Here is the fourth—and final—installment on our performance continuum. We finally get into intensity. So, let’s get intense.
As a very quick recap, I recommend prioritizing a few things before getting to intensity. They are:
- Movement: do you have the basic mechanics locked down?
- Awareness: can you accurately assess the effort required for a specific task? Do you have a good sense of where your body is in space—and whether an adjustment improves or impairs execution?
- Capacity: have you built up your work tolerance progressively and logically?
There we have it. If you can tick all of those boxes, you’ve built your skills, managed your risk, and are ready to get the most out of intensity.
From a more academic perspective, intensity refers to load. So, it’s most accurately used in strength training. The heavier it is—relative to your true capability—the more intense it is. What about cardio? I think the term intensity feels more intuitive here. But it’s tougher to quantify beyond heart rate or respiration. Especially since both will max out before your true capacity is reached.
For functional purposes, I tend to view intensity through the lens of what you’ve got left in the tank. If you’re moving heavy things, how many more reps can you do? For cardio, how much longer can you sustain the same pace?
If you couldn’t do another rep for a million dollars, you have reached maximum intensity. It doesn’t matter if the weight is 10 lb or 1,000 lb. Likewise, if you can’t maintain your pace for more than 10 seconds (at most), you’re there.
The value of intensity
We look at everything through a movement lens at Bang. So, while it’s easy to be reductionist and say that performance is just a matter of strength, power, mobility, etc., the magic is really the interplay of all of these elements. So, there’s a difference between going all-out as a way to test abilities (including in athletic competition) and using intensity for training purposes. Here, it becomes a learning opportunity. There are some things that intensity can uniquely teach us:
What strategies scale?
If you can squat 500 lbs, the same technique will undoubtedly work for 100 lbs. But there are no guarantees going the other way around.
Sometimes, taking it to the limit shines a light on inefficiencies and areas of technical breakdown. We come back with newfound knowledge about what to work on—and how to integrate it into less intense work.
When I used to work with more combat athletes, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to use strength and conditioning strategically. All things being equal, if one opponent is functionally stronger, they will require less effort to get the same amount of work done. That is a huge advantage and—not incidentally—why steroids are a banned substance.
From a conditioning perspective, if you have two competitors of equal strength and ability BUT one of them can recover faster than the other, that is also a tremendous advantage. Just imagine two fighters clashing and driving their heart rates up into the red before disengaging for 5 seconds. During this time, one’s heart rate drops by 5 BPM (beats per minute), and the other’s drops by 15. That’s a big difference. By using this gap strategically, the fitter athlete can push the pace and create more fatigue in their opponent. And, as we know, fatigue leads to mistakes.
But what if I told you that functional aerobic fitness isn’t all heart and lungs and mitochondria? It’s also your speed and completeness of relaxation (within practical limits). Let’s call this micro-recovery. Some of this is genetics and some of it is a learnable skill. And the best place to practice it? In between bouts of high intensity.
Before we get to that precious moment of recovery, though, we have the opportunity to push at our absolute limits. This isn’t something you can—or should—do all of the time. When you do though… What do you feel like? What signals are you getting from your body? From your mind? What is telling you to stop? To quit? To give up? There is a hardcore kind of wisdom in learning which of those signals to pay attention to—and which are just noise. The very act of paying attention here is enough to build your resilience. You not only know thyself just a little bit better, but this knowledge can also often lead to improved internal dialogues.