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Intensity: Defined and Pursued

First of all, why should you care about intensity, let alone define it and pursue it?

When it comes to health, fitness, and exercise, our bodies act according to the SAID principle. SAID is an acronym for, specific adaptation to imposed demands; a scientific way of saying, when you exercise or challenge your body, it will recover and adapt to be better prepared for the next time. Daily exercise is preparing you for a lifestyle of physical competence. To pursue increased health and fitness, you must continually push the limits of what your body is currently able to do. If you don’t, your body will quit adapting, and you will likely see stalled progress and performance plateaus, or even worse, see yourself slide back. In pursuit of our goals, we must continually impose more difficult challenges than previously encountered. This concept is called progressive overload; over time, increasing the physical demands placed on your body. In order to push these limits, and accomplish our goals, we must pursue intensity. In order to pursue intensity, we need to know what it really is.

Whether it be looking better in the mirror, increasing our confidence, or performing better in our sport, we all have our own reasons, and we all have results that we want to achieve. Intensity is what propels us towards those results. It is what gets us there faster, so we can set new goals and pursue them with an ever-increasing intensity. We need to define intensity, in order to effectively pursue it. We need to define intensity, in order to continually progress and move meaningfully.

Defining Intensity: Objective and Subjective Methods

Intensity, by itself, can be simply defined as giving more. It is making yourself uncomfortable, very uncomfortable. But, measuring our degree of intensity isn’t as simple. It requires tracking workouts and introspection. This post is about how to measure and pursue intensity, accurately, in order to accomplish our goals as effectively as possible.

We can use two methods to define intensity. Neither is more important than the other, and both should be used judge your workout. One definition is quantitative; meaning, it can be measured with numbers and tracked precisely. I’ll call this objective intensity. The other definition is qualitative. It can only be measured loosely, or by “feel”, and it can’t be quantified, you can’t evaluate it with numbers. This is subjective intensity. By using both definitions, you can get a better picture of how your workout really went, and how well it is moving you towards your goals.

Pursuing Objective Intensity

If you are a member of a CrossFit box currently, objective intensity is the metric that you are familiar with. Objective intensity is a measurement of your power output in a workout. It is the number of reps you complete, or how fast you complete your WOD. This is your “score”. WODs were originally scored in order to calculate how much work the athlete accomplished. Greg Glassman (CrossFit founder and CEO), wanted to be able to quantify the exact energy output over time. He wanted to track how much work his athletes could accomplish each time they came to work with him. This way, he could accurately determine if people were getting healthier and fitter. Recording your reps in the workout, or tracking the time it took you to complete a workout is a great way to measure your progress over time. It gives you a clear standard to pursue in order to reach a sufficient level of intensity to cause your body to change.

Pursuing objective intensity is all about beating the numbers. It is about setting a specific, real goal for your workout and doing everything you can to achieve it. This is why your coaches encourage you to log your workouts and try to motivate you to beat your old scores. When you surpass an old score, or push a little harder for just a few more reps, that is when your body receives the message to change. Positive change is created when you overcome your previous limits.

Objective intensity is the first method to judge your workout. It will give you a specific, concrete number that will tell you, “yes” or “no”. However, there are some problems with an objective definition of intensity. First, we are human beings, not robots. Some days we are feeling it, and others we just aren’t. Our measure for objective intensity, our “score”, may not accurately reflect our level of intensity for that day, if we are having an off day. Just getting into the gym might be all the intensity we can handle. Second, the scoreboard causes us to compare our levels of intensity, or our “scores”, to others. The only reason you should compare your score is to motivate yourself to get a better score, that is, to increase your intensity. The leaderboard should never make anyone feel bad because they are on the bottom, or didn’t perform as well as they’d like. It is merely a measurement of people’s work capacity on that day; a number to guide and motivate for the future. Third, quite often, this metric relays our level of technique, instead of our level of intensity or effort. If a WOD contains an unfamiliar movement, or even multiple unfamiliar movements, our capacity for expressing intensity decreases. This is why technique and skill are so important to train; they allow you to accomplish more work, increase your intensity, and achieve your goals faster. Fourth, this metric only allows you to measure how much physical work you can accomplish. While increased work capacity does facilitate a healthier body, with lower body fat and increased physical competence, our WOD scores do not accurately measure health, but rather fitness. (I want to note here, however, that while our scores reflect fitness, and not necessarily health, you will be hard-pressed to find a very ”fit” person who is unhealthy; fit being defined as work capacity across broad time and modal domains.)

There are flaws with an objective definition of intensity, but I believe these are the most important to understand. So take your WOD score for what it is worth, it is an imperfect, but very real number that you can track over time to measure your work capacity and use as a standard to target sufficient intensity levels to induce desired change.

Pursuing Subjective Intensity

Subjective intensity is an often over-looked metric because it cannot be quantified and each person’s evaluation is different. Measuring subjective intensity is not easily reproducible and quantifying it over time is nearly impossible. To measure it, the athlete must be honest with themselves and introspective during a workout; they must think about and evaluate what they are feeling. For many, this may seem odd to scrutinize yourself, especially during a moment of high stress. Even then, we may not get an accurate reading of what our body is really capable of. However, even though subjective intensity cannot be quantified, it is vitally important because subjective intensity is relative to each person, and only the athlete truly knows if they pushed their limits. What this means, is that YOU have the choice to pursue intensity, and YOU have the opportunity to give as much effort as you can.

Whereas objective intensity cannot determine how your organic, inconsistent, non-mechanical body is feeling each day, subjective intensity is dependent on your grit. It’s your desire to push yourself past what you think are your limits that subjective intensity measures. On good days and bad, if we are honest with ourselves, we can determine our general level of personal effort invested. Even if our score for the WOD is substandard, or even better than expected, you can still judge your personal effort. If that effort is high, you have reached a sufficient intensity for your workout that day.

Subjective intensity is relative to each person. What this means, is that two different athlete’s perception of intensity are never the same. No one can understand what it feels like for you. A five minute WOD for you could be a twenty minute for someone else, and both people can achieve the same intensity. We can only truly compare how we feel during a workout to how we have felt previously. If you want to keep getting the most out of your workouts, compare yourself to your workout yesterday, not someone else’s today.

Subjective intensity can also measure your effort invested into concentration. Children, newly born and growing, have poor motor control. They aren’t very coordinated and struggle with basic movements. However, they are able to overcome these challenges with intense concentration and practice. Through play, children are able to teach their bodies how to move effectively to accomplish what they want, even if that is just walking to Mom or Dad. Adults work the same way. When trying to learn how to move better (for example, learning weightlifting or kipping pull ups), it requires hours of intense concentration and practice. Both concentration and practice are needed. If the effort is not invested, learning capacity and ability to express mechanical, objective intensity will be sub-optimal. Poor concentration will lead to worse technique and worse WOD scores. At first, increasing your concentration will undoubtedly result in a lower WOD score, but that doesn’t mean it has lowered your intensity. Your brain and nervous system are still being pushed to their limits in order to learn how to perform the movement correctly. Once you have learned the movement sufficiently, you can move faster and with more weight, and worry about beating your old score.

Lastly, measuring your workouts with subjective intensity should result in increased health. For simplification purposes, I define health as the absence of disease. If you aren’t getting sick, have high levels of energy, and you are able to move around freely, you’re healthy! Only you know if you are feeling healthier, so keep this in mind as you are measuring your workouts and their intensity levels.

Pursuing Intensity, Getting Results, and Having Fun

With two definitions, we have two ways to pursue intensity. Use both objective and subjective methods to evaluate your workouts, don’t pick one over the other. By using both of them you will get a more accurate perspective of your workouts. Whether you are trying to beat an old WOD score, doing everything you can to learn a new, complicated movement, or both, we should always be trying to invest as much as we can into our workouts. Remember, intensity is the catalyst for getting results, so with any workout, we should always shoot for the highest intensity levels possible.

Lastly, this post has been heavy with intensity and pushing yourself. The whole purpose of the article is to get you thinking about how you can invest more into your workouts so you can accomplish your goals. However, our lives are not so simple that our workouts always take top priority. Nor, should anyone take themselves too seriously in the box. The box is a place to better yourself, forge great relationships, and most importantly, have fun. It’s a place where we can all de-stress, get ready for the day, end the day, work on ourselves, and just get better. When you workout, do your best to pursue intensity like you mean it, but always, always enjoy your one hour fitness, that will make more of a difference than setting PRs every single day.

Move better. Move happier. Move meaningfully.

Coach Caleb