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Intensity is a badge of honor in the sports and fitness community — we all have goals to run faster, get stronger, amp up a specific body part, etc. And its’ for good reason, as doing your workouts with intensity is one of the quickest ways to achieve the results you crave. Gone are the days where people show up at the gym and mosey around from machine to machine — nowadays, people are combining functional movements (such as balancing on Bosu ball while doing squats) and focusing more on HIIT-style workouts. There’s a dangerous mentality prevalent in many gyms that you should try to keep pace with, or even one-up, the person next to you. While a healthy dose of competition is good, too much intensity can actually backfire.
Not surprisingly, working out with increased intensity directly correlates to a higher risk of injury. Specifically, going heavier or faster often leads to a degradation of safe and efficient technique — and when form is no longer top-of-mind because you’re busy pushing yourself beyond your limits, your body will suffer the consequences.
So how do you straddle the line between using enough intensity to make progress while exercising enough caution to avoid injury? Here are some basic rules of appropriate intensity:
- Begin with a strong foundation of good movement. Once could argue that without proper form in the gym, nothing else really matters. It’s essential to spend as much time as necessary learning how to perform each exercise perfectly. Then, once you have the technique down, then you can layer in the complexity of intensity. To start, spend time in the bottom of the air squat, for example, with a PVC pipe or training bar guiding you into proper position. Believe it or not, this is very challenging for any athlete neurologically. Practice develops flexibility, timing and awareness of where you are in space. Make each rep perfect — anything worth doing well is worth doing right.
- Make sure you can repeat solid movement without coaching. Doing things right once is great, but it’s far too easy to slip back into sloppy old habits. Watch yourself with an eagle eye in the mirror or have a workout buddy/trainer who knows how to spot the proper mechanics of each movement watch your form until those new movements become second nature. Eventually, the muscle memory will take over and you’ll move with proper technique every time.
- Slowly add load or speed until form begins to degrade. Once you have put the work in to truly learn proper form, then you can safely begin to increase intensity by adding load or speed to your routine. When your beautiful squat snatch morphs into a rounded back muscle power snatch press out, then you know you’ve reached your limit for now — drop the load or decrease the cycling speed and come back to planet earth. Learn to recognize the exact point where that breakdown happens, so you don’t continue to push past that barrier. Over time, that breakdown point should happen later and later, and you can continue to test limits and increase intensity to match.
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