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Intensity Vs Volume

By 6th May 2016March 10th, 2017No Comments


“It’s not about how much work you put in, but the intensity of that work every time”

As a CrossFit coach and athlete, one of the toughest learning’s I’ve had is the battle between volume and intensity. Every day I see athletes at the gym, doing extras, wanting more. I myself trained twice a day for the last few months to get ready for the CrossFit Open. 
 I’ve had a lot of time to reflect after the CrossFit Open, both for our gym and myself. Not feeling happy with my own performance over the 5 weeks, I was left asking myself why?

As with some of our athletes more volume didn’t equate to better performance. I was effectively getting away from what CrossFit is all about. I felt like that even though I was doing a lot, I was only giving half my effort. Spreading myself too thin.

One of our athletes at 353, Tim O’Connell hit the point home when he came up to me recently. We got chatting and it came up that a few people were surprised with his open performance. Without a blink of an eye he said, “I love intensity, I hate volume” and walked away with that cheeky grin on his face, the one everyone at 353 is well too familiar with.

He linked me an article that he read on the CrossFit journal by James Hobart-“A deft dose of volume”. Throughout this article, Hobart mentioned how over the years CrossFit has changed from a 60min session that consists of a warm up, workout and cool down, to a session filled with skill work, strength blocks, gymnastics, accessories and metcons. The penny dropped.



Leading up to this years open, I trained twice a day, hitting everything from intervals on the rower, to accessory pieces with movements I couldn’t even pronounce to double WODs. In my mind I was getting fitter, I mean how could I not be? I was training 3 hours a day. But looking back, where was the intensity? How many “oh fuck moments” were in my training, the moment we try to deliver to our athletes everyday, the moment that gives us that beautiful love/hate relationship with CrossFit, the moment your lying on your back, staring up at the ceiling asking yourself what the hell just happened? 
About 4 mins into 16.5 I got that “oh fuck moment”, I couldn’t remember the last time I felt intensity like it. All those 3-hour sessions, long metcons, intervals on the rower, accessories, couldn’t have prepared me for it. But incorporating intensity more often into my workouts could have.

I went against CrossFit 101. I mistook volume for intensity. 
For us common folk, us mere mortals, that just want to improve their life, get a bit fitter and have no intentions of going to the games, training an hour a day with intensity and purpose, instead of 3 hours of volume is the only way. It’s simple, if you want to increase your fitness, then one workout a day is the answer. As James said “don’t mistake volume for intensity and end up training 90mins at 60 percent when a 60 min session at 90 percent would have been more valuable”.

Our priority as coaches is to elicit a response from our athletes through smart training. Not running our athletes into the ground by overloading them with crazy amounts of volume. We have a lifetime to get good at this CrossFit thing. Purpose, intensity and simplicity is all we need in our training. If we have the skill level then a 5mins amrap of bar muscle ups and snatch will bring intensity, but if we spend that 5 mins looking at the bar then the intensity is gone. We try to teach our athletes to scale appropriately. Use skill sessions to work on skills, but WODs to get the heart rate going and blood pumping



One of my coaches on my CrossFit Level 2, “Davs” preached the whole weekend about “earning the right to train twice a day”. Had I earned the right to train twice a day? The answer smacked me in the face 4mins into 16.5…. I lost sight of what makes CrossFit so special, the intensity you don’t get out of other workouts, the intensity that for years was missing from my training while I was doing my leg days, chest days, arm days (well I might still sneak an arm day in). I thought I was above CrossFit, in my mind I had earned the right to train twice a day, in my mind I was going to the bloody CrossFit Games.

Another coach on my level 2, Matt Evans, talked about the fact that if your athletes in your gym are able to do extras and hit consecutive workouts, they haven’t applied themselves enough in their session. Our job as a coach is to get the desired amount of effort out of the class. He used the example of a 5-5-5-5-5 deadlift workout. Saying that if you apply yourself to this(moving perfectly of course), approach with a good mindset and give it all your effort, then you are home straight after, into bed, eating ice cream. You don’t need anything else after. You have done a great days work. Achieved what you set out to achieve for the day.

Or think about Fran: 21-15-9 thruster pull up. If you hit Fran all out, close the eyes, muster up some intensity, there isn’t much you’ll be doing for the rest of your day. Its 100% enough, applied with the right amount of intensity we don’t need anything else that day. Our intensity goal for the day was hit. There is no need to sandbag some front squats or some intervals on the rower after(unless you have Dottir in your second name;))

There are two sides to this. With new athletes our priority is movement. Only when we have the movement, do we worry about intensity. Our coaching ethos is always movement over load. Mechanics-Consistency-Intensity.

The other side is the 1% of our sport heading to regionals and the games. Volume is needed. But volume for them is simulating the needs of competing at such a high level. They’ve earned the right to train multiple times a day, building a solid foundation through good mechanics and consistency. They are able to hit each of their sessions with intensity every day, being consistent with their numbers and times all while holding good mechanics throughout. They don’t run themselves into the ground every day. They train smart. They are train multiple training systems every week. Getting themselves ready for the battle field, that is The CrossFit Games.

For most people, one workout a day done with right intensity and effort, is enough to increase our fitness. Maybe we are feeling a little bit sore and tired but want that hour to ourselves in the gym. We don’t want to train 100% hard. Thats ok, we encourage athletes to listen to their bodies. We can’t go hard everyday but we can hit our sessions with intensity every day. To some intensity only means crawling off the gym floor. To us it has a few different meanings. Maybe you come in and practice handstand walks for 30mins. But you practice with an intensity and a goal of getting better. Maybe its a 5k run to loosing out the body, clear the head. But we do that run and then call it there. We don’t need to feel beat up every day. We don’t need loads of volume to feel like we got a good day of work in. We can achieve intensity and effort in many different ways. We CrossFit, to increase our wellness and health through fitness. CrossFit is beautiful because it shows us many different styles of intensity through hundred and thousands of different workouts

For me, it’s back to basics. Doing CrossFit- one workout a day, simple movements, more intensity and purpose. Building my engine, working my gymnastics and muscle endurance. Training with intensity so I know what it feels like and so i’m comfortable with it. Falling back in love with CrossFit. Getting comfortable with intensity is something that can transfer over to everyday life. As Julien Pineau said in a recent podcast, we must train the body to recognize pain from intensity. If we get comfortable with intensity, learn to train the mind and body with intensity; we will realize intensity is not pain. We need to train under stress and intensity regularly in a way that wont damage the body. Eliciting a positive response from the body every day.


When I can say that I’m hitting every session with purpose and the right type of intensity, getting more of that oh fuck moment back, then I’ll know I’m getting fitter. For our athletes at 353, the exact same. Simple CrossFit. Simple workouts. Less volume. More exposure to intensity. We as coaches guide our athletes everyday. Show them the way. Make sure they train with a purpose and are able to elicit a positive response. This is what separates us from globo gyms. Intensity gives us our unique value. 3 questions I ask myself when programming for class now. Is it simple? Is it challenging? Is it fun? If it’s yes, yes and yes…then in it goes
. At 353 we want our athletes training as often as they can. We love seeing them in class regularly. Our goal is to keep them injury free. Get them ready for life. We use different methods and training styles to elicit different types of intensities every day. Some days its Fran type WODs(3-8mins), other days Cindy style WODs(20mins). Some days just showing up, having a laugh, doing some foam rollin is all the intensity we need. We realise that we have a lifetime to achieve fitness. We don’t need to rush it.

I’ve hit about 10 main site workouts since the Open finished up; I’ve had to scale 4 of them. Either movements I couldn’t do (which was very humbling) or weight too heavy that intensity would have been down (also humbling).

We as coaches have to realize that our athletes are human beings. We must ask ourselves what we can do to better our athletes every day. We must teach them not to fear pain, that intensity is good. Its good to let the blood flow around the body. Its good to let the heart beat fast. Its good to get out of breathe. We must teach them to control their intensity. Push their intensity when it needs to be pushed and hold it back when we need to lay off, but less is always more.

I’m going to finish this with a quote from Tommy Hackenbruck– ” You don’t need harder workouts, you just need to go harder in your workouts”

Coach Gaz x

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