully train to failure.


Full-body workouts

HIT workouts are often full body routines, meaning that all major muscle groups will be exercised in any given workout. This is as opposed to split routines where the body is split into upper and lower, or even divided further with workouts for different muscle groups performed on different days.

Note that both full body and split routines can work, however a beginner need not consider split routines.

Benefits of full body workouts
  • Less total training days per week
  • The whole body gets a chance to recover and adapt on non- resistance training days
  • If a workout gets missed, your next session will address all muscle groups, keeping you on track
  • Provides a greater metabolic stimulus


A HIT workout usually consists of 5-10 biomechanically correct exercises

Although I have stated above that a HIT routine will usually consist of 5-10 exercises, it is even possible to perform a full body workout with just a Big Three, for example:

  • Pulldown
  • Chest Press
  • Leg Press

However, for most individuals the minimum number of exercises I would suggest starting out with is five, The Big Five:

  • Seated Row
  • Chest Press
  • Pulldown
  • Overhead Press
  • Leg Press

The Big Five as written above is a routine partly made famous in McGuff and Little’s book, Body By Science. The Big Five is more thorough than a Big Three and is a fantastic starting point for training HIT, especially if you are training yourself without the assistance of a personal trainer.

Having looked at the least number of exercises, lets now look at the most: why do I suggest no more than 10 exercises in a workout? A full body routine does not require more than ten exercises. It can be difficult and unnecessary to attempt to perform more than ten exercises to momentary muscular failure (MMF) in a single workout. This is not a hard and fast rule: an individual could perform 11 or 12 exercises and of course the workout could still be considered a HIT workout. However, as a practical limit I would recommend performing no more than a maximum of 10 exercises in a workout. If you perform the exercises right you wont want to do anymore than ten!


Multi-joint and single-joint exercises

*Note that the gifs below are to demonstrate joint actions and are sped up for viewing convenience, actual performance tempo of the exercises is slower.

The leg press is a multi-joint exercise.
With the leg press, movement occurs in the hip, knee and ankle joints.
Multi-joint exercises

Both the Big 3 and the Big 5 routines mentioned above are made up exclusively of multi-joint exercises, these are movements where action occurs at more than one joint. A good example of a multi-joint exercise is the leg press, where movement occurs at the hip, knee and to a certain extent ankle joints. You might also see multi-joint exercises referred to as compound or linear exercises, these are just different names for the same type of exercise.

As multi-joint exercises use multiple muscles/muscle groups to create movement, multiple muscles receive stimulus with one exercise, this makes them efficient.

All HIT routines (where possible, rehab needs excepting) are based on a foundation of multi-joint exercises. In fact, nearly all viable full body routines will be based on a Big Three or a Big Five with additional exercises salted in.

The leg extension is a good example of a single-joint exercise.
With the leg extension, loaded movement occurs in the knee joint only.
Single-joint exercises

These additional exercises are known as single-joint exercises, where movement or action occurs at one joint. For example, the leg extension exercise, which involves loaded movement at the knee joint is a good example.

You may also see single-joint exercises referred to as any of the following; isolation, rotary or simple exercises. Again, these are simply different names for the same type of exercise.

Single-joint exercises provide relative isolation for an individual muscle or muscle group, such as the quadriceps in our example of the leg extension.

Appropriate single-joint exercises are particularly useful for the following:

  • Targeting the lumbar extensors (low back)
  • Targeting the muscles of the neck
  • Correcting muscular imbalances and rehabilitation use
  • Enhancing mental connection with a muscle group, and/or providing psychological satisfaction of honing in on a desired/sought after muscle.


Minimizing the skills required to stimulate hypertrophy

In HIT, we aim to reduce or minimize the amount of skill required for us to fatigue and stimulate the targeted muscle tissue.

All movement requires some degree of skill: on a continuum a weight-stack machine chest press requires a fairly minimal degree of skill, at the other end of the scale a serve in tennis requires a high degree of skill. A hand-clap push up would fall somewhere between the two.

The tennis serve, serves (ahem) a purpose outside of “exercise”, it is a competitive game skill. The machine chest press and the hand clap push up do not- they are both exercises that may conceivably be used to stimulate muscle growth. Out of the two the hand clap push up involves a far greater degree of skill(s) including speed, power, balance, agility, stabilization, technique, and coordination. This makes the hand clap push up less efficient, less safe and likely less effective for stimulating hypertrophy, (albeit a being more impressive-looking feat to observe).

In HIT, you will use the machine chest press or the regular push up, you will use exercises that require comparably less skill and address the desired musculature in a biomechanically sound manner. In many approaches to exercise the demonstration of an impressive looking skill or series of skills takes precedence. This perhaps speaks to a human desire to be able to demonstrate rare(-ish) mastery of an impressive skill. I am not suggesting this desire is a bad thing, mastering complex physical skills can be very satisfying and can look awesome (see your favorite sport/favorite athlete)- it simply doesn’t lead us as efficiently and safely to our goal of hypertrophy.

HIT is not just for an elite club of talented athletes who can demonstrate impressive movement skills, HIT is for everyone to safely optimise their lean mass and related fitness markers- HIT is truly egalitarian in this respect.


What are reps and sets of an exercise

When you perform an exercise you will repeat a given movement pattern, in the leg press video you can see this- pushing the resistance away and then controlling it back. Each time we complete the whole movement like this it is called performing a repetition of the exercise, or for short a “rep”.

One normally performed rep is not enough of a challenge to stimulate the muscle to the extent we desire, you will need to repeat continuous reps of the exercise until you reach momentary muscular failure. This series of continuous reps is known as a “set” of the exercise.


Performing only one set of each exercise and momentary muscular failure

It is typical in HIT that only one set of each chosen exercise is performed. The proviso that goes along with this single set per exercise approach is that the single set is taken to momentary muscular failure (MMF). MMF for our purpose here is the point at which concentric movement is no longer possible (you cannot cause any further shortening of the muscle against the chosen load), despite best intentions to do so, at the end of a set of an exercise. Exercising to MMF allows us to recruit and fatigue as many motor units and muscle fibers in the target muscle group as possible.

As an aside, a multiple set per exercise approach can work too so long as there is an adequate accumulation of fatigue over the course of several sets that results in a high degree of muscular effort. This approach is less efficient than the single-set, HIT method, however there are times when even in HIT it may be appropriate to perform more than one set, e.g. when you are starting out, getting used to new exercises, and/or finding the right weight to use for an exercise. In these circumstances, it can be beneficial to perform another set to both accumulate adequate time under load and to gain greater exercise learning exposure.

Remember though this is HIT and you need to get proficient with the single set approach as soon as you are capable of it.


What does it feel like to train to MMF?

Over the course of a set taken to MMF there will be a gradually building burning-like sensation in the targeted muscles. As this burning sensation builds to its peak, ability to keep your lifting tempo consistent will falter and your movement will slow, ultimately to a standstill at the point of MMF. You need to get used to this sensation, as the stimulus for muscular improvement occurs when this sensation is strongest: at the end of a set.

The moment that you deload after the exercise is complete the burning sensation will dissipate quickly and you will be left with a residual feeling of fatigue in the worked muscles. The ability to achieve MMF is a skill itself, one that will require some practice to refine.


Making MMF safe

A series of good behaviours/techniques need to be observed when taking an exercise to MMF to ensure safety:

  • Breathe throughout, continuously through each rep and the entire set, especially as you approach MMF. Avoid holding your breath.
  • Let your breathing be spontaneous, avoid forcing a particular breath-pattern. As the set progresses and the demand for oxygen increases your breathing rate will speed up.
  • There is no need to make any noise other than an unencumbered pant: no need to make any moaning, grunting, whistling or shushing sounds! Keep your face and jaw relaxed as you exercise.
  • Any part of the body that is not specifically involved in producing movement or stabilization during an exercise is kept as relaxed as possible.
  • Do not break good exercise form and try to cheat the load up. If it doesn’t move any further with good technique… good news you are done on that exercise!
  • If you are new to resistance training or you are performing an exercise that is new to you, focusing on the correct performance of the movement as a priority.


Tips for good exercise technique
Excellent exercise technique is crucial when training to MMF.


Mental focus during a set to MMF

To make single set to MMF training work it is very important to be fully mentally engaged during each exercise. HIT will not work if you daydream during the moderate effort reps at the start of the set and then give up the moment that the exercise begins to feel hard. Much of the challenge of single set training is in how you focus on the exercise and how you respond mentally to the sensations of fatigue that build up as the set progresses. Here are some important mindset tips to make sure you are training effectively.

Firstly, focus on correct performance of the exercise and the safety behaviours mentioned above.

Then focus on accumulating and yes welcoming the sensations of fatigue in the targeted musculature.

As the movement begins to slow as MMF approaches, determine to stay resolute and keep moving.

It is normal for obstructive thoughts to arise as the set progresses – “This feels heavy today”, “Is the weight ever going to move”, “I don’t feel as strong as last workout”, and so on. Let these thoughts pass as clouds in an otherwise clear sky, and keep your focus on the NOW moment in the set.

Remember that the most uncomfortable part of the set is only going to last around 20 seconds- and that feeling of truly well applied muscular exertion to momentary fatigue is temporary and fleeting. Those passing seconds of discomfort will produce significant and lasting benefits from both a physical and psychological perspective. It is worthwhile.


Summing up

The three guiding principles and the seven fundamentals of a HIT workout that we have covered in this post will enable you to get the most out of exercise, when you understand and use them. In the next instalment we are going to move on to the practical details; I will address the ordering of exercises in workouts, explain lifting tempo guidelines and look at how repetitions and time under load (TUL) work together. I will then give you a workout routine that you can begin to use to experience HIT firsthand for yourself.

Stronger still!


2 responses on "The Complete Beginner’s Guide to High Intensity Resistance Training (HIT): full-body workouts, types of exercise, technique and momentary muscular failure (part 2)"

  1. Hi
    Am currently doing Wendler’s 531 program. Is it possible to do HIT for the Big 4 lifts (Squat, DL, BP & OHP) using barbell as the gym has limited machines and I prefer free weights)


  2. Hello Chrys,

    It is a matter of safety first, does the gym have a rack you can use? Reaching true muscular failure at the bottom of a squat or bench press without a rack, for example, can present a significant injury risk.

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