The Secret Sauce

by Admin | December 31, 1969 | BLOGS | 0 Comment

Written By: Colette Wheeler

As a collegiate runner, I ran a lot. I ran in the morning, I ran in the evening, I raced on Saturdays, and I ran 14-milers at 7am on Sundays. I ran long and, for the most part, I ran slow. Every day was predictable, and pretty much every day could be made comfortable because my body had long since adapted to the high-volume, low-intensity, unvaried stimulus presented. Often, the most uncomfortable part of my training was reaching a max boredom limit and having to persevere through the remaining miles of a particular run.  

On rare occasions, my team and I would visit the weight room to “lift” and “do conditioning” off of the roads. “Light and high reps” was the prescription for distance runners, so I spent my time doing a whole lot of 5-10 lb curls, light leg extensions, a few slight elbow-bends that passed for pushups, and very dubious 70# “squats".  Overall though, the party line read something like this: “more is better, so to be a better runner, you just run more”.

This regimen did not make me a better runner.  At the time, my results disappointed and baffled me; however, through my exposure to CrossFit I now see exactly where the system broke down.  My training lacked variation and intensity -- two key components integral to improved overall fitness.  Yes, I could run for a long time at a decent clip, but ask me to sprint to a finish or power up a hill and I would not excel.

Okay, this isn’t a sob story about my “wasted” college running career.  I went to a Division III school; I have no illusions of grandeur about What Might Have Been. I share this anecdote because it is in some sense familiar to many.  We fall prey to the idea that “more is better”, so great volume of one exercise will cover many bases of fitness.  Due to the nature of the human body’s ability to adapt to a stimulus, that is simply not true.

The human body readily adapts to a presented stimulus.  This is a good thing, it’s the main driver of evolution and enables the continuation of our species.  However, with regard to fitness (and CrossFit), continuous adaptation is key.  Constant variation of movement at high intensity creates that continuous need for adaptation within the body.  Without it, we merely continue existence at a new, comfortable plateau.  

So how do we recognize and define variance and intensity? How do we apply it?  Variance can come in all forms - movement, weight, rep scheme, wod length, etc.  Intensity manifests through achieving the intended workout stimulus (engaging one or more energy systems - phosphagen, glycolytic, oxidative/aerobic).Variance and intensity depend upon one another.  Without variance, intensity drops, and vice versa.

We will look first at intensity.  With a simple Power equation, intensity is quantifiable. Put on your math hats and get ready.

Check out this equation:

Power = (Force x Distance) / Time,  That is a nice equation.  Now check out these numbers: We have a 135# female (that’s the Force).  She has an arm length of 2 feet from shoulder to knuckle (Distance).  She completes a strict pull-up in 6 seconds (Time).
There are 5 reps, so multiply everything by five.  Voila, that female produces 305 watts of Power.  Hook her up to any light bulb in your house and that bulb would explode.

Strict: 5 x (135# x 2 ft.)/6 sec = 305 watts
Kipping: 5 x (135# x 2 ft.)/3 sec= 610 watts

Sounds cool, but now compare it to the possible power output by a kipping pull-up.  Same Force, same Distance, but way faster Time. By changing her speed, she ratchets up her intensity and doubles her power output! Incredible.

And now you may be thinking, “well why would we ever do strict pull-ups?”. Enter variance and human energy systems. Gah. First math, now science. I know I know.  

Check out this table of energy system awesomeness:

Energy system

Effort Duration

Example Movements



3 reps heavy DL, 5-10 second sprint


30 - 120 seconds

200-400 meter row

Oxidative (Aerobic)

> 2 minutes

1000 meter row, Cindy

 Stay with me now. This is thrilling stuff, people. Really.

The phosphagen system covers most power- and weightlifting movements (squat, deadlift, presses, snatch, clean and jerk) and strict gymnastics movements.  Think “high power, short time period”.  

The glycolytic system activates for efforts sustaining one half to two minutes in duration.  Still high power, but with a blend of cardio mixed in.  

The oxidative system is probably the most familiar system.  We also know it as the aerobic system.  Workouts that are longer than 2 minutes utilize the oxidative energy system.  Think “cardio”.

An athlete can be intense in all of these systems, but it’s the variance of those systems that really matters here.  Take deadlifts, for example: Monday and Wednesday WODs both have dealifts, but Monday prescribes a very heavy weight and Wednesday prescribes a relatively light weight.  Using the same “comfortable” weight in both workouts will completely eliminate variance and snuff out the magic brought by intensity.  

Why would someone choose to do the same weight in both situations?  Well, it can be a result of poor coaching, uninformed scaling, or just plain old ego.  CrossFitters of all types can fall into this trap, and it is a joint effort by both athletes and coaches to sidestep the trap whenever possible.  

Remember adaptation? When we feel comfortable, we have adapted.  Be concerned with the right simulus.  Sometimes that’ll mean to push the weight and sometimes that’ll mean light and fast. Yes, the new level of movement will feel a lot harder, and yes, you may drop some spots on the leaderboard when you are outside your comfort zone, but you are getting BETTER and FITTER and HEALTHIER because of it. To get all that you can out of CrossFit, continuous adaptation is a requirement.

So now what?  The preceding text is not a call for everyone to do every movement as prescribed, RX.  Far from it.  It is an explanation calling for smart, intentional loading or scaling of workouts in order to preserve variance and high intensity performance. Most of us come to a CrossFit gym to “get fit”, or to improve our health and overall wellness.  Unfortunately, “fitness” isn’t a trophy we can earn in a short time and then display on our mantle forever after.  


We must constantly, deliberately, skillfully challenge ourselves every day to be better, stronger, faster, fitter, healthier than the day before. CrossFit has shown, time and again, how variance and intensity produce incredible, life-changing results in so many areas of fitness and life. Celebrate the successes each day brings knowing that because you improved today, you can improve again another day!   If you’ve adapted and are skilled at a certain weight -- load more on the bar! If you like the heavy barbell, take some off and try to go faster.  If you have mastered a step in a gymnastic progression -- level up and push to the edges of your capabilities! Believe in your coaches, your abilities, and most importantly -- believe in yourself. Find that intensity and get after it.

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