Understanding CrossFit and the Intensity Prescription

While I can hardly improve upon Greg Glassman's brilliant description of the CrossFit methodology (Foundations, here), I nonetheless hope to obliterate a misconception that has sprouted around the practice, one that I would sooner see die.

This misconception (and the resulting attack) does not come from a lack of clarity on Greg's part.  Rather, it comes from a lack of understanding on the part of the critic as well as the unstudied adherent; the inability to see grey in a world that craves black and white.

The CrossFit methodology is exceedingly descriptive yet concise, its depths masked by the economy of its founder's words.  Greg assumed his audience would bring the dual weapons of common sense and real-world experience to the table, able to interpret and apply general rules through deduction and inference.  He treats his reader like an intelligent adult.  Sadly, his teachings and the correspondingly powerful rules they contain were often heard in partial form, the caveats ignored in favor of the bold soundbite, the intelligence and corresponding actions of the listener falling short of Greg's stipulation.

Case in point, the primary directive of CrossFit training: train with intensity.  "Intensity" is heard (an easy to understand beacon), its warnings ignored.

The case for the rule is simple, based on Greg's observation that the rate of favorable bodily change, in terms of both performance and aesthetics, is maximized when an individual trainee does as much work as possible within any given timeframe, i.e. trains with intensity.

Intensity is the independent variable most commonly associated with maximizing the rate of return of favorable adaptation.
— Greg Glassman

While critics (and sleepy L1 attendees) often latch on to this quote as "proof" that CrossFit advocates speed without care for the near-term safety of the trainee, they simultaneously ignore the qualifiers, the first of which is delivered in the first hour of every L1 Seminar: 

Intensity must be pursued relative to the physical and psychological tolerance of the individual.
— "What is CrossFit" L1 Lecture

This means that high levels of perceived intensity occur at different work/time loads, depending on the condition of the trainee.  The recently sedentary experience high levels of perceived intensity doing relatively little work per unit time, while the highly conditioned experience low levels of intensity at the same load.  Therefore, it becomes the responsibility of the trainer to monitor and control for perceived intensity based on the condition of the trainee, ramping it up or down depending on the individual's mental and physical abilities.

Obviously, the prescription itself is not to blame when its limits are exceeded, any more than a car should be blamed for the leaden right foot of its driver.  Rather, the responsibility for appropriate intensity lies with the trainer and trainee, the former responsible for educating the latter until such time as the pursuit of intensity becomes an instinctual practice, speed tempered by intelligence.

A second caveat, also within the "What is CrossFit?" lecture, further highlights the mandate of individual responsibility.  This three-part rule, meant to map out the path to intensity, is often ignored entirely, as if it were not hammered upon with all the gravity of a parachute demonstration.

The path to intensity: MCI. Mechanics, Consistency, then (and only then) Intensity.
— "What is CrossFit?" L1 Lecture

CrossFit advocates, explicitly, proper mechanics and consistency in the execution of those mechanics prior to scaling the heights of intensity.  This is coupled with the missive that the duration of the path from mechanics to intensity is highly individualized, a "low trajectory to a distant horizon", dependent on the athletic history and natural abilities of the trainee.

Like a loaded gun, a race car, and a scalpel, the intensity prescription comes with ample warnings.  Its potential for abuse at the hands of the selectively ignorant is not due to a lack of prudence on the part of its purveyor.

Indeed, intensity is the holy grail of training: efficacious, efficient and necessary.  Its elevation to a position of importance may be Greg Glassman's single greatest contribution to the training zeitgeist.  Still, it is only truly understood if coupled with the attendant caveats: the tenets of relative intensity and the prescription of mechanics, consistency, and then intensity.

Intensity is a powerful tool, meant to be handled carefully, applied only at a strength which can be borne by limits of the individual.  CrossFit and its progenitor have never advocated otherwise, and critics would be wise to understand that fact.

Jon Gilson is the founder of Again Faster Equipment and the AF Project.