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Intent in strength training

Intent. A small but powerful word when it comes to training. Whether it is a main lift or a drill, lifting with intent can be just as important as the movement itself. But first, what do we mean by intent? On the face of it, during a lift we aim to move the bar/weight as fast as we can, regardless of how light or heavy it is.

The reason this is important is due to the connection between your brain and your muscles, as this is ultimately where any movement starts. Signals from your brain tell your muscles to move in a certain way with a specific amount of force. The body naturally wants to match the force it produces with that needed to move the object. However, the body will automatically use the smallest muscle fibres first and save the bigger, more powerful fibres until they are needed.

Now think of it another way, have you ever gone to lift something that you thought was heavy only to realise how light it actually was and ended up launching it as a result? This is where your brain has told your body to use more muscle than is needed to lift it. As a result, you lift the object much faster because you are using more of the bigger muscle units, this is the bases of intent. Applying that same line of thinking to your training can help maximise your results.

It is all based around Henneman’s size principle and works through three key mechanisms.

1) Motor units

These are made up of groups of muscle fibres, and no matter what you are doing the body will recruit them from smallest to largest. The biggest and strongest will only start to work when the smaller units can’t complete the task on their own. By lifting with intent, you tell the muscle you need the biggest units to get the work done. This way you can recruit the most powerful parts of the muscle in every rep, making your training far more effective.

2) Accelerated rate coding

Basically, the speed that the signal is sent from your brain to the muscle. By trying to move the weight as quick as possible the brain learns how to do this faster, helping you produce more force, lift heavier and break through sticking points.

3) Improved synchronisation of signalling

This helps those signals get to the muscle at the same time instead of sporadically. This mainly contributes to the speed that you can execute a lift. This is particularly important for those involved in sports where the speed of a movement is key, such as getting under the bar in weightlifting.

The theory is by moving the bar/weight as fast as we can, irrespective of its actual weight we see a better all-round activation of our strongest muscle fibres. Regardless of whether you are performing a snatch where you need to be quick or a deadlift where max force is important, the theory still applies.

A review of the science available suggests when training at the same intensity, those who lift with maximal intent can see an increase of 1.2% in strength over those who were just going through the motions [1]. To put it another way, over the course of a six week training block those who trained with the intent to move as fast as possible seen twice the increase in back squat strength, three times the improvement in lower body power and a faster bar velocity at all tested speeds than those who trained at half of their max speed [2]. These are extra gains without the need for extra reps, sets or load and for those who compete it can be the difference between winning or not in a competition.

"These are extra gains without the need for extra reps, sets or load and for those who compete it can be the difference between winning or not in a competition"

By lifting with intent, you will recruit more of your bigger and stronger muscle fibres during that lift and doing this repeatedly over a period of time manifests itself as new PBs. Ultimately, when moving the bar with intent you can train both strength and power at the same time. Even if the weight is moving slowly, the intention to move it as fast as possible will give you more gains in the long run.


1. Davies, T.B., et al., Effect of movement velocity during resistance training on dynamic muscular strength: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Medicine, 2017. 47(8): p. 1603-1617.

2. Pareja-Blanco, F., et al., Effect of movement velocity during resistance training on neuromuscular performance. International journal of sports medicine, 2014. 35(11): p. 916-924.

Author: Stephen McQuilliam

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