There was a time when my workout regimen lacked intensity. Long and steady runs, two-a-days and back-to-back classes were the norm. To other gym goers, I was ‘hardcore,’ and I had the abs to prove it (Note: You don’t need to workout for hours to look ripped. You need to lift heavy and eat clean. Period.) But as my goals changed and I graduated college to join the sedentary workforce, the lack of intensity had a significant impact on my physique. Now that I could no longer spend hours at the gym, I had to pay close attention to my nutrition and up the ante on intensity. Yet, what I didn’t realize at the time was what exercise intensity actually meant, and how it varies from person to person and goal to goal.
You may already be familiar with what intensity feels like or looks like. Just walk into a CrossFit box, watch an Insanity infomercial, or hit the track during a speed workout and you’ll note that intensity varies in look and feel.
So what the hell is intensity anyway, and why does it matter?
In fitness, intensity refers to how much energy an individual exerts during an activity. Since it varies for each individual, instructors often provide a scale for one to measure intensity. For example, if 1 is you lying starfish on a sandy beach and 10 is puking out your liver, you’ll most likely benefit from working out around 7.5 – 9. That is, if staying lean or losing fat is your goal.
Intensity > duration
Ancient dogma insisted that exercise duration was more important than intensity for fat loss. However, research has shown us that intensity goes above and beyond the duration factor when it’s used correctly. You get a lot more bang for your buck with short, high intensity exercise than long, low-intensity exercise. In an article from Metabolic Effect, Dr. Jade Teta explains that an individual burns a higher total of fat during short, intense bursts of exercise versus those that focus on low-intensity, long workouts. Of note, that ‘afterburn’ (i.e. EPOC or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) is considerably higher after a short and intense exercise than low-intensity exercise. This afterburn refers to how much fat and calories your body continues to burn long after the workout. After a strenuous workout (such as heavy lifting), your body will work toward replenishing fuel stores and repairing cells and muscle tissue, among other things.
Intensity is learned
Remember your first time in a Spinning class? Every drill felt unbearably long; the saddle was a nuisance to your sore behind, and every time the instructor yelled to add more tension, you wanted to fall over and die. After a few weeks, maybe months, you added tension without hesitation. A four minute seated climb became a challenge you felt ready to conquer. This is a basic illustration of adaptation, or your body’s ability to learn intensity.
The body is extremely adaptable, which is good news for everyone. The body can handle varying levels of intensity provided that you ease into it in an intelligent and progressive manner. If you’re deconditioned and jump into a CrossFit WOD, for example, your body will hate you. I can guarantee it. It will not adapt immediately and you will most likely hurt yourself.
This isn’t CrossFit’s fault; this is your fault. Intensity is learned and it must be progressive. Be smart about it.
Intensity varies, often
Depending on your goals, intensity will vary from one workout to the next. That means that ‘going hard’ every workout is unwise. There are days for recovery, days to hone your technique and days for intensity. As an athlete, your program will vary in intensity during the on and off seasons. Same goes for the average Joe or Jane. There will be weeks of intense training leading up to say, an event like a vacation or a wedding. And there will be weeks for recovery, tapering or deloading. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that to reach a specific goal you must exercise until your arms fall off or you puke yesterday’s lunch. That’s the perfect recipe for an injury and burn out.
Intensity must be measured
If you’re not logging in your workouts, how can you tell how well you’re progressing? In CrossFit, intensity is measured into overall work capacity (i.e. time). In lifting, this is measured by load, volume, tempo, sets, reps, and so forth. A powerlifter’s intensity is different from a bodybuilder’s, but both trainees track and measure that intensity to identify weaknesses, strengths and reassess the overall program. And since intensity is an ever-changing variable, you need to measure it to understand where you are now and what it will take to accomplish your goal.
Intensity is a mindset
What most coaches / trainees miss about exercise intensity is that it’s not exclusive to the body. Sure, you can feel intensity when you’re sprinting or pushing a barbell overhead, but there’s also a mental aspect to exercise intensity that’s rarely discussed. As intensity increases, our brains must also adapt to the workload and this involves rewiring our thought patterns to one of ‘I can’ versus ‘I can’t.’ Here’s an example:
I once trained a client that cried every time I pushed her outside her comfort zone. Even though she had been training with me for months, the moment an exercise got too difficult she’d respond with tears or refusal to finish the exercise. Physically, she was capable of the exercise and the intensity, but she held a set of limiting beliefs about herself that caused these reactions. In her mind, if she wasn’t naturally good at something, she concluded she never would be and demanded we do something else.
While this is an extreme case, it demonstrates that exercise intensity requires a ‘growth mindset.’ Oftentimes during a hard climb or set of intervals in my Spinning class, I advise students to shut off their thoughts and dial into the effort through the body. I want them completely focused on how the body moves on the bike and the force/energy they exert instead of the thoughts going through their mind. Those thoughts are usually ‘this is too hard,’ ‘when will this be over,’ ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ‘I have to slow down,’ ‘I need to take off the tension.’ These limiting beliefs, whether it’s momentary or persistent like my client’s, has a bigger impact on your physique and your exercise goals than any coach, workout or program ever will. As cliché as it sounds, you must think positive thoughts about yourself and your capabilities – in and out of the gym. As intensity increases, the amount of positive affirmations must also increase. You won’t always have a coach there to push you or a crowd cheering you on. Achieving any goal and pushing through hard efforts during exercise must be accomplished with the brain as much as the body.
What other myths have you heard about exercise intensity? Comment below and share your story!