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College Coaches Corner

College Coaches Corner—CrossFit

Petersen, Drew MS1; Pinske, Kim MS2; Greener, Trent MS3

Editor(s): Hedrick, Allen R. MA, CSCS*D, RSCC*D, FNSCA

Author Information
Strength and Conditioning Journal: April 2014 - Volume 36 - Issue 2 - p 56-58
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000037
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The explosion of CrossFit (CrossFit, Inc, Washington, DC) in popularity is responsible for a significant number of people incorporating exercise as a part of their lifestyle, which is certainly a positive. A second positive result of the growing popularity of CrossFit is the increased awareness and performance of the Olympic-style movements that make up the sport of weightlifting. This could potentially help the United States become more competitive internationally.

My training philosophy is that strength and conditioning be applied as a training method to help athletes optimize success at their sport. I do not support using CrossFit as a training method for any athlete whose sport's primary needs are strength and power. CrossFit workouts of the day (WODs) are primarily muscular endurance based; the athletes I train at the Air Force Academy tend to need more strength and power than they do endurance. Although challenging, in my opinion, CrossFit WODs do not apply proven resistance-training principles, as described below.

Although there are countless approaches to designing resistance-training programs, my preference is the approach defined by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which defines a 7-step process. CrossFit does not seem to use any of these steps, although some CrossFit coaches may adjust the workout to meet the needs of the athlete, although still incorporating a CrossFit style workout. The NSCA's step 1 is a needs analysis that evaluates the requirements and characteristics of the sport and assessment of the athlete. This is a critical step in determining the focus of the athlete's resistance training. CrossFit states the needs of Olympic athletes and grandparents differ by degree, not kind. CrossFit believes that everyone needs all aspects of fitness (i.e., strength, power, and endurance) incorporated into their training, but it is the degree to which they are performed that is the significant factor.

The NSCA's step 2 is exercise selection, and it is suggested to be determined based on the movement analysis of the sport. To me, it seems that CrossFit lacks this specificity principle. CrossFit states “we change load and intensity; we don't change workouts.” A “1-size fits all” approach to any type of strength and conditioning method is not logical. For example, some sports require a greater emphasis on power development or a greater emphasis on training the lower-body as compared with others. Furthermore, workouts need to be varied based on the individual needs of the athlete.

The NSCA's step 3 is training frequency. An off-season athlete most commonly will perform resistance training more frequently than an in-season athlete. In contrast, CrossFit does not suggest adjusting the frequency of performing the WOD. However, most strength coaches adjust workout frequency based on the athlete's competition schedule to build strength and power in the off-season and maintain it during the in-season. It is necessary to adjust the frequency in-season, especially to work around injuries, to allow the athlete to train as extensively as possible without aggravating an injury to peak for competitions.

Steps 4–7 are exercise order, training load and repetitions, volume load, and rest, respectively. Exercise order is suggested to be selected based on how one exercise affects the quality of effort or technique of another exercise. The NSCA establishes what is considered a traditional order of a power exercise, followed by nonpower core exercises, and then assistive exercises. Training load and repetitions are, according to NSCA, the most critical aspect of a resistance-training program. Volume load and rest pertain to the goal repetitions based on what the athlete is trying to develop. Because I train my athletes to develop strength and power, my goal should be 6 or less repetitions (reps) working at 85% 1 repetition maximum (RM) for strength and 5 or less reps working at 75% for power (multiple effort event). For both strength and power development, the suggested rest time between sets is in the range of 2–5 minutes.

An example WOD assigned 15 reps of the clean and jerk. According to the NSCA text pertaining to volume load, performing 15 reps means the athlete is training at 65% of 1RM, which classifies CrossFit as a muscular endurance exercise and violates the training load principle for strength and power. In another example, I reviewed a WOD that called for 50 box jumps to finish a workout, where there were 9 other exercises of 50 reps performed before performing the box jumps. The NSCA has a suggested training spectrum of 1–15 reps per exercise.

I believe as long as my athletes adhere to the training program provided to them, they will see the gains necessary to improve sports performance. If, after they have executed the plan, they choose to do CrossFit, that is a personal choice that they have a right to make. I will continue to take the time to educate them on their training, nutrition, and recovery, and encourage them to make the best decisions in terms of improving athletic performance. I will not encourage them to use CrossFit as a way to train to enhance sports performance.

A strength and conditioning coach training competitive athletes is in the business of physically and mentally preparing athletes to compete and succeed at their highest level possible. This requires the strength and conditioning coach to continually research and investigate new and potentially more effective training methods and trends. A current exercise program trend is CrossFit. After researching CrossFit, I found it has adopted basic exercises and training protocol that have long been the cornerstones of traditional athletic strength, power, and conditioning programs. Although it does promote a wide array of health benefits, based on my research, it is my opinion that CrossFit falls short of sound athletic strength training. In my opinion, I do not find CrossFit to be a useful general physical preparation program to train competitive athletes for periods of time.

Most competitive athletes have become specialists. They are specifically training for and pursuing success in their chosen sport. For optimal athletic performance, competitive athletes must master specific sport techniques and choose training programs that give them the greatest training transfer. Programs must be designed around the concepts of specificity, progressive overload, and periodization. Specific athletic qualities may be emphasized and trained in 1 session. Subsequent sessions may emphasize other athletic qualities. These detailed programs lead to specific training results and optimal athletic performance.

In my opinion, I cannot recommend CrossFit to athletes as a viable program because it is purposely designed to be broad and general. CrossFit claims one of its advantages is that their specialty is in not specializing. This immediately limits the ability to design programs around the concepts of specificity, progressive overload, and periodization. The competitive arena of CrossFit seems to be the training session. CrossFit athletes compete against the clock, themselves, or another person doing the same workout. The competition may be how fast an amount of work can be completed. Although every strength and conditioning coach motivates their athletes to compete and give maximum effort in every phase of the training plan, the workout is generally 1 step in preparing the athlete for a later sporting competition.

Personally, I have never done CrossFit nor have I been to a CrossFit session. I have had former assistants use CrossFit and share their knowledge and experiences with me. My opinion is grounded in this knowledge and the CrossFit program because it is promoted. I have never had an athlete ask me about CrossFit, but I would not recommend it as I know it. I believe strength and conditioning coaches must design and implement intelligent programs that move athletes closer to competitive success. Training plans for competitive athletes need to be specific and detailed. CrossFit does not seem to meet these criteria.

With the increased popularity of CrossFit, the question occasionally arises from some of our athletes as to when and whether it can be incorporated into their off-season training module. When the question does come up, the athlete can expect a “soapbox-type” speech regarding exercise physiology and training philosophy. I always start by saying how much respect that I have for the program, and how CrossFit has succeeded in motivating and training a large number of very loyal participants; if you know any hard-core Cross-fitters, you know how loyal and committed they are. The conversation then dives right in to training specificity. It is my belief that many times there is a misuse and or misunderstanding of terms; athletes mistake fitness for conditioning, exercising for training, and activity for accomplishment. Understanding the physiological demands of their specific sport can go a long way in correcting this.

When training for success in athletics, specifically for power sports like football and basketball, I believe the metabolic demands that make up the sport must be separated and individually trained to reach maximal potential. You cannot simultaneously train the physiological requirements of the sport, or even more specifically the position-specific requirements of the sport, and expect to maximize performance in any 1 area. Strength is trained separately from endurance, endurance is trained separately from speed, and speed is trained separately from agility and so on.

Each of these individual needs, such as strength, power, linear speed, quickness, agility, and conditioning, are trained separately to obtain maximum results. In a sense, you extrapolate and train each individual area and then combine them for the finished product; at this point, the individual modalities of training can be combined to maximize the development of the optimally trained power athlete. The progression of training is basic; the application of training can be specific. Strength is the base of athleticism, and power is the functional use of strength. The functional use of strength and power is linear, or straight-ahead speed. When optimal levels of linear speed are obtained by the athlete, it can be transferred into quickness, agility, or change of direction. At this point in the athlete's training development they can fully maximize and enhance the specific skills of the sport or position.

When the physiological requirements that make up success in power sports are combined in programs, such as circuit or CrossFit training, the potential for development is compromised. You cannot simultaneously train for strength, power, speed, agility, and endurance and expect to obtain maximum results. These types of programs, like the very popular CrossFit routines, are fantastic for achieving great levels of general fitness but not in obtaining the specific development and conditioning required in elite level power sports.

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