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.