A Rebuttal, Or Why It’s Not Just About Strength

Since a whole bunch of people have asked me my opinion on this article, I felt I’d better write something. For anyone looking for comedy or cheesecake, well that post is just going to have to wait now.

“CrossFit athletes should concentrate on strength. Nobody wins competitions with bodyweight skills”

I’ll be honest, I almost stopped reading when this point was made, so let’s start there.

It’s not a strength sport, certainly not in the way that powerlifting and weightlifting are ‘strength’ sports. More accurately it’s described as a medium intensity long range sport (especially if we’re talking Regionals/Games). Yes, strength matters, but it is not the full and only limiting factor in CrossFit success, it’s just one component.

Citing a ladder in a CrossFit competition as proof of the need for strength does not prove it. I could equally pick the half marathon row as an example of why you need long duration single modality pieces as the base of your training.

But, as this analysis points out, any one of the Regionals events has the ability to change the score, which is what you want. (Copied from the truly excellent datawod.com)

If This Event Hadn’t Happened In This Region These Athletes Would Have Qualified These Athletes Would Have Stayed Home
Snatch Australia James Newbury Khan Porter
Canada East Alex Vigneault Paul Tremblay
Canada West Joe Scali Tyson Takasaki
Central East Graham Holmberg Will Moorad
Mid Atlantic Nathan Keil Jordan Troyan
North East Austin Malleolo Craig Kenney
South Central Dusty Flores Jeff Germond
South East Ryan Sunshine Jeff Evans
Canada West Alex Parker Emily Beers
Central East Jennifer Smith Michelle Kinney
North West Carleen Lessard Rory Zambard
Northern California Cheryl Brost Margaux Alvarez
Handstand North East Spencer Hendel James Hobart
South Central Cody Spell Richard Bohlken
Australia Ruth Anderson Horrell Pip Malone
Canada West Brittany Brown Emily Beers
Europe Samantha Briggs Kristin Holte
North Central Stacie Tovar Kelley Jackson
North West Karen McCadam Regan Huckaby
Southern California Jamie Hagiya Rebecca Voigt
Pistols Australia Kevin Manuel Khan Porter
Canada East Pascal Baillargeon Paul Tremblay
Central East Graham Holmberg Will Moorad
North Central Justin Allen Jacob Heppner
South Central Roy Gamboa Richard Bohlken
South East Elijah Muhammad Travis Mayer
Mid Atlantic Dara Ching Christy Adkins
North Central Grace Dresher Kelley Jackson
HSPU Australia James Newbury Khan Porter
Canada East Alex Vigneault Paul Tremblay
Canada West Brent Fikowski Tyson Takasaki
Central East Graham Holmberg Will Moorad
North East Spencer Hendel James Hobart
Northern California Wes Piatt Marcus Filly
South Central Cody Spell Jeff Germond
South East Elijah Muhammad Travis Mayer
Canada West Jenn Webber, Erica Livett Emily Abbott, Emily Beers
Central East Danielle Sidell Michelle Kinney
North Central Grace Dresher Kelley Jackson
Legless Australia Brendan Clarke Khan Porter
North East Austin Malleolo Craig Kenney
South East Guido Trinidad Travis Mayer
Southern California Tommy Pease Dan Bailey
Europe Katrin Tanja Davidsdottir Kristin Holte
North Central Jessica Schulz Kelley Jackson
North West Carleen Lessard Regan Huckaby
Chipper North East Joe Kearney Craig Kenney
South Central Dusty Flores, Roy Gamboa Jeff Germond, Richard Bohlken
South East Julian Serna Jeff Evans
Canada West Erica Livett Emily Beers
Central East Alyssa Ritchey Michelle Kinney
Europe Oxana Slivenko Kristin Holte
Mid Atlantic Dara Ching Anna Tunnicliffe
North Central Katelyn Busacker Kelley Jackson
North West Karen McCadam Rory Zambard
Northern California Courtney Walker Margaux Alvarez
OHS Canada East Alex Vigneault Paul Tremblay
Canada West Brent Fikowski Tyson Takasaki
South Central Roy Gamboa Jeff Germond
Canada East Kristine Andali Michele Letendre
Canada West Whitney Darchuk Emily Beers
Central East Alyssa Ritchey Michelle Kinney
Europe Caroline Fryklund Kristin Holte
Mid Atlantic Emily Friedman Anna Tunnicliffe
North Central Grace Dresher Kelley Jackson

Maybe in the 2010, 2011 era, you could make Regionals with large gaps in your training. In fact, my good friend Dominic Munnelly fully admits this was his case.

It was hard to find a photo of him with his shirt ON!

It was hard to find a photo of him with his shirt ON!

I believe there’s been a concerted effort from Castro and Glassman not to make The Games predictable. In fact, if you look here, in my blog post about the 2013 Games, you’ll see I aruge that Castro is deliberately trying to create a sport that distinguishes between the ‘fittest’ and ‘best trained’, and also eliminate the importance of strategy, coaching, and tactics.

There’s a long standing ‘effort’, if effort is the right word, from CrossFit to disprove traditional notions of strength gains and what is accepted as proper fitness methodologies by academia. They want to show you can get stronger by doing metcons, and improve your running ability by doing double unders etc.

“Nobody wins with their bodyweight skills. While being really bad at bodyweight skills can certainly prevent you from winning, being excellent at them will not win you anything if you’re weak in the big lifts.”

You could equally swap the place of bodyweight skills and big lifts and this statement would remain true.

As to no event being determined by gymnastics, I submit to you (off the top of my head)

  • 2012 Finals – Fortunato versus Clever. Fortunato wins because she holds on for the 9 pull ups, Clever drops off after 7.

  • 2012 Medball/HSPU – HSPU clearly the deciding factor. Khalipa essentially lost out on a second place spot by mistiming his rest on the Deficit Handstand Push Ups.
  • 2013 – Legless.
  • 2014 Handstand Walk – Much talked about HS Walk. Castro even said when they mentioned the three attempts at the hang snatch that CrossFit wanted to increase the cost of failure. This I believe also forms part of the larger intent of CrossFit to show far more successes than hits, and to reduce reliance on “ugly but good” reps as a backbone of their sport.

None of the above examples prove that bodyweight skills are more important than weightlifting. Just that I’d argue there’s as important as the lifts.

At the risk of upsetting everyone again. It is easier to program for strength and progression in Weightlifting than it is for progression in multi modal metcons. Now, just because it’s easier to program and apply principles (e.g. it’s easier to pick 80% of your snatch for five doubles than it is to perform a metcon at 80% of your max pace.) DOES NOT mean making strength gains or technical progression itself is easier. In fact, you’re far more likely to max out your novice gains in strength work long before you’ll max out your novice gains in cardio and gymnastics and be forced to be more precise and diligent in your training.

Are the Olympic Lifts important to your success in Weightlifting? Absolutely! Can you focus on them primarily to the detriment of your “raw” engine and bodyweight endurance? No. While the lifts account for approximately 40% of CrossFit, maxing out those lifts, or absolute strength, isn’t how they’re tested primarily in our sport.

The stronger you are, the proportionally lighter the WOD weights become.

Doing 20 deadlifts with 275 pounds is much easier if your top deadlift is 550 pounds than if it’s 325 pounds.

Yes, absolute strength will make metcon weights proportionately lighter, and this CAN make them easier. However, if you don’t invest time training for repetitions at submaximal weights, and adapting to that unique stress that CrossFit provides, your absolute strength will not guarantee success. Taking the example above, we can reasonably assume the guy who’s practice pulling touch n go deadlifts for sets of 10-20 at 275 is going to do better in that metcon than the athlete who’s only pulled heavy singles to drive their deadlift 1RM up.

So if absolute strength and weightlifting proficiency shouldn’t be the primary focus, what should be? I’d argue that “capacity” should be. The ability to continuously exert a steady effort without blowing up. i.e. learning to stay just shy of that ‘redzone’ in all areas (maximum effort lifts, repetition maximums, speed of running/rowing/skipping, volume of bodyweight movements, etc.)

No where so far in The Open has strength being the primary factor of success. In fact, many (including the humble writer and his team) have fallen victim to prioritising strength ahead of cardio/conditioning/work capacity. It is said that you need a gas tank to qualify from The Open, but then you need to be strong to carry on. While this might have been true in 2012 (The “Heavy” Regional) the more the sport evolves the more the tests of capacity will be similar. As you move from Open to Regionals to Games the tests of capacity will become broader (increased time domain, increased volume, increased cost of failure, increased difficulty, increased skills) and not JUST heavier.

Now perhaps Thibaudeau was being more sensationalist in his writing than was necessary, as largely he makes sense and I agree with him. CrossFit athletes absolutely need to focus on technique (in particular the not missing part is excellent advice), ditch the always PR mindset and focus more on movement than score in training. All this is bang on the money. Strength as the primary focus is the point I disagree on.

Now I’m off to work on my squats for strength, wall balls and double unders for conditioning, and muscle ups for my gymnastics. And maybe next time I’m back we’ll be less serious, and more comedy đŸ™‚

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