Rambling and Inconclusive Thoughts on Volume vs Intensity

So since there’s a lot of talk about Intensity & Volume lately I thought I’d throw my unasked for opinion into the mix! I just finished Regionals Nate, and in the twenty minutes I got 3 Rounds done, and a couple of no reps for good measure.

Working it out, I did a rep about one every 17 seconds. Of course I wasn’t this well paced!

Now does this mean I didn’t have the intensity, and should have scaled for intensity? I mean, I didn’t really break a sweat much during that (if that’s a measure of intensity) or get a lot of reps in (if that’s another).

I’m being a little facetious here but that’s my point. We need to define a lot clearer the terms “intensity” and “volume” before we can have a debate about them.

Some workouts, like say deadlifts and wall balls, or burpees and wall balls, or anything and wall balls really, will naturally put an athlete in that infamous redzone. Others may require a level of skill and/or strength development to get there.

My aim was to do the Regionals workout as rx’d. So my aim was satisfied. If my aim was to move for 20 minutes continuously, or to get the 10 rounds done, it would have changed the stimulus.

If I did 69 (hehehehe) reps during a 20 minute strength piece (like I had in the 20 minutes before to work up to a heavy hang snatch) I wouldn’t have hit the desired intensity, as to do that many reps would have meant the load (again hehehehe) would have been too light to illicit the response we were looking for. So in this case, a lot of reps meant a reduction in intensity.

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Some people are Big Rig Trucks, others are Lamborghinis. Some people have 6 gears, others are lucky if they find second! For those that may not have the ability to go into the “Intensity” zone, they may need more.

They need more just to disrupt homeostatis (I love that word, it’s science!) They need a little extra hit as for them, the overhead squat is too challenging on their flexibility to challenge their core at a high heart rate like ‘Nancy’ is meant to do. They’re so unused to running, and so cautious, that they can’t run fast enough to elicit the same response as the more athletic can. (I almost wrote better athlete there!)

For them, they may need a little extra hit to develop their fitness.

Yes, there’s a counter argument that they need to develop the mechanics first, and they’re in this phase of their development. 100% agree. I see no problem with them hopping on the Assault Bike afterwards for 4 minutes of 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off to get “gassed”. For so many, sweat = a good workout, and regardless of what they need physiologically, psychologically they may need a sweat to feel like they’ve worked out for the day. Provided the sweatiness doesn’t negate the skill/strength work they’ve done, it’s all good in my opinion.

Some people don't say that ironically!

Some people don’t say that ironically!

If the movement can’t provide the intensity, maybe they should substitute it out? Again, a valid point, and sometimes it’s the right thing to do. Another way to look at it is they don’t want to feel isolated, incompetent, or “stupid” by doing a movement that no one else is doing. They’ll feel bad, and this is the exact opposite of what we want them to feel.

We all need enough exposure to a stimulus to learn how to get the most out of it. Learning how to go from zero to ninety comes easier for some than others. And they need more practice in learning how to go hard enough in a given workout, versus holding back. They can’t push themselves as hard in a 4 minute AMRAP like a more experienced CrossFitter can. They need the 12-16 minute piece.

If we take the intensity over volume argument to absurd levels, we should only do 1 rep. Because otherwise there’s no intensity. 1RM burpee anyone? 1RM wall ball? Sounds stupid but the “intensity” on these can only come at a certain threshold, and this will vary from one to another.

Going from 3 to 5 days a week is an increase in volume. Hitting sets of 8 instead of 5 is an increase in volume. Oh, adding a few rounds to an AMRAP is adding in volume. To be really pernickety it’s an increase in density. We’ve no problems with these increases in intensity, so why do we have a problem with adding in a second training session, or adding in a second piece during the same training session, and making it 90 minutes instead of 60?

The point is these terms (however we define them) aren’t dichotomous. (Again, I love that word.) A lot of this whole debate is down to reducing complex training terms in a sport that’s still very nascent into soundbites. I get the need for it. In a snatch we tell people to just pull the bar back and jump overhead because it’s simpler and easier to understand, even though there’s more than that. When soundbites become gospel it is an issue though.

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We should also address the issue of “That’s not what CrossFit was founded on” and similar arguments.

CrossFit, like everything else, evolves. What was Games level events now probably aren’t even challenging/separating enough for The Open. We now hit snatches in metcons that were 1RM a few years previously. When Mikko Salo burst onto the scene in 2009 we were all amazed he hit some rowing or running in the morning and he’d do double metcons in the afternoon. Heck, we used to run a Mikko Salo week in CFI and it was a huge deal. Now, we can program two nice complimentary metcons on a Thursday.



The above video, by the way, was a Regionals event!

The counter argument to that is that we shouldn’t stray from the founding or guiding principles of CrossFit. In this case, if you’re sacrificing over-specificity and extra volume that reduces intensity, this is an issue.

CrossFit themselves “add” to this problem, as in documentaries like Road To The Games, we get to see an elite level athletes programming for a given day. It’s one of the only sports, in fact it may be the only sport, that allows us to train exactly how a pro did, at least for a day! So of course we’re tempted to do it. I don’t think this is a bad thing, done sensibly, as every now and again pushing yourself well past what you normally do gives you a real appreciation of how good the top level are. It’s only when you try do a few supports on rings you finally grasp how awesome Olympic gymnasts really are.

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I totally get the lack of intensity in just beating a dead horse and hitting shitty slow paced metcon after shitty slow paced metcon. Most people who post about Intensity over Volume are talking about this. Half assing your morning workout so you can half ass your evening workout is a hiding to nowhere.

But, you know, there’s something to be said for low intensity work, as either nice recovery work or base building. That ‘recovery’ work again mightn’t be physiologically necessary but psychologically imperative for the individual. Developing a base ability to just sit on a rower for an hour and not die, or run at low intensity can help build your ability to recover from the intense metcons you’re hitting.

Finally, what if people just like working out? It’s their headspace and an extra few reps or another metcon, while not strictly speaking the most beneficial use of their time, is the most maximised enjoyable use of their time. Happiness is the goal, right? Adding an extra run can be great meditation for some people. Provided that exercise isn’t becoming a hiding place to avoid problems, a little volume can be just what the doctor ordered. We can’t just say volume OR intensity unless we know the why. “I like to hang around with my friends and instead of drinking we lift and run.” is a good enough why to me!

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There’s a sweet spot in everything, between intensity and volume, between productivity and enjoyment, and none of these terms are mutually exclusive, nor should they be. So while soundbites are cool at getting a message across succinctly (unlike this blog which has been rambly to say the least :P) they don’t tell the whole story.

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