I have never been accused of being “easy going.” I make quick decisions. I have an opinion on just about any topic you could name. I’m loud. My favorite tool is a hammer. In a word, I think you would be safe to describe me as intense. (For the record, I prefer the term animated. Or lively. Colorful is okay, too.)
I’m pretty sure it’s a fitness trainer’s occupational hazard (though that’s probably a chicken-egg debate: are trainers intense because of their jobs or did they pick the job because they were already intense?). The fact is, we care deeply and passionately about our health. And yours! And everybody else’s! Sometimes it’s tough for us to understand how other people can be sort of lackadaisical in their habits. So then when we’re questioning you about why you missed your workout last week or how it is that you’re still drinking soda (because, really, with all the evidence out there about how much harm it’s doing to your body, why in the world do you still reach for that can of disgusting crap?!?), well… it can come off as a little intense. 🙂
I’m sure you will be thrilled to know that in recent years I have actively cultivated a more mellow, cheerful and accepting attitude. If you have worked out with me in real life, I suspect you just snorted in disbelief right there, but I promise you, it’s true. I used to be worse.
Beyond my intense personality, though, I struggle with the best of them to bring real intensity to my workouts. Motivation has never been a hindrance for me – I’m always ready and willing to get in another workout. I’m happy to go for a run, I enjoy hopping on my bike, and I’ve never turned down a date with the dumbbells.
When push comes to shove during a workout or a run, sometimes I back off. I make excuses. I tell myself I’m doing my best, even though I know I could do more. Yes, even fitness professionals wrestle with self-doubt and pushing past their comfort zones! More often than you would imagine.
Here’s the real truth about intensity: it’s not easy. And it’s maybe not exactly what you think it is.
Working with people of all different ages and with a wide variety of strengths and abilities has taught me that intensity, like beauty, is in the eye (or, in this case, hammering heart rate) of the beholder (exerciser… practically the same thing).
It’s pretty easy to finish up a workout, drenched in sweat, with your heart pounding, and feel like you exercised pretty intensely. And I’ll grant you that you worked hard, certainly, but if you were capable of texting, watching TV, or having any sort of conversation, then you did not work out with intensity. During a hard workout, your heart rate comes up, your breathing gets heavy, you get a good sweat going on, and probably at some point, the thought crosses your mind, “I don’t know if I can keep this up.” That’s hard.
During an intense workout, though, when you have that thought about whether or not you can continue, you. keep. going. There’s no catching your breath. There’s no, “Just a second.” No water break. No backing off your pace or dropping your weights or touching your foot down in a difficult balance pose. You focus your mind, you clear out the chatter, you grit your teeth and you get it done. It hurts. It’s the exact opposite of easy. It is the argument between your mind and your body, and your mind wins.
Intensity is mental. It is a different mindset than hard, and once you’ve been there you’ll know the difference.
At this point, I suspect that you think I’m about to tell you that all your workouts should be intense, right?
But no. Like everything else we talk about (nutrition, workouts, life), I believe in moderation. Intensity is one of the many, many skills I want you to have in your health and fitness toolbox. There’s a time and a place when it’s appropriate and necessary, but unlike my surprisingly passionate response to your beverage choice, you don’t need to be intense about everything. It’s okay to spend the majority of your workouts in the hard zone, as long as you know that you can draw on that intensity when you need it.
To keep your skills sharp, you should practice intensity regularly, like once a week or every other week. Here’s how:
Pick a workout you’ve done at least once or twice before (preferably recently). The exercises and workout structure should to be simple enough that you can do it without thinking too hard. If you’re spending time looking at the screen, asking yourself, “Wait, now, what am I supposed to be doing here?” you’re not working intensely. A short workout is best if you haven’t practiced intensity before. True intensity is very, very difficult to maintain.
If it’s a strength training workout, pick a heavier weight than you’ve used before; if it’s a cardio or HIIT workout, go at full speed. Either way, at some point in the workout, you’ll hit what I call “puke threshold” – without actually puking, though, okay? – and it’ll be time to draw on your mental endurance skills.
Everything in you will be screaming, “I can’t do this anymore!” But you know what? You totally can. You have more inside you than you realize.
It’s going to be tough the first time you try to go full intensity at a workout. You might cry (true story). You might feel like screaming. You will almost definitely want to give up. But when you don’t? It’ll be the best feeling in the world!
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