Workout of the Day

The CrossFit 'Intensity' Paradox, Part II


Yesterday we tossed around the idea that intensity (work completed over time), one of the cornerstones of CrossFit training, is often misunderstood and misapplied in training. We took the example of our imaginary ‘intense’ friend, Todd. Though Todd may seem to be bringing loads of intensity to the table (blood, sweat, tears, cursing, etc.), we realized that intensity doesn’t always look the way we expect, that we might be missing the mark on this whole intensity thing after all. Read the first post here.

If we step back for a moment and reconsider our understanding of intensity, we see that there are a few potential 'problems' that can arise out of its misapplication.

First, sustainability. 100% capacity performance can be sustained for around 10-15 seconds. At this point, capacity drops off considerably. Give yourself another 45 seconds or so, and there's another considerable drop off in capacity. Moving at 100% of your capacity, or even 85% of your capacity, for any sustained period of time is physiologically not possible. In the context of an individual workout, this is where 'the wall' comes into play. Todd, bless his heart, gives the workout all he's got for those first 60 seconds, and then he hits the wall. His sets of 10 turn into sets of 2 or 3. His range of motion decreases. His movement speeds diminish. He can't catch his breath. His positioning falls to pieces. He's like a fly continually slamming himself against a window, trying to keep going but getting knocked on his back with every attempt. Is Todd working hard? Absolutely. But is he working with intensity, yielding the greatest results? Doubtful.
The problem here is that intensity as we are applying it in CrossFit training for GPP is not the same as capacity. Todd is working at the threshold of his capacity, but not necessarily working with optimal intensity. If the workout lasted for 12 seconds, then we could consider this properly applied intensity. But most workouts go for a bit longer. Let's take a 15 minute workout for example. If Todd empties the tank during the first 60 seconds of the workout, do we think he'll be performing optimally for the remaining 14 minutes? Let's even set aside important things like movement quality and safety for a moment, and just talk about how many reps Todd is going to be able to complete. Do we suppose Todd will perform more reps performing at 100% capacity for 15 seconds, 85% capacity for another 45 seconds, and then at increasingly diminishing capacities for the remaining 13 minutes? Or will he perform better working at a more moderate capacity—say, 70%—for the whole 15 minutes? If we go back to our physics-based definition of intensity (work completed over time), it's pretty clear that Todd's actually missing the mark on intensity. It's sometimes difficult to separate this concept of intensity from the more emotionally-derived version of intensity which evokes images of Rage Against the Machine and yelling and 'leaving it all on the floor,' but if we're truly looking for results, we need to temper this perspective and reconsider our understanding of intensity. Finding that 'sweet spot' of capacity and sustainability takes guidance and practice, but it is truly the key to intensity. This is why it's not uncommon to complete more work in a well-planned 15 minute EMOM than in a 15 minute AMRAP.

In addition to considering sustainability within a single workout, it behooves us to take our zoomed-out perspective again and consider the sustainability of our efforts in the long run. If your ‘intense’ effort today leaves you operating at 50% capacity for the remainder of the week, are you really coming out on top in the intensity game? The ‘over time’ component of our definition of intensity should be considered both in terms of the 15 minute time window of today’s work as well as the larger time window of your fitness journey as a whole. Fitness is made in months and years, not days. On average, each day should contribute to, not detract from, your long-term intensity. And it doesn’t take any complex math to figure out that working yourself with so much ‘intensity’ today that you don’t come into the gym for 8 days because your back is so sore is not the ideal path to intensity and results.

Improperly applied, ‘intensity’ can also raise issues with quality of movement. If we define quality movement as that which is both efficient and safe to the greatest degree possible, then quality of movement should also contribute to the greatest overall intensity. In an ideal world, the last push-up of a workout involving 150 push-ups will look roughly the same as the first push-up. However, because of the stories we form in our heads about what intensity should look like (see: Todd), we allow quality of movement to fall by the wayside in favor of feelings of effort. We assume that because we feel like we’re working really hard, we must be working with the greatest intensity. This raises two primary issues.

First, safety. Just because your body can complete another rep, or can lift more weight, does not mean that you should. This is a hard piece to sell when ego is in the mix, but it’s a perspective that can save you from lots of unnecessary pain and, ultimately, will make you a better athlete. I like to say that hurt is the opposite of strong, and that it’s a lot harder to get fitter when you’ve thrashed your achy knees or herniated a disk in your low back. Yes, may get some high-fives and a feeling of accomplishment when you throw that extra 20 pounds on the bar and barely squeeze out a rep with poor form, or when you push yourself past your limits to get those last few reps in the allotted time, but is this really intensity? When in doubt, ask yourself this simple question: will my efforts today actually make me better in the long run, or will they make me look better today? This brings us back to the fact that this fitness stuff a long game. There are no multi-million dollar contracts on the line. It’s okay to slow down and do it right so you can come back tomorrow.

The second issue comes from our definition of quality movement as efficient and safe movement. If we allow the quality of our movement to contribute to how we define intensity, we set ourselves up to get the greatest return on our efforts. If, however, we allow feelings of intensity to take precedent over quality of movement, we train ourselves to move poorly and, ultimately, to move inefficiently. Simple logic tells us that this is not the ideal path to intensity. Again, just because you can does not mean you should. Todd views intensity as moving at the threshold of his physiological capacity. However, moving at the threshold of your physiological capacity generally means your body’s not going to be firing on all cylinders, and your movement quality will be diminished. If quality is tied to efficiency, then moving with quality should be a priority, not an afterthought.

Intensity is not the same as how tired you feel, and you owe it to yourself to stop treating it as such.

- Preston Sprimont


  • Overhead squat - 3,3,3,3

  • Hand over hand rope sled pull - 5x 2 rope lengths (AHAP)