The Intensity Trap

Updated: Oct 9, 2018



Intensity is sexy. It’s addictive. High intensity training is sweaty, feel good stuff that makes you forget your problems, and helps you feel invincible. High intensity conjures up ideas of people pushing their limits, and performing heroic feats of strength. It has a great wrap for providing fitness benefits, and fast tracking fitness goals.

High intensity is so alluring, that it’s hard for most people to workout without it. We are so accustomed to aiming high, going hard or going home, that it’s hard to pull back, or to resist the lure of the thumping heart rate. It’s so addictive that many people get caught up in a vicious cycle of high intensity training, just to get a boost in stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, and an opportunity to ride the feel good endorphins. Compared to the daily grind of adult life, the exercise high is a delightful endevour.

Let’s face it, we pretty much always feel great when we sweat it out – we feel more alive!

Low intensity on the other hand is less appealing. To many people it seems like a soft approach, or less desirable route that surely cannot bring about fitness. Most people prefer to skip the 'boring' warm up or cool down, and get straight to the exciting stuff, the intensity! High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is famous for brilliant positive effects on wellness and fitness, but the interval part often gets overlooked (because we only have eyes for intensity.) Most hardcore HIIT programs you see are missing the interval recovery, resulting in a high intensity STEADY state session where heart rate is sustained high. In a fitness industry still dominated by a drill sargent type approach, vomiting from intenisty is often still celebrated, as is being unable to walk the next day. Recovery intervals between intensity bouts are still commonly seen as superfluous.

When you know better, but get lured in anyway

Ever have one of those days where you feel like crap, think about quitting your gym session, only to find you feel great once you begin moving? Perhaps you didn’t sleep, feel a cold coming on, or just haven’t eaten well, and generally feel a bit 'blah'. Or perhaps you are using the Readiness to Train formula, scored low, and know you need to dial the intensity down a notch for best results.

Even though you know you should take it easy, once you start moving you feel better. As the happy hormones kick in, you just can’t help yourself from letting intensity get the better of you. Your heart rate starts climbing, you feel better, and you tell yourself it's all good. But then the next day you wake up a bit flat. Maybe you are stiff or sore, or maybe you are not as mentally sharp as you could be, or perhaps just don’t have the zest for life you wish you did. Not many people correlate an overly intense workout with decreased vitality, pain or fatigue the next day, but the reality is that intense training in sub optimal condition catches up with you.

Heart rates don’t lie

Training without heart rate monitors is like training blind. (Read more here) You cannot judge a book by it’s cover, and likewise you cannot tell what is really going on when you train without a heart rate monitor. It’s so very common for people in our classes to have a sky high heart rate, and tell us they feel fine. It's even more common for ‘mega fit’ people to begin training with us, push as hard as they can, but their heart rate cannot even hit the peak zones!

Too much intensity training decreases your heart rate variability, and means your heart rate is less responsive to the stress that is exercise. This might mean your heart rate goes sky high after 2 repetitions, or it won’t come down after a minute of recovery. It’s common to see that intensity junkies spend the majority of their workout between 70-80% because they loose variability.

Without heart rate monitors it's easy to push on and ignore how you feel. Heart rate monitoring helps us track what is really going on, and avoid the pitfalls of the intensity trap.

Can you even stay low bro?

In classes our biggest challenge is often to help people get their heart rates DOWN, not UP! When we first entered this industry, it was the complete opposite. It used to be all about training as hard as possible. Luckily for us (and our clients) we have learned much about wellness and fitness along the way and know that less is really more.

This is a hard message to share to people, and an even bigger challenge to implement. By measuring our clients readiness to train, we give them permission to honour how their body is feeling, and ideally respond accordingly by monitoring training intensity. But this is often easier said than done. Quietening the ego to reduce intensity, and refusing to succumb to peer pressure of what everyone else is doing is at times challenging.

We have built a culture in our classes where a fast recovery is more prized and impressive, than a super high intensity peak. Most of our members pride themselves on hitting the target HR zone, and being able to drop back into recovery zones fast.

Avoiding the pitfalls of high intensity

  • Find the right intensity dose for you. It’s safe to say that high intensity every day is a big no no. It can take 48 hours for your body to recover from an intense training session, and the effect can challenge your immunity for up to a week. Repeating a high intensity session the next day is a recipe for disaster. Sure professional athletes get away with it, but their life revolves around prime performance and ensuring their body responds desirably. The weekend warrior on the other hand often trains, eats poorly, is stressed, and isn't as geared for optimal performance. It's all about training smarter so as to maximise the effect of your training.

  • Train at all different intensities. Training in all zones of intensity creates a resilient body. Lower intensities complement higher intensities making you even more efficient at both. Take a week to learn to train at low intensity and don’t allow your heart rate to get too high. Try keeping your heart rate sub threshold (lower intensity) for a week. You'll be training different energy systems in your body and building a more robust system that can recover like a pro. It’s fun and challenging to get your heart rate high at say 90% of your max heart rate, by doing say a sandbell slam. But what is more impressive is being able to do a sandbell slam at 60% or even 70% or your heart rate max which shows your body is efficient at a multitude of intensities, and that you have great control and a very responsive body. Build up each intensity or energy system for brilliant results and sustainable health and fitness.


  • Determine your readiness to train pre-workout, and train accordingly. It’s common sense. If there isn’t much gas in the tank to begin with, sucking the tank dry only creates a deficit that detracts from the results you aspire towards.

  • Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing! You are unique and come to the workout with your own set of important variables and conditions. Do what is best for you.

At the end of the day there is no one size fits all approach to intensity, and no magic prescription for the best workout. It's generally best to avoid more than 3 high intensity sessions a week because too much intensity will deplete your wellness and fitness. What works for you will change every single day, so your best bet is to monitor how you feel, track your heart rate and use a common sense approach to your training.

#intensity #HIIT #fitness

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