So, Melissa asked me to do a guest blog post and of course I’m happy to! Maybe we’ll do a few of these, who knows. Melissa suggested that I expand upon some of the topics covered on my Instagram account, @gainzbydrj (hey, go give me a follow if you haven’t already!).
Here’s just a quick background on me so you know where I’m coming from: I’m a professor of
exercise physiology at UGA (Go Dawgs!). I got my undergrad and master’s degrees at UGA, PhD at U of Maryland, post-doc at U of Missouri. My research area is in the area of exercise as prevention and treatment for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. I direct the Integrative Cardiovascular Physiology research lab at the University and teach five (I think? lol) different courses on various aspects of exercise biology to both undergraduate and graduate students in our program. Bottom line: I’ve been immersed in the scholarship of exercise since about 2002. I’ve been exposed to just about every fad, trend, method, and theory on exercise and fitness that has come and gone during that time. So, yeah, I’ve got a few thoughts on CrossFit… with apologies for stating the obvious, I am a fan. :) I’d like to use this blog post to explain a little about why I’ve adopted it as my exercise system, and it has to do with the concept of fitness. And I’m not going to go into a lot of science here. Instead, the main goal is to share something that will hopefully be practical and applicable to our CFAMM athletes. We’ve had a few new faces in the gym in the last few weeks and this is probably most useful for you all. This may also be useful for athletes who have been doing CrossFit for a while but are frustrated with your lack of progress in certain areas [do you cherry pick workouts?? ;)]
One of the things I really appreciate about CrossFit from both a scientific perspective and just as an athlete is how CrossFit defines “fitness”. Coach Greg Glassman (CrossFit founder and CEO) provides an excellent definition of fitness: work capacity over broad time and modal domains. Now, there’s a lot to talk about with this definition. I could spend several paragraphs unpacking what this means in terms of physical performances, be they in the gym, in sport, and/or in the real world. But Coach Glassman and other authors have already done that extensively in the CrossFit Journal and the CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide. So I don’t want to restate all of that here. I’ll just direct you guys to page 17-37 of the CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide for the discussion of “What is Fitness and Who is Fit?” I think every individual who spends more than say a 1-week trial period at a CrossFit gym should take the time to read that. It will make you a better athlete and will help you understand what you are doing with your time and money as a CrossFitter.
What I’d like to do is share some ways that this concept of fitness applies to how I approach working out at CFAMM. The best way for me to illustrate this is to first show you this chart I made. I’ve got two columns – in the left column are movements I like. On the right I have listed some movements I hate. As you’ll see, and is probably the case for you, the determinant of whether I like or hate a movement is related to my work capacity (fitness) in that movement.
If we look at the pattern and common features of movements on the left vs. those on the right, we can appreciate that as an athlete I enjoy movements that are relatively common to CrossFit and require maybe an intermediate level of skill to execute proficiently. I like moderate to longer workouts that involve body weight movements and require endurance. I struggle with 1-rep maximum power and Olympic lifts and higher level skill gymnastics movements. My biggest weaknesses, and therefore the things I hate the most, are deadlifts and handstand pushups.
All right, so what does this mean for me practically, like on the day-to-day? This all becomes acutely relevant every single evening at about 8:00 PM (or 8:30, or 9:00?) when Coach Matt posts the workout for the following day on Wodify. I look at the workout he’s programmed for us and I have a two phase reaction.
In the first phase – the visceral, knee jerk, emotional phase – I decide that I either “love” or “hate” the workout. The workouts I decide I love will prominently feature movements from the left side of the chart. For example, recently we did Hero WOD (Daniel), which is 50 pull ups, 400 m run, 21 Thrusters 95#/65#, 800m run, 21 Thruster 95#/65#, 400m run, 50 pull ups. Although that’s a BIG workout and was sure to be a huge challenge (as Hero WODs are intended to be), I got really excited about this workout when I saw that I naturally enjoy all of the movements. However, another example workout done recently included 5 rounds for time of 10 hang power snatches 95#/65# and 10 handstand push ups. HSPUs, as I mentioned, are my arch nemesis. If I die and go to hell I am pretty sure I will be doing HSPU for eternity, that’s how much I hate them. So when I saw that one programmed, my emotional/knee jerk reaction was a four letter word that I won’t mention in this family-friendly forum.
The second phase of the reaction to seeing a workout programmed is more thoughtful and rational – 30,000 foot view of the big picture. In this phase, after I’ve gotten over, for example, my frustration over that I’ll be struggling to string together more than 2-3 HSPU at a time in the third round of that workout, I realize that those are the workouts are valuable for me even if I don’t love the idea of doing them. Anything that incorporates a movement or skill in my ‘I hate this’ column is an opportunity for me to improve my fitness. If I am weak at HSPU, the solution is to do more HSPU – under fatigue and in combination with other movements. If I am weak at deadlifts, the solution is to do more deadlifts.
Coming back to the idea of fitness being defined as ‘work capacity over broad time and modal domains’, it turns out that it doesn’t really matter practically how a particular workout is composed. Each one is an opportunity to improve my fitness. Whether I like or don’t like a movement, combination of movements, repetition scheme etc. is not particularly relevant. What’s relevant is whether or not the workout will push me to the fringe of my capacity and challenge me. If it does, then the laws of physiology dictate that I will adapt, such that the next time I encounter a similar physical challenge, it will be perceived as a bit easier for me, because I will have increased work capacity (fitness) in that task.
Over time, something cool happens. It takes consistency and patience, but some of the things that appear on the right side of the chart will move to the left side. For me, examples of that include snatches, double unders and running. I hated all of those things at one point, and now I look forward to them.
So yes, my goal is definitely to improve my “work capacity over broad time and modal domains”. As a scientist, I love that definition of fitness as it involves performances that are measurable, specific, and repeatable. But as an everyday CrossFit athlete, I don’t actually think about that aspect as much as I do about moving something that falls under my “I hate this” to my “I love this” category.