Understanding the way intensity works is a great way to immediately improve the quality of your training sessions. It can save a lot of frustration when you come in on a day where 70% feels like 90%+.

You don’t have to be lifting the heaviest you possibly can every single day. But you do want to be lifting the best that you can every single day. There’s a difference.

Subjective intensity is when we say:

  • Light
  • Medium
  • Heavy
  • Maximal

Objective intensity is like saying:

  • 3RM, then 1×3 at 80%
  • 3×5 at 80%
  • 12×1 above 70%

I find that using a combination of the two can be really valuable. It also depends on the experience of a lifter. I find that it needs to be made clear to those getting into a lifting program to supplement CrossFit. Intensity needs to be auto-regulated to some extent. If your program calls for Squats at 85% and you did 200 Air Squats and Lunges the day before, there’s a slight chance that 85% just might not be there. You should be pushing for it, but not forcing it.

I’ve also noticed that for some lifters, providing subjective intensity gives them too wide of a range. A lot of us just want to be told what to do.

Being in a high intensity zone is geared more towards strength. Being in a lower intensity zone is geared more towards speed. Here’s the catch, you need both, because the higher the intensity, the speed starts to take a hit. With the lighter weights we can be really fast, but who cares if we can’t transfer that practice to the heavier weights.

The following are for the Snatch, Clean, Jerk, and Squat:

  • Weights below 60% for most people, will not have any significant effect on speed or strength development.
  • 60-75% will reinforce good technique and speed, which is vital especially for the beginning lifter.
  • 80% has the greatest benefits for both strength and speed.
  • 85-100% definitely increases strength but there’s a cost. It has a much greater effect on the nervous system that requires more recovery.
  • There have been studies that have shown 70-80% is the most optimal range for power production.

Let’s also put a definition to the subjective and objective intensity. This table was developed by Greg Everett:

Subjective Objective
Light 60-70%
Light-medium 70-80%
Medium 80-85%
Medium-heavy 85-90%
Heavy 90-95%
Maximal 95-100%

These ranges are useful because if you come in on a day where a majority of the reps are in that light range, it doesn’t mean you’re just taking it easy that day. Your coach might want you to be consciously focused on being lightning fast and fixing technical errors.

We can say do 5 sets of 3 repetitions. “Go by feel”. Your coach has an idea of what they want you to do when they write this.

The reason this is beneficial too is because you know that a beginner or a CrossFit athlete has other variables in play. They might be destroyed from the WODs this week. And you know that as athletes, they are going to try to get the job done. Even if that means trashing movement quality sometimes. Here are some guidelines I’ve found helpful:

  • No misses or allow only a certain number of misses for that session
  • Monitor bar speed. Missing might be due to a technical error. You know you’ll have it if you try again. If bar speed is slowing down and you aren’t able to duplicate the lift, don’t force it.
  • If the attempt looked good, but didn’t feel great, consider staying there.
  • If the attempt looked good. And felt good. Move on up.
  • If the attempt looked horrible. And felt horrible. Please drop the weight before you embarrass yourself.

What I’ve found works best for me, is when there’s a defined amount of reps above a baseline percentage. My coach, Jon Zajac uses this, and it makes me push. But allows me to make good decisions at the same time.

Here are some examples:

  • 15 reps above 60%
  • 12 reps above 70%
  • 10 reps above 75%

What this allows me to do is lift the very best that I can on a given day. Let’s say I had to hit 12 reps above 70% in the Snatch. If things were feeling good and looking good, I can keep climbing up past 90%. Let’s say you accumulated 7 reps and hit a few at 85%. Bar speed is slowing down. You’re missing. Or it just doesn’t feel technically sound. This is where we can drop all the way back down to 70%, and finish our 5 reps. You don’t always have to back down to that baseline percentage. You could knock off 5% and get some reps there, if it feels good.

This is not the only method to follow. And for certain individuals who don’t understand this concept, it might seem too vague. But the same goes for defining strict percentages. If you aren’t aware that you can manipulate the intensities to your advantage, you’re leaving a lot out on the table.

Intensity is alternated along with volume throughout the week, and over multiple weeks to get the most out of the intended training effects. Train hard. But train smart too.

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