“Be impressed by intensity, not volume.” Quoted from CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman, it simply means do more work in less time – not more work in more time. Intensity works!
You know how much the famous classic CrossFit workout “Fran” hurts. If you took 10 minutes to do Fran and then did another workout because “10 minutes wasn’t enough,” you did not perform Fran with the correct intensity. Because if you had, you’d still be lying on the floor on your back gasping for air. You did not reap the benefits of that workout’s intended intensity!
But let’s also be clear – intensity is relative to each person. An intense workout for a 80 year old woman may include things like air squats to a box, and practicing getting up off the floor (a burpee). An intense workout for someone who is more conditioned may include those very same movements (air squats and burpees) but done at a faster pace.
As Greg Glassman said, “The needs of the elderly and professional athletes vary by degree, not kind. Where one needs functional competency to maintain independence, the other needs functional mastery to maintain dominance.” Since exercise is by definition a stressor, any physical activity that does not place a stress on the body doesn’t improve fitness. The activity you do must be intense enough (again, relative to you) to actually increase your fitness.
Intensity of exercise overrides the factors of frequency and duration. For example, higher intensity exercise improves aerobic fitness more than lower intensity, even when duration is adjusted so the the same number of calories are burned. High-intensity interval training (like HITT or Functional Fitness) improves cardio-respiratory fitness at least as much, if not more, than traditional steady-state aerobic exercise. And in far less time because, again, intensity trumps volume and frequency!
With steady-state exercises (such as jogging/running) the only way to increase the exercise stress is by increasing the duration of exercise. And who wants to run on a treadmill or the road for hours?!? (Plus there’s a bigger chance of repetitive use injury.) But using high-intensity training, you are always working out at the edge of your physiological capabilities.
In fact, several large observational studies have suggested that relative exercise intensity is more important than duration to improve life expectancy and reduce risk factors for chronic disease. And interval training has shown to be superior for improving cardio-respiratory fitness and clinical markers of health status, in both healthy individuals and people with cardio-metabolic disorders. When it comes to vigorous exercise, smaller amounts seem to be linked with maximal health benefits!
I know that the most commonly cited barrier to exercise is “lack of time.” But this is all good news because for those who are time-pressed, upping the intensity is a good strategy to enhance the effectiveness of a workout. As athletes get in better shape, they often fall into the trap of thinking, “If I want to get better, I need to do more training.” The problem is that more does not equal better…better equals better!
Not everyone needs three or more workouts a day, with a strength focused morning, gymnastics session for three hours during the day, then a brutal hero workout at night. For the 99% of the population that isn’t an elite competitor, this strategy is just a recipe for injury. For most of us, the issue is not that we need harder, longer, or more workouts, but that we need to really focus on giving proper intensity to the workout of the day.