Volume Or Intensity – Is More Better?
By Matt Michaud
As an Affiliate Owner, CrossFit Coach and CrossFit Athlete for well over 10 years, I have been approached countless times by community members, athletes and even people from the general public with the question,“What else should I be doing outside of my normal class/workout/routine?” or “Is there anything I should be doing outside of the gym so I can get better at CrossFit?” These questions could bring a less experienced coach to a plethora of answers… But for me, this ultimately brings me to the same answer for 95%+ of our population. Being an old school “Prebok” guy (someone who was into CrossFit even before Reebok got involved) I can get my answer by reaching way back to the original intent of CrossFit from the old CF Journal days.
A Rising Trend – “If I do more, I will get way fitter!”
Over the last few years I have witnessed, what I feel is a dangerous trend. Its not unique to EverProven, our state or even the region. It’s everywhere. There seems to be a growing notion among many CrossFitters that that an increase in volume (how many workouts they do or how much training they get in in a single session) will expedite and increase their fitness. The explosive growth of programs like MisFit, Invictus, Comptrain and the dozens of others like them are a prime example of this trend. The truth is, that these programs move someone from the general population (the 95%+ I was talking about earlier) away from working out for health, fitness and GPP (general physical preparedness) and move them toward training for the sport of fitness or other athletic endeavors. Notice I differentiate between working out and training. While both can happen between the walls of our gym, they are vastly different concepts;
- Working out for GPP = Low Volume – exercising for the betterment of the quality of your life and to be physically prepared to do anything life throws at you. 1-1.5 hours a day, 3-5x per week. GPP, while not specialized, will in fact help those with specialized athletic endeavors, perform better.
- Training = High Volume – specializing your workouts for a specific sport or event (CrossFit competition, weightlifting/powerlifting/strongman/other strength based sports, endurance events, or other sports/athletic endeavors) 3+ hours a day, often multiple sessions in a day, 6-7 days per week. The intent of training is to specifically get better at the skills involved in one particular sport.
(Seriously.. who has the time to do all of this?)
The purpose of following such “competition” programs is for the person trying to get to Regional (now Sanctional) or Games level. These programs require a complete mastery of every skill involved (or even potentially involved) that may be contested in the Sport of Fitness and participants are expected to have a baseline skill set that is extremely high. Contrary to the current trending belief that “more is better”, 95%+ of the everyday members at the local affiliate, even ours, don’t possess this type of mastery (or time) that is required to be ready for this type of training.
In the early days of CrossFit, the allure for many was partly because of intensity! Nothing out there was able to have such an effect on the body in such a short workout period while still garnishing tremendous health benefits. In fact, intensity was very much frowned upon by those who sit behind desks and were in charge of traditional training at the time. The simple combinations of modalities such as weightlifting, gymnastics and monostructural movements was completely effective in developing a well-rounded fitness that worked across broad time and modal domains. The original model in a structured CrossFit class was a warmup, short intense workout then cool down/mobility. Do this five days a week, eat clean foods while avoiding sugar and… PRESTO you’re on your way to elite fitness!
With the rise in popularity of the CrossFit Games and the allure surrounding what it takes to be the best at CrossFit as a sport, many CrossFitters have embraced the thought that participating in coached and guided CrossFit classes will not provide enough to reach health, fitness and GPP. So, many have added in additional volume in the form of these above mentioned competitive programs or have just made it up on their own. An extra metcon, more weightlifting, more skill sessions, and before you know it your one hour workout has turned into 2-3 hours of training. This training may or may not actually be effective if you don’t possess the above described required skill set. Somewhere along the line we have forgotten the original intent of CrossFit – Health, Fitness and GPP. It baffles me that beginners or those with no intent or history in competing in the sport of fitness chose to follow a competitive style program. Would you invest in golf lessons if you never intend to play the game?
Intensity Wins Every Time
Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit said, “Be impressed with intensity not volume”. CrossFit was founded on the principals of being short in duration and high in intensity. With the explosion of the CrossFit games and the athletes that have made it their job to specialize in the sport and to train for such events, it has been accepted or even glorified that “more is better” or “If I add volume I’ll get fitter, quicker just like XYZ Games Athlete”. James Hobart says in his article – A Deft Dose of Volume – , “Volume is not the cure-all; effective coaching is.” Unless a person has the intent of competing in the Sport of Fitness (or a particular specialized sport/athletic event) and possesses a mastery of all of the required skills, there is no reason to follow a competitive style or specialized program.
If someone is going to a normal CrossFit class and there is a well-rounded program in place, then that is sufficient for making continual progress. Even if slow, progress will be there; remember intensity is King. A single effective dose of CrossFit a day is enough to obtain and sustain lifetime fitness. Note that I am not including specific skill work or specific therapy used to rebound from injury/illness in this conversation. Think of this type of work as practice and not necessarily as working out or training.
Not Everyone Is The Same
As a Coach and even as an Organization it is extremely important to understand the goals of our community members. This is true with their training and work towards achieving those individual goals with each person in the gym. Some people will reach their goals by simply cleaning up their diet and taking control of what they put into their body. Others will require personal training to address their unique needs. When someone comes to the conclusion that the class is not enough, I’ve noticed that there are generally two reasons for seeking out more. The first is the person who has decided to give competitive in CrossFit a shot. The second is the person who experienced a good amount of physical and health changes when first starting out, but over time that progress has slowed. PR’s are now fewer and further between for this person. CrossFit is really good at helping people get really fit, really fast and upfront because of its nature. So it’s natural to have A LOT of milestones when starting out and over the first few years. As time moves forward, it becomes much harder to “PR”, but progress IS still happening/is possible for those who stick with it. No one is ever perfect and sometimes it just requires a shift in goals and priority (see a coach to help with that). In this example, intensity is again King. To see continual progress in CrossFit, just doing more CrossFit is not always the solution.
Regardless, in both of these examples, one of the biggest factors in deciding if more volume is appropriate is mechanical consistency in the athlete’s movement and the level of their skill. The athlete should be able to move well, consistently at a high intensity, and be able to make improvements in movement with verbal cues from a coach.
For the person who is seeking to compete in the sport of fitness, an appropriate amount of skill work added to a normal prescription of high intensity CrossFit will suffice for making progress towards the desired goals. This is the reason why we have recently added options to our cashouts. We feel that the “competitive” options are realistic for those who possess the required baseline skills to make the transition from working out to training. That being said, note that the class workout is actually part of our competitive plan!
Power Output – Is it important?
Understanding power output is something that all of us would benefit from. Think of a workout like “Fran”. “Fran” is a very simple workout consisting of only 2 movements; thrusters and pull-ups. 21-15-9. Performed as quickly as possible. It is by far a workout that is potentially devastating for the person that pushes deep into their anaerobic threshold. The opposite of something like “Fran” would be something like a 30 min row for Meters. The row is much longer in duration and performed at a much slower pace than “Fran”. These workouts stand at opposite sides of the scale as far as volume and intensity go. “Fran” is very low volume and very high intensity. A 30 min row is much higher volume, but much lower intensity. Both of these workouts provide excellent benefit to the human body and train different energy systems – Anerobic and Aerobic. (Explaining the difference between the two would require another blog post.) That being said, high volume and low intensity workouts do have a place in CrossFit but should not be the center of an overall program focused on GPP.
When someone assumes that “more is better” they may think that the longer sessions are actually “better” than the shorter ones. This is not the case. Why? Power Output! As the length of a workout increases the ability to produce power (intensity) decreases. Do you think that someone who has a sub 3 minute “Fran” could keep up the same pace if we turned it into a 20 min AMRAP? Power output = force multiplied by distance divided by total time (P=(f*d)/t). In this case, if the time it takes to accomplish a similar task is longer than the effect, a much lower power output is the result. Lower power output = lower intensity.
Is Training Volume Sustainable?
I have personally seen many athletes who add lots of volume or have followed competitive programs without a baseline skill set ending up doing more harm than good. This either comes in the form of burnout (remember, you often lose the community and miss out on a lot of fun when you train alone) or injury. 99.9% of people who walked into a CrossFit gym for the first time were looking for lifetime health and fitness not a quick fix and certainly not to compete in the sport of fitness. In a lifetime of fitness it is not necessary to sacrifice a dose of high intensity for more volume for the sake of just doing more. A complete CrossFit program that is effectively programmed to be completed in a class will generally suffice for developing a lifetime of health, fitness and GPP. For an everyday person, a single dose of high intensity CrossFit is sufficient; Intensity is King over Volume.
P.S. – If you are considering exploring the idea of starting a Competitive Program or adding more volume, please talk to a coach or set up a goal setting meeting to see if this is best for you!
P.P.S – Our Friends at CrossFit Roots created an excellent guide to the baseline minimum required skillset to participate in a competitive program.