Considering I work in a military environment, I frequently get questions about CrossFit and similar training styles. Initially when I was asked questions such as “What’s your Fran time?” I would end up going off on an endless rant and somehow insult their mothers in the process. Over time, with copious amounts of court ordered counselling, I’ve actually developed a sort of appreciation for CrossFit and the like. I wouldn’t go as far as recommending the WOD (Workout of the Day) but there is a lot we could all learn from this training “style”. I personally love the psychological “factor” which is inevitably triggered when pushing yourself past your perceived physical limits. I’m also a big fan of Gymnastics movements and their carryover to real world applications. Either way I’ve grown fond of some aspects of this extremely popular new age cult.
Several months ago I was approached by an individual who had the very specific goal of competing in the CrossFit Games and wanted to know what the best path to follow was in terms of training, progression and periodization.
If you don’t know what the CF Games are, it’s a 3-day event comprised of some very fit individuals who compete in approximately 3 (sometimes 4) mini-competitions per day. The competitions are random in nature but have a tendency to test many physical qualities such as maximal strength, skill (past events include softball toss, handstand walks, L-Sit, Spike drive etc…), and obviously work capacity. Although, as mentioned earlier, I’m not a huge fan of CrossFit WOD’s, I truly love the idea of the CF Games as it gives an opportunity for those who love to train to now compete in something tailored specifically for them.
In order to effectively answer the question of training for the CF Games I decided to do what I’m well known for and which has afforded me great success in the past - obsess!
I spent literally hundreds of hours (no exaggeration) doing my research into everything related to CrossFit – from the movements all the way to the games themselves. I even gave some aspects of CrossFit a go (namely including some of the gymnastics movements into my own training and even experimenting with psychological growth in training). Although before beginning this obsessive search I had a good idea what the answer to the question would be, this search only confirmed my previous ideas on the subject.
The 1st step to training for the CrossFit Games (or really any physically driven sport) is to #1 Develop and perfect all the necessary skills involved in this sport AND #2 Get strong.
Let me explain why.
If you look at the top competitors in every single sport, you’ll notice that they’ve all spent years perfecting their technique/skill - whether it’s an Olympic Weightlifters, a Rower, a Gymnast or a soccer player.
The reason why their success was heavily due to their perfect technique is simply because of efficiency. The better their technique, the less energy is wasted. The less energy wasted, the more energy they can direct to their sport or exercise (They’re not only more efficient but also have a much lower chance of sustaining injuries).
The same applies for the CF Games. If you compare two individuals say Joe Blow who has perfect technique in both the Snatch and Rope Climb; and Big J who’s technique is subpar in these two lifts, who do you think will use up more energy? Big J obviously considering he has energy leaks due to imperfect technique and will therefore not be able to fully direct his energy to the task at had.
Although the CrossFit organization deems perfect technique as unnecessary and somewhat detrimental to the goal at hand, most have misinterpreted this statement as technique doesn’t matter. If technique truly didn’t matter then why is it that all the top finishers tend to also have excellent technique (although not always perfect). The top competitors know that technique doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect but needs to be both extremely efficient and safe from an injury standpoint.
Another interesting fact is if you listen to interviews with the top finishers in the CF Games, it seems they all have the same answer to the following question: What could you do to improve?
Their answer always seems to be: work on my technique and strength.
A big mistake I see with individuals looking to compete in events similar to the CF Games is jumping straight into the hard stuff. They might spend 4 weeks (if that) learning the basics of all the lifts and immediately they’ll start mind numbingly difficult circuits. Watch any of these individuals and even someone who doesn’t know a thing about technique will be able to identify the issue. Needless to say there’s a reason that the average CrossFitter experiences such a high rate of injury: their technique sucks. Add in some load and problems will occur…it’s just a matter of time.
This is not my opinion but reality. A study was done by the Canadian Military to identify which sports had the highest rates of injuries. Guess who came out top? CrossFit. Although I don’t believe the programming was the primary culprit (although it didn’t help), I believe it was a lack of focus on technique by the practitioners.
So how do you work on skill? Follow these tips and I promise the results will be well worth the patience:
- Find a good Coach: Get someone who has spent years coaching in the sport or activity you’re looking to learn. When I wanted to learn Olympic Weightlifting, I found a mentor/expert in the area and spent a year under his tutelage. To learn Gymnastics moves I started taking lessons (On a site note, I’m by far the least elegant individual they’ve ever seen…). The point is finding a good coach will save you so much time and energy that it’s well worth the $30 dollars a month or whatever you’ll end up spending.
- Practice the skill frequently. In other words if you want to get good at the snatch, work on it several times each week being sure to focus on PERFECT technique. Want to be able to perform a freestanding handstand? Well then work on it every single day.
- Keep loads/reps relatively low. Don’t go to failure if you’re looking to get good at a skill. All that will happen is your technique will break down and you’ll reinforce poor motor patterns. That being said don’t make the mistake of never increasing the load or number of repetitions as this will prevent you from ever achieving high levels of performance.
- Take lots of rest. Since it’s a skill you’re learning, you want to be fresh every time you approach this skill. For heavy lifts, try resting 3-5 minutes in between sets. For skills such as handstands, try a minute or so. The specifics don’t really matter as it’s completely different from one person to the next. Just remember to feel relatively fresh every time you practice the skill.
From a purely programming point of view, strength should always be a fundamental component of any strength & conditioning program no matter what the goal. Unfortunately many who adopt the “no pain no gain” mentality have a tendency to shy away from optimal strength development. Maybe it’s because truly focusing on strength means other qualities must be put on the backburner (i.e. you can’t be performing several balls-to-the-wall circuits throughout the week if your goal is to increase your max Deadlift). Or maybe it’s simply that a strength focused program typically leaves you feeling “fresh” at the end of the workout (if it’s properly structured) instead of the nauseated feeling associated with CF.
Either way, with the exception of skill, strength is by far the greatest limiting factor I see in most individuals.
So why is strength development so damn important for a CrossFitter?
Two main reasons.
In the CF Games you may (very highly likely) be tested on your ability to move very heavy loads and will therefore need a high level of strength to place high. Take the 2010 games as an example. One of the events required an individual to lift upwards of 500lbs in the deadlifts in order to receive 1st place points. In 2011 there was a max lift test which included a weighted pull up. Either way a high level of strength was a requirement in order to complete the event.
The other reason why strength development should be of primary focus by most (especially the CF athletes) is based on the % of your rep max.
In other words, the stronger you are, the less energy will be required to lift a submaximal weight. Say your 1RM for the deadlift is 500lbs and your workout requires lifting 315lbs for multiple repetitions - this means you’ll be working at 63% of your rep max.
On the other hand, let’s assume your deadlift is 400lbs and you’re following the same workout - now you’re at 78% of your rep max.
Using common sense, who do you think will use up more energy – a 500lb deadlifter or 400lb deadlifter?
Obviously the 500lb deadlifter!
For some real world examples let’s look at MMA Strength & Conditioning Coach Martin Rooney. He began his career training his fighters using a high number of metabolic circuits. What he noticed was a great improvement in the fighters’ ability to perform these circuits. Unfortunately this didn’t apply in the ring and they ended up gassing out early on in the fight.
He then took a step back and revamped his training, focusing on maximal strength development while limiting the number of circuits. As his fighters strength levels soared, so did their performance in the ring. The reasoning is simply because they now required less energy to do tasks that before required them to work at a higher percentage of their 1RM.
I briefly touched upon this in the T-Nation article Building the Supersoldier. What I noticed is Tactical athletes who weren’t strong but could run forever had trouble in hairy situations. When their max strength increased, their ability to ruck heavier loads with ease improved along with how they moved went under fire.
As for guidelines concerning optimal strength development:
- Pick 1 or 2 of your weakest movements and make sure to perform them about twice each week.
- Shy away from failure but be sure to use a relatively heavy load
- Beginners should stick with around 5-8 repetitions or so and focus on really getting technique perfected.
- Intermediates and advanced should perform between 1-3 reps per set aiming for a weight above 90% of their 1RM.
- Rest until you feel fresh enough to lift again BUT add on 30 more seconds to be sure your NS is good to go.
- Don’t try to get strong in every single lift all at the exact same time and you will go nowhere and end up getting hurt!
Although I do openly criticise certain aspects of CrossFit, I do have great respect for CrossFitters as they have something many do not: mental drive. As for CrossFit as an organization, I find they have marketed a type of training and emphasized certain aspects of training that was previously ignored.
Therefore if your goal is to train for the CrossFit games or something similar (such as Spartan Races), start by building your strength base and perfecting your skill/technique. Once that’s done, focus can finally be put on the more “fun” stuff such as crazy-ass circuits which leave you hurling and quivering.
Next post I’ll make sure to include a sample 4-week program for all those aspiring to make it to the CF Games.
Finally, I can't finish a CrossFit article without including a picture of fellow Quebecer and CF Athlete Camille Leblanc-Bazinet.