Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Olympic Lifts, CrossFit and Your Cup of Tea

CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program. The desired outcome is that the athlete be competent in any physical challenge. Unlike football, basketball, or marathoning, in which an athlete trains for known time domains and known physical challenges, the CrossFit athlete is preparing for "the unknown and unknowable challenge." To accomplish this, the CrossFit athlete must avoid specialization, and instead practice "constantly varied functional movement executed at high intensity". Short duration workouts, long durations workouts, working with heavy weights, working with light weights, incorporating body weight modalities (pushup, pullup, situp, rope climb, jumping, burpees and so on), running/cycling/rowing/swimming workouts, and mixing any and all of these elements in any imaginable way - that is the method to avoid the weaknesses that specialization builds into an athlete. So, the CrossFit athlete would be able to beat an equally gifted football player in a marathon or mixed modality workout, but may lose a pure strength/power contest. The CrossFit athlete wouldn't be able to hang with a dedicated marathoner in marathoning, but just about any other test - strength, power, anaerobic performance, perhaps even endurance rowing - would strongly favor the CrossFitter.

My good friends and owners of Faction Strength and Conditioning - who podcast here - podcasted recently about the olympic lifts, which are considered by many to be the sexiest lifts in the strength and conditioning world.

Doug and Mike are accomplished oly lifters and coaches, and Chris is a beastly power lifter and greedily sucks knowledge from all strength and conditioning arenas. They interview Justin Thacker, whom they view as even more accomplished than they are, and the session is a great one. I enjoyed getting a good intro to what Justin is up to with his innovative approach to teaching groups the Olympic lifts.

I don't know if they meant to, but they highlighted one reason why specialization is costly. They point out that for an accomplished lifter, gaining 10-20 pounds in their max lift, by working for months to refine their technique, is significant progress.  In other words, as one approaches one's best at a physical activity, the return on equity for each training hour is very, very low.

As a reformed runner (actually, it just got too painful to run - I never stopped loving how it felt to run), I had the same problem years ago.  I could not get faster unless I spent more hours running, which wasn't an option.

CrossFit allows some deviation from this "expert's limit", partially because there are so many physical arenas in which to pursue mastery.  If you approach the best you can be at oly lifts, you'll still likely have some element in body weight movements in which improvement may be achieved.  You may max the box squat, but be able to improve in the sumo deadlift.  You may peak in max continuous pullups, but find you can improve in handstand walks or wall ball shots.  The areas for improvement are numerous, and frequently improvement in one element facilitates improvement in another.

That doesn't mean Mike and Doug should not spend years perfecting oly lifting - if that's the cup of tea they choose.  It's your life, you get to establish the trade offs that work for you.

PS - I pulled 7 lifts on a one minute rest cycle tonight of the sumo deadlift at 365 pounds.  That's baby weight for some, but for me it was a PR and very satisfying.  I also managed 7 ring dips with 75 pounds hanging off of me.  That too was fun, but since it wasn't scary - and the heavy deadlifts always are - it wasn't as exciting.

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