This final step in the ongoing, judicious process of training is increasing intensity. As discussed previously, the decision to increase intensity should come only after the requisite criteria for mechanics and consistency are met. This is absolutely necessary. Before we begin to increase the intensity, we must know our athletes have some ability to make corrections if mechanics break down.
In order to effectively increase intensity, the trainer must first understand the factors that directly influence intensity. In short, the trainer must consider loading, repetitions, and speed/time. A common mistake made by novice trainers (and some who should know better) is trying to push all of these variables at once, too early in the process. This seldom produces a favorable result. For many athletes, jumping from the learning phase of a skill right into a multivariable increase in intensity is a recipe for significant technical breakdown that may undermine much of the hard work that was required to build good technique in the first place. Choosing one variable to manipulate at a time, observing the results, and adjusting accordingly will allow both the trainer and athlete to experience a degree of success that spurs enthusiasm and more consistent progress over time.
How long is this path to adding intensity for your athletes? The answer is that it is relative to each athlete. There is no concrete, one-size-fits-all formula we can give for this concept. It is an art, formed of deliberately and intelligently layering in variables, watching carefully how an athlete responds, and adjusting accordingly. Whether it takes two weeks or one year, holding inviolably to this charter of mechanics, consistency, and intensity will serve you and your athletes best. It is how we minimize risk and maximize efficacy and efficiency over the long term. The compulsion to move quickly past the fundamentals is the “novice’s curse” for both coach and athlete.
As an athlete develops a base level of skill and capacity, it is important to remember that less than perfect movement is inevitable as intensity increases. A degree of degradation in mechanics is expected as intensity increases. The athlete is working in uncharted territory — they’ve never done this much or gone this fast. However, “less than perfect” is a different animal than unsafe technical breakdown, and this distinction is critical to effective and appropriate training. Balancing safety, efficacy, and efficiency is imperative, and managing the line between sound mechanics and new levels of intensity requires a trainer to have a solid grasp on the concept of threshold training.
Threshold training is at the heart of the effective application of intensity. In application, as the athlete increases intensity, the trainer needs to shift their cueing strategy to reinforce good mechanics. If the mechanics are solid and consistent, the trainer knows they can now shift focus and encourage the athlete to increase the intensity (speed, load, or number of reps). As soon as a challenge is reached that starts to degrade the athlete’s mechanics, the trainer’s focus shifts back to mechanics. In essence, the cycle becomes “make it perfect,” then “make it harder,” then “make it perfect” again, and so on. This process of performing well under progressively more difficult circumstances is necessary for developing true technical proficiency and optimizing an athlete’s progress.
The application of threshold training must always be framed by the concept of relative intensity. For intensity to be effective at getting us all the good stuff we want from our fitness program (i.e., results), it does not require some absolute value or comparison to an externalized ideal. Intensity only needs to be considered relative to the individual. An athlete’s previous efforts compared to the present-day performance is what is most important; how the athlete stacks up against the fittest member in your affiliate is not.
Decisions to increase or decrease speed in order to improve mechanics are always made in an athlete-specific context. A trainer’s focus should be centered on the athlete’s adherence to sound mechanics (points of performance), their overall capacity, and their ability to respond to coaching cues when faults occur. Driving progress in an athlete-specific context is the art of coaching.
For new athletes, the charter of mechanics, consistency, and then intensity provides a linear path to improvement and the most effective application of constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity. It ensures that the focus will be steady, consistent progress on a slow trajectory toward a distant horizon.
For more experienced athletes, challenging movement variations may place an otherwise capable athlete squarely back in the mechanics stage. Thus, for these athletes, the application of mechanics, consistency, and then intensity may be less linear, but the hierarchy of priority is maintained. The first emphasis is always on moving well, and this process needs to be revisited and applied again and again over the course of an athlete’s lifespan.
Reinforcing the process with experienced athletes sometimes requires greater persistence and creativity on behalf of the trainer. It also requires the creation of a culture where quality of movement matters first and foremost at every single level. The good news is that if a trainer starts with a staunch commitment to mechanics, consistency, and then and only then intensity, this culture will grow naturally.
- Mechanics, Consistency, Intensity: What Does It Mean?
- Mechanics, Consistency, Intensity: Mechanics
- Mechanics, Consistency, Intensity: Consistency
To learn more about human movement and the CrossFit methodology, visit CrossFit Training.