Mesmerized by the wicked fast WOD times that athletes like Matt Fraser and Tia Clair Toomey put up? So am I. It's easy to get caught in the temptation to nail out super high intensity, heavy-ass WODs like at the games or any sanctional events. But here's the thing: you're not Matt Fraser or Tia Toomey. Even if you were them, they didn't get that good by doing those types of WODs every day. Those WODs are a test of several aspects of fitness, strength, endurance and skills. A test isn't reflective of how you train year-round, a test is a chance to express skills that you have trained. Each aspect is trained in a specific, periodized way so that you can obtain the maximum gains from each training cycle. If traditional strength & conditioning was on one end of a spectrum, classic "CrossFit" would be on the other end. If we break it down, strength & conditioning is sport-specific while CrossFit is usually a random assortment of movements that are usually not paired together in any other circumstance. Something like a 5-kilometre run, then max out your deadlift, then do 21-15-9 at 50% of your deadlift paired with handstand push-ups. Now, why would you follow a strength and conditioning program to get good as CrossFit if the methodology is the polar opposite? Because if you want to be good at CrossFit, you need to be strong AND conditioned.
Let's break down what traits you need for Crossfit and how you can build them.
First up, you need to be strong.
Strength is probably the number one most overlooked quality in most CrossFit classes. I often see people sandbag the strength portion to save themselves for the WOD. I get it, WOD's leave you breathless on the floor and you feel like you really got better that day because holy shit, I'm out of breath and my legs are burning. But being stronger supports your ability to perform during a WOD. For example, a 95 lb thruster is going to feel a lot lighter if your max front squat is 400 lbs instead of 320 lbs. Even better, you're going to move a lot more efficiently through your thrusters if your squat mechanics are better. This applies not only to barbell movements but also in gymnastics. Crossfit is notorious for shoulder injuries. Any kipping or butterfly movement, although faster and for the purpose of a WOD makes sense, place a huge strain on your shoulder. Most people do not have the pre-requisite strength to handle the amount of strain these motions put on the shoulder. Not only that, developing a higher level of strength in a movement such as a strict pull-up will make help you hold the proper body positions needed in the kipping or butterfly variation. Better body positions means more efficient movements meaning faster WOD times.
The stronger you are, the lighter the barbell feels. The stronger you are, the more efficient you can be and shave time off your WODs without having to work on your engine at all (not to say you shouldn't). Strength takes a long time to build and as a result, is often neglected because people don't see instant results (past the newbie gain phase). Building strength also means you have to set aside some of the classic style CrossFit WODs so you can reap the strength cycle's full benefit. This is something that most Crossfitter's don't like. But trust us, it is well worth it 6 months down the line.
You need to be skilled!
Crossfit tests higher skill movements such as double-unders, handstand walking, kipping gymnastic movements and complex Olympic weightlifting variations. These movements take a lot of time to learn and even more time to perfect. For example, a weightlifter will spend their entire career working on just the snatch and clean & jerk. A gymnast will spend years learning how to swing on rings or bars. In most CrossFit classes, you get 15 minutes to work on a skill and then are expected to perform these movements under fatigue. It can be tedious but spending time working on these skills is the only way you are going to come close to mastering them. The bottom line is that you need to practice your skills. Skill practice is done at a low heart rate with low to moderate weights. It's not flashy and doesn't leave you gassed out on the ground, it's more about learning than it is about adapting. It will improve your efficiency that translates to means a faster time. So slow down, and learn how to move better.
Next, you need a greater aerobic capacity.
Yes, I said it, you actually have to do long, slow distance cardio. No, not a marathon but many CrossFitters get so focused on the HIIT style or shorter metcon style workouts that they forget that your aerobic system is what supports high-intensity work. Low-level aerobic conditioning is also great for recovery and flushing the lactic acid that builds up from strength training and higher intensity workouts. CrossFit is a weird cross between strength and endurance. Working on your aerobic capacity is also a good chance to work on breathing mechanics, another aspect of sport often neglected. The good news is that you don't have to sit on a bike for 1 hour straight to work on it. Your heart isn't a smart muscle and does not differentiate what type of exercise you are doing. As long as it's elevated you are working your heart. You could play a sport (spikeball, volleyball etc), go hiking, or even mix in some low-skill strength training to your rowing/biking/running to work on strength and cardio at the same time . Just as long as you can move consistently and are not limited by your strength. For example, you could do something like this:
Bike at 70% of max HR
every 3 minutes perform a 50 ft farmer's carry
Run at 70% of max HR
every 3 minutes perform a 25-50 ft handstand walk (or handstand walk practice)
Row at 70% of max HR
every 3 minutes perform 100 double-unders
Here is one hour of steady-state cardio except the modality changes to prevent boredom. Plus, CrossFit is primarily a multimodal sport meaning you will be switching the modality, or type of movement frequently. You need to train and learn how to switch movements while keeping your heart rate elevated.
That being said, you do need a high lactate threshold AND an anaerobic engine.
You need a strong aerobic capacity as a base but at the end of the day, the majority of CrossFit style tests push you into a lactic acid dominated zone and then into you anaerobic zone. Yes, this means "very uncomfortable, my legs are on fire and everything is dying" zone. Assault and erg intervals, even regular sprints are a great way to attack this.
Finally, you need to have what I call, old-man strength.
What do I mean? You are going to be presented with moving really odd objects. Tire flips, D-ball cleans, yoke carries etc. Sometimes the load will be unstable or asymmetrical. Getting used to lifting things that aren't barbells and dumbells is important. Lifting odd objects is a true test of functional strength because you probably won't have perfect form. It's not going to be super pretty, fast and efficient like an Olympic lift but one of the underlying principles of CrossFit is that it's unpredictable.
As you can see, there are so many aspects of functional fitness/CrossFit to get good at. There is the odd genetic freak who can tolerate the amount of volume required to attack each area at once, but that probably isn't you. This is why the basic principles of strength and conditioning are important. You need to periodize in some way or another as your body is not going to be able to simultaneously reach its fullest potential if you are training every element at once.
If you want to get stronger, you need to train for strength. Want a better engine? You need to train for that. Everything needs to be targetted, rather than throwing everything in the blender and hoping for the best.
Having trouble figuring out what to focus on? We recommend you focus on your weaknesses. But your weakness probably depends on everything you have done up until now!
If you have absolutely no strength background but you were an endurance athlete, start training for basic strength. Your lungs will be fine, because a high VO2max built though years of endurance training will remain relatively stable.
If you can coming from a strength background (weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding), focus your efforts on strict gymnastics, conditioning and throw in a few lifts here and there just to jog your memory. Strength takes a long time to build, but it also takes a long time to go away.
Gymnastic background? Lucky you... work on your cardio and and Olympic weightlifting technique. You'll probably be able to handle a relatively large volume of Olympic weightlifting right off the hop, as you'll have a good base of strength from gymnastics.
You have been doing functional fitness for a few years and consider yourself to have equally good strength, conditioning and skills? Raw strength and aerobic capacity take the longest to build. We have a 6-month program that may work well for you.
Still stuck? Send us an email and we can look at writing you a program that addresses your personal goals and sets you up for long term success.