Finding Intensity in CrossFit Again

Are you chronically slacking during your workouts?

Photo by Bev Childress

Photo by Bev Childress

I’ve never been an intense exerciser. I don’t have an intense personality, and while I work quickly and with intent, there is no real spark to anything I do. When I first found my body was capable of any athleticism, it was distance running. Training for half marathons was something I discovered my body could do, and this was before CrossFit was available in my area. I’d go out for long runs, nursed injuries, and ran six half marathons one year, finishing the season with the Portland marathon. I haven’t run a race since.

Shortly after the marathon, a CrossFit gym opened in my small town. I really liked the difference in workouts as compared to running, and I was learning a lot because everything was new. I tracked all my workouts in my journal, recorded lifting gains, and looked forward to getting up at 4:30 in the morning to go there. I went four days a week. That may not sound intense, but for me, it was more intensity toward exercise than I’d ever had. Sure, training for a marathon is intense, and mentally my brain likes endurance, but finding the spark to push through the end of a CrossFit workout was something I had to learn, and am still learning.

After several years, my intensity waned. I can’t pinpoint the cause; probably just life in general. I stopped going to the gym as often and stopped using my journal. I went through the motions for a time and if I was seeing gains, I didn’t know it. Any amount of intensity I’d had at the gym was gone. My weights regressed to very light, like when I started, and I had no desire to increase them. I would joke with people that my PR was just getting to the gym. It was a bad spiral for me.

Then I stopped going. For four months. Part of it was that I’d stopped seeing progress in general. I’d lost my dedication, not only to myself but also to my body.

What happened?

The Over-Scalers

Over the years, I’ve observed two main groups when it comes to CrossFit workouts.

The first type is like me. They like the workouts, and there is dedication, but the progress is often small. Sometimes there is a lot of regression due to lack of focus, followed by an effort to progress back to the same place as before. Absent any real injury or actual health problems that require time off, this group struggles with a committed mindset and class attendance.

Some progress has stuck with those of us in this group, regardless of our dedication to ourselves at the gym. For instance, I never forget how to move safely. We don’t hurt ourselves, we know what the workouts are, and we know where to scale to get the most we can out of our workout, almost to a fault.

We complete the workouts, but maybe we take more rest than is needed, use chalk when we don’t need it, or rest on the floor for a moment too long during burpees. We may WOD shop, just a little, just enough to see our attendance go in waves. Folks in this group may never progress to jumping on a box; they may stack weights to the same height, but it’s never the box. We may be able to do all our pull ups, but have the band dangling beside us on the bar, just in case. Then after we decide we can’t do any more, not for any real reason, we slide the band over.

All that said, this group isn’t lazy, or afraid. There is merely a lack of the intensity required to really progress at the gym. We cut ourselves short daily. These folks, like me, are still are doing something for themselves, and it is better than just sitting around watching Netflix. We are investing our time, we are doing all the right things, but where is our intensity? Where is the drive to graduate to the wooden box for our box jumps, or to leave the band off the rig during our pull ups? The signs look different for everyone.

There are a lot of us here, in this group. I see us at the gym I go to. I’m part of it. I think we can learn to do more, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

The Hard Chargers

The next group is the intense folks. These are the ones who not only show up to every class, but get after it the whole time they are at the gym. Even the warm up is intense for them. They use every minute to get the most they can out of their time there. They may not always be the fastest or the strongest, but they are more intense, focused, excited. They aren’t necessarily the guy shouting or grunting or making a show of physicality. These are the people that are giving their 100%, every workout.

They see improvement continually. Not with just weight numbers, but in all areas. Maybe they handstand hold for five seconds longer each time they attempt; maybe they increase their double-unders by 10 every month or so. Whatever the area, they see lasting progress. They move from the stack of weights to the actual box, and never go back. They don’t enter they gym mentally prepared to scale their workout. They set up as close to the actual workout they can get, every time.

How do they do it? I have some observations, and a plan to help those of us who lack this intensity to find it.

How to Find Your Intensity: Recruit Your Coach to Help You

I am lucky. I have a coach who has known me for years. He knows how I slack. It’s not his job to find my intensity for me. However, a short conversation with your coach about how you feel like you want to push harder during your workouts is a good thing. Let your coach know you feel you are stalled, or that you are having trouble moving past certain crutches each time you do a workout. Ask them to keep a closer eye on you during your workouts for the next week or two, and make sure that they are aware that you are trying to make a change. Chances are they don’t know you want to do better, so letting them know this will enable them to help you reach some goals.

How to Find Your Intensity: Ask Your Gym Friends to Push You

You know that intense group? Make friends with one of them, if you aren’t already. Tell them you’d like more from yourself at the gym. The great thing about most CrossFit gyms is that the environment is hugely supportive. If you tell your gym-mates you want to push yourself more, they will push you. Share with them that you’d like to add five pounds to your clean, and ask them if they have a personal goal they’d like to see met. Public goals are a good thing. That’s why there are leader boards or PR boards in many gyms. Put yourself on that PR board this month. For something, anything!

Move Past Things You’re Stuck On

You know that band? If you do really need it, use a smaller one. Don’t rest during burpees, keep moving with purpose. Don’t chalk your hands unless you actually will lose your grip otherwise. Avoid making excuses to take breaks you don’t need, during workouts or through the week. Run the whole time. Don’t walk, even if the running is slow. Purposely go to workouts that you’d rather skip. Do it with intent, and make it as hard as you can. Ask your coach what the next progression is for where you are. Have him or her help you figure out where you need to be, then stay at that progression, no matter what.

Move Past Any Irrational Fear

It is true. You can get injured at a gym. You could also get into a car wreck on the way to the mall. There has been a fair amount of negative press when it comes to injury at CrossFit gyms. Things do happen, and life is full of risk. My worst back injury ever was because I stretched wrong. You know that just-woke-up stretch first thing in the morning? I pulled the whole left side of my back into tension because I stretched wrong one morning. I actually feel less likely to injure myself when I am going to the gym regularly. If I sit too much, or if I haven’t gone to a workout in a week or so, it feels like my muscles lose the ability to protect themselves. Continually progressing at the gym with intent will help your body adapt to other life circumstances.

Create Goals for Yourself

Make real goals. Write them down, even if they seem silly. If you have to write down that you aren’t going to rest on the floor during burpees, do it. The intensity that comes naturally to the other group isn’t as easy for us, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn it and make it a more natural part of how we operate at the gym in order to see progress. One of the best things about CrossFit is that it is measurable. You can set realistic goals and work toward them. You have people to support you while you reach these goals. You may even inspire someone else to make specific goals of their own.

Make Yourself the Most Intense Person at the Gym

This one is hard. And optional, but hear me out. The old adage, “fake it until you make it,” exists because it works. Sometimes, we have to literally fake it during meetings at work; sometimes we have to suck it up and not snap at our kids or our family when we are cranky or have had a terrible day. So try faking it at the gym during your workout. Be that intense person, just for one workout, and see what it feels like to operate at that level of intensity. Make a point to be as intense as you possibly can. Don’t scale anything you don’t have to, and don’t worry if you’re the last one done because you haven’t scaled your workout back as far as you normally would.


I believe that motivation only gets us so far. Dedication is where the real progress is seen. Have I perfected all of the above? Absolutely not. Will I hide from my coach for a couple workouts after he sees this article? Possibly. However, I intend to put each of these into practice so I can move forward.