Intensity doesn’t ask, “do you think my heart rate is getting too high?”; it gives everything it has to get the job done. Intensity is a mind-set. Intensity red-lines. Intensity keeps going till it fails. Intensity often has to relieve itself before the workout starts because your body is triggering the “fight or flight” adrenaline response.
With CrossFit and High Intensity Training’s increases in popularity, more and more people are working out “intensely”. Or at least they think they are. To be sure, methods like CrossFit require intensity to effectively make you more fit; they have to be done at your limits. They work because, when done correctly, your post workout metabolism is raised for an extended period of time and there is a pronounced hormonal response that benefits your recovery, growth, and mental state. The problem is, I don’t think a lot of folks know what it means to workout at an intense level.
When I was studying for the NASM test I had to learn all the different “phases” of their training plan. There was a foundational level and a stability phase all the way up to the “power” or “plyometric” (their version of “intense”) level. On their program you would spend less than 20% of your training life in this range. This idea has been turned upside down in the last 20 years. With a CrossFit or HIIT protocol you live at this level. This is where you spend 75% of your working out time. According to the NASM theory we should have seen an explosion in the frequency of injuries, but that hasn’t happened. And even when injuries have occurred, it is more often due to incorrect form than when intensity is properly implemented.
The right to workout intensely is something everyone has to earn. You don’t get to start there. CrossFit teaches the three stages as “Mechanics” (learn the movements) then “Consistency” (repeat the movements over and over) and then “Intensity” (balls to the wall). You have to learn what your body’s limits are before you can properly push those limits and get a positive result. Intensity is a thin red line that we are constantly trying to get right up to. When you are first starting with this method you need to exercise a little more caution. Don’t get all the way up to the line. Once you are more seasoned it’s alright to cross this line occasionally. To find out where that thin red line is for you, to find out what your limits are, you have to try to push past those limits. You have to over-do it. This is (unfortunately) a necessary requirement of working out intensely; it’s uncomfortable.
“Fran” is the classic CrossFit workout. 21-15-9 reps of both Pull-ups and Thrusters. Done right, this is a sub five minute workout for a lot of folks and should be a sub 10 minute workout for everyone. If your workout in a day is less than 10 minutes and you are going to get results you have to workout HARD. It simply doesn’t work otherwise. To workout intensely is to live at your maximum potential. It is to give an all-consuming amount of effort. In the movie Gattaca the main character Vincent is asked how he was able to compete with the genetically engineered human beings. “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it. I never saved anything for the swim back”. To workout this way is both mentally stimulating and often mentally draining. You are nervous all day until you do your workout. It is common for soldiers who know they are going into battle to have their body involuntarily release their bladder or bowels right before the battle starts. Their body is literally getting rid of everything unnecessary so it can focus all energy on staying alive. Working out like this is NOT going into battle. We are not risking our lives for a cause we believe in. However, when you workout intensely your body knows what is coming. It knows because of your mental state what you are going to require it to do, and because of your resolve the effort it will be asked to put forth. You know if you do it right you are going to be miserable at the end, you don’t save anything, you don’t leave anything in the tank. This is the life of a CrossFitter. This is the life of someone who works out at an intense level. If you are new to training, start slowly. More balls than brains is not the right method. But once you have been working out long enough to know what your body is capable of then working out intensely is not brainless. It is a conscious choice to keep going when everything in your body says stop. Intensity is a force of will. A caveman running from a sabertooth tiger didn’t get to stop because his heart rate was getting too high (or didn’t want to). He was able to go fast enough and long enough to get away or he got eaten. This is the mindset you have to have when you push your limits.
Don’t stop till you have to stop.
This is where a good trainer/coach adds so much value. A good trainer will be able to watch you and know where your limits are (sometimes better than you do), especially at the beginning when you have been training for less than a year or two. A good coach will see the look on your face and tell you, “you will get to rest soon, but not now. Keep going.” A good coach can show you where your maximum effort is so you can see what it feels like. Working out intensely is not for everyone. it never will be. However, it does come in all shapes and sizes. It’s not just the big scary meathead that can be intense. In fact, often the big meathead is used to just doing what comes easy to him and when asked to go a lot further will find a good excuse to just go back to bench pressing a lot of weight and then sitting around. These guys can actually be wimps. It is often the single mother of two or the 63 year old dentist that when the going gets tough, rather than withering under the demand, you see their jaw lock and their eyes get hard and they keep pushing forward. It’s inspiring to watch someone work out this hard which is why it is usually done in a group. You see someone else looking absolutely miserable but still pushing and that helps you do the same thing. When it is done right the benefits are profound, and not just physically, but also mentally. It’s scary to workout this way when it is done right; but that is exactly why it works.
When I was a young man I did a lot of stupid stuff to see what I was made of, to find out what my capabilities were. This kind of experimentation taught me many painful lessons over the years. Now as someone who has been doing CrossFit for 10+ years, at any given time I know exactly what I’m made of and what my capabilities are, not just physically but mentally. I know when I’ve got it and I’m sharp; I also know when I’m worn down and I’ve lost my edge. This knowledge is power that transfers into every aspect of life. Working out this way, living this life-style, has made me more capable in every aspect of life.
To train intensely makes you tougher, more successful, and happy.