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.


John Frazer said...

Good article.

As for other movements, I despise the tuck jump. It hurts my knees, and there's really no standard for what's a proper rep.

Fortunately, the tuck jump is rarely programmed, and most often seen as a substitute for double unders. I also think D/Us are overrated, but at least they relate to coordination and accuracy. (I still hate D/Us, partly because I stink at them; but I stink at them because I've never really felt they were important enough to spend a lot of time practicing.)

John Frazer said...

Also, tire flipping is great fun but overrated for conditioning. Once the tire is over the top, there's not much you can do to get it to fall over faster.

Playing catch at high speeds with medicine balls is underrated, at least as a warmup -- good for coordination and accuracy, as well as strength in varied and unpredictable planes.

Russ said...

One way you can tell a fundamental movement is by looking at what happens to athletes that don't perform them, or perform them poorly.

Athletes that have no experience with running, jumping, or squatting, have very large holes in their athletic preparedness. They will require hours upon hours of serious training to correct these deficiencies.

On the other hand, take an athlete that never does ball slams but excels at the olympic lifts, running, and basic gymnastics. The athlete will very quickly master the ball slam.

Fundamental exercises are truly what makes the pursuit of GPP possible. They enable us to prepare for an infinitely large range of activities by focusing on relatively small number of basic exercises. Mastering the barbell deadlift, for example, will carry over to a nearly unlimited number of not directly-related activities.

Kristi said...

Russ hit on what I was going to say. (Dang you Russ) I was going to mention the deadlift as one of the more beneficial moves that a CFer can do. Its application transcends into so many other areas of live that are vital for day to day living.

John said...

Re: Russ' post, and deadlifts

Deadlifts are an excellent movement because the athlete moves massive amounts of load, compared to other movements. This makes the athlete more comfortable with large loads, possibly increasing other lifts.

Regarding Russ' post, I am not yet convinced that competent crossfitters (by which I mean athletes competent in olympics lifts, power lifts, running, and gymnastics) excel in ALL movements. I want to see how quickly a competent crossfitter would pick up baseball, rollerblading, and swimming, with no previous experience. My hypothesis, of course, is "pretty fast compared to average joe or even football joe", but I want to see an example. Anybody game?

Tsypkin said...


The problem with most sports is that they are manmade. Our physiology was not designed for baseball, swimming, or rollerblading. If we took a CrossFitter with no previous experience in any of these activities and he proved himself adept, we couldn't convincingly demonstrate that CrossFit was the reason, or part of the reason, for that adeptness. I think it's fair to assume, however, that movements which improve our ability to perform those functions which ARE natural to our physiology will carry over to those which are not, since they increase our capacity for adaptation.

Eric said...

Hmm. While I think that most of what you said here is Brilliant, Jacob (especially the discussion on the Burpee). I am nearly laughing at the thought that swimming is not a natural movement that we evolved to perform,. Can you imagine the entire tribe of cavepeople drowning every time they needed to cross the wide river? :] I would postulate that they swam out to catch the occasional meal as well...

Tsypkin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tsypkin said...


If our physiology were adapted to swimming, we'd be good at it. In fact, we'd be as good at it as we are at running, squatting, pushing, and pulling, that is to say, we'd do them naturally. Watch a 5 year old run, squat, climb, etc...then watch him try to swim for the first time. Completely unnatural! Swimming is a useful skill which can be acquired through diligent practice, but in NO WAY have humans adapted or evolved to be good swimmers.

A great example of this is Michael Phelps. Phelps is a tremendous swimmer, the best in history, in fact. This is partially due to the fact that he has certain physical abnormalities which are advantageous for swimming, including an extraordinarily long torso and arms (his wingspan is 3 inches greater than his height of 6'4",) and hyperflexible joints (this is especially useful because he can bend his feet forward further at the ankle and use them more like flippers.) All of these abnormalities are in fact a DISadvantage to normal human movement; Phelps' coach doesn't let him run because it's too hazardous...Phelps is too liable to fall over.

The important thing here is that these disadvantages aren't only applicable to certain movements. We're not talking about having a disadvantage in the squat because you're tall, or a disadvantage at running because you're stocky and heavy. No, Phelps abnormalities make it difficult, in some cases dangerous, for him to run, squat, push, pull...you name it. He would have a lot more trouble surviving the prehistoric age than a normally build caveman who could swim a little but was very good at running, jumping, and climbing.

John and Russ, you both have extensive experience with swimming...care to chime in?

Russ said...

Humans have been swimming for a long time. Native americans used to have swimming contests all the time. It's not a modern invention.

Water is a nearly inescable part of human existence. Everyone should know how to swim, and swim competently.

That said, swimming transfers over remarkably poorly to all other activities.

Tsypkin said...


I think you're confusing "swimming is natural to human existence" with "swimming is natural to human physiology." I agree that swimming is a useful skill, and in some lifestyles it is unavoidable to attain the ability to swim in order to survive. But that does NOT mean that it we have adapted to do it.

To adapt is to "change to suit a new purpose." I challenge you (or anyone) to name one aspect of the human body that has changed to favor swimming.

John said...

The fastest swimmers alive today swim slower than almost any fish, or aquatic mammal, and cannot hold their pace for more than 50 or 100 meters.
It's true that most humans can learn to swim poorly with ease. Horses can also swim poorly, as can elephants.
In water, gravity does not slow you down. The only thing that slows you down is hydrodynamics. The more streamlined you are, the faster you can go. A human must contort himself and be flexible in the arms to be streamlined. I fish merely needs to be a fish.
I agree that humans can swim, but we suck at it. I fancy myself a good swimmer, and it took me years and years to learn proper form. With the help of Jacob and Russ, however, I learned decent running form in a matter of months. Swimming is not natural for us. Swimming badly is natural for us.

Eric said...

You guys have made a strong point. The natural ability to trudge through the water miserably, is far different than the essential movements of running, squatting, and lifting. If we were naturally adapted to swimming more of us would be a mutant like Phelps or Aqua-man.

*Side-note: You guys are doing the exercise community a great service with this blog. Please keep this running. Great work!

Willie said...

"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"

I think this is half right and half wrong. If I do quarter squats, I'm pretty positive I will be faster than if I'm doing squats with proper form. The same could be said for the muscle up.

"To adapt is to 'change to suit a new purpose.' I challenge you (or anyone) to name one aspect of the human body that has changed to favor swimming."

Well, compared to whom I guess? Are physically better adapted to swimming than Lucy? Hell yes. I think the real problem with the neolithic/paleolithic argument is that for the most part, evolution is a spectrum, and saying that we our ancestors weren't built for this or that implies that you're choosing a particular human ancestor to compare to.

On a more concrete point, there have been studies that show native peoples living near the water have eyes that are more adjusted to seeing underwater.

Russ said...

Willie, you are confusing form and ROM.

What you mentioned about the squat and muscleup concerned range of motion, i.e. going all the way down or up. Jacob's critique of the burpee centered on form, mainly the role of the hips and torso when performing burpees at high speed. Almost inevitably the movement resembles a rounded back deadlift to 3 inch verticle jump.

Anonymous said...

They enable us to prepare for an infinitely large range of activities by focusing on relatively small number of basic exercises

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