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Mechanics, Consistency, Intensity: What Does It Mean?

ByCrossFitFebruary 8, 2020

One of the most overlooked and undervalued tenets of the CrossFit program is the mechanics-consistency-intensity charter. The Level 1 Certificate Course and CrossFit’s founding documents, as published in the early CrossFit Journal, define CrossFit as constantly varied functional movements, executed at high intensity. While this definition of CrossFit is both descriptive and prescriptive, the accompanying mechanics-consistency-intensity charter further elucidates how the program should be implemented by providing a hierarchy of concerns and establishing a linear timeline of development.

Yet, since the program’s inception, CrossFit has faced criticism due to the misguided assumption that intensity is the singular, definitive characteristic of the methodology, as if the inclusion of an element that can be overdone encourages a fatalistic, Icarian-drive to do so. We often see this accusation of “intensity above all” stemming from a limited understanding of the fundamental tenets of the program, combined with extrapolations based on a single moment in time.

For example, an athlete is seen executing a movement poorly either during a workout or simply while practicing. Upon observing this struggle, the uneducated viewer is quick to assume this single point along a continuum of progress is the permanent endpoint of the athlete’s development. This judgment denies the reality of learning and developing new skills; beginners will look like beginners long before they ever reach the point of smooth, precise execution. Not allowing athletes to struggle during the learning process means tacitly accepting that these techniques are reserved only for those who have already refined them. This is nonsense. Even those with generally sound technique will have moments of technical failure. It should be considered that the stimulus necessary to progress is the same stimulus that may occasionally result in momentary, technical breakdown.

A second oft-repeated misconstruction occurs when viewing advanced athletes, already steeped in CrossFit culture, deep in the throes of a difficult workout. The athlete wears their effort on their sleeve, quite visibly uncomfortable and pushing the limits of their current capacity. The assumption is then made that anyone new to the methodology is doomed to be sacrificed on the pyre of intensity. Again, while witnessing an athlete’s progression from beginner to advanced performance, no single point in time can really do justice to the athlete’s fitness or development.

The actual intention and direction of the CrossFit methodology holds that while intensity is an essential building block of the program, its implementation is described not as an absolute metric but rather as an effort that is relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of each individual. Further, fitness is defined as a long-term endeavor. Intelligently balancing safety, efficacy, and efficiency is essential to long-term success, as never learning to productively apply oneself to the task at hand or being sidelined by injury will fundamentally blunt output (or efficacy).

From the start, CrossFit trainers have been charged with focusing on foundational movement mechanics and understanding that this is paramount to the long-term development of any athlete. This remains one of the key tenets stressed in CrossFit’s Level 1 and Level 2 Certificate Courses. The foundation of movement competence serves as the bedrock required for an athlete to advance.

Once movement mechanics are ingrained, the next step is to test consistency. Can the athlete perform the movement in a correct, predictable fashion from one day to the next? Can they do so without constant oversight from the trainer? Can they apply the broad movement themes across minor variations in equipment, rep schemes, and loading? Have they been consistently exposed to the stimulus at an intensity appropriate to their capacity; generally, has a person been training three or more times per week in order to gain the requisite conditioning? If the answer is a resounding “Yes!” then and only then is an increase in intensity warranted.

Thus, our charter for implementing constantly varied functional movements, executed at hIgh intensity requires mechanics, consistency, and then intensity. This provides the athlete and coach with a simple blueprint for applying the program in a way that supports long-term sustainability — i.e., fitness and health.

While this charter is applied in a linear fashion for new athletes, it also should be revisited and applied throughout an athlete’s “career.” Even an athlete who progresses out of the beginner stage and has been cleared to add greater levels of intensity to their workouts will still have weaknesses that will be best addressed by lowering the intensity and working for a time with a deliberate focus on mechanics and consistency. This is often seen with more complex movements. For example, an intermediate-level athlete who struggles with maintaining consistently sound movement patterns in the snatch can be charged to work the movement under lower loads for fewer reps and at lower intensity — even during workouts — until their mechanics are consistent enough to merit greater levels of intensity. In this way, the mechanics-consistency-intensity charter provides a practical framework for the art of coaching. The skilled trainer will learn to navigate and apply the charter fluidly and effectively for athletes of all experience levels.

In the next installment of this series, we will take a deep dive into the application of the mechanics portion of this charter.

Additional Reading

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