This article is about the role intensity plays in training. Prompted by a conversation I had with a few other coaches during an interview hosted by Power Athlete Radio, it is an example of how merging opinions have the potential to improve the clarity of one’s own ideas. Having never discussed the subject of training with these coaches before, I did my best to bridge my own knowledge with theirs as we discussed things. The conversation was recorded and is available here (link), if you would like to listen.
Much of the conversation centered on The Map of Athletic Performance, which is a visual aid depicting basic training principles I introduced in a Starting Strength article 3 years ago. Resembling a bulls eye target of four ever widening circles, the graphic represents Genetic Potential, Rate of Adaptation, ATP Metabolism, Training Carryover and a Neuromuscular distinction between Non-Repeating and Repeating Motor Pathway Sports. These are all important principles to understand if you want results from your training not just this season, but for years to come.
The Map is designed to recognize an athlete’s performance over the course of time. Encircling the Map’s circumference are many different sports deliberately listed to convey metabolic and neurological demands specific to that sport. The result of improved performance in a particular sport is the plotted trajectory (or radius) beginning somewhere within the Beginner’s circle at the center of the Map and moves outwards in the direction of that sport. Unlike an archery target where the goal is to hit the center, The Map shows an athlete’s goal is to “push” that primary trajectory outward in the direction of the Map’s perimeter.
In the original article (link to article), I wrote about additional trajectories (radii) that help gain ground along the primary trajectory called crosstraining (or General Physical Preparedness programs). By describing, at some length, the aforementioned training principles that are embedded within the Map’s graphic, I make a case for prioritizing strength training as a productive use of one’s finite physiological resources to assist the athlete in increasing their performance. That’s the big picture. Now, let’s move in closer and see what constitutes an actual additional training radius before addressing some issues that need clarifying in regards to intensity.
The program I use is the Starting Strength Model; I also teach it to others, including beginner to advanced rock climbers. Not only do they learn the skills (to be used for a lifetime) of moving the loaded barbell through space in the Squat, Press, Deadlift and Bench Press, they learn the underlying premise of “progressively loading human movement to force the adaptations necessary for increased strength”. This way, they can implement the model successfully to other climbing related movements including weighted hangs, weighted pull ups, counter-weighted one-arm pull ups and 90* lock offs. Additional exercises of importance to climbers are the campus board (in place of the power clean used by other athletes) and the front lever.
Everything listed above is a Repeating Motor Pathway intended for training purposes and are mostly done in sets of 5 reps. Let’s take the standing barbell press as an example. Climbers love the idea of antagonistic training, but in large part do so ineffectually (most of the time). Common rep schemes of 10 to 20 reps are recommended at ridiculously lite weights… so as not to “get too big”. What’s ludicrous is that the rep scheme is comparable to what a bodybuilder would use (a bodybuilder is concerned about getting bigger, not stronger), so that pretty much flies in the face of practical reasoning. Then adding insult to injury, pressing 10# to 20# over one’s head cannot effectively buffer the antagonistic “pushing” muscles against the aggressively developed “pulling” muscles of the climber. It makes no sense, yet this is too often the conventional wisdom regularly practiced and regurgitated from one climber to another.
So getting back to the practical wisdom of pressing a heavy barbell over your head for a set of five reps, it goes something like this: Not only do your shoulders become much, much more stable from regularly pressing the barbell over your head but your body…especially the abdomen… becomes much stronger too. (Yes, that’s what I said, “stronger abs from pressing the barbell over your head. It’s like a dream come true, isn’t it?). You’ve never pressed before (let’s say) so you have do so without excessive arching in the lower back when the bar is “locked out” over your head. It must be in a plumb and vertical line directly over the arch of your foot at the “lock out” position with the traps engaged, actively pushing the barbell high as possible.
It’s actually this very ability…. to hold a straight bar over one’s head without arching the lower back in the correct “lock out” position that should be recognized as the gold standard for universal shoulder flexibility. But it’s not. (Sadly, many trainees have lost valuable training time chasing an arbitrary standard in the overhead squat. What’s true is that a significant percentage of the population was simply not born with the ability to ever effectively train the overhead squat. But anyway.)
Assume the beginner has sufficient shoulder flexibility and has learned to safely press the barbell overhead. They started out by finding a weight that was moderately challenging to press 5x and they repeated that same weight for 2 more sets during their first workout. As a climber who climbs outdoors on weekends, this kind of trainee will press 2x per week, adding just a little bit of weight to each previous workout, and perform 3 sets of 5 reps across. “Across” means that the same weight is used for each working set. “Working sets” are the work that drives adaptation.
In a very short period of time, within 3 or 4 weeks, this trainee will be wondering if they’re going to successfully compete the workout or not. When they complete the 5th rep on any given working set, there would not be any 6th rep, if they were to try. In very short order, when training in this model, one is putting out a max effort. This is one of the many reasons the Starting Strength Model is so successful; it is a very high intensity training method.
Let’s get back to the conversation about intensity in regard to the Map of Athletic Performance with John Welbourn and his staff at Power Athlete. I had defined intensity as an in-the-moment effort. Defined in this way, this would also be the metric for determining a sports placement around the circumference of the Map. The greater the intensity an athlete expresses “in-the-moment” during performance, the further North (or to the top of the Map) the sport would be placed. The sprinter is very far North while the 10k runner, much further towards the South (or bottom half of the Map). Another stipulation the Map makes is a neurological distinction between Non-Repeating Motor Pathway (NRP) sports and Repeating Motor Pathway (RP) sports.
Essentially, as an athlete, do you know exactly what you need to do to perform that day (RP sports) or is it unknown what you will need to do to perform that day (NRP sports)? For example, powerlifters know precisely what they need to do to Squat-Deadlift-Bench Press that day, they just don’t know if they’ll make their numbers or not until they do or they don’t. In contrast, fighters going into the ring may have a general game plan, but they have no idea how it will actually unfold and what it will take to meet the unknown movements of an opponent.
One of the things John, Dennis and Luke liked about the Map was the training distinction I put forward with regard to training for Non-Repeating Motor Pathway (NRP) sports. It should be (whenever possible) at an intensity that challenges 100% of your current skills and capacity. As a former professional football player, with background as a sprinter, John’s contention is that sprinting is best done at 100% intensity as well, even though it is an RP sport. After all, how can it be a sprint without going all out? It’s part of the definition of Sprint. Without “practicing” that maximum recruitment, you’ll never “learn” how to recruit all you’ve got. I would go on to say that a slight performance increase would be an indication that you have more to work with if you are constantly performing your performance workload at 100% effort. Simple arithmetic.
We were able to talk a little bit about how some athletes have “it”- ‘It’ being the ability to go all out, recruiting maximum effort. What we didn’t get to discuss further was the idea of intensity as “max effort” in regard to training RP & NRP sports. It occurred to me during the conversation that the deadlift analogy I offered was of some one exerting “maximum effort at 5 reps”. The example was of someone working towards the goal of a single 405# deadlift but only had a single deadlift of 365#. What they would do is train weekly sets of 5 reps at 335# or 340# (along with the other basic barbell movements), adding 5# per week. and this was the surest way to their goal. But interviews go the way they go and we were on to the next topic of conversation before we vetted the intensity issue.
Ultimately, I was grateful because it got me thinking of the same old thing in a slightly different way. Training, to be successful, has to have max effort at the heart of the program on a regular basis. How regular depends on whether you’re a novice, intermediate or advanced trainee. Though training programs (as I have roughly outlined the content for climbers) consists entirely of RP movements, the intensity at which they are performed HAS to be done at an intensity that requires maximum effort as well. Programs, like Starting Strength, have this built into their methodology. That’s why it’s part of the program: even for climbers.
To sum it up, it seems that over the years coaches like John, Luke, Dennis and myself have recognized a lot of athletes who train excessively in a manner that is unproductive. For me, the concept of the Map came about from not only interfacing with climbers who sincerely wanted answers to their question “How do I get better?” but also from being immersed in the confounding randomness of the CrossFit community that, eventually, I calmly had to walk away from. The interview brought a new light to how I think about the Map. The degree of intensity is a critical factor in getting the results you’re after and I invite you to consider what is being shared here, but also in the conversation on Power Athlete Radio. Personally, my goal is to inform, inspire and encourage progress and improvement for my clients as well as in my own athletic goals. With so much left unsaid, I’ll leave you with the following written overview of the Map in 3D (I’m going climbing!).
Performance is the sum of one’s skills and their capacity. This is a trajectory aimed at the circumference of the Map aligned to the sport you play. Intensity plays an essential role in this process. At the Beginning stages of development, the practice and performance of the sport is a gross acquisition of the general movement patterns (skills) specific to that sport. Through this practice and performance stage, one’s general capacity also increases. The intensity at which you practice and perform your sport becomes much more integral to the process.
Intensity is what stakes your claim on the genetic potential you activate on the Map.
The initial performance trajectory is by nature, broad; meaning that it activates potential in multiple directions. An example is that even though a beginning rock climber is improving at rock climbing there are also simultaneous skills and capacities developing for other activities without ever doing those other activities (i.e. ice climbing, long route climbing, American Ninja Warrior, etc…). With this in mind, the true sense of the word “trajectory”, as it relates to one’s performance on the Map does not take shape until pushing past the intermediate threshold. The image is that of an arrowhead… broad at the base and coming to a point at the tip. This tip of the arrowhead becomes narrower and narrower for the rare few who actually do push well into the advanced stages of development in their sport. (Note: this imagery can be imagined in 3 dimensions, not just the 2 dimensions of a flat graphic).
The same way that the primary trajectory can be seen as (and actually is) a shape rather than a line, so is the “Secondary Trajectory”. Similar to the beginning stages of the primary trajectory, where there are general improvements in multiple directions on the Map, the beginning stages of the secondary training trajectory has the same qualities of improvement in multiple directions too. It’s these “general improvements” that lend assistance to the primary trajectory; not as more skills, but simply as more capacity with which to express those skills. The shape on the Map formed by the secondary training stimulus lends volume to the athlete being Mapped, much in the same way that a wider foundation of a pyramid allows for a taller structure.