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6 Tips for Maximum Fitness Results

CrossFit is defined as “a constantly varied selection of functional movements performed at high intensity.” The functional movements and constant variety are up to the coaches and workout programmers at your CrossFit gym. The high intensity is up to you. Your coach can encourage, push, cajole, or even scream, but it’s up to you to attack the workout hard enough to reach the right intensity. This article will help you understand intensity, why it is important, and what you can do in the gym to achieve it.

Stay safe: while intensity is the key, intense exercise will not result in fitness improvements if it first results in injury

What is intensity? CrossFit defines intensity as average power output. We have seen the formula for power before.  It is p=fd/t, which means power equals the force applied times the distance over which the force is applied divided by the time it takes to apply the force. The relevant unit of measure of power is the watt (w). So if you weigh 80 kilograms and your arms are 1 meter long, and it takes you 1 second to do a pull-up, your average power output is (80*1)/1 = 80 w.  If it takes 2 seconds, your average power output is (80*1)/2 = 40 w.

Related: Why 50-60% of 1 Rep Max Makes you Fitter

Average power output is a way to measure intensity, but it is not the same thing as working out with intensity. “High intensity” is relative to your current physical and mental capabilities.  Working out with intensity is really the process of discovering what you are capable of – of reaching deep inside to find your capacity.  This makes it something of a catch-22, you don’t know what you are capable of until you know you are capable of it.  Sorting this out is a wonderful challenge and very rewarding part of your CrossFit journey.  This is why it must be learned.

Average power output is a way to measure intensity, but it is not the same thing as working out with intensity.

Why is intensity important?  “Intensity is the independent variable most commonly associated with optimizing return.” — Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit.  Volumes have been written to establish the truth of that statement, and it is all that needs to be said – if you want to get the most out of your workouts, increasing your intensity will improve your overall fitness faster than increasing duration, volume, or frequency.  Of course, it is a wee bit more complicated than that, especially if you have a specific goal other than general fitness.  The key is in how we implement intensity in our training.

Related: Maximizing Results While Minimizing Your Time Commitment – Endurance Sports Edition

First, let’s distinguish between two types of intensity: strength and metabolic.  Strength intensity is straightforward, and can be described as percentage of 1 repetition maximum (1RM). The higher the percentage, the higher the intensity.  Metabolic intensity is what many of us think of when we think of intensity – how much pain and suffering are we experiencing from the burn in our muscles, how short of breath are we – that kind of thing.  This can be “measured” (subjectively) by rate of perceived exertion (RPE) on a 10 point scale. You don’t really notice exercise until 5 or 6. At 6, you can carry on a conversation almost normally, with just a few interruptions to breathe. 10 is the absolute most you could possibly do for a particular exercise, workout, or distance. Notice that this can also apply to strength intensity. If you tie your 1RM in a lift, but it felt like an 8 or 9, guess what – you’ve probably increased your 1RM.

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So, HOW to achieve intensity? Here are some tips for ensuring you are pushing hard enough for maximum results:

  1. Stay safe: while intensity is the key, intense exercise will not result in fitness improvements if it first results in injury. Temper your intensity to your technique limitations and keep your focus on your long-term goals.

  2. Rate your workouts on the RPE scale. Make notes about how you made choices on the variables available to you (weight, distance, etc.) and how those affected RPE.  Then…

  3. Use that information to make better choices in future workouts. Record those results and make recommendations to yourself for future workouts.

  4. Improve your focus. Your ability to focus on the task at hand – not allowing yourself to get pulled into the pool of self-pity (“this is hard, this hurts”) or distracted during the workout.  Do this by…

  5. Focus on your breathing, remaining calm, and keeping your effort steady.

  6. Wear a heart rate monitor for cardiovascular conditioning. While these can be awkward, they provide valuable feedback on what’s actually happening in your body, and can keep you honest on days when you’re struggling to find motivation.  Heart rate monitors can give you more objective feedback on your effort than RPE.  They can also be misleading and need to be used with care.

— John Bryant

Founder & Head Trainer

john@crossfitslipstream.com