Intensity is both useful and necessary if you want to actually move your fitness needles. Whether for building inner or outer strength, power, stamina/endurance, or flexibility, you will need to apply some form of intensity in your practice to move yourself forward. And intensity is a beautiful drug. It floods the mover with an undeniable high, a shimmering exclamation of aliveness.
As teachers and coaches, we help our clients push themselves to achieve more intensity in their training so they can achieve more from their training. And they crave it from us. They demand it! If we go easy on them, they are disappointed. Many hold steadfast to the belief that only through gutting out the extremely difficult will their elusive reward emerge, whatever shape it takes.
Because intensity is a drug, addiction is a real threat. I know of many former drug addicts who found solace in the physical path. And many movers are unabashedly addicted to the feeling they get from their physical pursuits. I’ve had potential clients claim this addiction as a primary goal. I once had someone tell me they wanted to feel as though they’d raced a 5K, everyday. I’m still a runner and I get what that’s all about.
Yes, there is plenty of good–even great–to be found by finding and harnessing intensity. But there is no such thing as a good addiction. If you don’t believe this, look up the definition.
And intensity addicts are not just a select group of high-level, world-class movers. Intensity has become a full on, decades-long zeitgeist. Somehow, running and cycling became (ultra?) marathon and Ironman, Yoga became competitive acrobatics, calisthenics became Insanity, martial arts became MMA, cross-training became Crossfit. Where does all of this red-faced, gasket-blowing intensity come from?
Two places. First: our ego and competitive nature (with others and ourselves) drive us. And second: the arbitrary goals we place before ourselves, or are placed by our peer group, reinforces that drive. These two forces, internal and external, can cause us to put our head down and dig into the moment. The problem with putting your head down and digging in all the time is that you become unable to see where you are actually heading. There’s a reason that high-level or extreme movement or athletic paths seldom end with summiting the mountain, bathed in glory. You must always make a long trek back down. That’s when we reflect upon what we’ve really gained. For too many, that reflection is quite a let down.
The physical road is a personal truth path. Nothing tells you who you are, changes who you are, reminds you who you are so deeply as something difficult in which the pursuit is its own end. It’s partly why many of us find such rich reward in anchoring our lives, and helping others do the same, with movement.
I’ve followed intensity deep into rabbit holes and over and over again on my path. Addiction runs in my family; and I know I lean toward it myself.Over the decades, a few things have emerged that keep intensity from clouding my own path forward. Or dragging me along it.With any real wisdom, you don’t actually acquire it. You can only recognize its truth. I must keep learning each of these.
So how do we move all the way up the mountain and still smile knowingly on the way down?
- Know where intensity is even useful. Because it’s not useful everywhere. One anchor in my path is strength training. Even here, there are limited strength patterns in which maximum intensity is of value. For me, max effort is only ever applied with simple pushes and pulls where there is minimal risk (e.g., pushups, pullups, presses, rows). And I cycle my focus exercises while still feeling strong, not after I’ve begun to feel weak, tweaky, or stuck.
- Know where your intensity comes from. Frustration? Disappointment? Dissatisfaction? Anger? Guilt? Jealousy? If negativity is your fuel, your intensity will get away from you. I try to never leave a practice feeling like I still have head crap to work on. A good practice should help you step outside, not into those. (NB: still learning!)
- Breathe behind the effort. Holding your breath almost invariably means you are probably holding too much tension. Even with high tension work on pullup bars or strength movements like squats, I cue exhaling. I coach people to lead every movement, every rep, with their breath. “Control your breath; control your movement.”
- Give yourself and your students/athletes, permission to relax. Some of us just need permission to not achieve intensity enlightenment every time we set foot on the floor, road, or mat.
- All intensity teaches is you is, well…intensity. Intensity overwhelms complexity, always. And if you want to move well for life, you will have to learn how to do it. Another aspect of my path is a power practice (if it’s not in yours, I strongly recommend it). Powerful athletic movements maximize not intensity, but efficiency. That takes movement skill. Think about throwing a pitch, sprinting, jumping, serving a tennis ball, driving a golf ball, or punching and kicking. A low-level mover will shove intensity into a movement and in so doing, ruin it. She may well “feel it”, but the point of power is to release it! A high-level mover will be a vessel. The strength intensity will flow through and out of their body. Watch a video of Ted William swinging a bat. He’s a tai chi master.
- Regular clinical therapy isn’t the price of awesome. Don’t ignore the those little, lasting, nagging injuries. Address them. Use them as reasons to focus on movement, on recovering better, on spending more time living than training. Injuries don’t have to be par for the course (“It’s fine because everyone I know gets hurt!”) or badges of honor. If you take regular trips to the PT, chiropractor, masseuse, or surgeon just to keep up your program, you are on a short one indeed. And you will not be awesome for long. Remember that we only ever see high-caliber athletes at the peak of their ability. Nobody gets to see retired athletes hobble down their post-career.
- Deep fitness is cumulative and incremental. Many people work out session to session, valuing each entirely on how sweaty they get, how sore it makes them feel the next day. Most workouts are built and marketed to these ends. Many athletes live only with their next goal in mind, intensely focused on the task at hand. These are narrow horizons. If you want to find real fitness–deep, life-lasting, life-inspiring fitness– don’t let the little hills obscure the mountain in the distance.
- Train beyond the goal. Instead of seeking a training program that’s intensely focused on scaling up to a short term goal, train knowing that you want to be awesome and continue moving along after the goal is achieved. Think path and process, not program and goal.
Many years ago, at the peak of my quantitative fitness, my amateur athletic accomplishments (I can now hardly remember) left me a wreck. Little injuries had accumulated, and big injuries finally ended what seemed like everything at the time. Now, I’m a symbol of ability for the people in our Strength & Movement tribe. The same way anyone in my position is to their own. I can do many difficult things easily, and people dismiss them because that’s only who they know me to be. But they can’t see my history. Only I know what it feels like to collapse to the ground in agony, or to spend every hour of years in restrictive pain. So it’s critical I help them understand where my abilities come from: consistent effort, not gasket-blowing effort. I practice at low, medium, and high intensity–mostly low and medium! I “workout” less than most people I know. I “work on” more than most people I know (with credit going to one of our coaches, Deanna, for that turn of phrase!).
We track a few numbers in each cycle and I, like many, enjoy seeing my improvements over the weeks. But I never forget that deep fitness grows slowly, steadily. Almost imperceptibly.
With a broad enough horizon, there are only two legitimate types of fitness:
- that which makes your entire life easier and more inspired (especially that which is yet to be lived);
- and that which gives you the ability to help carry others.
In Strength & Movement,
NB: This post was written for Alex Amorosi. Alex is a yoga teacher, colleague, and friend. Learn more about his practice, workshops, teacher training course at http://www.alexamorosiyoga.com/