Coach’s Corner: Are You Building Skills Backwards?

I blame Instagram. In the early days of CrossFit, if you found out a friend of yours from high school was into functional fitness, the only way to know who was fitter would be to show up at their gym and throw down. At some point, a guy named Dave (and some others) took that idea, and made it into the CrossFit Games.

That was a great idea! Knowing how you stack up versus your gym, the world, etc. is great- when you are collecting enough data to make that comparison worthwhile. However, social media makes it all too easy for people to post the highlights of their training- their best lifts, that one time they were able to handstand walk 50 feet, etc. without any context of what it means. Further, since most social platforms have time restrictions on video content (and since we have our own natural attention span restrictions) people tend to post a lot of heavy lifts, some high level gymnastics, but not the balance of what their training is and/or should be.

I see a lot of athletes get caught up in this, and even if its at a subconscious level, it can affect their programming and training. Especially for intermediate athletes deciding on what “homework” to add to their group class training, this can be where things get really backwards. Instead of spending time training the boring “base” they work a lot on the sexy “tip of the spear,” and wonder why they aren’t getting better faster or run into other issues (overtraining, injury, etc.) because of it.

One old school CrossFit principle is the Theoretical Pyramid of Athletic Development, and it looks like this:

We won’t talk about nutrition today (although it’s true that most people would rather spend another hour in the gym than an hour on Sunday food prepping, for much less benefit). Instead, notice the progression from

Metabolic ConditioningGymnasticsWeightliftingSport

That’s the way it’s supposed to go!

Instead, here’s a sample hierarchy for someone doing things “The Instagram Famous Way”:

I get it, the stuff at the bottom in this pyramid is cooler to watch! Nobody wants to see a real time video of you doing 1000m rowing repeats, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing it. So, if you really want to get better, here’s how you should prioritize, with a little about how to train those things:

Step One: Build a Big F’in Engine and Make it Bulletproof

Your first step as a CrossFitter should be… getting really fit. Crazy, I know, but there’s a reason Chris Hinshaw preaches a well-built aerobic base and James “OPT” Fitzgerald loves to talk about developing your energy systems. Before any crazy skills or feats of superhuman strength, the first thing you need is work capacity, the ability to do a whole bunch of low skill stuff for a long time.

Pop quiz: What’s the most programmed workout in history on CrossFit.com? Most people think Fran or another benchmark, but in fact… it’s a 5K Run. Chew on that for a bit.

Along with your engine, a lot of smart people (ActiveLifeRX and StrongFit, notably) have begun to respond to the “too much, too soon” approach by extolling the merits of other “boring” stuff like tempo work, time under tension, strongman work (carries, sled, etc.) and other movements that build neuromuscular coordination & control, tendon strength & health, and balance between muscles groups, sides of your body, etc. Building this strong base will make it that much easier to layer skills on top of, and will keep you injury free moving forward.

Step Two: Get Some Gym-nast Skills

Now that you’ve got a strong engine, work capacity, and systemic balance, start practicing some skills. Remember, practice does not mean do kipping pull-ups until your arms rip off- start with strict variants, build control and strength in all muscular contractions (concentric/eccentric/isometric) and then start layering more dynamic skills on top.

When practicing gymnastics for quality, stop well short of failure- the goal is to probe the edge of how much perfect movement you can do, not do 1 or 2 smooth reps, a few OK ones, and then struggle and flail through the end. For my athletes, I use the analogy of a Bank. Every time you practice, you are making deposits in the bank that you will draw from when you are in the 98th minute of a 99 minute AMRAP. If the bank is full to the brim of perfect practice reps, you will perform perfectly, even under fatigue. If the bank is half good reps and half bad, you might just pull out something really gnarly and, especially when you’re tired, that could be disastrous.

Step Three: Slowly Build Strength

For a long time I thought building strength was the pinnacle of CrossFit pursuits, and that any day without some specific barbell lifting was a wasted one. Over time, I’ve come to realize that “strong enough” in CrossFit is very different than “super duper strong.” Like everything in life, strength is subject to the law of diminishing returns- you can get “pretty strong” with a modicum of effort, but to become “really strong” takes an exponentially increased amount of work. For most of us, “pretty strong” will do just fine.

To geek out further, everyone knows a guy who did a lifting cycle like Smolov or Russian Squats, or something that added 50 lbs to their Back Squat 1RM in 6 weeks. The problem is that much of that gain is neurological- they practiced squatting a lot and got very neurologically “dialed in” to the movement, thus making it easier. If they don’t continue squatting with a good amount of frequency, much of those gains will disappear.

Thus, my advice is to build strength slowly, with less of a focus on 1RM numbers and more of a concern for what “working weights” are. If over a year you can go from having to break the first round of Diane into 5’s to being able to do it unbroken, you are doing well. If a normal set of 5 back squats consistently trends upwards, even if the trend line is subtle, take it. The slower you build your strength the more you can be confident that it’s “real”- the product of musculoskeletal development and not just the sharpening of your neuromuscular system to a razor fine edge, soon to be dulled.

Step Four (Optional): Prepare for “Sport”

This last part is indeed optional. If you do steps 1 to 3 well, you will be a pretty damn strong person with gymnastic skills and a great engine- aka super fit! However, there are some things that fall into a slightly different category, and it’s a personal decision about how important those things are to you.

I’m talking here about Sport of Fitness skills- things like butterfly pull-ups, bounding box jumps, handstand walks, barbell cycling, etc. These generally fall into two categories: some will shave a few seconds of a round but won’t make an unfit person magically fit, while some of them aren’t programmed much in normal affiliate group classes but may show up in competitions.

You’ve gotta decide what’s important to you, and where your time is best spent. Some of these things carry a (slightly) increased risk of injury- which doesn’t mean not to do them, but may mean thinking clearly about whether the risk is worth the reward. For others you may see them programmed once or twice a year- how many hours spent on them is worth it? This will vary a ton person to person based on age, “training age”, interest in competition, previous orthopedic stuff, etc.

As you may have guessed, my advice remains consistent- build a strong and durable base of the “unsexy” stuff, then layer in smart and controlled practice, an appropriate amount of (real) strength development, with a sprinkle of skills and party tricks on top. Forget about what you see on Instagram- those are highlight reels. Learn to enjoy those Benchmark workouts and 500m row repeats, that’s where the real magic lives.

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