Its top performers combine strength, speed and skill at levels that scarcely seem possible, but is CrossFit really doing anything new? And if so, what lessons should the rest of us be learning?
For most people, rowing 2000 metres in seven minutes or less is somewhere between impressive and impossible, a feat to be trained and tapered for, and almost certainly the only thing you’d do that day. For Jason Khalipa, returning to the CrossFit Games in an attempt to retake the title he’d claimed in 2009, it was one of a total of 12 workouts he’d do in a long weekend.
Pulling hard and coming to a deliberate stop at the end of each stroke, the 5’10 Khalipa took the 2K in an almost-unthinkable 6:21, a pace that wouldn’t be bad for a six-foot-plus competitive rower but one that still only kept him less than 50 metres ahead of his closest competitor. Then, after a few recovery strokes, he knuckled under, and rowed the rest of a half-marathon in an hour and 18 minutes.
The CrossFit Games, it’s clear, have changed the way people think about fitness. Feats that were once thought to require singular focus – being exceptionally fast, strong or agile, being competitive at ocean swimming and sprinting and deadlifting – it’s now clear that it’s possible to be well above average, if not ultra-elite, at all of them. A sub-60 second 400m alongside a 400-pound squat might just about get you a spot on a team, but it’s nowhere near good enough to guarantee a win. Athletes have qualified for their national teams in Olympic weightlifting, while still keeping their cardio in good enough shape to run a six-minute mile in a weight vest and follow it up with an off-road triathlon. By anyone’s standards, the standard has risen.
But how has this changed what other coaches and athletes think about training? CrossFit has long claimed to tap into methods of performance improvement ignored or under-used by other fitness programmes: to ‘improve work capacity across broad time and modal domains’ by balancing the challenge to each of the body’s three key metabolic pathways and keeping training constantly-varied and high-intensity.
And certainly, new CrossFitters make consistent gains by doing their workout of the day (WOD) essentially at random – a 10k run one day, a couplet of pull-ups and thrusters the next, some max-effort overhead pressing the day after that, and suddenly they’re shedding pounds and busting PRs left and right. But eventually, the best of the best all gravitate to training programmes that have some element of structure and periodization, usually focused on building strength, work capacity and movement efficiency over the long term, with Metcon-specific conditioning added as the competition season approaches.
Katrin Davidsdottir, two-time CrossFit Games champion, spent six months rebuilding her muscle-ups after struggling with them in the Games one year – first working on the ‘kip’, then adding a pull-up and finally doing single reps, day after day. That’s the opposite of constantly varied movement, but it’s also something gymnastics coaches have been teaching for decades. So does CrossFit have anything new to add?
Well, most obviously, at least at the high end, the critique that CrossFit can’t build impressive physiques has been comprehensively disproven. ‘For many years bodybuilders joked that CrossFit would rob you of your gains, insisting that all the cardio elements and high rep work would be damaging to muscle growth,’ says Tom Wright, a strength athlete who’s previously done fitness modelling.
‘While the traditional ways of building muscle still hold true, combining them with conditioning work doesn’t seem to have as negative an effect on chiseling a hard granite physique as previously claimed. Of course, it helps that while most bodybuilders train their muscle groups once per week, CrossFit is much more of a full-body style of training, or even an upper-lower split – and for non-bodybuilders, there’s increasing evidence that training each body part more than once a week is better than the traditional six-day split. Provided the weight lifted is at least 60% of max and there are roughly 50+ reps completed, then there should be enough stimulus for muscle growth. Repeat that three times a week and you end up with greater volume than your average chest day. If CrossFit legend Sara Sigmundsdottir squats and lunges on Monday, deadlifts and cleans on Wednesday and Saturday she does 100 front squats, is there really any surprise she’s wearing your jeans and warming up with your max?’
Stronger and faster
That’s hypertrophy, but what about lifting? ‘There are certainly some qualities that CrossFit encourages that can help an intermediate lifter, especially if they’re not present elsewhere in their plan,’ says Glenn Pendlay, a USA weightlifting coach who’s taken several athletes to records at both the junior and national levels. ‘There’s a certain body awareness that the gymnastic elements promote that isn’t present in many lifters’ programs. Building that proprioception, that kinesthetic sense of where your body is in space can certainly translate across a variety of skills.’
It makes sense, and it’s backed up anecdotally: all across the athletic spectrum, NFL players and MMA fighters have embraced ‘movement’ coaches as a way of building the neurological skills needed to improve quickly, even if the science is far from conclusive. But what about the ability to simply train more, both mentally and physically? ‘I was having exactly this discussion with a friend who’s a powerlifter,’ says strength coach and former bodybuilder Christian Thibaudeau, who’s trained two-time Games athlete Alex Vigneault alongside more than 50 athletes who’ve competed at the Regionals.
‘I think the one thing that we agree on is that CrossFit has shown us the value of work capacity to improve our other capacities. It used to be that if you wanted to get strong you’d just lift heavy weight, but the problem is, if your work capacity is low you can’t do much volume. And, okay, a lot of people understand that, but what they don’t understand is that by extension, if your work capacity is low then Workout A will take much longer for you to recover from than for someone who does the same workout with a higher work capacity. Your recovery will just be a lot longer. That means that performance might not improve as fast, because you can’t use the same training frequency.
Look at the Olympic weightlifters from the former Soviet Union – they were playing volleyball, doing all sorts of stuff in the off-season to build work capacity. It also lets you do more efficient stuff to improve your body composition, which is valuable for a variety of sports – if you’re a bodybuilder, wouldn’t you rather use strongman-style movements for fat loss? It’s less boring than walking, and it also builds muscle.’
Michael Blevins, a strength and conditioning specialist who regularly competes in fitness competitions, as well as coaching other athletes, agrees with this take. ‘Something CrossFit has been pretty good about representing – though it isn’t unknown in high level athletic programs – is the difference in skill acquisition between the fit and the unfit,’ he explains. ‘In effect, the better conditioned I am the more training I can take on. It’s the reason strongman athletes have started adding minimal amounts of endurance efforts. The Chinese weightlifting program is pretty famous for its conditioning, where they do everything from bodyweight calisthenics to backwards sprints – apparently to avoid over-competitiveness, which might lead to injury. They certainly understand the importance of work capacity and tolerance.’
The huge work capacity built by high-level training might also improve the ability to process mental load, Blevins explains. ‘Since I got back into Brazilian jiu-jitsu I have noticed an enormous difference between the amount of training I can handle, even just cognitively, from when I first attempted it,’ he says. ‘This means more drills, more rolling and almost twice the learning in a given session, purely because I don’t have to take any breaks. In fact, as long as I have a little skill, I can contend with much better athletes because I’m only having to defend technique as opposed to technique and physicality.’
Then there are the seemingly-miraculous performance-enhancing qualities of CrossFit. For instance, twice in CrossFit Games history, the top athletes have put themselves through a punishingly hilly seven-kilometer trail run, then almost immediately followed it with a deadlift ladder in which they work up to the highest weight they can handle for a single rep. The first time this happened, the results took even the event organizers by surprise, with the male athletes lifting so far above their projected totals that the event ended in a 16-way tie.
‘Here was our assumption: there’s absolutely no way that you’re going to be able to pull a high percentage of your 1RM deadlift in that format to begin with – every 30 seconds – and especially after a 7k hill run,’ event organizer Tony Budding said. ‘We just made the assumption that your best lift in that environment is going to be a percentage of your max lift, probably between 70 and 85 percent. What we saw instead was that people were pulling at 90 to 110 percent of their previous PRs.’ On the tenth anniversary of the same event, the ladder went much higher – from 505 to 615lbs at the top – but plenty of athletes still broke personal bests to do better than expected. So what happened?
‘There are some things about CrossFit the sport that I think have started to change the way strength coaches “should” think,’ says Blevins, ‘Probably the most enlightening aspect of CrossFit the sport and how it has impacted my training is the “fatigued lifting” that has been the no-no of the strength and conditioning world for decades. We keep seeing more and more frequently that you can in fact lift maximally in less than ideal situations, and what’s better – you can train yourself to do so. The argument against it usually goes something like: “complex movements should never be done in a fatigued state because the risk of injury is too great” or something similar. It sounds intuitively correct, but when actually thought about I don’t think that rule can or should be respected – aside from maybe with beginners. The reason being, I don’t think sport reflects that rule, life or any effort in it doesn’t respect that rule. People describe the snatch and clean and jerk as the most ‘complex’ movements, but I say that sprinting, running and jumping — not to mention the movements you’ll come across in football or Brazilian jiu-jitsu are far more complex and are almost never executed in a fresh state. How much could you possibly learn if you only practiced BJJ fresh? Should a rugby game stop because someone needs to sprint but feels a little fatigued from the last play?
The science on this is rough, but there is a pathway problem that can help support the paradigm shift. If I always protect strength by loading first and then develop my GPP program by chasing it with power-endurance after, then I always leave on the signal that the precursors for PE have priority. By switching frequently, the signal becomes more varied and therefore more likely to adapt.’
There’s also the wave of momentum that comes from being at the Games themselves – or just working out with a few like-minded people in the room. A 2010 experiment by cognitive and evolutionary anthropologist Emma Cohen with Oxford University rowers found that doing a rowing machine workout in a room with teammates produced a far greater increase in pain tolerance than doing it alone. Later research by Cohen found that warming up with a teammate produces better performance in a running test – and the effect is even more pronounced when the warm-up exercises are performed in sync, as is typical in group classes all around the globe.
There’s plenty of research to suggest that running or lifting in front of large crowds can improve performance, but a 2017 study published in the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research suggests that even just a couple of like-minded lifters in the room can improve performance while at the same time reducing perceived effort levels. Grab even a couple of people to watch you perform, suggests the science, and you’ll push harder. Do your thirty clean-and-jerks for time in front of 20,000 baying fans at the StubHub centre, and who knows how far you’ll go.
Finally, though, there’s one key facet to CrossFit success that doesn’t take a scientific background to understand, or explain. And it might just be the most important. ‘I think the biggest takeaway is, you can usually do a lot more than you think you can,’ says Pendlay. ‘These guys are doing multiple workouts a day, pushing themselves constantly, working at high intensity, using high training volumes and improving. That should be a lesson to a lot of people that they can do more in their own training.’ Jason Khalipa, you have to think, would probably agree.