CrossFit began in the early 2000's as a free exercise program dedicated to constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. The Workout of the Day (WOD) published daily on CrossFit.com created a cult like following with garage CrossFitters, active duty military personnel, and globo gym goes who were quickly on their way to getting kicked out for grunting. CrossFit soon moved to a warehouse space nearest you and provided a fun, energetic, and every changing workout to bring your fitness to the next level. Bicep curls were out and cleans became standard practice for the former athlete and soccer mom alike. This is CrossFit at it's finest as a fitness program.
In 2007 at his parents ranch in California, Dave Castro brought a few of his friends out to compete in the first ever CrossFit Games. He deemed the winners of this multi day event to be the Fittest on Earth. As the friendly meeting of exercisers grew, so did its audience and level of athleticism. In direct proportion with audience and TV coverage, these athletes became modern day gladiators lifting heavier and heavier weights, running longer, and walking on their hands better than many Americans on their feet. This is CrossFit at it's finest as a sport.
Both sides of CrossFit have positives that they bring to the fitness community, but the main issue I see arise is when we combine too much of the two. CrossFit as a fitness program should epitomize health at its forefront and competition extremely secondary. Exercise technique is always held as the top priority and load and intensity only increased when form has been achieved. Injury should not be occurring, or a rare occurrence based on a mistake of the athlete or coaches. This fitness program is perfect for everyone with its wide range of scalability in every workout preparing us for anything life throws at us from sitting up from a low chair to rock climbing on the weekends. All of these athletes can still compete, but once a week competing against friends or themselves is plenty. The remainder of their time in the gym should be spent practicing and training.
Now entering the realm of CrossFit as a Sport, competition is at the top of these athletes goals. Although technique is also a priority, these athletes need to be near the top of every fitness related task from gymnastics, to strength, to endurance. Practice and training should be the vast majority of how workouts are conducted. Competition should be saved for a few times a year, namely local competitions, the open, and potentially onto regionals or the games. Just as an NFL player only competes 16 times a year, the remainder of his day revolves around practice, training sessions, and recovery. Additionally, just like any professional athletes, these CrossFit athletes will get injured. At the rate they train and push themselves, it is inevitable. We now look to how we recovery from injuries and do our best to prevent them in the future.
Why is this important to distinguish CrossFit as a fitness program and CrossFit as a sport? Because too often in our gyms these lines are crossed. The vast majority of people walking into our gyms want to be better humans. They want to loose weight, be healthy, move well, learn a few cool moves (handstands are the best party tricks), and maybe light a fire they once had as a high school athlete. These people are here for a fitness program, not to be CrossFit athletes. They are here for 60 minutes, 3-6 times a week, and will never spend enough time recovering, on accessory work, or perfecting their macros to be as safe and effective of an athlete as possible. When a soccer mom hit a PR back squat, then wants to go light in the MetCon, that's okay! When accountant Joe feels a little something in his shoulder during cleans, he should stop or modify the movement. We want to push these individuals to elite fitness, but not push them to injury.
CrossFit athletes however need to do certain things that aren't the safest. They need to push through a certain degree of pain. They need to do kipping handstand pushups that push stress on the cervical spine. They need to do things that will help them win. This is a select few of us, and CrossFitters need to make the distinction between them. Some want to win their heat at Regionals and others just want to live a better life. Make sure your training and coaching aligns with those goals.
We all walk into the gym on a daily basis with different goals. Ultimately, we all tend to want to get fitter, but individually we may differ in other regards. Maybe we want to get our heart rate up to make up for the cheesecake we ate over the weekend. Maybe we want to post the best time on the leader board for the WOD. Maybe we had 4 too many beers while at the beach. Or maybe we just want to catch up with our gym friends and happen to workout by default. Rarely however, does someone walk into the gym and think, "I want to focus on keeping my shoulder blades together and maintain good spinal alignment while deadlifting today." To avoid injury, increase our performance, and have more efficient and effective workouts, we all need to remember the three primary aspects of our workouts: practice, training, and competition.
On a weekly basis, we all should be working in each of those categories. But, especially in our world of CrossFit, where lifting the heaviest, working the fastest, and doing the most reps is king, we tend to neglect how much time we should be doing each of these. In Ben Bergeron's Podcast, "How to Train with Intention," he hits the nail on the head. As CrossFitters, we tend to spend very little time practicing, a lot of time training, and way too much time competing. He defines each of the following below:
Practice - low loads, low heart rates, with the goal of improving movements
Training - heavy loads, high heart rates, with the goal of improving your engine or strength
Competition - max loads, max heart rates, with the goal of beating someone else.
Essentially, we should be practicing about 45% of the time, training about 45% of the time, and only competing about 10% of the time. In short, on a daily basis, you should be practicing about half the workout and training for the other half. Then, once a week, you can crush that workout and compete to your highest level.
Most of us walk into the gym ready to train, often with competition in mind. The leaderboard is both a blessing and a curse. It can be a fun way to compete against your fellow athletes and also extremely supportive when Jane Doe finishes Fran for the first time RX. Fist bumps and comments flood her SugarWOD with amazing support.
However, the downfall comes when someone looks at the scores on a daily basis with the sole intention of winning. I am one of the most competitive people in the gym, but have recently begun to realize, I am just doing it too much. My lifts were hitting a plateau and I was just not improving at the rate I expected. I was spending was too much time competing and never really practicing. I was also trying to win every MetCon, even if form was sacrificed a bit. Keeping this trend is a great way to compete yourself out of shape, or in many cases, into injury.
Given our typical workouts at Aspire Sports Lab, we should be practicing for the first portion of the workout. During warm-up, we should be striving towards perfect form, asking questions, and keeping the load light. As we warm-up our lifts in a strength workout, this should all be practice.
For example, today's Back Squat looked like this:
Back Squat for load: #1: 5 reps @ 45% #2: 5 reps @ 45% #3: 3 reps @ 50% #4: 2 reps @ 60% #5: 5 reps @ 70% #6: 3 reps @ 80% #7: 1+ rep @ 90% (all loads based on 1 RM)
The goal of rounds 1-4 is practice. Work on technique while slowly increasing load. One aspect of the movement should be focused on to correct. As we get into sets 5,6 and 7, now we are training. Although technique is still vital, here we are free to push our body to heavy loads, thus increasing our strength. This translates to 4 sets of practice and only 3 sets of training. Technique is drastically improved through practice, not competition.
Now, our metabolic conditioning portion of the workout (on most days of the week) should be all training. We do want to push our body to intensity, as long as proper technique is maintained. We are not looking for short cuts just to beat Sally on the leaderboard. If you can do it with great form, go for it. But, we should have thought and precision behind all of our movements. Today is for training. Tomorrow may be to compete, but that's not today's goal.
In all, if we truly want to progress as athletes and do it safely, we need to remember where we should spend most of our time. Although we may be tempted to come into the gym and begin training immediately then compete, we are only setting ourselves up for plateaus, injuries, and frustration. Practice everyday. Train everyday. And compete once a week at most!
Watch Ben Bergeron's podcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOobQ4TDVmw
As I have said before, all of us have different goals. One of us may want to compete at the sport of CrossFit, another to look good at the beach, and others be able to play sports with their kids (or all the above!). However, one thing we all should have in common is wanting to get stronger. Lifting heavy prevents muscle degeneration, increase anabolic hormones that burn fat and increase muscle, helps us burn a ton of calories, and makes carrying the cooler to the beach a hell of a lot easier. Gaining strength, contrary to popular belief, does not make the muscles larger (muscle hypertrophy), rather increases the strength of the contractile proteins, actin and myosin, within the muscle fiber.
Our current 12 week program is based heavily on the power lifting program by Jim Wendler that he named the 5/3/1. It utilizes our 1 rep max (RM) to create a percentage based linear program that emphasizes starting light, progressing slowly, and breaking personal records (PRs). I have adapted the essentials of this great power lifting program to fit into our strength goals as CrossFitters: get stronger while still increasing our overall fitness across broad domains.
In our 12 week program, every 4 weeks we repeat a similar rep scheme and percentages of our 1 RM. Out of the 7 sets we are focusing on, the first 4 sets are performed at low load with the focus on technique. As we build, we warm up into our final 3 working sets. The last set, set 7, will be completed until failure, with a goal of hitting a new multi rep PR. This way we are essentially testing each week, trying to hit new PRs and pushing our bodies to the limit. Side note, the limit is our body’s limitations through the movement with perfect form. If technique is not achieved, load and repetitions should not be increased.
Week 1 works around working sets of 5 reps, Week 2 features working sets of 3 reps, and Week 3 features the programs namesake, 5/3/1+ reps. Week 4 is a deload week designed to give our body a rest and let our strength recover. The goal of this week is to go light and pick one thing to improve. Film yourself or have a friend film you. Check out your form and work on that one goal for the day in that particular lift. Trying to set PRs everyday will quickly lead to plateaus at best and injuries at worst. After 4 weeks, we repeat this process with slightly more loads each week.
Is this the only way to get stronger? NO WAY! There are tons of amazing programs that strength coaches utilize to get their athletes to peak performance. What they do all have in common however is emphasizing great technique, increasing loads as time progresses, adding in accessory work to strengthen secondary movers and retesting performance over time. We will use a variety of these techniques at Aspire Sports Lab with one goal always in mind: make you a better, more well-rounded, athlete.
Sean Spire is the Head Coach of ASL. He was a competitive swimmer who discovered CrossFit and Ironman Triathlons. He has his BS in Exercise Science from Florida State University.