High intensity effort and high volume are mutually exclusive terms. You cannot have a high intensity effort with high volume of output without losing quality, relatively speaking. However, you can have low intensity effort and high volume output or high intensity effort and low volume output. It's either one or the other.


The two extremes make sense when looking at both ends of the energy continuum. They clearly show the opposite ends of certain qualities and abilities, such as:


  • A short sprint vs. an ultra-distance run
  • Immediate energy output vs. long-sustained energy output
  • Fast speed vs. slow speed
  • Maximum muscular contraction vs. complete muscular relaxation
  • High intensity vs. low intensity effort


training, tom kelso, safe training, strength training, crossfit trainingUnfortunately, there is also middle ground. This can make the planning of your training details confusing. But it's also intriguing because it makes you think and learn about energy system training. I'll admit, black and white are a six inch putt and easily distinguishable, but it’s the gray area that can be exasperating. Is it platinum gray? Is it ash gray? Is it battleship or charcoal gray?


The gray area analogy applies to the inverse relationship that exists between the quality execution of a maximum effort, short-term complex skill (ME-ST-CS) and multiple repetitions. Three factors to consider before moving on:


  1. Optimal performance of most ME-ST-CSs is dependent upon immediate muscle energy stores (one end of the continuum).
  2. Your fatigue level. This falls somewhere in the gray area depending upon your level of effort expended, the recovery time between efforts, and the number of repeat efforts. If you're sucking air and attempt a ME-ST-CS, heed my next point.
  3. ME-ST-CSs require precision to perform. If you cannot perform the skill exactly, either your skill is sub-par or your endurance is compromised.


Regarding fatigue, the greater it is the more it affects the quality of your ME-ST-CS performance and the more it increases your risk of injury. If you're attempting to perform a ME-ST-CS repetitively over an extended period, two things are inevitable and another is very possible:


  1. You will become fatigued relatively quickly.
  2. Your skill in executing the activity will erode fast.


Because of the aforementioned, not only will your precise performance suffer, you can increase the chance of becoming injured as you continue the event. Fatigue weakens your muscles. Your muscles cannot contract maximally to protect joints, thus they are rendered vulnerable.


Examples of ME-ST-CS:


  • A barbell clean and jerk
  • Any gymnastics maneuver
  • A baseball pitch
  • A discus throw
  • An overhead snatch-grip squat
  • A 60-meter sprint
  • A kettlebell squat-clean-press


ME-ST-CS demonstrations are skills that entail the total body and precise multiple joint involvement actions to complete them. Successful execution of these movements is highly contingent upon being skilled in these activities and being fresh and unfatigued. Now throw the magnitude of resistance, the nature of the activity, and number of repetitions performed into this discussion. Which of these are safer to perform? 


  • A barbell clean and jerk - depends on the amount of resistance
  • Any gymnastics maneuver - bodyweight only.
  • A baseball pitch - weight of the baseball (MLB average = 5 1/8 ounces)
  • A discus throw - men's Olympic (2 kilograms/4.4 pounds)
  • An overhead snatch-grip squat - depends on the amount of resistance
  • A sixty-meter sprint - body-weight only
  • A kettlebell squat-clean-press - depends on the amount of resistance


training, tom kelso, safe training, strength training, crossfit trainingRealistically, the baseball pitch, discus throw, and sixty-meter sprint are low on the resistance magnitude scale and have long rest periods between exertions. Gymnastics maneuvers vary, as they're bodyweight-only and can be done repetitively within a gymnast's routine, which lasts under ninety seconds. Interestingly, a baseball pitch is performed on the average of one every twenty seconds in a Major League game. Full recovery of the ATP-PC system responsible for the performance of a pitch takes approximately three minutes, so over time baseball pitchers experience overuse injuries due to the volume of throws and relative minimal rest interval between them.


The execution of the barbell clean and jerk, overhead snatch-grip squat, and kettlebell squat-clean-press represent an interesting situation. The greater the magnitude of resistance, the fewer number of repetitions possible. The lesser the resistance amount, the greater number of repetitions possible. And they are both contingent upon how they are carried out. Performing them repetitively with no rest between executions will result in the following:


  • Heavier resistances attempted for multiple repetitions will increase injury potential due to weak link muscles becoming compromised (i.e., arms or shoulders during a clean and push press).
  • Lighter resistances attempted for maximal repetitions will also increase injury potential due to systematic fatigue and eventual technique erosion. Even relatively light resistance can endanger muscle and joint integrity when it is unable to be controlled.


Any time resistance beyond bodyweight-only is increased, the greater the stress placed on the musculo-skeletal system, particularly when proper technique is required and fatigue increases. Compare these skills and the potential for injury:


  • Simple skills: 50 burpees or 200 mountain climbers. No external resistance is used and thus a lessened risk of injury.
  • Complex skills: 20 barbell hang cleans to push press with 50% of your one repetition maximum or 15 one-arm kettlebell clean-squat-presses with significant resistance.


Additional external resistance increases the risk of injury due to resistance beyond the body weight that must be moved and controlled. Essentially, more can go wrong when an external resistance is involved.


The Take Home Message


training, tom kelso, safe training, strength training, crossfit trainingAny complex, precise, and resisted activity cannot be safely performed for an extended period of time. Your technique will deteriorate and the risk for injury will increase with relative resistance amounts and the number of repetitions attempted. Performing complex exercises such as a barbell snatch, clean and jerk, overhead squat, or kettlebell clean and press for multiple repetitions is fatiguing, can lead to a greater chance of form breakdown, and thus can increase the risk of injury.


If you're attempting to develop energy system proficiency (i.e., ATP-PC, short-term glycolytic, or long-term aerobic), seek out safe and simple exercise modes such as low-impact exercise machines, conventional controlled strength training, swimming, circuit training, or cycling. They can be used to enhance the quality you're seeking much more safely than resisted complex exercises done for maximal repetitions, all other factors being equal.


If your sport involves repetitive performance of resisted complex skills that can compromise your ability to perform them correctly due to fatigue, then caveat emptor. Know there is a greater risk at hand when attempting to perform them when fatigue alters your ability to execute them safely.


Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.