Hot Topic: How hard is too hard for CrossFit and HIIT?

A recent CrossFit video titled ‘Do you pee during workouts?’ has provoked mixed reactions. Personal Trainer Network asked a selection of fitness professionals with experience of CrossFit and HIIT, “How hard is too hard?”

Recently a CrossFit video titled ‘Do you pee during workouts?’ started doing the rounds online. Chances are, you’ve seen it, but if not then you can watch it HERE.

The video provoked a mixed reaction: some applauded the female CrossFitters for their honesty about a problem that affects many women, particularly those who have given birth, while others questioned the message that the video was putting out there: is it treating incontinence brought on by intense workouts as a badge of honour while failing to address effective ways of managing the problem?

Personal Trainer Network asked a selection of CrossFit instructors and fitness professionals with experience of the training system:
When it comes to CrossFit and intense training formats such as HIIT, how hard is too hard? Do you advise participants to ease up if they are struggling, and what would be your recommendation to female participants who would answer yes to the question ‘Do you pee during workouts?’


Nardia Norman
Integrative training expert & health coach, www.nardianorman.com

‘How hard is too hard? It depends on many factors, including client history, lifestyle, current physical state and their outcomes. As with any prescription, one man’s medicine can be another man’s poison. If a deconditioned, inexperienced weekend warrior has been trained or pushed to the point of vomiting then that is a clear sign of it being too hard and completely reckless; however, if a conditioned athlete such as an SAS soldier is pushed to that same brink, it’s more likely to be acceptable, as it is a specific requirement.

In regards to the CrossFit peeing video, I think it’s important to establish that ‘peeing’ during skipping is not necessarily the same as being pushed extremely hard. Some women can train hard and heavy without suffering any bladder issues, while others can experience leakage triggered by the simple act of sneezing.

The CrossFit video highlighted something very important – the common issue of pelvic floor weakness. The positive is that CrossFit has made an otherwise ‘embarrassing’ and often unspoken topic socially acceptable – to the point of even turning it into a badge of honour. On the flipside, it is not normal to experience bladder leakage (particularly if you have not had children), and therefore is an issue that needs to be addressed by a specialist who can provide the necessary education and pelvic floor training.

This is a great opportunity for all parties to come together and use this ‘pee-gate’ as a chance to educate all those affected and to create more awareness of this topic.’


Julia Higgs
Co-owner/ Coach, CrossFit North Head

‘I’m a personal trainer and a CrossFit Coach and have been doing CrossFit for the past three years. I’m also a mother to two young children and I specialise in pre- and post-natal exercise, and coach the daily CrossFit Mums classes.

How hard is too hard? It very much depends on the individual with regards to their level of fitness, range of motion or injury assessment and their skill level with the exercises involved. There’s no point 'pushing hard' if the technique goes out the window!

So, 'hard' is relative to the individual – not a perception of what the trainer thinks. Yes, we are there to encourage and motivate clients and members, but at the end of the day, using the scale of RPE (rate of perceived exertion), only the individual knows how hard they are pushing, and feel able to push on any given day – and for women, their menstrual cycle plays a large role in that.

With regards the question of peeing during workouts, we find that exercises involving gravity, impact and/or bracing (holding the breath during heavy lifts) can be problematic for the majority of mums (it’s not often that we come across females who have not given birth who pee during workouts). These exercises include double unders (skipping), sometimes Box Jumps and occasionally Olympic lifting. They are therefore encouraged to use the bathroom before the WOD (Workout of the Day), so they don't pee during!

Most of those women know what exercises cause this, and if they know they still experience some leakage even after going to the bathroom, they may wear a pad on days when these exercises are programmed. But let’s put this into perspective – it’s not just 'going hard' that brings it on, more often a sneeze or a cough can be the culprit!

The pelvic floor is a muscle, so in theory it can be trained and strengthened to prevent or at least minimise leakage. However, every mum – even those who are pelvic floor-aware – knows that, unfortunately, training the pelvic floor gets pushed down the list of priorities when you have just given birth, are sleep deprived, have a screaming baby or are trying to breast feed. It’s hard enough trying to finish a cup of tea while it’s still hot, never mind remembering to do your pelvic floor exercises!’


Matty Clarke
Owner/Head Coach, CrossFit 2036

‘CrossFit by definition is Constantly Varied, Functional Movement done at High Intensity. As a responsible fitness professional and CrossFit Affiliate, I see hundreds of participants through sessions each week. Each of them has their own unique current physical ability, as well as potential limits.

There are a few critical factors to consider before we even look at chasing the high intensity nature of a CrossFit workout. Firstly, mechanics: can the athlete perform the movement with correct technique? Secondly, consistency: can the athlete perform the movement correctly over multiple repetitions? These stages are critical in ensuring the safety of every client. Only when these are achieved do we even consider adding intensity, remembering intensity is achieved in a number of ways, including via load, work/rest durations, distances and speed.

Most athletes will start to sacrifice the mechanics and consistency of movements as they begin to fatigue, and as a best practice we are responsible in monitoring and regulating our intensity variables in order to keep them safe. This is our way of keeping people from getting injured, or exposing them to the potential risks involved with high intensity exercise.

As a community, by adhering to these practices, and by showing we have consideration for the athlete first, we have created an environment in which we can identify any potential health issues and refer clients to appropriate specialists if necessary, and in which no topic of conversation is taboo, be it relating to ‘peeing during workouts’ or otherwise.’


Meredith Julliard
Manager, CrossFit Athletic

‘How hard is too hard? This is a great question, and one I am faced with daily. Managing a CrossFit gym people expect to train hard and the expectation can be that if they are not flat on the floor at the end of the session, it’s not ‘true’ CrossFit.

We do things a little differently at CrossFit Athletic, respecting the fact that everyone has a training history. We ensure safety is main consideration – for one thing, it’s the only way that lasting results can be achieved.

The CrossFit journey with us starts with an assessment, allowing the client’s movements to be screened, and any dysfunction addressed. We then find the best exercise prescription for each individual, with his or her health and wellness as our top priority.

Female clients are not forced to ‘train like a man’, and we allocate different rep ranges and loads to allow for great results, while staying true to their gender.

Not everyone is a high-end athlete with the capacity and mechanics to sustain constant high intensity training. Therefore, in relation to the question ‘how hard is too hard?’ I would simply say, train smart, and train appropriately.

Respect the continuum, if you are well you can get fit, and if you are fit you can push beyond fitness into performance. But if at any time you slip backwards, address the issues before progressing.’


Graeme Beath
Co-owner, Coach, CrossFit Maroubra

‘How hard is too hard? How hard would an Olympic athlete try for a gold medal? How hard would you try to win your local netball competition? It’s a subjective question, but in CrossFit we subscribe to high intensity training as part of an overall strength and conditioning program – but always with safety and virtuosity of movement foremost in mind. We always encourage scaling the exercise or modifying it to suit the client and gain the benefit of its design.

The magic of CrossFit is not simply the high intensity – anyone can do a high intensity interval workout – rather, it is a whole program of strength and conditioning. The program consists of high intensity short workouts, long workouts, pure strength, speed, agility, flexibility and more. Over a period of time the program will balance high intensity and heavy loads with de-load days and weeks, and rest days.

While high intensity is integral to the workout, we balance it out through a thoughtfully designed and coached program. The danger, as I see it, can be in some gyms introducing HIIT as a ‘class’ a few times a week, with no control over how often the client does the workout, and very little attention to virtuosity of movement.

Regarding the video about peeing during workouts, it was done tongue in cheek to address an issue that affects many women, not just CrossFit practitioners. If you do CrossFit, your coach/trainer should be aware of your individual fitness abilities and needs, so that they can modify your workout and refer to a health professional if appropriate.’


Samantha Scoble
Health Promotion Officer, Continence Foundation of Australia

‘While leaking during extreme exercise workouts portrayed in the video might be unavoidable, it is a timely reminder that any form of incontinence – no matter how small – is not normal and can be cured, better managed or prevented with the right advice. A good guide to the sorts of exercises that are appropriate – and pelvic floor-safe – can be found at pelvicfloorfirst.org.au

People should also seek advice from a health professional such as a physiotherapist with a special interest in women's continence before embarking on a new exercise program. If you find you are leaking when you exercise – or cough, laugh or sneeze – seek help. The National Continence Helpline (1800 33 00 66) is free and staffed 8am-8pm Monday-Friday by continence nurse advisors who can provide advice, resources or referrals to local continence services.’

The Continence Foundation of Australia has an initiative called Pelvic Floor First that aims to encourage pelvic floor-safe exercises, so that people don’t experience unwanted side effects such as bladder and bowel problems. For more information visit www.pelvicfloorfirst.org.au

Positive about the pelvic floor

Australian Fitness Network has a 2-part (9 CEC) online CEC course, created in collaboration with the Continence Foundation of Australia, titled ‘CFA Part 1: Positive Practice for the Pelvic Floor’ and ‘CFA Part 2: Proactive Programming for the Pelvic Floor’. For more details click HERE.