My friends, I want to introduce you to J. Forrest Conway, known to his friends as "Josh", the Founder and Head Coach at Gymnasium in West Newton MA. Josh is my trainer, colleague, and friend who has developed a style of personal training that I believe to be on the cutting edge of fitness training and thought in this country. He has a deep knowledge of and respect for the body, the body's mechanics, and how to create work out plans that are highly effective and at the same time sane and balanced. I specifically asked Josh to write this blog as we think very much alike about the idea of intensity in fitness and why a balanced approach makes most sense for our bodies and minds. Please enjoy!
Intensity: The False God of Fitness
By J. Forrest Conway, Founder and Head Coach Gymnasium
Intensity is both useful and necessary if you want to actually move your fitness needles. Whether for building inner or outer strength, power, stamina/endurance, or flexibility, you will need to apply some form of intensity in your practice to move yourself forward. And intensity is a beautiful drug. It floods the mover with an undeniable high, a shimmering exclamation of aliveness.
As a teacher and coach, I help our clients push themselves to achieve more intensity in their training so they can achieve more from their training. And they crave it from us. They demand it! If we go easy on them, they are disappointed. But many hold steadfast to the belief that only through gutting out the extremely difficult will their elusive reward emerge, whatever shape it takes.
Because intensity acts like a drug, addiction is a real threat. I know of many former drug addicts who found solace in the physical path. And many movers are unabashedly addicted to the feeling they get from their physical pursuits. I've had potential clients claim this addiction as a primary goal. I once had someone tell me they wanted to feel as though they'd raced a 5K, everyday.
Yes, there is plenty of good–even great–to be found by finding and harnessing intensity. But there is no such thing as a good addiction. If you don't believe this, look up the definition.
And intensity addicts are not just a select group of high-level, world-class movers. Intensity has become a full on, decades-long zeitgeist. Somehow, running and cycling became (ultra?) marathon and Ironman, Yoga became competitive acrobatics, calisthenics became Insanity, martial arts became MMA, cross-training became Crossfit. Where does all of this red-faced, gasket-blowing intensity come from?
Our ego and competitive nature (with others and ourselves) drive us. The arbitrary goals we place before ourselves, or are placed by our teachers and training peer group, creates tunnel vision. These two forces, internal and external, reinforce each other. They make us unable to see where we are ultimately going because intensity channels us to feel only the immediate effort, and see only the next goal. There's a reason that no high-level movement or athletic path ever ends with summiting the mountain, bathed in glory. You must always make a long trek back down. That's when you experience and reflect upon what you've really gained. For too many, that reflection is quite a let down.
The physical road is a personal truth path. Nothing tells you who you are, changes who you are, reminds you who you are so deeply as something difficult in which the pursuit is it's own end. It's part of why many of us find such rich reward in anchoring our lives, and helping others do the same, with movement.
So how do we move all the way up the mountain and still smile knowingly on the way down?
I've followed intensity deep into rabbit holes and over and over again on my path. Addiction runs in my family; and I know I lean toward it myself. Over the decades, a few things have emerged that keep intensity from clouding my path forward or dragging me along it. With any real wisdom, you don't actually acquire it. You can only recognize its truth. I must keep learning each of these.
Know where intensity is even useful. Because it's not useful everywhere. One anchor in my path is strength training. Even here, there are limited strength patterns in which maximum intensity is of value. For me, max effort is only ever applied with simple pushes and pulls where there is minimal danger (e.g., pushups, pullups, presses, rows). And we try to cycle our focus exercises while we're still feeling strong, not after we've begun to feel weak, tweaky, or stuck.
Know where your intensity comes from. Frustration? Disappointment? Dissatisfaction? Anger? Guilt? If you use negative emotions to fuel your workout and goals, you will probably let intensity lead. I plan every practice to be movement-first, intensity-second. I wait for intensity to emerge as I pass through the wake up and warm up and enter the workout. If it comes! If a day isn't my day, I try to never shove intensity out. And I try to never leave a practice feeling like I still have negative emotions to work on. A good practice should help you step outside, not into those. (NB: still learning!)
Breathe behind the effort. Holding your breath almost invariably means you are probably holding too much tension in your effort. Even with high tension suspends on the pullup bars or strength movements like squats, I focus on exhaling. I coach people to lead every movement, every rep, with their breath. I like the notion of running as nothing more than a breath meditation. I have been working on it with sprints.
Give yourself and your students/athletes, permission to relax. Some of us just need permission to not try to achieve intensity enlightenment every time they set foot on the floor, road, or mat.
Intensity overwhelms complexity. Another aspect of my path is a power practice. Powerful athletic movements actually come from maximizing not intensity, but efficiency. Think about throwing a pitch, sprinting, jumping, serving a tennis ball, driving a golf ball, or punching and kicking. A low-level mover will shove her strength into a movement and ruin it. She may well "feel it", but the point of power is to release it! A high-level mover will be a vessel. The intensity will flow through and out of the pattern. Watch a video of Ted William swinging a bat. He's a tai chi master.
Regular clinical therapy isn't the price of awesome. Be vigilant about how you are feeling. Don't ignore the those little, lasting, nagging injuries. Address them. Use them as reasons to focus on movement, on recovering better, on spending more time living than training. Pushing through injury to achieve your goals is fine if you are being paid millions of dollars to do it. (I, personally, don't think that's fine either.) Remember that we only ever see athletes at the height of their ability. Nobody wants to watch retired athletes hobble around their post-career. Injuries aren't neither par for the course nor badges of honor. If you need regular trips to the PT, chiropractor, masseuse, or surgeon just to keep up your path, you are on a short one indeed. And it will not be awesome for long.
Deep fitness is cumulative and incremental. Many people workout session to session, valuing each entirely on how sweaty they get, how sore it makes them feel the next day. Most workout approaches are built and marketed to suit this mindset. Many athletes also live only with their next goal in mind, intensely focused on the task at hand. They often value themselves entirely by the quants and PRs their sport has deemed important. Both of these are very narrow horizons. If you want to find real fitness–deep, life-lasting, life-inspiring fitness– don't let these little hills obscure the mountain in the distance.
Many years ago, at the peak of my quantitative fitness, my amateur athletic accomplishments left me a wreck. Little injuries had accumulated, and big injuries finally ended what seemed like everything at the time. Now, I'm a symbol of ability for the people in our Strength & Movement tribe. The same way anyone in my position is to their own. I can do many difficult things easily, and people dismiss them because that's only who they know me to be. But they can't see my history. Only I know what it feels like to collapse to the ground in agony, or to spend every hour of years in restrictive pain. So it's critical I help them understand where my abilities come from: consistent effort, not max effort. I practice at low, medium, and high intensity–mostly low and medium! I "workout" less than most people I know. I "work on" more than most people I know (with credit going to one of our top coaches, Deanna, for that cool turn of phrase!).
We track a few numbers in each cycle and I, like many, enjoy seeing my improvements over the weeks. But I never forget that deep fitness grows slowly, steadily. Almost imperceptibly.
With a broad enough horizon, there are only two legitimate types of fitness:
that which makes your entire life easier and more inspired (especially that which is yet to be lived);
and that which gives you the ability to help carry others.
In Strength & Movement,