The Mistake of Intensity

Intensity comes in many guises.  When we talk weightlifting, strictly speaking, we’re talking about a percentage of your max (better still, an educated guess at what percentage of that day’s capacity you’re operating).  And when we talk conditioning, I suppose, we’re talking about ye olde ticker–how fast and how well is she beating?

More globally, we might also consider intensity rather like the clenched fist: occasionally appropriate index of effort, useful tool throughout history, and utterly incapable of cupping water in order that we might not die of thirst over the long haul.

With regard to intensity and exercise, problems arise when we make the mistake of conflating enervation and accomplishment.  This is nothing new and you’ve heard me prattle on about this a million times.  Work smarter, not harder.  Smooth is fast.  Being tired or sore doesn’t necessarily signal a successful workout.  And etc., and on and on.  We know this by now.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  Sometimes–too often, really–we seek intensity when we really ought to be chasing completion.  An added rep each set just so the last one feels harder, jumprope between fives on your squat just because, and so on.  Again, no need to belabor the point because we’ve all made this mistake.  It’s a tender trap, this notion that we need to empty ourselves of effort each time we set foot in the gym, and it misses the more trenchant metaphor: workouts as glasses to fill to the brim–some mugs, some mason jars, others sippy cups.  What we’ve got to do, every single time, is get it to the lip of the mug without overfilling.  And this is the genius of that old Charlie Francis quote we all wish we’d authored: 99% of us go too hard on easy days and too easy on the hard ones.

So here’s how we fix it.  We get better at asking ourselves “what’s this workout?” instead of “how’s this workout?”  We look at something on the whiteboard and we ask ourselves “if I hit this workout to completion, with effort and form exactly appropriate to the task, what would the training effect be?”  Thinking along these lines clarifies matters real quicklike and more often than not will save us the…effort of spinning our wheels.  Seven sets of two on the press at 80%?  Sounds like seven chances to work and then use breath in the rack position, drive a significant but usable weight into a nice, open overhead, and cool our bench movement pattern out for a week so that the next time we’re being asked to tuck in our lats, well…it’ll be on a PR deadlift attempt.

That’s the frequency, Kenneth.  Ascertain the task and complete it fully and appropriately.  It’s only the intensity when it’s supposed to be the intensity, but it’s always completion because that’s what we’re here for.

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