Friday, August 2, 2013

Is CrossFit For You? Or Anybody?

People ask me all the time what I think of CrossFit. For starters, there's nothing like CrossFit in terms of equipment selection, bodyweight mastery, intensity, variety, skill development, competition, community, and progress tracking. 

That said, before you head to the nearest CrossFit box, you must first ask yourself a few questions. Can you...
  1. Deadlift without rounding your back?
  2. Deep squat without compensation?
  3. Do perfect full range-of-motion push-ups?
  4. Do strict pull-ups unassisted?
  5. Box jump without a sound?
  6. Olympic lift?

    Is CrossFit For You? Or Anybody?
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If you're one of the select few who answer yes to all of these questions, kudos! But now you have to ask yourself another question. Can you perform the above movements with flawless technique when they're thrown at you with heavy loads in tremendously high volume -- all while racing the clock? Because that's CrossFit.

Lucky are the genetic freaks who answer yes to the last question. CrossFit is for you! Injured, or soon to be, are the rest of us, who -- regardless of movement and skill level -- are thrown into the same WOD (workout of the day) with the same weight and rep scheme and timed until completion (or pulled hamstring).

Obviously, CrossFit as practiced at most boxes needs some serious refinement. Surely, though, with a few amendments to the methodology, we can all enjoy CrossFit -- without the risk.

To begin, we must establish movement standards (be it the Functional Movement Screen or another screening tool). If you can't squat without weight, then you have no business putting a bar on your back. If you bend at the low back instead of at the hips when you go to pick something up off the floor, you ought not be deadlifting.

But just because you have some movement deficiencies doesn't mean you can't do the WOD! It just means we have to scale the workout down to meet your individual needs. We do this by incorporating logical progressions and regressions (i.e. kettlebell deadlifts, squats to a box, TRX rows before pullups, etc.).

Furthermore, we can prescribe lower reps to certain individuals so that comparable set lengths are achieved. For example, if the advanced CrossFitter performs 100 push-ups in 5 minutes, then the less experienced CrossFitter might perform 25, provided it takes him or her roughly the same amount of time to complete them.

Before we permit certain high risk exercises, we must also establish performance minimums. For instance, until you can barbell overhead press your own bodyweight, no handstand push-ups. And until you can do 15 perfect pull-ups, no kipping. (For the record, kipping pull-ups are not cheating. They are a distinct exercise from strict pull-ups, and a highly skilled one at that, which taxes the whole body in a metabolically demanding fashion.) Also, no ring dips until you do 50 consecutive push-ups. That's right: 50!

As for Olympic lifts, unless you're truly elite, they must be done in isolation (as opposed to pairing them with other exercises). The reps must be kept well under 10, with complete rest (at least two minutes) between sets. For older folks, ditching cleans and snatches altogether in favor of medicine ball work is the smart move. At a certain point, it's too late to learn. Sorry, Grandma!

Ever heard of Stu McGill? Like the rest of the strength and conditioning world, we've got to do away with sit-ups (even our beloved butterfly sit-ups). Spinal flexion is out. Instead, we can do the dozens of superior core exercises that work anti-rotation, anti-extension, and anti-flexion (i.e. bird dogs, ab wheel, landmine, etc.).

On top of all that, we require a certain degree of undulating periodization (medium and lighter weight days interspersed with the heavy ones). We can still go hard and fast every day (provided our conditioning is up to snuff) -- just not heavy. Our results will be superior to no periodization, and our joints will thank us.

Finally, we must realize that excessive soreness simply means that the workout it was induced by was high volume. It says nothing about the quality of that workout. A little bit of soreness for a day or two is fine, but any more means you overdid it -- and that you can't hit a hard workout again because you're still crippled from the previous one. What's the fun in that?

Sure, it will be tough to institute these changes. We'll have to be fastidious about form. We may even have to pull people aside every now and again mid-WOD to scale them down in weight or exercise selection. And no, not everyone will do 100 reps of every exercise. But that's okay, because with these improvements, anyone can safely reap the myriad benefits of CrossFit.

Sample regressions

Revised "Angie" (pull, push, knee dominant, core):

  • Beginner15 TRX recline rows, 20 wall pushups, 25 body weight squats (TRX-assisted), plank to form failure
  • Intermediate25 strict pull-ups (assisted), 25 push-ups, 25 bodyweight squats, plank to form failure
  • Advanced50 kipping pull-ups, 50 push-ups, 50 bodyweight squats, plank to form failure
  • Elite100 kipping pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 bodyweight squats, plank to form failure

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