CrossFit gyms are popping up in major cities all throughout the U.S., increasing the trend toward performance training. Using high-intensity exercises such as plyometrics (jumping and medicine ball throws) and explosive weightlifting techniques (Olympic weightlifting), their goal is to forge fitness into sport.
It’s tempting to follow this new trend that claims to meet all your fitness needs in a short workout. But who do these exercise programs actually work for, and what are they assuming your needs are? How do you know if these programs will accomplish your goals?
This three-part series will explain power and performance training and help you decide if it’s designed for your fitness goals. This first blog will cover the physical preparations a new trainee needs before they attempt this type of training and why.
Disclaimer: Before starting any exercise program, please consult with your healthcare provider.
I’m a fan of simplicity in training, and like to use basic movement patterns and simplified equipment to produce a well-structured workout. CrossFit’s use of barbells, ropes, free weights and body-weight exercises are right up my alley. It’s true that high-intensity power-based exercises are very effective at developing lean muscle, but they also place a lot of stress on the body and should only be used with the proper guidance and in the appropriate amount. For the experienced athlete, these programs may offer training unlike any other. But for others who are trying to maintain their health, or simply improve their appearance, the performance and power approach may not be an ideal match. Regardless, it’s important to make some specific considerations first, starting with the physical changes that should take place before pushing your body to its limits.
Before starting a CrossFit program, establish a baseline of strength and mobility. It’s important to get your body acclimated to moving in ways that you’re not familiar with by moving in a slow, controlled process. The argument can be made that there’s a potential risk in any type of exercise you do regardless of speed, reps or weight; however, having a resilient physical foundation will decrease this risk. This is especially important before you decide to start throwing heavy weights around during explosive exercises.
Fitness starts by developing your central nervous system—way before you see muscular improvement. Every movement you make starts when your brain issues a command, and this message then travels through the nerves in the spinal cord and then finally to cells that signal the muscles to contract. In other words, before you can really start putting on muscle, gaining strength, or increasing your ability for intense functional movements, you have to train to develop the connection between your brain and muscles. This kind of training is better with high repetitions and light weights, so your body learns how to move without distraction of overload. You’ll notice improvement when awkward exercises begin to feel more natural. This kind of training improves the quality of movement, simply because groups of muscles learn to work together: the arms have learned to work with the back muscles and the muscles on the right side of the body have learned to be in sync with the muscles on the left. The gain in efficiency alone translates to an increase in strength. This reward is the same in all areas of fitness when you learn a new move. Start with mastering the technique, and then add weight to raise the intensity.
Where the trends in exercise used to be pretty instinctive—machines at a gym that guided movement—CrossFit programs tend to specialize in more complex movements that take balance, range of motion and flexibility to complete safely. The exercises used in these programs are fantastic exercises, but keep in mind these exercises existed before the trends. So although the exercises aren’t new, the combination of speed, weight, and lack of restraint used to perform them are.
If a new trainee starts CrossFit without first improving movement skills and the strength of stability muscles then they are at an increased risk of soft-tissue or overuse injuries. CrossFit is identified by their formula of using the most amount of weight possible, with as many repetitions possible while competing against your peers for time. Their formula is simple: constantly varied (CV), functional movements (FM) performed at high-intensity (@HI) in a communal environment, or:
CVFM @ HI + Communal Environment = Health
A large amount of injuries that occur in any training program are due to using too much weight before you’re able to sustain it, or due to pre-existing musculoskeletal conditions that you may not have been aware of. Either way, this is why training the body to produce the movement correctly must happen before you apply weight or intensity, allowing you to identify needs for modification without the pressure of sport-like competition.
In CrossFit, they prize the variety and variability of their workouts, exposing their clients to new exercises daily (this is great, if you are ready for it!). These exercises are used for everyone in the group, regardless of experience, with a focus on modifying load or intensity before they modify their program. The group pressure to excel may make it difficult to ask for adjustments, even if you really need them. In general, variety in exercise is a great thing, but the exerciser’s proficiency must be considered. In any type of fitness, after you’ve adapted to an exercise, change your routine! Just don’t change it to a move you haven’t practiced yet with a heavy load. Variety in exercise helps you to get to the next stage of development and overall fitness. If you get comfortable in your program, using the same exercises long term, you’ll see a plateau effect because your body adapted, reducing the challenge and effect. So “confusing your muscles,” as some put it, by learning a new exercise will give you a natural boost in strength.
Through consistent weight training—about three to four months—a trainee’s muscles become used to working together and are able to learn other new movements faster. When you have reached this point, you have athletically developed and are better prepared for any physical event.
CrossFit training should take place only after you attain:
- Knowledge of form (through practiced repetition)
- Required flexibility to achieve full range of motion
For the inexperienced exerciser (new trainee), random exposure to varying levels of intensity and exercise complexity is not going to be safe or productive. However, once they have built a strong foundation, they will develop resilient muscular coordination, allowing them to learn new movements faster. At this point, CrossFit, or sports like it, requires true athleticism, and demands the highest intensity possible in the shortest amount of time. It can be a fun way to push your body into a new realm of fitness.
- Do you do CrossFit?
- Do you like it?
- What are some other exercise routines that you enjoy?
About the Author
An exercise physiologist and health professional for the last eight years, Mira Rasmussen, BS, ACSM, is passionate about personalizing the path to wellness and being a guide through that life-changing process. She has worked with all populations and has utilized her psycho-physiological skills in eating disorder recovery, addiction, corporate wellness, personal training, and nutrition. Mira has worked side by side renowned dietitians, doctors and psycho-therapists using physical fitness as a vital tool for clients to reach and sustain a well-balanced life.
Very thorough and informative. I especially like your explanation about gaining quality of movement before adding load. This is one of the foundations that we base our treatments on in PT. Thanks for sharing this much needed information. You are such an asset to your profession and your clients!
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Very informative and spot on in every aspect. Great blog Mira!
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