Intensity vs Effort

From time to time, we here at TTMJ receive tongue-in-check questions, while most are easy to dismiss, sometimes they are thought provoking.

I received one recently, asking if I thought constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity was a solid programming philosophy.

Yes, without a doubt.

When you hear the phrase spoken, visions of athletes huddled together in a garage or dingy warehouse doing pull ups comes to mind. This phrase comes directly from the CrossFit playbook, as CrossFit teaches functional movements and increased work capacity over unknown times and unknown circumstances.

But lets take a step back and examine this.

To me, the term “constantly varied” refers to a conjugated method of training. Zatorsky states, “If an athlete trains a certain lift above 90% for more than 3 weeks they will experience a negative training effect.” To combat these effects, Louie Simmons uses the conjugated method outlined by Zatorsky in Science and Practice of Strength Training, where a lifter will change the training stimulus of key movements every 1-3 weeks to avoid accommodation. Thus allowing the athlete to train with constant near max intensity week in and week out. By changing the movements or bar a lifter can continue to get stronger over a long period of time.

Westside lifters will rotate max effort, or 1 RM, movements every week. Rotating between various squats and presses with various bars to various box heights and boards. They pull sumo and conventional deadlifts and do countless types of good mornings. On their speed days they will change the accommodating resistance, bars and box heights. This is all done to avoid accommodation by the body.

Olympic lifters will use the same method by varying their cleans, snatches and pulls from the floor, below the knees, the high hang at various percentages and rep maxes. They will perform partial lifts from boxes of every height; do full lifts, power and partial versions. They will use many types of squats and step-ups to avoid accommodation.

In contrast, much of the training we see in functional fitness is a concurrent method of training, where all the abilities are developed in a given time period. A system where strength and endurance are trained simultaneously.

I hate the term “functional movement,” it reminds me someone talking to a farmer at the turn of the century about organic foods. The only term more abused via cyber training gurus is the term “core.”

What is a “functional movement?”

For most, a functional movement boils down to anything not machine based. However, I find exceptions to this rule everywhere.

Is the WSB Reverse Hyper Machine a “functional movement?”

Is the Versa Climber or C2 Rower a “functional movement?”

Yes. The only people that would say no have probably never used a Reverse Hyper and surely have never suffered the effects of a Versa Climber or a C2.

And lastly, “performed at high intensity”. When 99% of the population hears the word intensity they think of an NFL football player lining up on the goal line or a girl grunting during a backhand on match point at Wimbledon. In functional fitness community, intensity is related to the speed and effort in which the workout is performed. This helps to support the CF definition of fitness, “Increased work capacity of broad time and modal domains.”

In contrast, when I hear the term intensity, I think of heavy weights, and more specifically, rep maxes. A repetition maximum or RM, is the most weight you can lift for a defined number of exercise movements. A 1 RM, for example, is the heaviest weight you can lift for a single maximum effort. A 5 RM would be the heaviest weight that can be lifted for 5 reps.

A 10 RM would be the heaviest weight you could lift for 10 consecutive exercise repetitions. And if after the set you could do another rep max matching the weight and reps, then it was not a rep max. A rep max is one set and done.

Zatorksky describes high intensity as being any lift over 90% of your 1 RM. If you head to the gym to perform a 2 RM at 95+% of your 1 RM back squat you are training a functional movement at high intensity. If you come back next week and perform a 1 RM at 97.5-105% of your single rep max in the front squat, you are performing a constantly varied functional movement done at high intensity.

Lu Xiaojun
In contrast, if you are head the gym and load up 35% of your 1 RM snatch and perform 100 reps as fast as possible no matter how fast you go, this is not training with high intensity. This is just doing a ton of low intensity volume as fast as you can. The attempt to decrease time domains with high speed, low intensity, high volume training to failure lives in the land of muscular endurance. Strength and power reside on the other side of the spectrum with speed, heavy weights and low volume.

Don’t confuse high effort with high intensity.


Posted in Lifting Weights, Talk to Me Johnnie, Training | Tagged , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

24 Responses to Intensity vs Effort

  1. Jeff

    Hi John, I’m a frequent reader and have been a fan for a while. While I am not a specialist arguing for aerobic athletes, I do have a question. Do you think that operating at above 90% of your endurance capability is not intensity? I.E, if you run a max-effort 5k with above 90% of your capacity, you would probably not be able to repeat that max effort 5k time. Is it not just varying the intensity from your anaerobic to your aerobic capacities?

    Is it wrong then, to consider something with sub-maximal weights as high intensity based on aerobic ability? Especially with so much emphasis in CrossFit being based upon the idea that high power = intensity?

    I like the discussion topic!

  2. I should have prefixed this with the following, as I thought it was obvious what I was trying to say….

    In exercise science you can discuss intensity as a % RM, a % aerobic threshold or a % anaerobic threshold. You can define intensity with any of these metabolic engines, but i’m going to largely focus on the power/strength end of the spectrum. Mainly, because I lift weights and like to sprint and really don’t care about endurance training and the question was sent me.

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  4. Wouldnt you agree though that CrossFit intensity is more of the strength endurance type? If you look at the WODs coming down from CFHQ then youll find efforts above 90% of 1RM not more often than once every say 2-3 weeks, no?

  5. cgpilot

    Glad you mentioned the Versa-It is an asskicker!!!!

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  7. Travis

    John, I just purchased the book of westside methods. I can not wait till it gets here. But I agree with you here, intensity is about hanging around your maximal efforts and you have to change it up otherwise you burn out, fast. I have to thank you for the programming here, it has really made me realize you are better off having someone else tell you what to do, otherwise overtraining is inevitable because you will eventually gravitate towards things you like to do. I have been lifting weights and competing in strength athletics for 17 years. Before I started following this website exclusively last fall, I knew I was overtraining because I didn’t even want to go to my garage to pick up heavy stuff, and once I realized the desire wasn’t there, I knew I had a problem. I took 2 weeks off, turned to CFFB and never looked back. I think it is important for even the guy who is talented and strong and thinks he knows everything to let someone else guide you to your goals.

  8. freddy c._one world


    Funny, I log onto the .com site almost everyday, but rarely pay attention to what the programmed workout is. I can’t think of a time recently where the .com program used “90% of your 1 RM” as the prescribed weight in a workout. I followed that programming for a few years and never saw language like that.


  9. Nate


    If you are running at 90% of your endurance threshold, then you aren’t running with intensity. intensity would be running within >= 90% of your bodies capabilities i.e Sprinting.

    If you could sprint a 5k that would be fucking amazing. But if you sprint at 90% of the intensity you run a 5k then you would be a slow SOB.

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  11. Scott Robison


    I love the blog and your thoughts, but for once I disagree with your premise here. While you’re correct in stating that 35% of your 1 RM in a lift is low intensity, that comparison only holds up if you’re comparing similar duration efforts. For example, during AJ Roberts’ world record total, he took about 7 seconds to make each squat. Let’s assume his 1140 was his true 1 RM; I doubt you could find a way for him to have a higher average power output over 7 seconds.

    But what happens if you look at his ability to generate power over 5 min? Even if you stick with the squat, there’s no way he can get a high average power output by squatting >=1026 lbs (>= 90%) for 5 min, he’d have to stop and rest too often. However, if he uses 400 lbs (35% of 1140 lbs), he has a much better chance of repping out for the full 5 min, and thus a much higher average power output and intensity for that time domain.

    I guess it just seems like to compare intensity of effort, you also should consider the time required to complete it, not just how difficult a single movement is in that effort.

  12. Tim


    You’re wrong on the running percentage point. Check out As far as perceived exertion and heartrate go, you’re definitely operating above 90% for a 5k, especially when talking about exceptionally fit athletes. Do you think a guy runs a 2:03 marathon at 70%?

  13. Nate


    So heart rate dictates intensity? or does heart rate show aerobic exertion?

    I think that my 70% of an all out sprint will be faster and more powerful than a marathon runner operating at 70% of their aerobic capacity or max heart rate ( whatever that is, would 100% be heart failure?)

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  15. Well said, Johnnie. Any video footage of you tearing shit up at WSB when you spent time there?

    Sadly, no. I am just a spec of dust in the great chalk bucket that is WSB.


  16. Ehayes

    I completely disagree with endurance efforts being intense. I think a fast 5k or marathon is absolutely sub intense. Im not saying it isn’t hard, it’s just not intense the way the word is being used here. I used to run marathons and my training sessions were brutal, but I lost my ability to deliver a potential max effort. I found, if you train your body for endurance, meaning 1 mile run vs 40 yd sprint, your power potential is lost. You train your body in a way that it doesn’t know how to run a 40 yd sprint up to it’s full physiologic potential. I have been trying to transition back to intense (max lifts) and sprints and it is extremely uncomfortable and I know that my “potential” is still years ahead of me. My body still tells me that I need to save some gas in the tank. To me intensity is max power effort and that has to be trained, practice and adapted to. It takes time to release full potential intensity. Anyone can go out and train hard, but that does mean they know how to train with intensity. This is just my experience with trying to deliver intensity on the barbell, box jump or sprint.

    Erik ~ you are my people.


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  18. That’s not what wikipedia said….

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  21. Great article but I do think it slightly discounts the value of muscle endurance training and more importantly proves that point that something can be completely wrong until it is right. Using your example, 100 Snatches 35% 1RM for time is certainly dumb at best and dangerous at worst on its face but if we use that “constantly varied” attitude on the tool we can end up with a damn fine lactic tester. Using a 24kg or 32kg Kettlebell we are probably below that 35% load mark but by doing 100 reps for time we will hit that magic 90% or above mark on the lactic threshold.
    That’s the problem with workouts – 100 snatches for time is NEVER a good idea unless of course it is. And that’s true of just about any other workout which is why good coaching and good programming is key. Even something as dumb as 100 snatches for time with the appropriate tool and athlete with the appropriate skill set can be a great selection.
    No matter how you do it 100 Snatches for time isn’t going to improve power and/or strength. But it is “constantly varied” and it is performed with “high intensity” and it will train an energy system which would benefit many if not most athletes.

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  24. THAT’S what I have been talking about! Thank God! I though I am crazy or something for telling people that INTENSITY is different from INTENSITY OF EFFORT (AKA HIT)

    IMO (will also be discussing this in a future article)

    While it’s true that introducing HIT techniques such as rest pause, drop sets, inflitonics, pre exhaust, supersets, omni contractions, etc will make your training sessions feel more “intense” and productive; technically when it comes to resistance training the word INTENSITY and emphasis on intensity refers to how close you can come to 100% of your 1RM on any given lift and the goal of gradual increments of “intensity” is to train you to be able to lift more poundage after a given period of time.

    Intensity of Effort refers to the potential to induce “Damage” to the muscle cells (micro tears)

    Intensity of effort on the other hand is progressing by means of gradually adding a variety of HIT moves to induce more Time under Tension and fight through muscle failure with the goal of inducing more muscle micro tears. Micro tears are the microscopic damage that you do to your small muscle fibres in a cellular level – which the body would repair and once the body is able to fully compensate and “repair” these damages hypertrophy results. In layman’s terms inducing micro tears is like digging a hole in the ground so that the body can fill it up and put more soil atop.

    This is how aesthetic lifters are able to grow bigger and bigger muscles after a period of training intelligently and living a lifestyle that allows their body to recover adequately.

    We can therefore see that Intensity of Effort emphasis is used mainly for aesthetic development (muscle growth)

    While Intensity emphasis on training is mainly used for developing raw strength and/or explosiveness

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