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Hey, CrossFit. What are you?

If you’ve ended up on a CrossFit blog, you probably have some idea what CrossFit is; most people reading this will come to classes and they tell their friends all about it (and the friends stop inviting them to BBQs) and you might not need a blog post to tell you what CrossFit is. However, I’ll take the opportunity to retrace a few of the fundamental concepts of CrossFit training and talk about what things like “intensity” and “varied” mean. Reading this should help you decide to scale back workouts and realise you’re still very much doing CrossFit.

Training for longevity and work capacity has incredible reach into long term quality of life

CrossFit defines itself as “constantly varied, high-intensity functional movement”. And this gets a fair amount of criticism. If the workouts are constantly varied, how can you build progressive overload into the programming? Should high-skill work be done at high-intensity? What is functional about a muscle up? I’m not going to tackle these criticisms head on, as I think just talking about the ideas ― variation, intensity and function ― will both address these questions and help you reflect on your approach to WODs in the Box.


What’s varied?

And notes on Progressive Overload

CrossFit WODs can be subdivided in many different ways:

  • short and long WODs (time domain)

  • weightlifting, gymnastics, monostructural and mixed movements (modal domain)

  • heavy, constantly moving, sprints etc (stimulus)

  • high or low skill (skill level)

And these are the key elements that are mixed.

We’ll expand on each of these categories later, and how the ‘variety’ can still incorporate progressive overload. For now, it’s worth just looking at how WODs can incorporate variety across these categories.

A heavy day, for example, is characterised by a lot of rest. This rest can be structured, like doing 5 sets of a movement in an E3MOM format, or unstructured by putting a heavy movement into a workout that is going to force you to slow down and break your pace. The heavy section, then, has a short working time (even if the actual WOD takes 25 minutes). Across the week, though, you will also see longer or higher volume WODs (like Cindy - AMRAP20 of pull ups, press ups and air squats) and shorter sprints (like Fran, 21-15-9 Thrusters and pull ups) ― and these will tend to make room for skill work in the 1 hour class.

But then, you can have an entire month with a heavy-focus, mixing heavier workouts with shorter domains, leaving the longer workouts as a lower priority.


What’s intensity

Watt's intensity. Am I right? Hahaha. Sorry.

One of the most common mistakes in approaching a WOD is to think that if the focus of CrossFit is intensity, then the goal is to start hard and hold that. I do it, you’ve done it, we all do it. There is even value in occasionally digging yourself into a hole and then fighting to hold it… occasionally. Intensity is more nuanced than that, though. To have started hard, but finished the workout slowly, is to have actually performed low-intensity on average across the workout. Similarly, to push yourself hard today and, as a result, not come in tomorrow, is to have performed low-intensity across the week.

Perhaps even more importantly, to come in hot 7 days a week and, as a result, burn out and take a month off, is to have performed low-intensity across a year or a lifetime. If you’re young and bouncy, you might be able to make some of these decisions without feeling the consequences straight away. But, the nuance of intensity still matters. The intensity is something you have to be able to hit consistently.

On top of you making those decisions for your body, and in the context of your lifestyle and diet and social life ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, there is also an intended intensity or stimulus of the workout. Sometimes that is controlled for you; movements like Box jumps, for example, have a maximum speed or a heavy barbell can intentionally slow you down. Most of the time, however, the expectation will be that you control the intensity by taking off weight or controlling volume or adapting movements to what you can do. Coaches can help you make that decision by telling you a goal: something that if you beat by a lot you made the WOD too easy and if you don’t meet you overestimated your performance.

Intensity is the quality that you can apply progressive overload to. In technical terms, you’ll have had an average wattage throughout the workout and achieving a higher wattage next time you have a similar time domain is progressive overload. You can only achieve this if you pick a sustainable intensity. This principle is no different from traditional strength progressive overload; the goal isn’t to come in and hit your max every week. With a more varied workout regime, there’s a number of ways progressive overload can be achieved passively by consistently turning up, or by intentional pacing:

  • shorter breaks in similar rep schemes,

  • more reps unbroken,

  • slightly more weight on the bar (or a slighter higher percentage of Rx weights),

  • scaling up the movement,

  • Natural pacing changes when you’re in for the short and long WODs

Generally, this progressive overload requires that you start off with modest scaling. It is worth setting a strategy (rep scheme, break times, weight) that you think will be easy to hold for the whole workout, and building on that over time. Sensible programming will cycle you through all the different stimuluses, and a sensible approach will let you progress.


What’s functional movement?

Hey, hun, I'm just double undering to the shops...

On top of the three broad categories of movement (monostructural, gymnastics and weightlifting) which can be mixed together to create a WOD, CrossFit is also interested in the ‘skills’ or elements of fitness that each move practices. It is the development of these skills that defines a ‘functional’ movement, instead of some one-to-one mapping of an exercise movement to everyday tasks.

These elements of fitness are:

Cardiovascular and Respiratory endurance, Stamina, Strength, Flexibility, Power, Speed, Coordination, Agility, Balance, and Accuracy

What this means is that getting a heavier snatch isn’t meant as a one-to-one functional movement for how you should put something on the top shelf; it’s rare that you’ll have a need to put something overhead with speed. Instead, getting better at the snatch is pushing the needle forwards in terms of strength, power, speed, accuracy and mobility. Those skills are functional, not the exact movement.

Similar reasoning follows for the function of a ring muscle up; I can’t imagine a time you’d have to pull yourself up between two suspended handles. Instead, developing the skills for a ring muscle up means developing agility and power. And the pistol relies on flexibility, balance and strength.

The discussion around functional fitness deserves a separate post, so we’ll expand on this soon.

Fitness

What is fitness? What should it be? Where am I?

If you think of “Fitness” as the quality of fitting a requirement - your fit-ness relative to your needs - then you can see the biology definition (‘Survival of the fittest’, referring to an individual’s ability to ‘fit’ the demands of its home) and the sports-specifc definition (Lasha Talakhadze is supremely fit for Olympic Lifting, but probably not for running a 10k, and the inverse is probably true for Mo Farrah). To make sense, then, of general fitness or physical fitness we have to sort of invent the requirement. You might invent a requirement like longevity (prolonging the amount of your life where you are physically capable/avoiding decrepitude).

To increase longevity, then, you may argue that what you have to do is develop the basic skills of physical activity (the Elements of Fitness) to a higher level, so that you have level of those skills in reserve as you go into old age. And that idea is supported by research.

CrossFit has its own definition of fitness:

your work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

There can’t be a singular test of this, that’s why even though Hyrox looks a bit like CrossFit, it isn’t. It is also why the CrossFit Open is over several weeks and the CrossFit Games has several events per day over several days: the name of the game is testing several elements of fitness, in long and short workouts, utilising all movement types.

Competitive CrossFit is not the be-all and end-all of this definition. In fact, things you might do in training ― like strict pull ups ― won’t come up in competitive CrossFit because of logistical questions around judging appropriateness of the movements (‘was that a kip?’). And CrossFit also isn’t the gatekeeper of fitness; other definitions exist in many different formats. For example, the broader training method of Functional Fitness often includes ‘proprioception’ (a precise awareness of where your body is ― similar, but not identical, to coordination) in a list of skills of fitness and that means incorporating some movements that look more like tai chi.

I can’t tell you which end-goal of fitness to value. But, I can make the case that a combination of longevity and work capacity has incredible reach into long term quality of life.


Testing fitness

There are physiological measures of fitness, like a measure of maximum amount of oxygen your body can use (VO2 max). No one physiological measure is particularly good for measuring fitness as they only relate to one or two elements of fitness at a time, and a well-programmed physical test would reveal much the same as a battery of physiological tests and scans on lean muscle mass and resting heart rate etc.

A physical test doesn’t have to be well-programmed, though. There is another option that incorporates the ‘unknown and unknowable’ mantra of CrossFit: the Hopper. A hopper is like a big barrel that you draw bingo numbers out of. Only, for this, instead of numbers it is any one of an infinite number of activities and workouts. The result might not end up being a balanced test of fitness, but the process of preparing for that test would mean being ready for anything: digging a 1m by 1m hole in the ground, lugging bricks around a ranch, running, lifting ― whatever you can think to put in the hopper you have to train for; so the training regime would build fitness.

That idea of work capacity comes back to intensity. In physics, if you hold a high wattage for time, after that time you will have done a lot of work. So, your capacity to do work is about your capacity to sustain high wattage. On deadlift days, that means lifting the heavy thing. But in an AMRAP that means keeping the reps going and when performing for time that means getting it done quicker. And, in all likelihood, for most of us, we will get more work done - do more fitness - if we scale it back and pace ourselves.

And, yes, I’m saying this to convince myself just as much as to convince you.



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