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Squats: How to Gauge Intensity?

Intensity is usually described in terms of failure. You need to work close to failure for a good level of intensity. That’s how I understand it. Back squats present a bit of a problem in that regard, because going to failure is a safety issue. For some of my lifts, like OHP or pull ups, I actually will reach true failure at the last rep of two of the last set of two. I actually try to hit that failure threshold so I know I’m keeping a good intensity level. I can’t really apply that approach to squatting. If I do squats every workout with a 50/50 chance I may fail in a final set, I’m just asking for disaster.

Generally, I use tempo as a failure gauge. That works well for squats too. But one thing I have noticed with squats that I don’t feel the same way with other exercises is a heart rate increase. I’m lifting in the 5-7 rep range now and my heart rate doesn’t go up like it did in the past with 10-12 rep range or body weight exercises. Except for squats. When I do a set of 5 - heavy for me - squats my heart rate can go up in a surprising way. Not quite aerobic level, but pretty high.

My two questions are: is that heart rate increase normal for squats? and can that be used as an intensity gauge?

I’m not sure about the exact rates. My resting heart rate is around 50-55. The squat heart rate I’m taking about is probably around 100-120. (I only measured it once.) I’m 52 years old, and according to the US Navy method I’m about 10% body fat. So, pretty fit.

I can add detail if it would help.

Absolutely. It’s a big movement using big muscles to move big weight.


Why? This is kind of a silly mentality. Just cut your sets a rep or two before you feel like you’re going to fail; form breakdown or severe rep speed decrease are good indicators you’re approaching failure.

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No, it’s usually described in terms of ratio of your one rep max. The heavier the weight, the higher the intensity.

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Whilst % of max is the most common way of judging intensity - DC training is famously high intensity and yet operates at a lower % max. And the most intense squats I’ve ever done were 20 rep sets. And I’ve yet to ”enjoy” deep water. But that’s set at about 55% of max. So the term is not uniformly applied. In fact there was a really good tread on this a short while back. People had lots of different ideas. From drop sets, to back off set, to iso holds to height weight low reps.

Op this is the best advice. I added a good few kg to my squat while never missing one last year. Well 1. There were times I planned to do 8 and got 5. There times I planned to 5 and got 6. But stopping a touch short will not harm your gains too much.


Because “intensity” means different things to different people, it’s not a universal. I prefer the terms intensity and intensiveness. Intensity being the old powerlifting term for % of 1RM and intensiveness being a term that captures all of the “other things” that we understand to make a lift harder.

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I stand corrected. I recently did a proper 1RM test in OHP. My test on squat is too old, I have exceeded that max by a lot. I suppose I can’t get around having my son spot me for a true 1RM squat test, otherwise I’m working in the dark. But, when I consider my other lifts, I’m in the 80% max intensity range.

I’m not sure what you are calling a silly mentality: wanting to avoid actual failure in a squat to not risk injury, or in other lifts I sometimes go to true failure?

If you are free-squatting (ie, without safety bars under you), and you don’t have a strong, reliable spotter, then I would concur that it is unacceptably risky to train squats to positive failure (=inability to complete the concentric portion of a rep; is what I think you mean when you say ‘true failure’). However, if you have safety bars in place and/or a good spot, I would say the risk of a “disaster” from squatting to positive failure is minimal/acceptable.

In contrast, I would argue that training OHP to positive failure (as you do frequently, apparently) carries with it a greater risk of orthopedic ‘disaster’ (although the risk is still acceptable IMO).

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It’s silly that you think you can’t push to “failure” for squats, especially when you already state this as your belief:

But also think this:

They don’t. “Failure” can be a relative term (as has already been stated earlier), so just apply the other methods of failure aside from true concentric failure.

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I would just challenge the notion that you need to train any of the barbell moves to concentric failure. Injury risk notwithstanding, it takes an enormous recovery toll. You can still work hard on squats without failure (I’ll list three of my favorite methods), and then get any failure training on leg press (still beats me up) or lunges or something.

Squat misery without failure:

  1. Work up to a heavy 6, then take off some weight and knock out 20 or so - do enough reps that you’re having to stop at the top and treat them as singles for the last 5+
  2. Strip set - do 8 reps, take off a plate, 8 more, take off a plate, go for broke
  3. Pause squats - these are awesome because you can start with long pauses and shorten them as you get tired so you can just keep banging out reps

All those will at least signal the hypertrophy gods you’re playing for their attention, without you having to fail with a barbell on your back


Along these lines, Chad Waterbury (one of the most successful and influential coaches on the site) also uses bar speed as a gauge of failure. He advocates the when bar speed slows down, which means your tempo has changed, it’s time to end the set. So you’re on a good track here.

As has been said, an increased heart rate is totally normal during any hard training, but no, it’s not a reliable intensity gauge because it can be “artificially” increased by something as simple and non-training related as improper breathing.

In fact, if you’re only seeing a heart rate spike during squats and no other exercise, I’d double-check to make sure you’re not holding your breath more compared to other movements.

If this is the one just using tape measurements of the neck, waist, hips, etc., it’s slightly more accurate than BMI and still doesn’t really take lean muscle vs body fat into account. About 10% body fat would be walking around with ab definition. If that’s where you’re at, awesome.

You can get around it by never performing a 1RM. The vast majority of lifters (even moreso for older lifters) can progress just fine without ever testing their 1RM.


You can use percentages to calculate your 1 rep max. For none CNS trained powerlifters it is about 2% per rep. In other words what you can lift for 5 reps is very close to 90% of your max single. So, if your 5th rep with a 300 lb squat slows significantly, you have the strength to do about a 335 lb single.

Already on this thread alone, others are offering advice to the contrary. And other threads on “beginners” about squats/failure also suggest not taking squats to actual failure.

Following the heavy sets, with lighter weight work, that’s something I can definitely do.

I recently progressed squat from 150 lbs. to 160 lbs. 3 sets and my rep progression was 5 to 7 reps each set over a period of about 3 weeks. Body Weight now about 143 lbs.

If I add on an extra set of 20 reps, as you suggest, what do you think a good lighter weight to use? I’m not sure what that reduction should be.

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Yes, I have read this advice before, actually, I think it was here from Christian Thibaudeau. That a 3 or 5 rep max then calculated to a 1RM is a better measure that trying to find an actual 1RM. I did that a few weeks about, but with OHP. I progressed up 85x5, 90x4, 95x3 but then I couldn’t lift 100. I was probably fatigued, but the other numbers all hover around a 1RM=100. I could try the same with squats.

That wasn’t Thibaudeau’s advice It was to hit a 2RM or 3RM, period. No calculations needed. And it was specifically when training for strength gains.

But for the better part of a century, lifters built plenty of size and strength training by feel, not working off a percentage of 1RM. That approach is relatively recent, and again it’s predominantly for lifters who prioritize building strength, not nearly as relevant when focused on building muscle.

Even then, for example, 5/3/1, which is probably the most popular and arguably most successful percentage-based program around, has evolved to not need a 1RM test at all and bases numbers of a percentage of your 5-6RM.

It all circles back to, why are you investing so much into knowing your one-rep max. Just for the sake of knowing it? That’s fine, just know that finding it high risk:low reward.

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You OHP single is one of those lifts that starts from a completely stretched position. You get absolutely zero stretch reflex assistance to get the weight moving, so in those cases the calculated max single becomes too high.


So if you’re doing 3 sets there, let’s say you’d work up to one hard set of 185 for 6 (I have no idea, just guessing). I wouldn’t feel like taking off the 45s, so I’d back down to 135 and go for it

I’m happy to go by feel, I think I have a good sense for that. Same for testing at 5RM, I can change to that. The reason I’ve been looking at 1RM is I thought it was a standard thing to do, a no bullshit way to rate intensity. When someone says they work hard, it seems common for others to call b.s. on them. I only meant to quantify/qualify.

Maybe I’m misunderstanding something. I don’t mean that I want lift 1RM in regular workouts. But when trying to choose sets/reps, like in this page 22 Proven Rep Schemes - T NATION, don’t I need to test myself at some point to know my 1RM?

I think you can ballpark it. Like you know right know what you lift in certain rep ranges; you can easily estimate anything from there. Any estimate is just your starting point, anyway, and you’ll be adjusting from there

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