Saturday, February 28, 2015

In (Temperate) Defense of CrossFit Open Workout 15.1

Many a keyboard warrior came out Friday morning up in arms at the announcement of the first workout of the 2015 CrossFit Open. Was their outrage justified, or do we all just need to take a chill pill?

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, the CrossFit Open is the first qualification round of the annual CrossFit Games. Athletes from around the world compete in five weekly workouts, with top finishers moving on to regional competition. From each Regional, a small handful of competitors earn their tickets to Carson, CA, for the Games in late July.

Back to the first Open Workout: a two-parter comprised of a 9-minute “AMRAP” (as many rounds as possible) of three movements -- 15 toes-to-bar, 10 deadlifts, and 5 snatches -- followed immediately by 6 minutes to establish a one-repetition maximum clean and jerk. The prescribed weight on the bar is the same for both the deadlifts and snatches: 115 pounds for men and 75 pounds for women.

Toes-to-bar progressions by my friends Chris and Tom

Let’s begin with a few of the less than glorious aspects of the workout. All the movements are highly grip-intensive. We have kipping and high-repetition spinal flexion in the toes-to-bar, then high-repetition Olympic lifts (under fatigue). Finally, when pre-fatigued from 9 minutes of near non-stop action, we’re required to perform the heaviest clean and jerk we can muster.

Clearly, this workout breaks numerous “rules” in terms of intelligent programming. But the CrossFit Open is not training. It’s competition. And it must be viewed as such.

Dave Castro never claimed to write intelligent workouts.

CrossFit athletes train year-round for this very type of workout. Whether it’s actually wise to do so is another issue entirely. It should be acknowledged, though, that every sport has its inherent risks. American football players run into each other at full speed play after play. Baseball pitchers go out and contort their arms into obscene positions for a hundred all-out efforts in a row.

How’s this shoulder/elbow action for intelligent?

But who am I to opine on the matter without attempting it myself first? I did just that on Friday afternoon -- to the bewilderment of my fellow gym-goers, who looked at me like I had two heads as I threw body and barbell around dramatically for 15 minutes. (Two heads and one leg. Now that’s a strange image.)

I opted to play it very safe and use the scaled women’s weight of 55 pounds on the bar for deadlifts and snatches. In hindsight, I may have gotten through the workout with 65 pounds, but it wouldn’t have been pretty. I wound up with a final score of 135 reps on the AMRAP (4 complete rounds plus 15 toes-to-bar) and a clean and jerk of 115 pounds.

Although I missed twice on 125 pounds in the clean with a minute to go in the workout, I was nevertheless pleased with my performance overall. Obviously, I’m no Rich Froning (224 reps and 343-pound clean and jerk), but I’m okay with that. He’s not nearly as good-looking as me, anyway. Oh, wait…

The Champ, Rich Froning, scored a smooth 224 reps and 343 lbs in Workout 15.1.

The argument can certainly be made that workouts like this set people up for injury by requiring them to perform highly technical lifts (in this case, both very light and very heavy) in a state of fatigue. As such, mastery of all the movements is a necessity prior to engaging in this type of competition.

Anecdotally, although I’m only one guy, I did manage not to get injured doing this workout. Nor did I feel like I came close at any point. You just have to be smart about it.

Being smart means knowing your limits going into the workout. Know your one-rep max clean and jerk, as well as 70, 80, and 90% of it. Have a plan in terms of breaking up the reps. Perhaps this means doing sets of 5 toes-to-bar from the outset and singles of the snatches instead of touch-and-go. Finally, stick to the plan.

For purposes of full disclosure, I must admit that my shoulder was a little sore in the wrong places the following morning, though the pain did resolve by the afternoon. Of course, that could almost have been expected considering it was the first time I’d performed kipping toes-to-bar since I attempted one of last year’s Open workouts.

Or can they?

I agree wholeheartedly with the folks who say that the Open is not for beginners (and should not be marketed towards them). Although there are “scaled” versions of the workout, they merely reduce the weight on the bar. The time domains and rep requirements are unchanged, and the one-rep max attempt remains intact. Most experienced coaches wouldn’t have their clients go anywhere near max weights without years of training under their belts, let alone when tired.

So what do you think? Is all the outrage justified? Perhaps only time -- and the number of successful chiropractors -- will tell. In the meantime, I’ll keep watching in awe of the performances the top athletes put on. And perhaps I’ll even dabble in a few more of the workouts over the coming weeks.

For more of my thoughts on CrossFit, check out my observations from last year's Mid Atlantic Regionals, as well as my post on blending powerlifting, bodybuilding, and CrossFit into a well-rounded training program.

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