4 Lessons to Learn From CrossFit
I’ve said the word.
Here we go.
A big topic.
Love it! Can’t stand it mate. It’s a cult. We’re not a cult. My life is CrossFit. Pfff no, no, no, no I am not into CrossFit. CrossFit is awesome. CrossFit is dumb…
The fitness marmite, CrossFit is a powerful word (or combination of two words) — it elicits a reaction from just about anyone who has ever stepped foot in a gym…
Not me though.
I may be the only one, but I’m entirely neutral on CrossFit — I’m not a CrossFitter, nor am I opposed to a CrossFit style session. (Oh great, a fence sitter… this will make for a riveting read…)
“IF YOU’RE NOT WITH US, YOU’RE AGAINST US!!”
(People of this demeanour are perhaps where the cult accusations stem from)
Basically, I think CrossFit can be a great thing and a not so great thing…
However, my opinion on whether CrossFit is tremendous, stupid, tremendously stupid, or stupendously tremendous is not what this article is about…
But, before getting on with the point of this entirely CrossFit-neutral article, I’d like to take thirty seconds to appease any pondering, and perhaps even gentle prodding, about my neutral thoughts on CrossFit…
To do so I’ll provide one thought from me and one quote from someone much smarter than me...
Thought from me:
The safety and effectiveness of a CrossFit program/session is dependent on two factors:
The capabilities of the coach, and
The training environment — i.e. is the focus of the coach and/or session that of task completion or mastery of the task.
Quote from Gray Cook
“Tarzan, to me, is the epitome of fitness. The guy is strong, agile and quick. He can run, jump, climb and swing through trees. If we take a person who moves well and put them on a CrossFit type of training program, we turn them into Tarzan. If we take that same program and give it to the majority of people in society who move poorly, we turn them into a patient.”
So, with that out of the way (and by out of the way I mean having now potentially opened up a gigantic can of worms and alienated an entire audience), we can get on to what this article is all about:
What Non-CrossFitters Can Learn from CrossFitters…
Learning… from CrossFit…
Yes, learning from CrossFit.
No potshots, no memes, no cheap, sly or straight-up digs and no jumping on or off a bandwagon… just a few observations and lessons that can be learned from the practices of CrossFit…
As strength and conditioning coaches, recreational exercisers, athletes, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, chess players and amigos, we can learn from all sports, activities, people, places and cultures.
Inspirational, I know.
But it’s true. In the strength and conditioning world, because no two people are the same, and because there are so many different ways to achieve training goals, you can literally learn from anyone, even if it’s learning what not to do and why not to do it (I’ve learned a lot this way).
So, here are five observations and lessons that can be learned from CrossFit…
CrossFit Athletes Push Themselves and Leave Nothing on the Table
CrossFitters’ insatiable appetite for that little bit more performance can be both a blessing and a curse, which we’ll get to later.
However, the attitude of going the extra mile, putting in the necessary work, and striving for that teeny tiny bit more is admirable. One rep, second or kilogram can make all the difference in CrossFit, so it’s unsurprising that CrossFitters push themselves to their limits in workouts and competitions (or WODs and throw-downs as they are CrossFittilly known.)
But, pushing to the max in WODs and throw-downs is the easy part, and isn’t the part that I find particularly impressive.
(No, I’m not saying WODs and throw-downs are easy. I just mean that WODs and throw-downs are the equivalent of the field, court or arena in which you perform your sport — the part you train for and enjoy…)
It’s the work CrossFitters put in outside of the WODs and throw-downs that I find impressive. And again, I’m not talking about pushing to the max in training sessions.
I’m talking about how CrossFitters partake in anything and everything that goes in to their sport. CrossFitters dedicate time and effort to mobility, pacing strategies (tactics), recovery methods and psychological techniques, all in the pursuit of even the slightest gain.
Not to mention the amount of time spent on improving the specific disciplines (gymnastics, Olympic Lifting etc.) of the sport.
Many CrossFitters training multiple times a day and live CrossFit 24/7. I know this because they tell me about it… (24/7)
I’m not saying that we should all become obsessed with performance or that sport and training should consume each and every second of our lives, but, I’ll bet that if we look closely at the pursuit of our own goals, training or otherwise, there are probably some performance gains being left on the table.
CrossFitters eat these performance gains up and leave nothing on the table.
You, too, could eat the whole table.
And that tasty table might have something on it just waiting to be scoffed up… (I’m trying hard to keep this analogy going, bear with me)…
For you, the potential performance scoffing could come from one or more of several areas:
Physical (training and recovery)
Psychological (staying calm when competing or getting fired up)
Technical (your technique in one area might be 100/100 but what ya gonna do when your opponent stifles your roundhouse or shows you on to your weaker foot??)
Tactical (you’re all set physically, mentally and technically but you’re in the wrong place… all the time, or you can’t get close enough, or you start the marathon with a ‘kick’… back to the tactics board)
Long story short: CrossFitters work hard on their game. Respect.
CrossFit Training is Varied and Engaging
My oh my, yes, CrossFit is varied… but, let’s put the ‘yeah because every random WOD is just random randomness’ to one side and look at the positives…
Variety within training programs keeps athletes interested and engaged, provides new stimuli and helps avoid overuse injuries. All of these are positives whether you’re a powerlifter, a hockey player or a swimmer, or are simply training to become generally healthier.
Variety doesn’t mean we’re squatting one week and cartwheeling the next. The subtlety of the change will depend on the training goal and, probably more so, the athlete’s personality.
Variety can be as simple as changing from a back squat to a front squat, or from an overhead press to an overhead press in a lunge position, or barbells to dumbbells…
These little changes and challenge help athletes tune in mentally to the task (they can’t just show up and yep, same as last time… rinse, repeat, bye). Learning new skills or variations of movements is stimulating and will go a long way to both preventing boredom and getting the most out of an athlete.
Things Can Get Ugly When the Clock is Ticking
CrossFit shows us what can happen to movement quality when weightlifting goes head to head with a stopwatch.
When the goal is to complete a certain number of reps in a certain time period, the technique often looks as tired as the body does, and this is asking for trouble.
GIFS of ugly technique should re-enforce what should be an already existing attitude of focussing on task mastery as opposed to task completion. Movement quality should take precedence over the weight being lifted, grinding out more reps or completing a task in a certain time period. Period.
The goal of training for athletic performance isn’t to ‘complete’ lifting tasks per se, but to use (and master) movement or lifting tasks that make you a better athlete for your sport. Task mastery, technique and becoming a better athlete for your sport should remain at the forefront of the athletic performance inclined mind.
So, completing two reps or ten reps, lifting ten kilograms or one-hundred and ten kilograms or finishing the whole workout in twenty minutes, is not the important thing and nor should it be the focus. The most important thing is that the task you are doing is helping you become a better athlete; sloppy lifting technique won’t make you a better athlete, no matter how much weight you’re lifting or how quickly you lift it.
Training Tool Boxes Have Lots of Tools
They say people are creatures of habits — it’s easy to get stuck in our ways.
We might have biases towards certain types of training. But, we need to put these biases aside and make the most appropriate selections for the training goal and the athlete.
CrossFitters embrace barbells, dumbbells, ropes, rings, rowers, running, gymnastics, medicine balls, plyometric boxes, sandbags, kettlebells, PVC pipes, broomsticks… just about every training tool there is, and they use them in a variety of ways.
Yes, the sport of CrossFit involves, or can involve, the use of these tools but the attitude of openness to the benefits of many different tools and methods is admirable.
I’m not saying training sessions should turn into an obstacle course of training tools, but, the more athletes I train, the more I realise there are many different more tools than my personal favourite (the barbell) to stimulate adaptations.
For sure, some tools and methods are more appropriate for some people than others, but we should remain open to the benefits of all tools and types of training.
Pick Your Conditioning Movements Wisely
When fatigue hits you in the face, your technique flops to the floor.
But, sometimes being hit in the face (by fatigue) is the goal.
When we want to improve our aerobic/anaerobic conditioning, creating a fatigued state is necessary — we need to be huffing and puffing. With this huffing and puffing comes an inevitable deterioration in movement quality. This is to be expected and can be ok. It can also be not ok.
No-one moves optimally all of the time, and nor does anyone need to. But, there is a technique continuum that ranges from optimal to safe to poor to disaster.
High intensity interval and high repetition training (aka HIIT) can be a little flirtatious with the poor and disaster zones (low standards). And you know what they say: once a flirt, always a flirt. But, because we know that HIIT flirts with danger, we can be smart and only use movements for HIIT that — even in our most fatigued states — keep us the on the right side of danger.
We do this by choosing ‘low-skilled' and low-loaded movements for high intensity conditioning.
For example, if we’re doing HIIT style hill sprints and we’re getting fatigued, the fatigue is going to cause a deterioration in our sprinting form. Because we’re not loading our system with heavy weights, this deterioration in sprinting form won’t put our bodies at risk of injury in the same way doing HIIT style clean and jerks will.
So, pick your conditioning movements wisely. And, if you do want to use loaded movements for conditioning, which can be entirely appropriate, be a little conservative with the load.
Eat the whole table.
Vary your training.
Consider all the tools in the box.
Be wary of going against the clock.
Choose conditioning exercises wisely.