You just finished your workout and you are sweaty, gasping for air, laying on the floor barely able to get up on your knees and slowly crawl over to a bench to recover your senses, when you hear it from across the room….

“That wasn’t so bad.”

“Are you freaking serious?!?!”, you ask yourself, “That sucked, what’s wrong with that guy?!”.

There’s nothing wrong that guy. He’s just working at a different level of intensity.

But I thought to get any benefit from exercise you had to crush yourself every time.

Sure you can, but you don’t have to. In fact, a good fitness program will have varying levels of intensity in every single workout.

What is Intensity?

There are three things to consider when talking about intensity. (I’ll try and make this part quick, we could fall down a hole and get lost….where is that rabbit?)

Absolute Intensity

This is the work actually being done. If you move 100 pounds, then you just moved 100 pounds. If you ran 1 mile, then you just ran 1 mile. That’s it. The work being completed is the absolute intensity.

Relative Intensity

This is basically the % of the effort required to complete the work based on an individual’s level of fitness. If the most you can move is 200 pounds and you move 100 pounds, then your relative intensity is 50%. If Nancy can move 400 pounds and she moves 100 pounds, then her relative intensity is 25%.

The focus of any fitness program should be to increase your ability in both of these areas.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

This is the one that gets people all messed up and this is where we’re going to focus our discussion. RPE is 100% based on how hard a person feels they are working.

Here’s why RPE can be so confusing and why it’s hard for people to actually workout as hard as they may want to or think they are.

When most people talk about intensity in a workout, they’re talking about RPE. “That workout crushed me!” It’s a subjective observation about how much energy they feel they put into the work. In most cases, it has nothing to do with how much work they actually did. (See: The Work Blog) This is the same as when someone says, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad.”.

These two points of view can and often do exist at the same time.

They’re all related

When you first start a new fitness routine everything seems hard. You aren’t worried about how much weight you’re using or how fast you do the work. You’re just worried about getting through the workout. You want to perform the movements safely and correctly and that’s where your focus is (and should be).

Your Absolute and Relative Intensities are low. Your RPE is high. Everything seems hard.

After a while, you get more comfortable with the movements and you sense that you can go faster or use a heavier weight. Your Absolute and Relative Intensities are increasing. As these increase, your RPE is decreasing. The work “feels” easier even though you may be doing more work.

The key is to find a way to increase your RPE again. This is the glue that ties the effort you put into a workout and the improvement of your overall fitness together.

Here’s the kicker

How do you know when this happens and what to do about it? Obviously, if the work feels easier then you should make it harder right? Isn’t that what getting better is all about?

The amount of work you can do as you get more in shape should increase. How hard it feels to do that work should stay the same.

This is what trips people up. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a relatively new person tell me that the workouts aren’t challenging anymore. “I’m getting bored, the workouts aren’t hard enough.”

My response…. “Then make it harder.”

What’s written on the whiteboard does not determine how hard you work or the effort you put into it. If you feel like the workouts are easy, it’s because you’re getting better! Now go make it hard again!

Missing the point

If your fitness program is working, you will and should, reach a period where things seem easier than they did before. You will know this by how you feel. If you are tracking your performance, you’ll know it by looking at the evidence in the numbers.

If you aren’t tracking your performance then it’s going to be very hard to know when it’s time to increase your RPE through additional Relative Intensity in your workouts.

You won’t know how fast you did this workout last time so you can try and go faster this time. You won’t know what weight you used last time so you can use a heavier weight this time.

Anyone who is not tracking their performance is not serious about improving their health. They can’t be, it’s the most important part of the process.

Getting better in three easy steps

There are 3 things that affect or create an intensity that you can use to improve your fitness and get a more intense feeling out of your workouts.

Technique – Focus on getting better at executing a movement. The better you perform a movement, the more you’ll get out of it.

Weight – Lifting or moving more weight than you did before is a hallmark for improving your fitness. How can you expect gains if you always pick up the same dumbbell?

Time – The speed at which you move is a sure fire way to get more intensity into your workouts. How much more speed? Only your past performance can tell you that.

Past performance is the map that will guide you to improved health and fitness.

Just the beginning

Here’s the really cool part of the whole process.

Intensity works two ways!

Because fitness is a personal journey, each person has different needs. While one person may be looking for more intensity, another may need less.

Someone new to fitness needs less intensity as their body and central nervous system grows into the new routine. A person who just had back surgery needs a level of intensity that their newly repaired body can handle without breaking again.

Whatever fitness program you choose, make sure it has coaching and flexibility to allow for whatever level of intensity YOU need. There is no “one size fits all” in fitness. Your story and goals are different. Your training should be too.


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