CrossFit Party Tricks and the Hierarchy of Movement by coach Kyle Hopkins.
Want my opinion on something? No? too bad! Here it is anyway. (Ha. Jokes.) There is a peculiar thing about CrossFit culture that leads us to somewhat label each other. There are “Newbies”, average CrossFitters, then perhaps “Seasoned” athletes, and of course the elite! The “fire breathers” , but what is it that separates these athletes from one another. What makes someone elite or keeps them from being so? You might be surprised to find out that the gap isn’t as wide as you think and that you can develop “elite” fitness without having to master the more complex skills in CrossFit and without hitting the top of the leaderboard daily.
There is no doubt that there are certain skills athletes MUST develop to be able to compete as an Rx or Elite athlete in the sport of CrossFit. There is a VERY important thing I said in that last sentence. The “sport” of CrossFit. To understand the gap between athletes and whether or not there is a necessity to spend large portions of your time learning certain things you need to understand the difference between CrossFit as a sport and CrossFit to get fit. Not everything we label “functional fitness” is truly functional.
What does the term functional fitness even mean? Well in short it means we train in a controlled environment in a way and utilizing movements that mimc or recreate most of the core movements we ask our bodies to perform every day of our lives. The ability to play with your kids on a playground, to help a friend move, to carry an armful of groceries up a flight of stairs etc. I can find example after example of real life activities that are improved by squatting, heavy pulling, pressing, carrying, and cardiovascular endurance exercise, but where does the line become blurred? When do movements cease to be truly functional and start to become more important for the sport of CrossFit vs your fitness? Well let’s not beat around the bush. Let’s name names an give credit where credit is due. Here is a list of movements that we teach and incorporate on a daily basis and one man’s opinion about how important they are.
Back squatting and front squatting:
Functional? A resounding yes! Necessary to your overall fitness? Yes! Essential to be competitive in the sport of CrossFit? Yes. 100%
These are probably the 2 most functional movements we teach and incorporate. If you ceased to use these movements in real life then you would essentially be paralyzing yourself from the waist down. Every time you sit down or stand up, take a step up or down a flight of stairs, pick something up from the floor, or even take a single stride forward or backward you are performing at least a partial range of motion squat. We squat all day every day and it is THE quintessential movement of life. It is king. From a strength and muscular development perspective it is also a MASSIVE stimulator of the central nervous system. It really can’t be beat for that and there are truckloads of scientific data to back that up. (Th deadlift is a close second.) This causes a huge amount of adaptation in the body. That leads to something we like to refer to as “results.”
The Overhead Squat:
Functional? Gotta go with no not really here. Necessary to your overall fitness? Nope. Essential to be competitive in the sport of CrossFit? Yes. 100%
Is it worth doing? Does it meet the criteria of “functional” at all? I will say yes AND no. Yes it is worth doing. It builds and requires a large amount of shoulder, upper back, and core strength and stabilization. These are all functional aspects of how we move. It has a similar CNS stimulation to front and back squatting. It builds tremendous strength. Is it truly functional? I struggle to find examples of how we move this way in life with any regularity at all. I can not recall one time in my life that I have ever lifted something from the floor to or from a shelf in this manner. Nor do I live my life worrying about having the ability to suddenly catch a heavy rock that has mysteriously fallen from the sky and is goin to smash my head! “Phew…. crisis averted. Thank god I trained for this!” Now let me be very clear about one thing. If you want to develop really good Olympic weightlifting strength and skill or to be a higher level competitive CrossFitter then overhead squats are a 100% essential movement. (They are not even fully essential in the sport of olympic weightlifting. The split snatch is 100% legit and legal on the lifting platform. It is definitely not as efficient. None of the truly great Olympic Weightlifters utilize the split snatch anymore, but it’s an option!) Having said that I am going to guess that almost 100% of people reading this blog have zero plans of being on the olympic weightlifting team. Do what is best for you and what works best for your body. I wish so hard that I could overhead squat well. I think it’s a beautiful movement. I am in awe of athletes that can hold extraordinary amounts of weight overhead and descend into a full squat and stand it up. It eats me up with jealousy. My shoulders sucked BEFORE I had surgery on each of them. Add scar tissue, anchors, and age and needless to say my overhead squat didn’t improve. So I don’t them. Plain and simple. They hurt. They hurt my low and mid back. They hurt my knees. It is a constant battle to keep even an empty barbell over my center of gravity. So it is a movement that does not make a positive contribution to my health and fitness. I begrudgingly skip them and choose any other variety of squat. Perhaps one day I will start with a technique bar and see if I can build upon that, but as someone who doesn't aspire to be a high level olympic weightlifter or competitive CrossFitter they are no longer a priority to me. My job and focus is on running an awesome CrossFit box and being a good coach. Nobody is paying to come watch me CrossFit. That isn’t my job. It’s my hobby and my way to stay healthy.
The shoulder press, bench press, push press, and dips:
Functional? Yeppers. Necessary to your overall fitness? Yes again. Necessary to be a competitive CrossFitter? Of course. As a matter of fact, let’s just skip this one from here on shall we? ALL of the things on this list are necessary to be a successful competitive CrossFitter in Rx or Elite divisions. Note that I specified Rx and elite. This list is this very reason that scaled divisions are a thing. THOSE divisions are for the rest of us. We love it too. We have some competitive drive. We wanna play! Nuff’ said. All of these movements meet the standards necessary to be a higher level competitive CrossFitters. I digress…
These 3 essential push movements build tremendous upper body strength and they are all directly relatable to umpteen (my lucky number by the way) tasks we are faced with throughout the day. Do them all regularly.
The push jerk and split jerk:
Functional? Some gray area here. Necessary to your overall fitness? Probably not. As a matter of fact I’ll go ahead and really piss some people off and just say no.
These movements link easily to lots of real life movement, but not in the same way the aforementioned presses do. It’s a bit more round about with these. When your toddler wants a boost up onto the branch he is trying to climb you are going to need to press him vertically. This is a shoulder press or possibly a push press. Are you going to split jerk him into the tree? Although I’d pay to see that, it isn’t likely that you are going to need to do it. “Hold on Jr. This is going to be a bumpy ride!” Should they be taught and learned? Yes. Unless there is some major dysfunction in shoulder mobility or stability they are definitely worth doing regularly. They allow us to move more load. This means more strength gains!!!! (I have the most immobile shoulders you have ever seen. I have literally been told this by 3 different VERY high level Olympic and/or CrossFit coaches. Fun times! :-( I still do these movements and love them and get great benefit from them.)
Deadlifting, weighted rows and loaded carries:
Functional? Yes yes yes yes yes. Necessary to your overall fitness? Absolutely.
Not much to say here really. The picking up, pulling, and carrying of objects of a wide variety of weights and sizes happens all day every day in our lives. Even the most sedentary of people can’t completely avoid these tasks. So yeah….. let’s do deadlifts, barbell rows, pull ups, and Farmer’s walks. Let’s do them a lot!
Basic cardiovascular movements. Running, swimming, cycling:
Functional? Yes, yes, and maybe? I’ll elaborate in a sec. Necessary to your overall fitness? Si Señor. (Gimme a break! I’m runnin’ outta ways to say yes.)
Basic cardiovascular exercise is necessary for a healthy heart, good circulation, good blood pressure, healthy body composition, and general survival. When the zombie apocalypse hits you better be able to move dat ass! I don’t have to outrun a zombie. I only have to outrun you! In all sincerity though you need to be able to do these things. You never know when you will find yourself in an emergency that requires you going for help fast. Fall in a body of water and you damn well better know how to not sink. Swimming is super low impact, has awesome rehabilitative properties, and allows for almost zero gravity range of motion. Cycling….. probably not as essential, but still a skill we should all have. And I mean who doesn’t love a Wod programmed with lots of assault bike???? (Whole audience raises hands) Whatever! Get over it and get on the bike!!! At least it offers some low impact variety to our cardio anyway!
The tricky ones on the list. The clean, power clean, snatch, and power snatch:
Functional? Yes…mostly. Important to your overall fitness? Yes…mostly. Yeah I know. Way to dodge the question coach.
I’ll make this brief if I can. (Not my forte) The power clean (especially) and power snatch require speed, power (as indicated by the name), strength, mobility, and technique. In many ways these movements might be the BEST of all worlds. At lighter weights and higher reps they are crazy good cardio too. So yeah… learn them. Do them . Regularly! They are awesome and I think they should be a part of almost any athlete’s repertoire. The full clean and full snatch require more out of the athlete. More everything. More strength, more skill and technical prowess, more speed and mobility. They are very hard to learn and execute properly. You should learn them in the right sequence of steps and with a good coach. If you really struggle with the full version of the lifts then break them down for a while. Do a power clean and then a front squat. Do power snatch and then an overhead squat. If you are like me and have severe physical limitations that prevent overhead squatting then learn to split snatch. Will this inability to do full snatches limit you as a competitive CrossFit athlete? Yup. Welcome to my world. Life goes on. I promise.
At this point this fairly limited list of movements is actually comprised of ALL of the functional movements of life. We push, we pull, we squat, we carry, we run /walk. That really sums up how we move. We are multiplanar beings. We twist and run and jump and move in different directions constantly. We adapt to our surroundings and our environment. We alternate between these movements within a split second’s notice. Our reflexes move faster than conscious thought, but no matter how you break down complex sequences of movement they are always comprised of these basic elements.
Are there more than just these movements in CrossFit? Oh so many more!!!! Why are there more movements if these cover the bases of what we really need? Several reasons. First is Variety. We don’t want to get bored or we will lose focus and stop. We implement the same movements in different ways and with different objects. Barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, odd objects, wall balls, slam balls, strongman and powerlifting tools etc. They all hit our muscles in slightly different ways and at slightly different angles. It keeps our physical adaptation process from stalling out. It’s also just plain fun to try out new things and new movements. So what else? What is all the rest of this stuff and do we need to be doing it? It depends….
The first question you MUST ask yourself is “why am I here?” If the answer is unequivocally “To become a badass CrossFitter” or to be a competitive CrossFitter then you need to develop these skills. If the answer is anything other than those 2 then no you don’t really. Should you learn these other things? Yes. In time. If you are physically capable and the risk to reward ratio is right. Let’s talk about some movements and examples.
So why is part of the title of this blog “CrossFit Party Tricks”? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to diminish CrossFit or any of these skills or movements at all. I just want you to have your priorities in order. You want results. We want you to get results. You have a limited amount of time and energy to train. We want you to make the best of that time. If you wanted to win a Nobel prize in Physics you wouldn’t spend your time perfecting your haikus would you?
No I don’t think so.
You most certainly would not.
That would waste your time.
See what I did there? I am cracking myself up! I am a genius. (I just did it again) Okay fine….I will move on
If you don’t care anything at all about how “good” you are at CrossFit or about being a competitive CrossFitter then you should spend about as much time on these other things as you would on any party trick. How many of you can juggle? Can you open a beer bottle with no bottle opener? Have you mastered ventriloquism? No? Why not? Oh because it doesn’t warrant enough of your time to learn because you are too busy trying to master the other more important areas of your life? Yeah….that is this list of skills. Let me preface this list by saying that once you have a firm grasp on all of the basics of the true Functional and fundamental movements of CrossFit and fitness in general then BY ALL MEANS start spending time on these things. One thing at a time. In warm ups, cool downs, before and after classes, in open gym time, or if your coach has you working on them in class. If you still can’t do a decent air squat to depth the don’t start asking your coach about muscle ups and handstand walks. The list…
Kipping/butterfly pull ups: If you can’t do a single strict pull up then you should not be trying to learn these. Maybe if you have tremendously mobile and healthy shoulders then it’s a possibility. Instead work to develop the strength needed to do a strict pull up while simultaneously working on a good kip/C-swing. We always learn to walk before we run.
Double unders: These are frustrating to learn and fun once you get them. I have a VERY specific progression that I ask my athletes to work through to learn these. It takes patience. Is the cardiovascular element of dubs significantly better than single unders? Nope! Almost no difference. As a matter of fact I adamantly disagree with programming that requires twice the amount of single unders in a Wod if you can’t do double unders. I don’t think athletes should be punished with what I consider to be more work. Also I can tell you that athletes who have to do twice the amount of single unders will learn to do a very fast, very efficient, small jump single under. Why wouldn’t they? They want to finish the Wod fast too. The problem is that this jump does NOT teach the jump needed to learn double unders. A slightly higher and slower jump is what will buy you the extra time needed for the rope to pass under your feet twice. We are here to teach right? We are coaches not cheerleaders. Instead we teach the “power single.” A higher slower jump with a single revolution under the feet. When 50 of these unbroken are accomplished then let’s work on single-single-double. Yes spend some time on these. You can likely get them with 10 mins of extra work 3-4 days weekly for a few weeks. Do not put them too high on your fitness priority list.
Muscle ups/Ring muscle ups: This is one of those movements that I think people equate with the elite of the CrossFit world. They are definitely not easy. They require a good kip, a lot explosiveness out of the hips, good timing, excellent proprioception and control of the body, and a whole lot of upper body strength. Are they significantly better for you than pull ups and dips as 2 separate movements? Nope! I can also get the same explosive cardio out of basic jumping or med ball slams without the risk of tearing my rotator cuff because I chicken winged to get my weak side over the bar. If you have a good chest to bar kipping pull up down then yes you can start to work on these. Not before then. The ring muscle up. Well….about 3 or 4 of the best CrossFit athletes in the world suffered from torn pecs in regionals last year due to the same ring muscle up Wod. I don’t love ‘em for most people. It’s one of the highest skill level movements and the risk of one of the rings getting away from your hips and you having and awkward fall from one side of the rings is high. You better be strong, fast, and very mobile if you are going to start to tackle these. Bar muscle ups and ring dips first as a prerequisite.
Handstands, handstand push ups, and handstand walks: Basic gymnastic movements are high quality movements. Learning to control the weight of our bodies is arguably more beneficial than exerting force on heavy external objects. Are these basic though? They probably go beyond basic. They are worth learning, but just take your time with them. Crashing down on your own head or falling awkwardly off the wall doesn’t feel good. Again, walk before you run. Develop good shoulder strength first. Then progress slowly. Wall walks, pike push ups from a box, L-sit Dbell and/or Kbell presses all have similar benefits with a fraction of the risk.
Pistol squats: I can do these (not REAL well, but I can) and I rarely do. Why? Well because I have two legs to squat with. These hurt my knees. I am getting older. I have some arthritis. I have a nagging injury in my right meniscus. Pistol squats can easily aggravate knees. The tendency to track way out over the toe to maintain balance is high. Proper patellar tracking can be disrupted. We can ingrain improper and frankly bad motor patterns if these aren’t done well. And for what? To do unilateral leg work? You mean like a lunge, or a box step up, or a split squat? Pistols can be done with band assistance, holding on to a ring or the rack, or to a parallel or just slightly below box. All these varieties have a similar result with only a slightly diminished range of motion. If you have all the other ones mastered and you have great mobility and spry healthy joints then go for it. Otherwise choose a better option and MAYBE get to these in time.
Box jumps: Functional? Yes. Important to your overall fitness? Meh.
If you are one of those athletes that stares at the box and is paralyzed be fear then maybe there is something to be said for overcoming that fear. That’s a great feeling. I have a terrible fear of heights. And yet I want to skydive. Why? Because screw you fear! You’re not the boss of me. ( I can barely stand on a hotel balcony above the 2nd floor.) So there is that aspect. Overcoming fears can be a very triumphant thing and it has a life lesson. Slamming your shin into a box sucks! I’ll be honest. When I coach they are THE thing that makes me the most nervous. I hate seeing anyone miss a box. My athletes know that I rarely press them to jump to higher boxes. More often than not I am the voice of reason telling them to “commit” and “stay focused on every jump.” Or change to a step up or jump squat. They ARE functional because sometimes life requires us to jump. Sometimes we have to jump onto something. It is also a powerful hip extension which we know is crucial to our olympic lifting. Having said that I am fine with my athletes doing step ups or maybe….call me crazy, just jumping. A broad jump or a jump squat works great. Some explosion. Same hip extension. Way less chance of the need for unplanned dental work. Now I am not trying to plant fear in those who don’t have it. I actually love box jumps. I do them all the time. I program them plenty. I think they are worth doing. Just be safe. I watch these instagram videos of people stacking all these plates precariously on top of boxes and doing max jumps. It can be impressive to see, but again with the risk reward thing. Just be smart here. Have a bail out plan. Foam plyo boxes are a nice solution as well.
I could go on with this list, but I think that sums things up. So why did I write this blog? Am I trying to demonize all of these movements? Absolutely not. As a matter of fact you might be thinking “Coach if you don’t like these movements then why do you program them?” Fist you have to understand that It is not that I don’t like them. I just want to be clear and who should be trying to learn them and when is the right time to learn them. When coaches program for CrossFit we have to take into account that we are programming one Wod daily that has to fits the needs of a wide variety of people with a wide variety of goals and desired results. If all I ever do is program “Comptrain” or Elite style workouts then I am doing a disservice to large portion of our member population who simply want to be healthier, look and feel better, and add some quality years to their lives. On the other hand of I only program beginner style Wods and never offer an opportunity to participate in or learn some of the harder movements then athletes that DO want to compete or who ARE ready to move on to the next level of skills get left behind.
I wrote this because I think 2 things are absolutely critical to every athlete’s long term success, results, and ultimately enjoyment of CrossFit. First stop comparing yourself to anyone around you. Don’t compare yourself to their looks, their physical build, their capabilities or in any other way. If you showed up and walked in the door you have already won. You are putting yourself out there. You are trying. You are doing a hell of a lot more than the majority of people in this world. Be proud of yourself! I know as coaches we sure are proud of each and every one of you. The second reason is that I think it is really important to understand where the majority of your focus and efforts should be placed. There is undoubtedly a hierarchy of things on your list of better physical fitness. And here it is:
1: Be consistent. strive to walk in our doors (or wherever you train) at least 3 days a week. 5 is better. 3 on 1 off may be optimal. (Everyone’s recovery is different. It is hard to put a blanket number of optimal days on this.)
2: Eat high quality whole foods the vast majority of the time with a caloric intake and macronutrient breakdown that meets your goals. This can absolutely make or break your success and drastically effect the timeline of your desired results.
3: Master bodyweight movements with excellent form and build some basic cardiovascular endurance first.
4: Learn to move weighted loads with basic pushing, pulling, squatting, and carrying movements while maintaining excellent form.
5: Increase loads over time in a logical progression while maintaining form.
6: Begin to learn and master the more technical movements like the olympic lifts.
7: Increase your intensity. Increase your ability to do the same work over shorter periods of time. Move faster.
8: Simultaneously improve body composition while trying to master bodyweight movements such as pull ups, handstand holds, push ups, and dips.
9: Begin to work on higher and more complex skills while still maintaining focus and the majority of your time on all the fundamentals listed before this. Only work on one new skill at a time.
10: Continue to challenge yourself and try to progress in small logical increments. Lots of small successes over time keep this fun and they help us maintain a positive attitude and a winning mindset.
Here is something i want everyone to really grasp. Athletes with higher skill sets are not more fit than you because they are performing the higher skill movements. They are capable of performing the higher skill movements because they became fit enough to do so through time, hard work, and consistent repetition of the FUNDAMENTAL movements. In this case the chicken definitely came before the egg. Well i guess the pull up came before the muscle up, but you get the point!
I hope this helps everyone have a better understanding of what you should be trying to accomplish, what should be important to you, and where the majority of your efforts should be focused. If the things your friends and fellow athletes are capable of motivate you that is great, but don’t ever let what someone else is doing defeat you. You are missing the point if that is consistently your mindset. Be selfish. Have tunnel vision. Only think of yourself! For every one of you that feels like your are at square one or at the starting line there are probably a hundred other people who can’t even get off the couch to make it to the starting line. You are awesome and we are proud of ALL of you!
As a coach I love o go to local competitions and watch our people compete and I love to support them and cheer them on, but what truly moves me is when I see you guys get your first real push up, or your first full range of motion squat, or even just completing your foundations course to get ready to assimilate into classes. You are all awesome and YOU motivate me! Keep your goals and priorities in order and keep killing it! Coach Kyle.