The High Intensity Training Paradox

The High Intensity Training Paradox

Welcome to the Illawarra Athletic Coaches Corner: Here I’ll dissect many things in the realm of strength training. I’ll talk Weightlifting, Strength and Conditioning, CrossFit, pretty much anything that involves the iron game.

For the first week of I.A. Coaches Corner, I want to talk about something I feel very strongly about. You’ll see it from me now and very likely in other posts in the future possible a little more focused as this post is broader in nature. The topic is about training intensity and the overuse of training intensity.

A little history lesson to start off with.

It is safe to say there has undoubtedly been a new era of fitness in the early Y2K era, but where did it come from? While we were all getting ready to protect our computers from the Y2K virus and stocking up on canned food and bottled water for when the Y2K apocalypse hit, a guy in northern California was growing his movement called CrossFit. CrossFit does predate the year 2000 but it is really in the early 2000’s that the rapid growth of this fitness regime was starting to truly take hold.

In the early days before the commercial CrossFit Games that we see on ESPN today the program was to create a well balanced individual that could run, jump, lift, throw and perform bodyweight exercises in a way that complemented the person’s role in life, be it mother, father, office or construction worker, homemaker or athlete.

The rate of followers flocking to the program, originally and still housed at crossfit.com, was unprecedented and it wasn’t long before the commercial giants in the world of the health and fitness industry saw how BIG this animal was and how far it had yet to come. Come 2010 and we see Reebok jump in with a 10-year deal to sponsor CrossFit which lead to one of the biggest fitness organisations the world has ever see. CrossFit 2.0  was born.

1st CrossFit Games

CrossFit Games 2016

CrossFit 2.0 had the catchphrase “The sport of fitness” quickly connected to it. A huge spectator sport with sponsored athletes and literally hundreds if not thousands of brands specifically targeting CrossFit and CrossFitters. The emergence of CrossFit breathed new life into the sport of Weightlifting, a sport in it’s own right but definitely benefiting from the arrival of the popular fitness pastime.

Proceeding this comes the wave of performance spaces (the performance, strength and conditioning facilities) and HIIT gyms (your F45, P90X). Many will argue that training at a high level of intensity predates CrossFit by decades or even centuries depending on who you talk to. But did they succeed in popularising it and make it accessible to everyday Jane and Joe’s? No they didn’t!


CrossFit Santa Cruz. The original ‘Box’


CrossFit gym of today

CrossFit gym of today

It’s here though that CrossFit also gets lost in its own success. The CrossFit of today, CrossFit 2.0, blurs the line where training stops and where competition starts. You see now the competition and the training syllabus have, in the general CrossFit community, pretty much become the same thing. This is where the paradox lies. In a world where we know so much about appropriate dose response for a particular effect, recovery, the complexities of the human anatomy all through sports science there is still a basic conclusion that in terms of training intensity “more is better!” and that speed trumps form and technique.

My point here is that competing all the time is counter-productive. More is not better, PERIOD! In the image below we see that if we do to little, well the effect is obvious. But if we do too much the result will be a decline in performance. No one is immune from this principle, although the amount of “too much” varies from person to person, we are all subject to this.


The stress/performance curve.

The other half to this paradox is that if the competition is the training and vice versa it can be hard for some to see the point in training outside of the sport in question. The common example we like to bring up here is that in soccer, football or any other sport that exists today that involves any power, training and competition are separate things. You train to compete/test, not the other way around. The professionals in the NRL don’t play a competitive game of football in training all the time to get better in their sport, not even close! No, they train by performing drills, practising skills inside and outside their sport which makes them a better and more well-rounded athlete for their sport.

In large part yes, you should spend most of your time in your sport, but not all of it. This is a concept linked to a concept known in the neuroscience field as neuroplasticity.

Checkout the video below of Andy Murray (Champ tennis player) and some of his training regime and notice how varied it is relative to his sport. “Why is he training in the sand?”, “He’s not a beach volleyball player”, the point is his strength coaches use an array of drills and exercises to get him better at tennis without just getting him to play tennis all the time.

The problem is that many can get addicted to the beatings that CrossFit can inflict on us. The sweaty mess left on the floor gasping for air. The fact I can’t sit on the toilet without almost falling over. The ripped hands and bashed shins. All of these can become badges of honour we get hooked on.

Now I’m not saying that intensity and volume are not healthy. You should definitely push yourself to get better but it is when YOU move too fast for YOU. This limit of too fast may depend on how you are feeling that day or week, it may depend on a lot of factors. BUT you should not push, push, push just to beat a score or kill yourself for the sake of it.

What does this mean for you then? What I’m trying to tell you is that:

  1. Competing is not the center of a good training program.
  2. The sport or competition and training are two very different things.
  3. There are days where you should be able to simply walk out of the gym not feeling bashed and beat.

We at Illawarra Athletic have made a point of training our members in a fashion that has the long term in mind over short term gratification. Competing on a daily basis is probably the lowest thing on our agenda. In true Australian humour, a little bit of competitiveness exists but it certainly is not the main energy in the gym driving them forward. A gradual approach has been taught to me and through anecdotal evidence have these principals been proven time and time again.


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