Is A Harder Workout A Better Workout?

by Nathan Jeffrey

Why Working out as hard as you can might be holding you back

As crazy as it might be, one of the most exciting aspects of CrossFit is how hard the workouts are. The feeling of being completly exhausted after a workout and rolling around making sweat angels is usually something people can’t get enough of. This is often the CrossFit way, but beleive it or not, this isn’t always the best way to meet your goals or improve. 

This is something we actually get a lot of questions about. Often it’s from people who have seen drastic improvements in their fitness but who have now gotten fit enough to be able to handle the workouts like a pro now. People often ask why they aren’t rolling around on the floor in complete exhaustion any more. The answer is the same answer we give to the body builder who has been doing chest on Monday, legs on Tuesday, back and arms on Wednesday, etc.. when they ask why they have plateaued. Your body is simply getting used to it.

Now, before you start looking for new workout routines, let me explain why your body has gotten used to it. If you don’t grasp this concept, it doesn’t matter what kind of workout you are doing, you’re always going to run into the same problem.

Here’s An Example

We used a quick example of the bodybuilder who is no longer progressing. Let’s now imagine you want to become a better runner. Maybe you want to run half marathons faster or even just be able to run a half marathon. You go out and find a trainer who gives you a workout plan to improve your running – it looks like this:

Monday, Wednesay, Friday for 6 months:
Run 6 sets of 400m sprints. Rest as needed in between.

You would immediately tell this trainer there is no way this is the best path to improvement towards your goal of improving your half marathon. Then, they change your program to this:

Monday, Wednesday, Friday for 6 months:
Run 21.1km

Both of these training plans would be an extremely slow progression… and awful.

 

Colin biking

WHat Do We Need to do to effectively improve?

 

The topic of improvement runs very deep. We can talk about motivation, effort required, interest in the training, periodization, and so much more. Context is also different for professional athletes and people who are new to fitness. To keep things as general as possible, unless we have an ultra sport specific goal, or we’re a professional athlete in tune with our weaknesses, this is the clearest path to improvement:

Variation.

Variation is the best path to improvement on so many levels. Variation can mean a lot of different things though, varying the movements we do in a training program, varying the intensity of the movements, varying the energy systems we use in any given workout, and many more. For the sake of this article, we’re talking about energy systems (why we actually roll on the floor after a workout). Let’s hop back into our running shoes for a second.

The reason those two obviously bad training programs were not a good path to improvement is because there was no variation, specifically, no variation in energy systems. We’re not going to do a deep dive on energy systems here but to give you a little information about our bodies energy system, there are basically three than can be catagorized like this:

Sprint – Short and very fast.

Short Term – A fast pace that can be sustained for longer than a sprint.

Long Slow – A slow pace that can be done for long periods of time.

Harder Is Not Always Better!

In CrossFit we mostly work in the middle energy system – Short Term. This is where typical CrossFit programming lets people down. If we spent most of our time doing moderately hard workouts for 8 – 15 minutes, we are going to see improvements really fast in this area. But this is no different than someone new to bodybuilding doing the same routine every Monday, Wednesday and Friday – those progressions are eventually going to slow down.

Your body improves its ability to handle the heavy breathing and burney muscles until you don’t need to roll on the floor anymore.

We know that we can improve our Olympic Lifting by varying the exercises we do. We can also improve these movements (and all other movements) by varying the energy systems used. This concept is why some of the best weightlifting programs will often start by “building up our stamina” – that dreaded 10 or 20 rep max.

Here’s what you can take away from this

Ironically, one of the core values CrossFit was built on is varation but somewhere along the way many programs lost the variation of energy systems. Even though you might not like when you see those 5km run days or 40 minutes WODs, those are critical to improvement.

The best thing you can do to keep improving is figure out the intent of the workout and execute accordingly. Short workouts are designed to be done very very fast. Long workouts are meant to be done at a slow and steady pace.

What You Should Stop Doing

If the workout is 40 minutes long and you crush the first 30 Wallballs, do 10 Burpees then stand there out of breath 5 minutes in, **you’re still working in that middle energy system**. The person next to you going slow and steady may be a full round behind you but they’re on a faster track to improvement than you are.

If the workout is 3 minutes long and you are moving at the same pace you would in a 12 minute workout, you are not doing that type of workout correctly. In a sprint type workout, you should be moving at the same pace you would if zombies were chasing you. A sprint type of workout requires you to move quickly, this means we need to scale movements appropriately so things can be done safely at a fast pace and that you aren’t forced to take breaks because the weight is too heavy.

To End My Ramble

There are many factors to improvement, all of which are different for everyone. For most of us just trying to get a little bit better everyday, the best way to do that is to vary what you are exposing your body to. From past experience, we’ve seen that learning how to appropriatly train your energy system is the key athletes use to unlock some serious improvement.

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