Pushing Fitness Intensity

What constitutes an effective workout? Is it when you feel a pump in the targeted muscle(s)? Is it when you work up a good sweat? 

Do you need to be sore the next day? Do you need to go to failure? What about tasting your previous meal a second time as you are about to vomit?

Does this sound familiar? Does it sound like you?

Unfortunately the fitness industry does a terrible job at helping people understand what constitutes an effective training session. Unless something is worthy of a YouTube upload, can honestly own the title of beast-mode and foster water cooler talk the next day you are wasting your time. There are coaches that come back from conferences and can’t wait to show their clients the newest, latest & greatest exercise guaranteed to leave them sore for days.

Is this what we really want?

After almost 20 years I have yet to have a client come to us asking for soreness. Or to be physically crippled from exertion. Or sweaty and out of breath.

That is no one’s goal. Soreness, fatigue and sweat may be side effects of a training session. But these shouldn’t be the primary goal of training.

Better health. Better movement. Increased fitness. Enhanced performance. These all make for better reasons for training.

Yet we still see more businesses delivering ‘all out fitness’. You are encouraged to push the intensity to the ‘red line’. And everything should be done as high intensity interval training or HIIT.

While there are benefits to increasing the intensity and testing yourself from time to time it isn’t the best option all the time. But rather than take my word for it let’s look at a few examples to show that ‘red line’ or ‘all out’ is not your only or best option.

A. Increased Injuries

NEISS (National Electronic Injury Surveillance System) tracks injuries related to fitness training, among other things. In 2007 there were 260 K injuries in the USA. By 2012 this number had grown to 460 K. That’s an increase of almost 75%!

Pushing fitness intensity too often or to much may lead to injury

Pushing fitness intensity too often or to much may lead to injury

Looking at a study from Hak et al. (2013) they found of 132 participants in a Crossfit exercise program 97 participants, or about 73.5% sustained injuries (1). 9 of the participants required surgery. It’s interesting to see how closely the percentage injured almost mirrors the data from NEISS.

Unfortunately this trend is not unique to adults. With youth athletes the potential for injury increased with more intensity and using higher loads as 13-14 year olds (2). A colleague from Oregon, Mark McLaughlin, works with a number of young athletes and is fond of the expression ‘slow cook ’em’ regarding training younger athletes. Unfortunately doing the basics well and holding off on intensity is not a popular approach. But not only is slow cooking a safer approach it also lends to better long term athlete development.

 B. Diminished Performance

One of the common arguments with all out training is that it is a good choice for dryland training. The reasoning is that when the intensity of training matches that of the sport there is a better transfer effect. If my sport is high speed and explosive, I need to train at high speed and explosively.

Not really.

Consider the training of Andre De Grasse who just won 3 medals at the Rio Olympics in the 100 m, 200 m and the 4×100 m relay. If we believe that all out training is the best way than we would have expected De Grasse to be sprinting daily in order to account for his excellent performances at the Olympics.

In fact the opposite is true.

To paraphrase De Grasse’s coach Stuart McMillan he stated that people are often surprised to find out the Olympics was the first time De Grasse had gone all out, at these distances this year.

That doesn’t mean he wasn’t doing a lot of training. There was tempo, rhythm, strength, mobility, stability, starts and lots more to work on in order to medal at the Olympics.

Another story that comes to mind is from Axel Merckx, former Olympic medallist and Tour de France cyclist. He was talking about training and how you don’t typically train at the speeds you race at. Just because a race might have them going 47 kph doesn’t mean all the training rides are at that pace. Some days, yes, maybe. Everyday? Definitely not.

If the best in the world, with all their superior genetic potential, don’t train this way, why would we?

C. Diminished Learning

Learning may be impaired when all we care about is intensity

Learning may be impaired when all we care about is intensity

The other program with trying to go all out, all the time, is that we can tend to rush through things. Take for example trying to learn the Olympic lifts.

When we do a clean or a snatch it’s not overly taxing on the cardiovascular system to do a few reps. And it doesn’t induce high levels of muscle soreness. Nor do you feel a substantial pump after a few reps.

Our nervous system takes a lot longer to recover however. Sometimes the minimum recovery between reps can be four minutes. However it’s not uncommon to see people rushing through these types of workouts. The game becomes one of how many reps can I do until I can’t do anymore? At this point technique is not a consideration. Instead it’s more a scenario of can I get the weight from A–>B? If so, count it.

With trying to push this type of a tempo we start to make mistakes. We don’t learn the best technique. And it become harder to undue these mistakes the longer they are left unchecked

Picture trying to coach young athletes a new skill. Typically they are most concerned with trying to see who can finish first rather than how well they can do the drill.

But that’s a topic for another day.

For the time being remember that going all-out, all the time doesn’t lead to the best results. Instead it results in frustration, plateaus and potential injury.

Make some of your workouts short and intense, some longer and less intense and a few moderately long and intense.


1.Hak PT et al. 2013. The nature and prevalence of injury during Crossfit training. J Strength Cond Res. [Epub ahead of print]

2.Huxley DJ et al. 2014. An examination of the training profiles and injuries in elite youth track and field athletes. Eur J Sport Sci. 14(2):185-92.







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