Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, before there were AMRAPs, Rounds For Time, Girl and Hero WODs, there was a unique fitness principle. Some called it “Training” and others called it “Practice.” This principle was simple: if an individual wished to improve in a specific area, they would spend time practicing in that area – focusing solely on technique. Every so often, when appropriate, they would add intensity to those techniques, incorporating them into a workout or testing their improvement against a benchmark.
Back then, practice was one thing. Competing, even against yourself, was wholly another. And the focus on constant rapid improvement has caused some problems.
"Intensity, when applied carefully and correctly, can produce desirable results. When applied incorrectly, it can really mess you up."
Today, in many fitness centers around the globe, the practice-to-improve philosophy has been replaced by a more intensity, more gainz philosophy. Athletes (and I use that term loosely) are loading themselves heavier and heavier or going for higher and higher reps so they can have a better number on the whiteboard.
I know what you’re thinking… Stop hating on CrossFit™! However, this is not an issue limited to one type of fitness style. Due to the popularity of High Intensity Interval Training (The current #1 fitness trend according to the ACSM) everyone is looking for the most effective way to take his or her fitness to the next level.
And there’s a reason why intensity is all the rage. Intensity gets results! Research shows there is a cascade of positive hormonal responses from high intensity workouts, including but not limited to decreased body fat and increased muscle mass. You've seen and heard the success stories from P90X, Insanity, HIIT, CrossFit and Orange Theory. Intensity, when applied carefully and correctly, can produce desirable results.
However, you may have also heard about rotator cuff tears, broken bones, bulging or ruptured disks and a number of other training related injuries due to intensity. When applied incorrectly, intensity can really mess you up. Here are a few words of advice.
"If you haven’t actually practiced the movements enough to be proficient in them, then you have no business increasing the intensity."
How to Get Better Results from High Intensity Training - Safely
In order to know how to correctly apply intensity, we must first define it. For our purposes, we’re going to describe intensity as the total power output of a specific workout. Another way to say it is being able to do more work in less time. With that definition, we can increase intensity in the following ways.
5 Ways to Safely Increase Intensity in Your Workouts
- Increase the volume (sets & reps) [Example: increasing the repetitions from 10 to 15]
- Increase the weight [Example: moving to 85% of your 1RM from 75%]
- Decrease the rest [Example: between exercises, going from 1:00 rest to :30 rest, to ZERO rest]
- Increase the complexity of the exercise (Example: squats to jump squats)
- Any combination of any 1, 2, 3 or 4
By choosing any of the above options, we can increase the total power output of the workout, thereby increasing the intensity of that workout. Sounds easy enough right? Well, there’s a problem. If you haven’t actually practiced the movements enough to be proficient in them, then you have no business increasing the intensity.
As the focus on intensity increased in popularity, many (inexperienced) trainers and coaches started using every workout as a benchmark. AMRAPS (As many rounds as possible, and RFT (Rounds for Time) used to be reserved for testing protocols. Once an athlete was proficient in several movements, their coach might create a test to evaluate their level of conditioning. Quality was never really an issue because they were proficient in the movements.
Example: Let’s say an athlete is proficient at handstand push-ups and they have a 400 pound deadlift. The workout “Diane” would then be an appropriate benchmark for this individual.
Deadlifts @ 225#
How to Use Benchmarks to Measure your Progress – Safely
Pursuing excellence in fitness is a smart goal to have, but listen up: You don’t have to sacrifice form to pursue and achieve excellence. You must know your physical limits and choose appropriate weight/speed/movements to push those limits. You must realize that you don’t have it all figured out and that you must continue to PRACTICE. This means intensity – and therefore skill and fitness levels - increases at an appropriately safe rate for the individual.
Achieving Excellence in Fitness Starts with Your Thinking
If you can keep yourself from thinking about exercise as a series workouts, or as a series of competitive events, you’re winning. Think of it it as practicing or training. In doing so, you’ll develop a deeper respect for the movements. You’ll likely stick with the program for longer, leading to the results you’re looking for. As an added bonus of viewing your exercise routine differently, you may also experience the following:
- Higher proficiency with the movements
- Utilization of appropriate muscles
- Decreased injury
- Increase in strength
- Decrease in body fat
- More consistency with your movements
- Increase in cardiorespiratory endurance
- Improvements in agility, coordination and balance
Few of us have really mastered exercise. If we realize and understand this, then we can think about our exercise routine as more of a movement practice. It doesn’t matter if your movement practice is Olympic weightlifting, Parkour, Running, Yoga or Martial Arts. If you practice, you’ll become proficient. Once proficient, test yourself to measure your progress. Continue to evolve your movement practice and learn new skills to add to your routine. Practice the fundamentals, become proficient at them and you shall have all the GAINZ you’ve ever dreamed of.
Disclaimer: It’s indeed possible that you could get injured doing just about anything. However, although you may get hurt on your adventures; you shouldn’t get hurt training for them…
A Movement Practice Strategy, Step by Step
- Find a coach or an online forum that you trust
- Study and learn the movements
- Practice the movements often
- Develop proficiency with the movements
- Practice the movements more often
- Add intensity to your proficiency
- Test your proficiency
- Choose new movements and continue the cycle