Defining CrossFit, Part 2: Intensity

ByCrossFitNovember 26, 2019

In Part 1, we explained the defining characteristic of functional movements is their ability to move large loads long distances, quickly. This definition represents three variables: force, distance and time. These variables are used to calculate power, where average power = force times distance/time. Force times distance is equal to work, so power is also equal to work/time.For CrossFit, power is exactly equal to intensity. In a manner similar to the term “functional,” the term “intensity” historically has been nebulously defined, often based on perceived efforts or correlates rather than an objective and measurable assessment. Heart rate, VO2max, sweating, vomiting, etc. can all be related to intensity, but they are not necessarily a measure of it. For example, your heart rate could be very high pre-workout due to nervousness, but this does not mean you are getting fit! Similar problems emerge in the consideration of  VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during exercise), which is a measure of potential, not outcome or actual work accomplished.

CrossFit’s measure of intensity is power. This is important because now we can establish measurable, observable, and repeatable data from our workouts by calculating intensity.

Force is simply determined by weighing the load lifted (such as a barbell, sandbag, or medicine ball) or the body weight of the athlete during unloaded movements. Distance is measured by how far the load is displaced vertically (against gravity) during the movement. Every repetition completed adds to the total distance of the workout. The total work completed in the workout is a product of the force and distance. The duration of effort, or time, acts as the denominator in the equation. Therefore, the faster the work is completed, the more intense the effort.

Generally speaking, increasing the loads you lift will develop strength. Increase the repetitions you can complete to raise stamina and endurance. Strive to complete a predetermined amount of work faster than a previous effort to see a systemic increase across several capacities at once. By recording and improving these metrics, we begin to develop an objective measurement of fitness based on quantifiable data, not speculation.

This matters because intensity is the independent variable most commonly associated with maximizing the rate of return on favorable adaptation to exercise — i.e., training with high intensity will produce more of the results we seek more quickly. The larger systemic effect experienced with intensity transcends any muscle fatigue directly involved with the movement(s) at hand. If you want to increase muscle mass, decrease body fat, increase bone density, or insulin sensitivity — if you want to look better, feel better, work better, sleep better, play better — intensity will get you there.

As important as intensity is, it is even more important to understand the application of it. The level of intensity at which a person works needs to be appropriate relative to their physical and psychological tolerances. That is, the intensity at which someone should work is always and only relative to that individual. As long as someone is working near the limits of their capacity, they will find the same increased benefits from the program whether they are an elite athlete or simply trying to maintain functional capacity for independent living. The important metric to track is not the absolute output of the athlete but rather their output today relative to what they were capable of last week, last month, or last year. If the relative intensity is rising over time and across many different workouts, it follows that the athlete is becoming fitter.

Additional Reading

To learn more about human movement and the CrossFit methodology, visit CrossFit Training. 

Comments on Defining CrossFit, Part 2: Intensity


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David Armendariz
May 7th, 2022 at 4:32 pm
Commented on: Defining CrossFit, Part 2: Intensity

Read this all my level 3 exam was this formula on the questions, fail cause i dont applie in my training programming, so study hard this formula

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Hershel Praeger
May 3rd, 2021 at 1:35 am
Commented on: Defining CrossFit, Part 2: Intensity

this is really helpful!

ty for publishing

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Jean-Christophe Cadeac
April 13th, 2020 at 4:20 pm
Commented on: Defining CrossFit, Part 2: Intensity

In "The level of intensity at which a person works needs to be appropriate relative to their physical and psychological tolerances.", how would you translate it concretely? What outward signs are you relying on? (example: the person feels pain, the person has their heart rate reaching a threshold, the person has the muscles that heat up, etc.).

In this process of explaining the intensity, I think it is also important to qualify the feeling of the person. The intensity is physics as you describe it, but is also a matter of feeling.

It would help the coaches to perceive when it is necessary to slow down an athlete (not to come to vomit for example), or when it is necessary to maintain in his intensity.

If you have readings on this subject, I am interested.

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Luis Rodrigo Ambriz Saldivar
February 5th, 2020 at 11:35 pm
Commented on: Defining CrossFit, Part 2: Intensity

"Force is simply determined by weighing the load lifted (such as a barbell, sandbag, or medicine ball) or the body weight of the athlete during unloaded movements. "

It is very annoying how CrossFit tries to over simplify some concepts and at the same time trying to appear "scientific" by adding formulas for Power (like the dot product) and yet they fail to define Force.

You see, when we use the word "weight" we tend to refer to the mass of something (the gram or … pounds), when in reality mass is the term for the amount of grams (or pounds). Weight is the product of the mass and acceleration due to gravity.

Things like these or oversimplifying "distance" by just counting the "positive" displacement… it's just misleading to people.

Tae things with a grain of salt.

(I´m not trying to sound condescending or offending, it's just my point of view)

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Joana Montenegro
November 27th, 2019 at 1:59 pm
Commented on: Defining CrossFit, Part 2: Intensity

Also a great way to understand how to truly coach and where to scale.

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Riley Coish
November 27th, 2019 at 1:41 am
Commented on: Defining CrossFit, Part 2: Intensity

More people/coach's need to understand the application! Understanding the physical and psychological tolerances of each individual will allow them to continue to progress clients in there fitness and keep them on the right side of the sickness-wellness-fitness continuum.

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