The images below are of a text message chat I had last year with one of our dear members, Dmtry The Russian. It was following a workout that involved three barbell movements and the
prescribedguideline load was your body weight. I trained in the class after Dmtry and when I got there he was still in the trenches, trying to complete the workout right at the time cap. I told him I’d kick his ass in the workout. I apologise for the poor quality of the image and my colourful language!
Dmtry did the maths. Although it’s not the most accurate calculation of power output, it shows that I had a far greater power output than him. I did kick his ass. He chose the guideline load of his body weight and that resulted in a time of 28 minutes. I went with 10kg under my bodyweight and finished in 17:50. Did he work hard? Absolutely. Was his workout effective? Not in the least. He didn’t get stronger (because it wasn’t designed to be a strength workout), nor did he increase his capacity (which was the primary goal of that workout).
He felt like he worked hard. But intensity isn’t a feeling. It’s based on how much work you do relative to the time you do it in. And the only way you’ll ever achieve the intended benefits of a workout is by modifying it to your abilities.
What you see on the whiteboard is a guideline, and along with the coach’s directions on the intended benefits of the workout, that gives you a template for that day’s session. You will almost always need to modify the session in some way. How do you do that? We use a simple guide:
- First reduce the technical demand of the movement/s. This is especially so for barbell and gymnastics movements.
- Reduce the load–put less kilograms on the bar. We can also reduce load on gymnastics movements.
- Reduce volume (reps/distance/sets/calories/etc.). This is probably done the least yet is so effective.
That order changes depending on the workout, but you should be doing some form of modification most of the time, regardless of your experience. Remember, the programming isn’t based on what you all used to be able to do. It’s based on where you could be.
Let’s get straight to the point: Can you complete the workout as it is prescribed (as RXd), and should you? It’s a simple yes or no answer to both questions, but it seems to be such a conundrum for many.
Can refers to your ability to perform the movements and/or loads that have been prescribed. Remember, the workout you see on the blog and on the whiteboards is a guideline to ensure that everyone achieves the desired outcome of that workout. Given that everyone is different, everyone performs a modified version of the workout that’s relative to their goals and abilities to ensure that the desired outcome of the workout is achieved.
The question of can you perform the movements/loads as you see it on the whiteboard simply refers to whether you can or can’t complete at least a few repetitions of that task, not taking into account the entire workout. Can you do the RXd workout? If no, modify to ensure that you move with good technique AND intensity while meeting the objectives of the workout. If yes, the next question is should you?
You should complete the workout as RXd only IF you will be able to do so with the desired intensity.
The guidelines loads and reps, the time domains set, and the expectations the coaches give you in class are all there to help you decide on whether you should attempt the workout as RXd or not. There is no point attempting a workout as RXd because you can do everything if you aren’t going to get the right amount of work done within the right amount of time.
If you halve the time of a workout, you double your power output even if you had a lighter load. Double, no ifs ands or buts, double!
Given that power output (which is exactly defined as intensity) is the one variable most closely associated with favourable adaptations to exercise, you should be aiming to optimise your power output at every workout. And that means smartly modifying and scaling the workout, 99% of the time.
Note: “scaling” the amount of reps down to enable you to do the RXd loads is not smart scaling, it’s stupid.
The RXd workout is a guideline and certainly something to work towards. But it’s not a destination.
Resting heart rate (HR), age-predicted maximum HR and HR training zones are commonly used by the general fitness and medical industries, and by some sports, to evaluate health, fitness and training efforts. HR zones are even used to guide training intensity for sports and general fitness. What do those HR numbers mean? More importantly, what are they founded on and are they of any use?
Maximum Heart Rate
Your age-predicted maximum HR is supposed to be 220 – your age. This is said to be the maximum heart rate (MHR) you can safely attain through exercise, regardless of your training status. For example, an obese 20 year old has an MHR of 200, whereas a 30 year old Olympic level decathlete theoretically has an MHR of 190. There’s your first clue that HR data means little – an athlete who’s taken years to qualify for their national Olympic team should have a lower MHR than a 20 year old who’s spent years eating shit while sitting on the couch? Not likely!
Where does that equation come from?
I’m not entirely sure, but it was fed to us by both the medical and exercise science departments since year one at uni, and to decades of students before that. So it’s no surprise that it’s used to widely. I do believe that the number came about through research evaluating exercise and heart disease, so if anything, it may be useful in the training of individuals who have heart disease.
Heart Rate Zones for Training
Have you ever trained with an endurance sports athlete who used an HR monitor? They’re constantly trying to adjust their pace – usually to make it slower – in order to keep their HR in the “aerobic zone” so they can go the distance without boinking. It’s similar to the advice you’ll get from a trainer at a commercial gym or the guidelines you’re given by health schemes – keep your HR at 60-70% of your MHR to stay in the “fat burning zone.”
[I’m genuinely having a chuckle while I read and write this, because those claims actually sound ludacris!]
The image below is an example of these heart rate zones.
Let’s look at an example of these zones and what they tell us about performance. Consider a group of professional athletes all aged 25. In the group we have an F1 driver, marathoner, rugby athlete, baseball pitcher and tennis athlete, all of whom compete at the highest level.
F1 drivers have an average HR of about 160 beats per minute (BPM), which is similar to the average match HR of the tennis athlete and that is not far off from the marathoner’s average race HR. A baseball pitcher (who rarely does much work in a game) has an average game HR of about 175 BPM, similar to that of the rugby player. Interestingly, the average HR of a rugby referee is similar to that of the athletes’!
The fitness requirements of these comparative sports are vastly different, yet they elicit a similar HR response. Could a marathoner perform like the F1 driver if we were to throw them into the cockpit? Would a baseball pitcher go the distance in a game of rugby? It’s not a rhetorical question, the answer is no. There’s more to HR than just physical demands.
Although F1 drivers need to be physically fit, the heat and stress they’re exposed to raises the HR significantly. Similarly, the baseball pitcher’s senses are dialled before pitching the ball and that elevates the HR. Your HR during physical efforts tells us little to nothing about your physical abilities in that task. HR zones are therefore a poor guide for training intensity.
Heart Rate and Training Intensity
A reminder about intensity: It is directly defined as power output which is determined by the amount of work completed in a given time.
Power Output (Intensity) = Work / time
Here is where the HR zone chart starts contradicting HR zone guidelines. Let’s use the most common example to examine this – the endurance athlete. In general, endurance athletes are to keep their training HR in zone 3 to improve aerobic fitness while limiting muscular fatigue. Yet the chart shows that training in zone 5 maximises performance? This is why so many recreational endurance athletes “boink” on race day. That means they “hit the wall,” start cramping up or experience debilitating muscular fatigue. It’s because they focus on preventing themselves from blowing out in training by limiting HR, only to be exposed to a far greater intensity on race day.
Intensity rules, especially when you learn how to adopt very good movement patterns under fatigue.
What about the F1 driver from above. His MHR should be 195. His average race HR is 160 BPM, about 82% of his MHR. According to the HR zone chart, he should only last 2 – 10 minutes. Instead, he is as lit up as his instrument panel all the way through the race!
How does he do that and how do we apply those principles in YOUR training? We use interval training. We get your HR really high, many times higher than what your MHR should be, add in some rest and then repeat several times. Or, we maximise your power output (intensity) in training by keeping the duration of your exercise bouts where there is greatest carry over for all energy systems. And then we ensure that there is a healthy dose of structured variance to keep you working beyond the realms of your experience and comfort.
On the training topic, your HR monitor cannot accurately calculate your caloric expenditure from exercise. The equation is complex.
So, HR is a poor indicator and guide for intensity, training effort and performance – even if you are a true endurance athlete. Regardless of your sport or health goals you simply need to develop the capacity to go harder for longer, and your HR isn’t going to tell you if you’re doing that or not.
Aahhh, the old volume and intensity topic. It’s always worth revisiting to remind existing athletes and inform newer athletes of the relationship between the two variables.
Volume in training refers to the total amount of repetitions completed in a session and throughout the day. Intensity, to put it simply, is the amount of work you do relative to the time it takes to do the work. Therefore, intensity has little to do with how hard you think you’re working. You might think that having the RXd load on the bar is harder and therefore more intense, but the maths shows poor power output (intensity) due to less reps completed in the allotted time.
Contrary to much belief, volume is not necessary if the goal is to get fitter. Remember, we define increased fitness as increased work capacity across broad time AND modal domains. That is, improving the capacity of all energy systems, enhancing each of the ten recognised physical traits you see painted up on the gym walls, and being capable of performing well at any imaginable physical task. More volume won’t get you there.
So how do we achieve that sort of fitness? By a healthy daily dose of constantly varied, functional movements applied at high intensity. To state the obvious, volume doesn’t feature anywhere there. Doing more isn’t going to make you fitter.
Volume and subtle variations thereof have their place in programming, especially in the realm of athletes who are training specifically for multi-event, multi-day competitions. But even for these individuals, the extra volume is only going to work if intensity remains high. Intensity is the independent variable most closely associated with favourable adaptations to exercise. Without intensity, therefore, you have poor results. Adding volume, be it within a session or throughout the day, inevitably comes at the cost of intensity.
Let’s consider one of our daily workouts – the daily workout being the entire hour including warm-up, cool-down, skills, strength, and/or conditioning. A metcon is only a piece of the session, not the workout. We typically do one metcon if we the goal of the day is conditioning, and sometimes it comes along with skill or strength work. Think about how you’d perform if we layered on more metcons. Do a 7-minute metcon, rest a bit, and then hit a 10-minute piece before finishing of with another 20 minutes worth of conditioning. If you tried to achieve some sort of intensity, you’d manage that in the first metcon and maybe a bit in the second, but as you proceed you’ll begin to do less work than you might have if you were doing that piece alone.
Your applied effort might still be as high as it was at the beginning of the session, but your true intensity (power output) will naturally diminish as that sort of session progresses. Or you’ll deliberately sacrifice intensity by saying “that’s a lot of work so I’m just going to pace all the way.” Either way, it’s less intensity in favour of volume.
Sure, you’d be working lots so your oxidative energy system will be stimulated, but that’s coming at the expense of time in the anaerobic energy pathways – you’re only increasing work capacity in one time domain. With the added work comes along the need for more recovery too, and let’s not kid ourselves, most of us only have the time to get all our fitness work done in one hour a day so you’ll end up sacrificing good recovery practices in favour of getting more done. And when will you get the opportunity to practice and develop new skills?
Worse yet, more and more work will just take you back to where the fitness community came from – long gym sessions at low intensity with poor results. Hang out in that fat burning zone, bro, skinny fat looks good on you!
More volume for the sake of doing more is not only counterproductive but potentially harmful too. You can however add extra work that is productive. Identify a few weaknesses and drill one of them a day in a focused 15 minute session. This is the best way to refine your skills, and if you take a page from the books of the best athletes in any sport, this is where they spend the bulk of their extra time. Dialling in that foot position, fixing their timing, getting familiar in a new position.
Skills and drills are your biggest bang for buck outside of class time. Now you’ve got to have fun too so play around with stuff we don’t get to in class as often. But if you’ve got ankles as flexible as cold chewing gum and shoulders incapable of properly holding an empty barbell overhead you’re better off on stretching and skills and drills than getting your meathead work done.
Not sure what to do? Pay more attention during class, we cover progressions daily. Even better, book a consult with a coach, consider the UpSkill plan and review it every four. Work harder, not longer. It’s more bang for your buck!“Be Impressed with Intensity, Not Volume.” – Greg Glassman
One of my favourite suggestions from clients, that doesn’t seem to stop coming in over 15 years of experience in the industry, is “We need harder workouts.” What typically goes through my head when I hear that is “Get bent, you know nothing about the art of programming and you certainly don’t know what it means to train hard. Fool!”
I don’t actually say that, of course. Well, at least not most of the time 😉
It’s the truth, though. Regardless of how long you’ve been training at a fitness facility for, how many different programs you’ve been exposed to, and of how much reading you’ve done, unless you’ve got the relevant background or experience, you won’t understand programming. It’s precisely why you seek the guidance of coaches – they do understand it and apply themselves to get you to YOUR goals. I don’t think you’d be telling a surgeon what to do when you’re on the table.
I do get it. You just want to get smashed by the workout. The problem with that, however, is that “smashed” is subjective. Sure, you can do three MetCons in an hour session and that’s going to smash you, but your intensity in each piece is going to diminish. Partly because you have to hold back to finish, and because of fatigue. Can you condition yourself to perform better at that sort of session? Absolutely, but let’s not kid ourselves here – you’re in this for health and fitness and you won’t be going to the Games, let alone Regionals.
Therefore, the purpose is not to be exposed to that sort of volume or to get absolutely smashed everyday all year round. The purpose is to set you up for lifelong health and fitness, and to give you the sort of fitness needed to be able to get out of the gym to lead an active lifestyle.
That means some ‘easy’ weeks and days, lots of skill work, and one to two quality high intensity pieces in a session. And if that session doesn’t leave you smashed, YOU didn’t train hard enough. You don’t need harder workouts, you need to train harder.
But don’t take it from me, because I’ve got no clue. Let’s look at a couple of our fittest athletes between the two facilities – Tamarr and Marcus. For years all they’ve been doing is training once a day in the group classes and on four to five days a week. They do a little bit of weakness-based work in what free time they can muster, and that’s all. Before you play the genetics card, hard work beats talent any day, especially when talent doesn’t work hard. That’s all they’ve been doing – the same stuff you’ve been doing – and they continue to improve their health and fitness in leaps, all these years later. And Marcus is old too!
Not enough? Then let’s look back to our 4-weekly “back-off” weeks. Everyone moans that they’re so stiff and sore during a back-off week. That’s no surprise because the volume of training drops during these weeks. Volume and intensity are inversely related, therefore intensity (how hard you’re working) goes up and you get properly smashed.
There’s just one more thing to consider when talking about how hard you train, and that’s scaling. Scaling is simply how we modify a workout to meet the needs and abilities of the individual, and to ensure that we preserve the intended stimulus of the workout. What many do is under-scale because the workout looks cooler, there’s more load and volume, and because their ego precedes them. As a result they have to move slower and rest more, so although they perceive themselves to be working harder, physiology tells us otherwise.
It’s a simple approach, really. Modify the workout to ensure the highest power output, stop resting every time you feel your heart rate and breathing rise – that’s supposed to happen, and learn how to stay uncomfortable. The workout doesn’t dictate how hard you’re working, you do.
Work smarter and train harder.