Controlled Intensity (How normal people should train)

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

I think it is time to address the High Intensity issue. The term high intensity gets thrown around a lot in the fitness industry these days. If there is a coach yelling, some peppy music, and some level of discomfort, it is high intensity right? Sorry, no.

What is true high intensity?

Well that would be something lactic. Something that might make you puke or leave you unable to move for fifteen minutes after completion. Some piece of work that draws on so much of the bodies resources that you get a fear response when you have to do it again. For those who know true high intensity, you might feel like facing down a high intensity piece gives you the same reaction as bungee jumping, or entering a fight, because you know how hard it is going to hit you and how truly painful it is going to be.

What is interesting is that a lot of people do not have the strength (literally) or power to go high intensity, or the balls/ovaries. The majority of people do not have the physical strength to move themselves fast enough, move an external weight that is heavy enough+/fast enough, to go lactic. The easiest example of this is a fitness beginner performing a 500m row on a rower. They will get off, huff and puff a bit, and say it was hard, then ask what is next. If you give a 500m row to a person with adequate strength to go lactic, the result is much different. This person will not be able to maintain posture after, experience significant physical pain, and may puke or run to the bathroom or have to lay down after for 5-20 minutes. Watch the video below to see an athlete that has the strength and power to row a sub 1:14 500m row, and notice his posture upon completion, and where he is headed before the video ends (the floor). @dannynichols

True high intensity is nasty for the body. Unless you are competing soon, this type of training/intensity should be reserved for tests, competition prep and competitions. It is especially not appropriate in learning environments.

Remember: Seneca Strength is about mastery, life-long fitness, and The Way of Fitness. If you want to win the Crossfit Games, follow an online competitor blog and buy a weight-belt...

Even if you are not quite yet powerful enough to actually go lactic/high intensity, is even having the intent of high intensity beneficial? I'd say not.

If you are new to movements (less than 3 years of consistent exposure) high intensity is the last thing you need. If you have a kid, and she finally gets the training wheels off her bike, is your next move to find the steepest hill in the neighbourhood so she can learn how to ride (a new skill) in a "high intensity" environment. I hope not. Furthermore, if you bring a bunch of her friends along so that she can suffer with friends, does that make it any better? I'd say no.

Honestly, why would you try to perform something fast that you can't even perform well?

But, you still want a "good workout", enjoy group classes, increase fitness, or your coach programmed in a met-con, what should you do?

You can/should use controlled intensity instead of high intensity.

Let's differentiate the two.

High Intensity (as an intent): Trying to perform as much work as possible in a short a time as possible with as high of an output as possible. True high intensity is not sustainable (how long can you sprint at full speed?). In a met-con setting this often results in going really hard for short bursts and then staring at the ground/recovering (poor pacing). This should be used when trying to "win" (if the piece is short enough you can maintain that pace for its duration), or prepare for a competition that will include high intensity. If you are a high-level competitive athlete, then this should be a part of your training if your sport requires high intensity. If you are not a competitive athlete, then this is not the best way to approach your training.

*High Intensity can also be used to avoid addressing poor movement quality, as well as technique & mobility issues.

Below is a video of a TEST, which tests ones ability to go high intensity and maintain it. This test is also performed infrequently, and is not to be confused with training. Notice the pain, and the reaction at the end.

Controlled Intensity (as an intent): Trying to perform the given work as well as possible in a short a time as possible in a steady state. This means that your heart-rate is going to rise, you will sweat, become uncomfortable, and breathe heavy, but you are moving consistently and moving well. This is what the bulk of your training should look like. It is an uncomfortable but sustainable pace. It is 80% output. It is what the general population (everyone except professional athletes and regional qualifiers or those who are close) should focus on in training.

Now, I find using language to describe these different outputs quite difficult. So I also performed a small met-con last night with controlled intensity so that I had a visual representation to share.

The metcon was rather simple-

3 Rounds for time:

15 Pushups

10 Russian Kb Swings @ 24kg

15 Cals Assault Bike

10 Golbet Squats @ 24kg

Was this blazing fast? No. Can other perform this faster than me? Yes.

But, does that really matter?

Did my heart-rate increase? Yes. Did I become uncomfortable? Yes. Did I get a good workout in that I will be able to recover from? Yes. Was I moving at a speed where I could consider my breathing and my technique? Yes.

I think the workout took me just over 7:30. It doesn't matter what I used to be able to do, want to be able to do, or what anyone else is able to do. This was what I was able to do today using appropriate/sustainable pacing. Furthermore if my pace was increased, I would have had to take a break and/or my movement quality would have suffered. I also would have likely been relying on momentum more (bouncing out of the squat or pushup) which means I'd arguably be giving my muscles less of a stimulus.

So when it comes to high intensity, consider two things.

Is it actually high intensity?

Is high intensity appropriate or just flashy?

If you liked this post, then Seneca Strength will likely continue speaking to you. If you didn't like this post, do not despair, there are countless high intensity pedlars out there for you ;)


Myles Jeffers

Seneca Strength


Contact: Coach @