Friday, 31 July 2009

Discussion Question: How necessary is specialized strength/power development to achieving elite levels of CrossFit performance?

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the role of strength/power in developing elite levels of CrossFit performance.  We all know it's important...strength and power are, after all, 2 of the 10 standards of fitness.  But just how important is it?

 Mark Rippetoe has said that he considers strength the most general of the 10 physical attributes, because "all of the others to some extent depend on strength or the process of its acquisition and strength depends on none of them."  Some seriously legit CrossFit names, including Dutch Lowy, Michael Rutherford, Robb Wolf, and Steven Low postulate that without a strength/power background, it is necessary to specialize in strength/power development in order to play catch-up with those athletes who have the advantage of being very, very strong.  And the amount of people doing programs such as CrossFit Strength Bias, CrossFit Football, and Max Effort Black Box seems to indicate that the general opinion has shifted more in the direction of developing higher levels of strength and power.

On the other hand, Josh Everett, who is possibly the highest level Olympic weightlifter who is also an elite CrossFitter, said in a Performance Menu article that if he were training seriously for the CrossFit Games, he would do the main site WOD.  Mikko Salo, Tommy Hackenbruck, and Moe Kelsey, respectively 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place in the 2009 CrossFit Games, all have deadlifts between the high 400s and low 500s, presses under 200#, and Olympic lifts that, while certainly respectable, are not indicative of strength/power specialization.

Is the idea that we need to specialize in strength and power contrary to CrossFit's prescription of constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity?  Or is it necessary to focus on strength and power in order to maximize performance across broad time and modal domains?

Post thoughts to comments.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Quality Of Movement

CrossFit prescribes functional movements, and defines these as movements which move large loads, long distances, quickly. In other words, functional movements are movements which produce a lot of power. There are a whole lot of movements that meet these criteria, but some of them are more fundamental, more powerful, and ultimately more valuable to our fitness than others, and thus should make up the bulk of our training. In this post, we're going to talk about these movements: what they are and why they're valuable.

The Big Question

The first thing we have to do is determine which movements are most valuable to our fitness. But how do we do that? The question we use to decide how valuable a movement is to us is what relevant benefits do I gain from this exercise that I can't get anywhere else? (Credit goes to Russ Greene for coining this question in its particular phrasing.)

But what exactly are relevant benefits?

Relevant benefits are those which carry over well to other movements, and thus create the greatest increases in work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

Let's apply that question to a few movements and see what we come up with.

What relevant benefits do we get from the squat that we can't get anywhere else?

The squat may be the most important movement for CrossFitters to master. This is mainly due to one factor that is unique to the squat: squatting is the only movement which takes the hip joint through it's full range of motion. Almost of CrossFit's movements, from running to Olympic lifting to kipping pullups, derive their power from the hips, and taking that joint through it's full range of motion is crucial to developing control and strength over it.

What relevant benefits do we get from the Olympic lifts that we can't get anywhere else?

The Olympic lifts - the snatch and clean & jerk, in their various incarnations - are more capable of producing power than any other movements in the CrossFitters arsenal. In addition to this, they demand high levels of competency in the four neurological standards of fitness (agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.) Done at low repetitions with heavy weight, they will greatly increase the athletes ability to create power, not only with a barbell but when running, jumping, pushing, pulling, throwing, punching, and kicking. At high repetitions with light-to-moderate weight, the metabolic demand of Olympic lifting is hard to match, and there may be no better way to test the athletes ability to perform technically complex movements while severely stressed and fatigued.

What relevant benefits do we get from running that we can't get anywhere else?

Running is important. Very important. For our prehistoric ancestors, good running was the difference between surviving and perishing, going healthy or going hungry, getting away or getting eaten. Though most of us don't have to run for our lives in the literal sense, it is still a component of most physical activities modern humans undertake, from sports to warfare to playing with your kids, and thus it is still extremely important to our fitness that we become competent runners. Running is one of the only monostructural exercises completely natural to our physiology. Though there are definite benefits to activities like jumping rope, rowing, and swimming, we simply weren't built to jump up and down in place, sit in a boat and move, or propel ourselves through water.

We've seen how these movements answer our big question. Now let's have a look at a movement that doesn't do quite as good a job, and is also one of the most over programmed movements by many athletes and affiliates: the burpee. Please note, this movement still has benefit! It just shouldn't be a significant part of your training. Here's why:

What relevant benefits do we get from burpees that we can't get anywhere else?

The burpee is touted as being the movement which moves the body through it's greatest possible range of motion: from lying prone on the floor to jumping fully extended into the air. It is also claimed that the burpee is valuable because it contains a pushup, a squat, and a jump. However, the burpee contains within itself a contradiction: Our goal within almost any CrossFit workouts is to maximize power output, which necessitates doing the movements more quickly. With almost all CrossFit movements, including the Olympic lifts, running, squatting, kipping pullups, muscle-ups, doing the movements with better form also leads to doing them more quickly. The burpee, however, does not work like this. If you do a burpee with a full pushup, a squat with good back position and weight on heels, and a good, high jump, it takes a lot longer than simply sprawling back, slapping your chest and thighs to the ground, pulling your feet up and hopping an inch in the air. Therefore, in order to maximize power output, we must use worse form. Not only are none of the movements contained within the burpee unique to it, when going as fast as possible we aren't even doing those movements. Lastly, the burpee places virtually no stress on the central nervous system, that is to say, there is very little skill component.

Ultimately, what this means is that there are no relevant benefits you can get from burpees that you cannot get elsewhere, in greater degree.

Though undoubtedly metabolically demanding, the burpee offers little else, and should not be used more than once or twice a month at very most. A good example of this is the CrossFit Workout Of The Day. Pick any given month, and count the amount of times you see burpees done. Then count the amount of times you see squatting movements, Olympic lifts, running, and pullups.

Can you think of any other movements that offer relevant benefits you can't get anywhere else? How about other movements that are overused and less beneficial than some may think?

Post thoughts to comments.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Advancing The Intermediate CrossFitter, Part 4: Incorporating Advanced and High Skill movements into your training.

When first starting CrossFit, most people will not be able to incorporate advanced and high skill movement into their training, at least not in the context of timed WODs.  The intermediate CrossFitter has had enough experience with these movements in an untimed setting that he is ready to start incorporating some of them into his workouts.

First, we need to differentiate between "advanced" and "high skill" movements.

Advanced movements are movements with a relatively low requirement of technical capacity and a relatively high requirement of physical capacity. These include movements such as L-pullups, handstand pushups, pistols (one legged squats,) and legless rope climbs.  These movements aren't neurologically complex, but performing them at high reps, particularly in the context of a high speed metcon workout is tremendously difficult.

High skill movements are movements that in their most simple form require a high level of technical capacity.  They may also require a high level of physical capacity, but that is not what defines them as high skill movements.  This category includes muscle-ups, Olympic lifting, double unders, and any gymnastics movements beyond the muscle-up (think handstands, levers, planches, freestanding HSPU, iron crosses, etc.)

There are a lot of ways to incorporate these movements into your WOD.  Let's look at advanced movements first.  Let's say we have an athlete who is starting to get competent with L-pullups and handstand pushups, but not so competent that he could do something like the 15-1/1-15 handstand pushup/L-pullup countdown.  A good option for this athlete would be something like this:

5 rounds for time

5 L-pullups

5 handstand pushups

30 squats

The numbers on the L-pullup and handstand pushup are low enough that the athlete will be able to move through them pretty quickly, and blazing through the squats will allow the upper body to recover while also challenging the athletes metabolic conditioning.

Incorporating high skill movements is very similar.  You want to program them in a way which allows you to complete all the reps without undue struggle (it should be hard, but you shouldn't be missing more than a couple reps in the WOD) and which ensures that the intended effect of the workout is created (that is, if it's a metcon WOD, you should be laid out on the floor afterwards.)  Here's a good example of this:

Complete as many rounds as possible in 12 minutes:

2 muscle-ups

15 box jumps @ 20"

Once again, the reps are low enough that the athlete shouldn't have too much trouble completing them quickly and without interruption, and the box jumps will do a great job of ensuring metabolic annihilation.

The key difference in programming high skill movements is that there should be no other movements that muscularly interfere with the muscle-up.  In the L-pullup/handstand pushup/squat WOD, the L-pullups and handstand pushups can affect each other, but because the technical capacity for both movements is fairly low, this is not too much of a problem.  When neurological complexity comes into play, like in the muscle-up, you don't want anything to interfere with that movement (this applies only when the athlete is still new to and relatively incomptent in the movement.)  The box jumps create an opportunity for the upper body to recover, so that they facilitate the muscle-ups rather than impeding them.

As an intermediate CrossFitter, it is important to start developing competence in performing advanced and high skill movements at high intensity.  These strategies will do a good job of helping you accomplish that.

This completes the series "Advancing The Intermediate CrossFitter."  I hope these posts have been helpful.  More posts will be coming soon, including discussions on quality movements, incorporating heavy metcons into your training, prehab/rehab strategies, and more.

Happy training!

Post thoughts to comments.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Advancing The Intermediate CrossFitter, Part 3: What to do when progress stops.

There will inevitably come a point in your training when progress slows or even stops.  The intermediate CrossFitter will be one of the better performers in the group classes held at his or her affiliate. Adequate competition will be irregular, and this can have a negative effect on motivation. This athlete will sometimes be held back due to the lack of time the coach can spend working with him on complex movements, due to the need to spend a lot of time teaching basic movements to new athletes.  In the case of the intermediate CrossFitter who trains alone, motivation is probably not a problem, but the need for coaching on complex movements may be even more prevalent.  We will address both cases in this post.

Outclassed:  What to do when group classes aren't enough.

It's bound to happen.  If it's your goal to be more than a "casual CrossFitter," there will come a point when training with casual CrossFitters isn't going to work.  You need more advanced and technical coaching, you need training partners who understand what needs to be done and how to do it (that is, your training partners should be competent as coaches,) and most importantly, YOU NEED COMPETITION!  A big part of the reason the WOD is so successful is that it provides daily competition for everyone involved.  So when those group classes aren't making the cut anymore, what can you do?

Organize with your fellow Intermediate CrossFitters.

Wherever you train, the odds are that you aren't the only athlete with this problem.  Find other people at your affiliate who are serious about their training and are having trouble making progress coming to group classes.  Arrange with them to come to the same classes, spend time together before/after class working on skills, and compete both within and outside of the WOD.  Set challenges:  Who will be the first person in the group to...snatch bodyweight?  Get 50 pullups?  Do "Fran" in under 3 minutes?

Another huge advantage of having a dedicated group is that many affiliates offer private training at a discounted rate for groups.  With 3-5 people, you can most likely afford regular private training sessions with one of your affiliates coaches to work on complex movements in detail.

I train alone...with nobody else.

If you've achieved an intermediate level of fitness as defined on this blog while training on your own, motivation is probably not an issue for you.  However, you will probably need coaching on advanced techniques (the Olympic lifts in particular come to mind.)  Your best option is to schedule a few private training sessions with an CrossFit trainer within reasonable distance.  This will cost a pretty penny, but it's well worth it.  Make sure you do your research and find the best trainer you can!

Post thoughts to comments.

Next post, and the last in this series, will be Advancing The Intermediate CrossFitter Part 4: Programming advanced/high skill movements into your training.