Dire Wolf CrossFit-Part One: Fundamentals

CrossFit for the Lone Wolf Practitioner

Have you ever wanted to try CrossFit but either you didn’t have a local “Box” (what the CF crowd calls their type of gym) or just didn’t have the time or money to spend? Many any of us in this situation have been doing CrossFitesque training for decades – it’s just that someone codified and structured it as a program – and, turns out, did so on a deeper level than any of us outside the CF community realize.  It’s high time we learn some fundamental lessons from CrossFit because it has a wealth of information to add to how some of us loners train.

Thus, to better understand CF and how I could apply it to my own journey toward optimal health and performance, I attended the course at Rogue headquarters in Columbus, Ohio (and got to train a little with Chris Spealler, no less) and what I learned there was better than at any fitness or training seminar I’ve attended to date.

In this three part series I am going to summarize what I learned, drawing from the course and the Level 1 Trainer manual, to give you a glimpse of how you WILL want to modify your training.  But first, we need to define some terms.

Understanding Crossfit: Definitions

CrossFit aims to forge a “broad, general, inclusive fitness.” To prepare individuals for anything life would throw at them. Preparing them for the “unknown and unknowable.”
CrossFit Defined is constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.
Functional movements are universal motor recruitment patterns that are formed in a wave of contraction from the high force, low velocity core to the lower force, higher velocity extremities (envision throwing a fastball). They are compound movements that can move large loads over long distances quickly.  This is important to me because, in my job, I have to move very heavy medical equipment quickly, and the movement of a casualty is one of the most physically demanding things you can do on the field of battle.
In CrossFit, Intensity is synonymous with Power. It is the independent variable most commonly associated with maximizing the favorable adaptation to exercise.  Remember from physics that work is the product of force and distance (W=FxD).  Once you introduce a time element, you get Power…. and Power is Work per unit Time.
The Methodology – empirically driven, clinically tested, observable, repeatable, community developed; molding people who are equal parts gymnast, Olympic lifters, multi-modal sprint athletes with the capability to extend to high endurance activities when needed.
It is the sport of fitness. And that’s why there is a CrossFit Games.  Harnessing the power of game, of competition, lends to a greater intensity of effort from the individual.  This is probably the most favorable aspect of training at a local box, or CrossFit Gym, where you are physically competing with others right in front of you, trying to best their time, and getting cheered on by those that have finished before you.  But if you’re alone – YOU have to be able to push yourself.  So I recommend going to a Box, if you can.  Particularly if you are weak in using the correct form on the fundamental movements.  You can hurt yourself once the loads gets heavy if you are not obsessive about proper form.
In CF there is a focus on the practical measurements, rather than the surrogates of fitness.  Increased work capacity is the holy grail of physical performance, not VO2max, lactate threshold, body composition, or even strength and mobility.

Foundations

CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning program designed to yield a broad a fitness as possible. The program is foundational to all other fitness needs. The attempt is to optimize physical fitness across 10 domains:

1. Cardiovascular Endurance
2. Stamina
3. Strength
4. Mobility
5. Power
6. Speed
7. Coordination
8. Agility
9. Balance
10. Accuracy

Modalities are the types of activities (mode of exercise) involved.  Biking, Running, Swimming, Rowing at short, middle, and long distances; Gymnastics to control the body dynamically and statically, maximizing strength to weight ratio and flexibility;
Olympic lifting due to its unparalleled ability to develop explosive power and control of external objects and master critical motor recruitment patterns.  Of course, not many have access to all these modalities and there will always be areas where you are lacking, but pushing yourself to go as broad as possible will push your ability to adapt to whatever random task comes your way in life.

Now, most gyms continue to promote isolation movements, machines, and long aerobic sessions. This is the wrong approach….in triplicate. Crossfit isn’t just for the hardcore but for everyone.  The need of the elite athlete and the need of the 70 year old differs in degree, not in kind. They both need to be able to pick objects up off the ground, or to hold their balance while going up a set of stairs. Remember that age related strength declines are what put people in nursing homes. Athletes, no matter the age, have greater bone density, stronger immune systems (if not overtrained endurance types), less CVD and CVAs, and a stronger mental constitution.  The agility that comes with this style of training will also prevent you from falling or, at least, allow you to fall better.

One of the most fascinating paradigms that has largely been ignored by formal Western Medicine (and will be dealt with more extensively in Part II of this series) is that fitness, wellness, and pathology exist on a continuum and are measures of one aspect of your being: your health.

It is impressive the variety of tools and exercises that are utilized in CrossFit
Exercises:                                                    Tools:
Clean and Jerk                                            Bikes
Snatch                                                         Track
Squat                                                           Rowing
Deadlift                                                        Olympic weights
Push press                                                  Rings
Bench press                                                Parallel bars
Power Clean                                               Free exercise mat
Jumping                                                      Horizontal Bar
Pullups                                                        Plyometric Boxes
Dips                                                            Medicine Balls
Pushups                                                     Jump Rope
Handstands
Muscle ups
Situps
Scales
Holds

How long are the training sessions?  Decades ago, a famous Bodybuilder named Mike Mentzer stated that you can train hard, or you can train long, but you can’t train hard and long.  He was right.  But he took it a little too far by claiming that most of the lack of gains in the gym were due to overtraining (mostly right) and that one set per body part once a week was all that was required (almost all wrong).  Plus he took a lot of steroids, back in the day as it were.  CrossFit also has a focus on short, intense workouts.The intensity of training that optimizes an adaptive response cannot be normally maintained past 45 minutes is what the Level 1 guide states and I’ve found that to be empirically true.  Get in, train hard, get out.

 

As far as the fitness of the endurance athlete goes….this creature has trained long past any cardiovascular health benefit and has lost ground in strength, speed, power and does not train for coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy while maintaining only average flexibility.  You see, long distance running is pretty much just falling forward with alternating leg flexion – not too much athletic about that.

This is not elite athleticism

My own thoughts on running are that my job is to stand and fight, and win, or die – there will be no running….other than the sprint work needed to catch my enemy 😉

But I know my error – I’m not complete without endurance so I do the long distance running anyway – begrudgingly.

Excessive volume of endurance training here ensures sacrifice of speed, power, and strength to the point that true athleticism is severely compromised. A “fringe” athlete has become so specialized that it has cost him in the adaptations that give competency to all physical challenges.

Almost all adaptations in the body from exercise occur due to changes in the energy systems that drive action. Aerobic exercise is of a low to moderate intensity for longer than a couple minutes duration, while high intensity force production requires the use of the two anaerobic systems. While anaerobic energy pathways cannot be stressed with aerobic activity, the converse is not true.  You can stress the aerobic system significantly with the right combination of anaerobic work!  Here are some of the best exercises to include in this high intensity, anaerobic work….

Olympic Lifts– there are two classic Olympic lifts, the clean and jerk, and the snatch. They combine the squat, deadlift, power clean, and split jerk to activate more muscle fibers than any other modality of training with a huge benefit in explosiveness. Learning these lifts teaches your mind and body to apply force in the proper sequence – core to periphery.

Gymnastics – Extreme Value lies in the fact that this is body control (body weight control). Premium is on improvement of strength to weight ratio. Gymnastics develops pullups, squats, lunges, jumping, pushup, handstands, scales, and holds. Gymnastics greatly improves the kinesthetic sense.  The sense of where you are in the world and the relation of your body to existence.

Routines – there is no ideal routine. The Crossfit ideal is to train for any contingency and to do this, there must be extreme breadth in the training stimulus. “Any routine, no matter how complete, contains within its omissions the parameters for which there will be no adaptation….this is not a comforting message in an age where scientific certainty and specialization confer authority and expertise.” Pg. 11

Neuro-endocrine Adaptation – some of the most important adaptations to exercise are neurally or hormonally mediated. Isolation movements like the leg extension do not give this response.  Large force, compound movements are the ones that elicit an elevated testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 response.

The CrossFit Diet: The Zone.  This is the diet pioneered by Dr. Barry Sears (“Enter the Zone”).  Macronutrient ratio here is – 40:30:30.  40% of calories from low glycemic carbs (veggies, fruits); 30% of calories from quality protein; 30% of calories from good fats.  My own diet favors a 50:30:20 on average – just so you know what I prefer.  Total calories are based on protein needs (0.7 to 1.0 g/lb lean body mass).  The Zone is too complicated to get into in one article but the book has been mentioned….

What is Fitness?

Fitness has been forever vaguely defined. Some would say the triathlete is the fittest, yet that athlete only excels at endurance – although it is endurance in three separate modalities (much better than the marathoner). But the physical attributes that constitute the domains of fitness are much more than just endurance. Some of the best marathoners are reported to have a vertical leap of only a few inches! So if we wish to support and optimize our own fitness, it would be most helpful, even essential, to define the term “fitness”.

For CrossFit, fitness is evaluated and guided by four models
1) Ten general physical skills
2) Performance of athletic tasks
3) Energy systems that drive action
4) Health markers (physiological fitness)

CrossFit has made famous the “World Class Fitness in 100 words”:
-Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.
-Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean and jerk, snatch. Master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope-climb, push ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row hard and fast.
-5-6 days/week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense.
-Regularly learn and play new sports.

Ten General Physical Skills

Training improves 4 of these skills (through a measurable organic change in the body)
Mobility – ability to maximize the ROM at a given joint
Endurance-ability to obtain, deliver, and utilize oxygen
Strength – ability of a muscles to apply force
Stamina – ability of body systems to deliver, store, and utilize energy
Practice improves another 4 of these skills (through changes in the nervous system)
Coordination-ability to comb sev movment patterns into a distinct movement
Agility – ability to minimize transition time from one pattern to another
Balance – ability to control the body’s COG in relation to its support base
Accuracy – ability to ctrl movement in a given direction or at a given intensity
For the remaining two skills, overlap occurs between the benefits of training and of practice.
Power – ability of muscles to apply max force in minimum time
Speed – ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement

The Hopper

Fitness is about performing well at any task imaginable
The hopper is a device loaded with an infinite number of physical challenges, where no selective mechanism is operative, and you are asked to draw these challenges and assemble your workout based on what is drawn out of the hopper. This calls for the athlete to not concern himself with any specific sets, rest periods, reps, exercises, order of the exercises, routines, or periodization because, in the state of nature, where lives the great leviathan, there are none of these and many of the challenges one could come across physically in every day life are largely unforeseeable.

The Metabolic Pathways

Crossfit has a focus on the three metabolic pathways that lead to voluntary action of the human body. Although they are operative in all skeletal muscle cells, and under all types of muscle contraction, under specific circumstances one pathway will predominate (e.g. a 100m sprint, a 400m run, or a 3 mile jog).

The following table is adapted from page 17 of the crossfit level I guide

Pathway Phosphocreatine Glycolytic Oxidative
Time 120 sec
Desc Anaerobic Anaerobic Aerobic
Power/Intensity Max(90-100%) Med(60-90%) Low (<60%)
Other names Phosphagen Lactate Aerobic
Location Cytosol Cytosol Mitochondria
Fiber type IIb IIa I
Substrate PhospoCreatine Glucose(from blood or glycogen) or glycerol(fat) Pyruvate(glycolysis) or Acetate(fat)
Mechanism P added to take ADP to ATP Glucose yields 2 ATP Pyruvate yields 34 ATP
Other Occurs quickly good energy yield for high force muscle types Occurs quickly lower energy yield for high force muscle Occurs slower high energy yield for low force muscle types

The CrossFit method desires total fitness, which is fitness involving the training and optimization of all three pathways. It sees the most common faults in fitness training to be:
1) excessive training in Oxidative pathway (run, run, run)
2) favoring one or two to the exclusion of the others (bodybuilding, powerlifting)

Fourth fitness model: The Sickness-Wellness-Fitness Continuum

Almost every measurable value in assessing health can be put on a continuum of sickness to wellness to health.

These parameters include not just physical health but mental health, cognitive function, etc. Your mind and body or inextricably linked and we should not tear them asunder. Whether it is a physical characteristic (body composition), a measurable physiologic metric (blood pressure), a lab value (cholesterol), or a psychological test – all of these have a measure that is below average (sickness), average (wellness), and above average or optimized (fitness). We want optimization, we want BETTER.

All of us have inside us our best body, our best ability, our best mind.  It is for us to seek, work, and obtain these things.  

These all measure your health and if taken to the extreme we can see that we can push it full circle back to sickness – if our approach is not balanced.

If performed correctly, fitness provides a buffer, or insurance, against the ravages of age, genetic predisposition, and the arbitrary chance of disease exposure.

Thus, the four models provide for a focus on
1) The full range of general physical adaptations (10 general physical skills)
2) The breadth and depth of performance (The Hopper)
3) Challenging our “engines” in terms of time and power (Energy systems)
4) Health markers as sentinels of our Optimization

Cardio- Termed “Metabolic Conditioning” in CrossFit
Running, Biking, Rowing, Swimming, Cross country skiing
Aerobic conditioning can benefit the cardiovascular system, make it more efficient, as well as decrease body fat. But extended periods lead to decreased muscle mass, strength, speed, and power. In short, Aerobic exercise is detrimental to anaerobic performance.
Anaerobic activity can benefit cardiovascular function and decrease body fat, but improves the parameters that conventional aerobics do not. Since anaerobic training is significantly less detrimental to aerobic function than the converse, it makes sense to focus our efforts on anaerobic training to develop aerobic or endurance performance. The method by which CrossFit (as well as other lesser known systems) use anaerobic training to condition the metabolic systems (namely endurance and stamina) is interval training (HIIT). Some of the work of Dr. Stephen Seiler is utilized and the article on the time of course of training adaptations indicates that first increased maximal oxygen consumption occurs, second is increased lactate threshold, and third is increased efficiency.

Indeed, most sports require the majority of time to be spent utilizing the anaerobic systems.

Gymnastics
This includes the competitive type, plus yoga, climbing, calisthenics, dance, or any activity where the aim is body control. This develops strength, mobility, coordination, balance, agility, and accuracy.  Pullups, pushups, dips, and rope climbs should form the core of upper body work. Once you get to 15 pullups and dips, you need to try muscle ups.
Balance and accuracy is developed by working on the handstand, L holds for abs (work to get up to 3 minutes)
For flexibility Bob Anderson’s “Stretching” is a recommended read. Stretch in order to warm up to establish safe, effective range of motion and then stretch during the cool down to work on mobility.  Look into www.drillsandskills.com to get a good gymnastics program.

Weightlifting
This refers to Olympic lifting, which means the clean and jerk and the snatch.
These lifts develop strength, particularly in the hips, and speed and power like no other modality.  Olympic Lifting requires substantial flexibility. These lifts are based on the deadlift, squat, clean, and jerk.  Know them.  Become one with them.

Throwing   Can you think of many sports where there is not a throw or a swing?  Medicine ball work provides both physical training and general movement practice.  Another solid stimulus for strength, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.

There is a theoretical hierarchy of physical development that begins with nutrition and metabolic conditioning at its base, followed by gymnastics, weightlifting/throwing, and sport at its pinnacle.  Sport is where the skills you develop are expressed and tested. Here body control comes before external object control. If there are any deficiencies in the hierarchy, the principles above will suffer.

“Your body will only respond to an unaccustomed stressor: routine is the enemy of progress and broad adaptation.” Pg 24 But routine does make things more easily measurable.

What does a typical CrossFit week look like?  Well, Coach Glassman, the founder of CF, recommends a 3 on; 1 off routine.  For those on a Monday to Friday schedule with weekends off this can be tailored to 4 or 5 days per week of training.
Strength training, then gymnastics, then HIIT (MC) is a favorite.
Another favorite method for a workout is to combine gymnastics and weightlifting into couplets (Look at the “Fran” or “Diane” workouts)
Or combine 4-6 elements from lifting, gymnastics, and MC and make a circuit to blow through three times without a break (“Angie”).

Scalability and Applicability
What about utilizing the CrossFit concepts for the elderly or extremely deconditioned? The famous quote here is that “the needs of an Olympic athlete and our grandparents differ by degree not kind. One is looking for functional dominance, the other for functional competence….we scale load and intensity; we do not change programs.” We all have to squat, pick stuff up off the ground, lift things overhead to put on a shelf, etc.  There is no reason anyone not bed ridden can’t train to do any of those with the appropriate load.

Next Post: A deep philosophical dive into what is fitness, and how to implement CrossFit for the solo CrossFitter

Lanny Littlejohn, MD

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