Crossfit: Preparing for the Unknown


I once interviewed a former Army Special Forces Captain, and we talked about his experiences as a Green Beret. We got into an interesting discussion on the image of the Green Berets vs. the Navy SEALs, and he had this to say:

“The U.S. Army Special Forces like to call themselves the ‘Quiet Professionals.’  We pride ourselves on doing our jobs, not saying anything about it, and then just melting away in the dark like those scary blobs in the Patrick Swayze movie Ghost.  We don’t brag; we don’t show off… 

“But I actually think that this total embrace of the ‘Quiet Professional’ attitude and culture hurts Green Berets.  Why?  Because nobody knows who we are or what we do! 

“I literally want to punch myself in the groin every time I’ve been cornered in a conversation to eventually explain what the Green Berets are and say, ‘Uh… yeah, we’re like the Navy SEALs, but for the Army.’  The worst is when they say back, ‘Oh you’re an Army SEAL?’

“…there is one enormous category that the Navy SEALs have us Green Berets beat hands-down and twice on Sunday in: marketing.  Man, the SEALs sure do know how to market and sell themselves.  A joke in Special Forces is

“‘Q: How do you know a Navy SEAL is in the room?  

“‘A: He’ll tell you.’

“Sure, funny, and makes fun of their egos, but you know what?  Navy SEALs get way more ass than Green Berets, and it shows when we have to explain ourselves as ‘Army SEALs’ for anybody to even understand what we do for a living.”  

In business marketing, there’s this idea that it doesn’t matter if you show up first.  What matters is if you are first in people’s minds.  In the fitness world, we have a similar phenomenon with CrossFit.

Back in 2005, I was a training a client, a dotcom woman who liked to party.  I was showing her various exercises, exercises she was completely unfamiliar with, and as I’m training her, she tells me, “I’ve never done these exercises before.  Is this like CrossFit?”

“Uh, no.  You know, there was Cross Fit before CrossFit. We called it cross-training.”

You may think that CrossFitters invented everything from kettlebells and tire flipping to gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting, but CrossFit is really a case of good marketing.  Kettlebells, strongman training, gymnastics and weightlifting all existed before CrossFit.  CrossFit just combined various established training modalities, repackaged it and sold it to people who had no clue.

The brand of CrossFit is so pervasive that mainstream gyms will even have a designated CrossFit area (an open area with ropes, kettlebells, gymnastic rings, tractor tires and jump boxes) even though they’re not affiliated with CrossFit.

Cross Fit before there was Crossfit

In the early days of bodybuilding, a bodybuilder was not just a bodybuilder, but a strongman, an Olympic-style weightlifter and a gymnast as well.  In the old days, a bodybuilder was a complete strength athlete.

A prime example of the complete strength athlete was the legendary John Grimek. Grimek not only won the Mr. America twice as a bodybuilder, but he was also an Olympic weightlifter representing the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Grimek looked strong, because he was incredibly strong. Grimek was squatting over 400 pounds well into his 60s. Grimek was also a skilled gymnast who could perform a number of gymnastic exercises, such as handstand pushups.  In the old days, a bodybuilder was fit across many strength disciplines.  Cross Fit existed before CrossFit the chain.

Some of the training methods that people would consider hallmarks of CrossFit training, such as circuits and high rep Olympic lifting, existed long before CrossFit the chain.  High rep clean and jerks were used by old time bodybuilders for rapid muscle gain, similar to 20 rep breathing squats. Ironman Magazine editor Peary Rader wrote of a lifter who

“used the clean and jerk as an exercise in a weight gaining experiment… He went on this program of clean and jerks… with all the poundage he could use correctly for the required number of reps (about 15 to 20). 

“He immediately began gaining weight very rapidly and was amazed that the practice of this one lift or exercise could have such a profound effect on his body. Subsequently others of us have made similar experiments with this lift and found that it not only was a good weight gaining medium but also developed strength, endurance, speed, and timing that nothing else could give us. We also found it to be the toughest workout we have ever had.”

Bodybuilder Tom Platz, best known for his freakish leg development, trained in an all-out, explosive style similar to CrossFit.  Tom randomly varied the volume of his workouts between high reps and low reps with heavy weight.  Tom was known to have taken the change in his pocket to determine his rep range for the day: “First set, 80 reps of T-bar rows.”

One workout Tom would squat eight reps with 635 pounds, and on another he would squat 52 reps with 350 pounds. On numerous occasions, Tom squatted 225 pounds for 10 minutes straight for more than 100 reps.

What is CrossFit?

On its official website CrossFit is defined as “constantly varied functional movement performed at high intensity.”  No two workouts are the same, and they tend to combine 2-3 different types of movements in a circuit:

  1. Weight lifting (i.e. cleans, snatches, deadlifts, front squats, overhead squats)
  2. Calisthenics (i.e. dips, pull-ups, push-ups, box jumps)
  3. Cardio (i.e. sprints, jump rope, rowing machine)

These circuits usually have a time element, which forces the lifter to perform high volumes of work in a short time span.  Incorporating all of these elements (weight lifting, calisthenics, cardio, time) a CrossFit workout would look like this:

3 rounds for time of:
Run 800 meters
275-lb. deadlifts, 7 reps
10 burpee pull-ups
53-lb. single arm kettlebell thrusters, 14 reps (7 each arm)
20 box jumps, 24-inch box

As you can see, a CrossFit workout is very intense, since you’re alternating between strength effort and cardio stress.  CrossFit workouts are major fat-burners, since you’re cramming high volumes of work in short periods of time.   High density workouts, where you’re doing more work per unit of time, also improve your conditioning.

There are, however, two major drawbacks to CrossFit:

  1. The randomness of the workouts don’t build strength over the long term.
  2. The performance of highly technical exercises under extreme fatigue and with poor form can cause acute and chronic injury.

If you follow the CrossFit workout of the day (WOD) and use that as your only program, then you’ll never get truly strong.

Randomly varying the movements and program parameters from WOD to WOD make it difficult to build strength in certain movements over time.  Most of the CrossFit WODs are metabolic conditioning (metcon) workouts where you’re performing super high reps.   You do a heavy max effort lift only once every 1-2 weeks.  Since you don’t frequently train heavy, your strength goes down.  Strength is a skill, and skills must be practiced frequently in order to be maintained or improved.

The other issue with CrossFit is the performance of explosive technical lifts at high reps under extreme fatigue.  The problem with high rep snatches and muscle-ups is that these lifts require precise form, otherwise you risk injury.  You may perform perfect technique on the first 6 -10 reps, but as you approach higher reps you’ll start to fatigue.  Under fatigue your technique starts to degrade, which leaves your shoulder joints and back vulnerable.

“The advanced athletes who win and place at the CrossFit Games do not use CrossFit website programming to achieve advanced levels of the strength and conditioning necessary to perform at that level. None of them. This is widely known and freely admitted by everyone not involved with the company.”

  • Mark Rippetoe

So if you want to compete at a CrossFit competition, then how do you train for it?  Many successful CrossFit competitors either modify CrossFit WODs or flat-out avoid doing them when preparing for a CrossFit competition.  To be good at CrossFit, you don’t do CrossFit.

To be a better athlete you have to do the one thing CrossFit doesn’t want you to do: structure your workouts through periodization.  You can’t train unpredictably for the unpredictable.  You need to predictably and consistently train your strength qualities in order to improve them.

Strength is the foundation upon which all physical qualities are built.  More strength means more power and more endurance.  If you train solely for endurance, then only your endurance improves.  If you train for strength, then all other physical qualities (power, endurance, speed) improve.  Hence, all things being equal, the stronger athlete is the better athlete.

CrossFit metcon WODs improve your conditioning and endurance, but they don’t improve your maximal strength.  Rather than follow the CrossFit WODs daily, you should follow a strength periodization program and do a CrossFit metcon WOD once a week or once a month.

To Be Good at CrossFit, You Don’t Do CrossFit

The following is a training template you can use to prepare for CrossFit competition.  Rather than varying the exercises from workout to workout, you’ll do the exact opposite and do the same exercises over and over.

First you need to figure out what are the typical CrossFit exercises you’re just not good at.  Then you’ll divide these exercises into 4 categories:

  1. Technical calisthenics (calisthenics which require a high degree of technique or coordination, such as muscle-ups and handstand walks)
  2. Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk)
  3. Maximal strength lifts (front squat, deadlift)
  4. Strength calisthenics (these are calisthenics which require a high degree of strength as opposed to skill, such as pull-ups, dips, pistols and handstand pushups)

Once you’ve figured out these exercises, you’ll plug them into this workout template:

  1. Technical calisthenics: 2 sets of 5 reps
  2. Olympic lift: 5 sets of 3 reps
  3. Maximal strength lift: 5 sets of 5 reps
  4. Strength calisthenics: 1 set of as many reps as possible (AMRAP)

Here’s a sample program with the exercises plugged in:

Workout A Workout B
  1. Muscle-up: 2 sets of 5 reps
  2. Clean and jerk: 5 sets of 3 reps
  3. Deadlifts: 5 sets of 5 reps
  4. Pistols: 1 set of AMRAP
1.     Handstand walks: 2 sets for distance

2.     Snatch: 5 sets of 3 reps

3.     Front squat: 5 sets of 5 reps

4.     Pull-ups: 1 set of AMRAP

Alternate between A and B workouts throughout the week, 5-6 workouts per week.  Once a week do a metcon WOD to keep your conditioning up.

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