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More Intensity vs. More Volume

Most of our gym members don’t know how I found CrossFit.  Seven years ago (this fall), I was in the fall semester of the 3rd year of law school.  My brother, a sports information director in Maryland, called me to tell me about this crazy workout program he was doing with a football player on campus.  He sent me to  At the time, I was doing your traditional “body building” workouts:  Chest/Back, Biceps/triceps, maybe some squat or lunges.  I worked out 3 days a week and thought I was in good shape.  So, when I started scanning, my first response was, “that’s it?  That’s all you do in 1 workout?”  For about 5 months, I sprinkled in the CrossFit workouts I liked while continuing my regular weight lifting.  However, I never understand the concept of Intensity = Results.

Finally, in March or April of 2010, I started doing nothing but CrossFit.  One of my first WODs was “Cindy” (AMRAP 20 Min:  5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats).  I remember scheduling a drink break at 10 minutes.  Then again at 15 minutes.  The more I got into CrossFit full time, the more I finally started understanding Intensity = Results.  I moved to Pittsburgh, joined 1 of 4 boxes in the area at the time, and I have watched CrossFit and the programming develop over the past 4-5 years.  It used to be:  go the gym, warm up, do a WOD, and go home.  Now, we see programming with so much stuffed into one hour that it can’t all be completed at a high level of intensity.  One issue that I see in the worldwide community, and in the local community, is the thought that more volume is better than more intensity.  Nothing could be more incorrect when using CrossFit to improve your life.

If you don’t know what I mean, must go on Instagram, Twitter, and other Social Media.  Someone posts a picture of a whiteboard with two heavy lifting movements, a 30 minutes Metcon with some kind of insane weight or skillful movement, and a third short workout.  We hear this talking to friends from other gyms, “wait until you hear about this long WOD we did today.”  We all have this response when comparing a WOD like Murph (that takes more than 30 minutes) to an AMRAP only lasting 6 minutes.  Each of these are examples of someone concentrating on volume, instead of intensity.

Just because something is longer does not mean you get a “better” workout.  More of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing.  Let’s take the example of Fran, a common benchmark WOD that consists of 21, 15, 9:  Pullups and Thrusters (95/65).  Fran should be done in under 5 minutes.  It should be an all out sprint.  There should be little to no rest between reps and the athlete should feel completely spent at the call of, “TIME.”  When Fran is programmed, someone may suggest doing double Fran, or heavy Fran, because regular Fran is too short.  At the end of the WOD, someone may say, “I only worked out for 6 minutes, I feel like I need to do more.”  However, if Fran is completed at maximum intensity, I promise that you will not want to do anything else for an hour or so.

Intensity provides us results because it forces changes within our bodies.  We place our bodies under a stress that it does not like.  Our bodies like to be lazy.  Everything in nature will follow the path of least resistance.  When we force our body out of its comfort zone, it will adapt to reestablish a comfort zone.  That re-adaptation is the result we are looking for.  Our 1 mile time becomes faster because our body adapts to reduce the cardiovascular stress.  Our deadlift max weight increases because our body adapts to reduce the stress we feel when we pull a max lift.

So, how do we gauge Intensity?  The simplest way is to ask yourself how much are you resting during the workout?  Every time you rest, your intensity drops.  Now, I am not suggesting that it is wrong to rest!  By no means am I suggesting that.  However, if you have to rest 30 seconds between sets of 2 unassisted pullups, but can do sets of 10 banded pullups before resting, your intensity may be much high during the set of 10.  If you can only do 5 deadlifts at 185lbs and then have to rest 20 seconds, but can complete 10 reps at 155lbs without needing 20 seconds of rest before picking up the bar again, your intensity may be much higher at 155lbs.

Another way to gauge your intensity is to look at the white board and talk to the Coach.  Comparing yourself to other members is not always the best system.  However, if some members are performing the workout as prescribed and finishing in 9:30 minutes with a high output of intensity, then that is one way to measure how long a WOD should take.  If your are able to push hard in Brass scaling and finish in 10 minutes, verses doing more reps at Steel with higher weight and finish in 16 minutes, Brass was a better choice (Intensity = Results).

Or, you can ask the Coach.  What is the purpose of the workout?  How fast should it be?  How many rounds should I get?  Is it better to try heavier weight or do more reps?  What do you think I should do today?  Is this WOD supposed to be a sprint?  Is it supposed to be heavy?

We will admit that intensity is not always the best way to determine a good workout.  Sometimes, we need recovery workouts.  Sometimes, we program workouts designed to build strength while cardiovascular intensity is very low.  However, keep this in the back of your mind as you approach your next WOD.  Just because you can add volume, is that what you need to do to improve your overall fitness?  For those who are looking to compete, at some point, the answer will be Yes, volume must increase.  For almost everyone else, giving it all you have will serve you better in the long run.

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