By: FRCF Coach John San Filippo
We’re under way in our test week! As you’ve noticed, we’re in full swing with lots of gymnastics movements. Over the next 9 weeks, I want you to focus on one thing: virtuosity. Gymnastics is a pursuit of (sometimes painfully) slow progress. It’s the small details that will add up to major progress. With that in mind, here are some points of focus for the movements we’ll be focusing on.
- Make sure that your index fingers point to 11 and 1 as you work into handstands. This will keep your shoulders externally rotated, and allow you to access all of the power of your shoulder girdle.
- For handstand holds, keep your hands directly under your shoulders. For handstand pushups, your hands should be slightly outside of your shoulders. Wide handstand pushups are easier to cycle when you kip, but strict handstand pushups are much harder with your hands wide. Think about trying to strict press from a snatch grip–you’ll be able to press much less than from a wide grip than from a standard grip. If you’ve always done wide handstands, it will feel harder from the beginning–but that’s just your brain learning a new movement pattern!
- Reach your head slightly in front of your hands to form a tripod position in negative or handstand pushup work. This will help you keep your balance, and allow you to keep your hands in the proper narrow position. An important aspect of this is continuing to look back through your hands, instead of arching your neck (and therefore your upper back.)
- We will be doing ring work in external rotation at the top of our dips. This is partly for shoulder health: external rotation builds strength in ranges of motion that we don’t use in everyday life, and prevents impingement at the front of your shoulder. It also builds strength in a hand position that mimics how many people catch in the transition of a muscle up. If you catch with your thumbs forward in the bottom of a dip, you are more externally rotated than the standard knuckles forward ring support hold. If you have no strength here, it will be nigh impossible to dip out.
- Physics demands that the rings reach straight towards the ground. The shakiness you feel in a ring support (or in a dip) is your brain adding instability as it tries to move. You can reduce this by pressing into the top of a dip, instead of jumping into it.
- Squeezing the rings tightly, and “pulling” ourselves into a dip or pushup will create more stability in our shoulders. Grip activates shoulder stabilization!
- All pulling work is initiated with our scaps. We tend to want to pull with our biceps first, but our backs are much stronger than our biceps. If you see your elbows bend at the beginning of your pullup, come back to the beginning, and pull your shoulders away from your ears with straight arms to initiate the pull.
- The top of a pull is infinitely harder than the rest of the pull. The two inches between a chin over pullup and a chest to bar takes more dedicated work than the preceding 18 inches. When we have holds and negatives, make sure you’re working on control in that range of motion. This will lead to strict chest to bar and muscle ups, and better kipping versions as well!
Finally, a general note. You will be very sore for the first few weeks of our new cycle. Remember your first few weeks of CrossFit? You were using more muscles than you ever had. This cycle is about exposing weaknesses and strengthening them. Enjoy the chase for progress. Ask lots of questions. Check your ego at the door. Have so much fun learning all sorts of wonderful new tricks.
By: FRCF Coach John San Filippo
Sorry for the brief hiatus in Wednesday Wisdom. We’re back and rolling! This week will have a bit of a different flavor–with the open finishing up, we’ll be starting a new cycle on April 2nd, and I wanted to talk about what to expect, what my goals are for you, and how you can maximize your progress over the next 8 weeks.
I also want to take this time to formally announce an addition to the schedule–Open Gym will happen every Sunday 9-12. Please follow (shameless plug!) @frontrangecrossfit and @johnflip54 on Instagram for updates.
The focus for this cycle will revolve mostly around strict gymnastics–specifically vertical pulling (think pull-ups, rope climbs, and muscle ups) and pressing in both planes–push ups, handstand work, and dips. We picked this focus for two reasons:
- The goal board is chock full of pull-ups, muscle-ups, HSPUs, and rope climbs. I know that many of you achieved your goal during the open, but this cycle is designed to lay the groundwork for many more firsts over the coming year.
- After an open season that involved a lot of kipping and intensity, backing off to focus on building strength in these movements will lead to a healthier training year–and more capacity outside of the gym! If you’ve ever felt your shoulders and back get tired while gardening, rock climbing, or backpacking, this cycle will leave you better equipped to have fun outside the gym.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that we’ll only be hanging out in handstands and ring support holds for the next 8 weeks. We’ll be focusing on these movements two days per week, but you’ll still be squatting, deadlifting, running, rowing, burpeeing, and CrossFitting. We’ll also be rotating days that we focus on gymnastics–so if you always come Monday, Wednesday, Friday, don’t worry about missing days. The programming will be written so you can miss a few days and be okay!
With this new cycle, you will notice a few differences in how the classes operate, however, and with that will come some important things to focus on.
- The warm ups are going to be designed (of course!) to warm you up. However, they’ll also be an avenue to practice some of the more skill based components in gymnastics, so you’ll get the most benefit from them if you participate fully in every warmup. It may not seem like much, but doing muscle-up transitions in warmups twice a week for 8 weeks will make you a LOT better at muscle-ups at when test week rolls around.
- We’re going to have big chunks of time to practice gymnastics work, with ample rest time. This means that you’ll have a bit more time to rest than normal before we get into the workout. Don’t rush through the skill and strength work–proper rest will allow for faster improvement. Talk to your coach about how long it should take in between sets.
We’re going to be tracking how everyone’s doing throughout the cycle–so please make sure you’re logging your scores in zen-planner. This will help us make adjustments to the programming as we go, and it will help you keep track of all the progress you’re making!
I know that many of you have been working on these skills outside of class already–shoutout to Marilyn Smith and Jess Tyler for getting their first strict pull ups in the last few weeks! That being said, with us focusing heavily on these movements over the next few months, please make sure you’re not pressing or pulling on days that these aren’t in class. If you want to know the days that we’ll be focusing on these skills throughout the week, just ask any coach, and they’ll be able to tell you! Also, keep an eye on the blog each week on Sunday–we’ll put up skills that are ok for you to work on throughout the week.
You’ll also notice that each day will have a lift, a skill, and a structural or conditioning piece. These are designed to complement the class workout for the day, and progress you over time towards being a fitter version of yourself. That being said, the total volume of all of the extra work is designed to help you become a competitive CrossFitter. With that in mind, understand that completing every portion, every day, will require just as much work outside of the gym as in it. You’ll need to get 8+ hours of sleep every night, dial in your nutrition, and perform extra mobility and stretching. You’ll also have to break the work into a morning and evening session. Let me reiterate this–If you want to complete the class workout, lift, skill, and conditioning/structural work, you will need to split the workload into two sessions, separated by at least 3 hours and 1 meal. If, however, you want to simply add a standalone program into the class work, then you can absolutely complete one or two extra portions in the same session as the class workout. A good rule of thumb is to perform strength and skill work before the class, and extra conditioning after it. If you want to do all of the work, but can’t make it into the gym twice every day, please talk to John about modifying the work you want to perform at home to fit the equipment you have.
We can’t wait to watch everyone progress over the next 8 weeks. Happy fitnessing!
By FRCF Coach John San Filippo
Today wraps up our strength series. We’ll be talking about how long to rest between sets, and how to choose weights in CrossFit workouts.
Welcome to the final installment in our strength series! Today, we’ll mostly be talking about a topic that CrossFitters aren’t very good at–resting. Rightly, most CrossFitters default to continuous movement. As Dan Bailey once said, “it’s always for time.” However, though many Crossfitters agree with Dan, taking this approach will actually stunt true strength gains. At the end of this article, we’ll also talk about how to scale weights in workouts.
Strength under fatigue is a staple of CrossFit. We lift with high heart rates, tired muscles, and scattered brains. While traditional strength and conditioning often decries this as unsafe, anyone who has had to spend a saturday landscaping knows that life demands the ability to exert force when we’re sweaty and tired. However, this doesn’t mean we should always lift under fatigue. While there are many levels of rest periods appropriate for strength training, today we’re going to focus on two groups of recovery periods: metabolic recovery and neurological recovery.
As we’ve discussed previously, smaller rep ranges (<5 reps per set, and less than 30 total reps) primarily train absolute strength, which is expressed as our neurological efficiency. As CrossFitters, we tend to see these rep ranges either in a standalone strength program, or as part of a strength portion during the workout of the day. If it is part of a strength portion, it’s often supersetted with another movement or warmup progression. A typical day may look something like this:
5×3 Front Squat, up to a heavy set for you.
Kipping pull-up progression
Often, as a coach, I see members treat this as five rounds for time. However, this approach will leave strength gains on the table. Full neurological recovery takes between three and five minutes1. That doesn’t mean you can’t be moving during that time–but if you perform a heavy set of Front Squats, then take 60 seconds to perform the kipping pull-up progression, and jump right into your next set of squats, you won’t allow your body to fully utilize its potential to move heavy weight. Instead, I coach members to treat that portion like this: As you build through your warmup sets, treat your pullup progression as your rest between front squats. Once you get to weights that feel heavy (around 75% for most people) start to add a few minutes of extra rest in after your pull-up progression. This added rest will let you add more weight to the bar, and perform more challenging sets. Over time, this will lead to substantial strength gains.
Once we get above 5 reps per set, we’re mostly concerned with metabolic recovery–our muscles ability to recover and exert force for the next set. Somewhat counterintuitively, this requires less rest. Our muscles are almost fully recovered within three minutes after finishing a set that’s 6 or more reps. When we’re training hypertrophy and muscular endurance, it’s important not to rest too long, or we begin to lose the training stimulus we’re looking for–and our workouts begin to take so long it feels like we’re never going to leave the gym! While this doesn’t mean that we should treat these sets as AMRAPs, it does mean that we can move a bit more briskly, especially if supersetting other movements in a warmup style.
What about strength movements in workouts–how should we scale the weights for those metcons that have barbell movements in them? The first step is to look at the total number of reps we’re going to be performing. For time workouts are easier to do this with–Grace is 30 clean and jerks no matter how long it takes you. AMRAP workouts may be a little trickier, but they are (or at least should be!) written with a desired range of work that can be accomplished within the given time domain. Ask a coach what the ballpark range of total movements should be. If that total volume is more than 20 or so reps, we’re no longer trying to lift heavy weights under fatigue. When this is the case, we need to scale weights such that the primary limiting factor is fatigue–NOT strength. Remember, we don’t get fitter with our hands on our knees looking at a barbell. A good rule of thumb for most CrossFit workouts is to scale the weight to around 50% of our one-rep max23–since most CrossFit workout have between 20-40 reps for externally loaded movements. For workouts with more than 40 reps, we can begin with 40%. For anything above 60 reps, use around 30%.
In conclusion, true strength gains happen with proper amounts of rest. When we’re training strength–give yourself the best opportunity to truly get stronger! Conversely, when we’re trying to get fitter, we need to move. Don’t try and struggle through 50 reps at 70% of our max. Scale to move consistently, and make our breathing the limiting factor.
By FRCF Coach John San Filippo
Last time we talked about neurological strength gains and why new CrossFitters need CrossFit. Today we’ll talk about when to add in a standalone strength program, and what’s happening when we make physiological strength gains. Most of the hypertrophy information in this article is sourced from the CSCS textbook.
Last week, we talked about why new CrossFitters need CrossFit. So when IS the appropriate time to start adding in some extra lifting? The short answer is–when you have to in order to keep making progress. As previously discussed, we can only get stronger from that which we can recover from. The flip side of that is–as long as we are continuing to progress, there’s no need to add extra work in. Focus on your intensity and effort during class, and progress for as long as you can. Once you begin to plateau, then you’ve earned the right to think about extra work.
So how do we build strength once neurological adaptations start to slow down? Through our ten-cent word for the week: hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is an increase in the size of skeletal muscle. Essentially, you have to make your muscles bigger. We do that by increasing protein synthesis and building new muscle fibers. When we train, we cause small amounts of damage to our muscles. This increases hormone production, and those hormones do two things–they cause our bodies to increase protein synthesis, and decrease the bodies natural regulation of muscle fiber growth. This natural reaction to muscle damage from strength training is our bodies’ way of trying to adapt and strengthen in order to resist future damage. This leads us to the most important concept in strength building: the concept of gradual overreaching. Because our bodies are creating new muscle, we need to increase our stimulus in order to continue making progress! We can increase that stimulus by increasing the weight we lift, the reps we perform without a break, or the total volume that we accomplish in a lifting cycle.
We know that we have to increase our stress gradually over time in order to drive muscle hypertrophy–but what specific types of stress do we need to introduce? The simplest way of understanding strength building is to look at the reps and time under tension of a training program. We can think about low reps as maximal force recruitment–training our brains to fire as efficiently as possible. Because the time under tension is very low–even the grindiest of squat PRs doesn’t take longer than 10 seconds–there is fairly negligible hypertrophy created. This is why, without the use of performance enhancing drugs, simply lifting to a max every day will eventually lead to plateaus. We can think about hypertrophy as really beginning to occur around the 40 second mark of total time under tension. This may seem like a lot, but remember, time under tension begins when we begin our lift, not just during the reps. If we take the bar out of the rack, pause for 1 second, spend a few seconds on the way down, and then pause again before beginning our next rep, the average rep will take between 5 and 7 seconds. Indeed, the best combination of strength and hypertrophy happens in the 6-8 rep range. This rep range is the best combination of neurological and hypertrophy based strength gains. However, once we get above the 8 rep range, we begin to get into the realm of pure hypertrophy and muscular endurance. This strength endurance is extremely important for CrossFit, but in terms of building absolute strength and functional hypertrophy, we should stay between 1-8 repetitions.
So, is getting stronger as simple as adding a few pounds to the bar or squeezing out a few extra reps? At the beginning, it may be. However, as the term muscle growth implies, we need fuel in order to continue building new muscle. Nutrition is a future multi-part series worth of information, but suffice to say, building strength once you start to plateau is going to require eating more, and gaining some weight. This can be a sensitive subject, since so many of us (myself included!) lost a lot of weight when we got into CrossFit. In my opinion, this circles back around to the idea of goal-setting. Will being stronger make your life better? It will improve bone density, help you protect against injury and decrepitude, and help you look good naked. If you decide that the extra mass required to break through plateaus is worth those changes, then a standalone strength program is probably for you.
This will be a three-part strength series. This first part will cover the general basics of how we get stronger neurologically, and how and when CrossFitters should begin to add extra strength work in. The second installment will cover how physiological strength gains, different rep schemes and how time under tension affect strength gains, and the final installment will discuss how long to rest between sets, and different types of training patterns. Note–this is primarily focused on building barbell strength, with the absolute strength movements. Speed strength, as in olympic lifting, is a more complicated topic for a later series.
Everyone remembers “newb gains.” Those magical first few months of training, where every time we went to the gym, we managed a new PR or learned a new movement. As we discussed in our skill acquisition article, these improvements are due to our brains’ becoming more efficient in the movement patterns. While these improvements do need time in between sessions in order to allow for automation of simple aspects of the movement, the rate of improvement from neurological strength changes will happen on the scale of days and weeks, as opposed to the weeks to months needed to see changes in our amount of muscle. Today we’re going to delve into the specifics of what happens to our bodies during strength training, and why new CrossFitters should focus on just doing CrossFit before they add extra strength training into their regimens.
Strength is essentially a measure of our ability to overcome gravity. But what is happening in our bodies as we lift objects? Our brains tell our muscles to contract, and the force of that contraction is one measure of how strong our muscles are. However, in CrossFit, we don’t really care what the measurement of our contractile potential is–we care how much weight we can lift, or how many pullups we can do, or how fast we can push that 500 pound sled. In CrossFit, we define strength as the productive application of force. However, it’s still helpful to understand how our brains interact with our muscles, because it’s that connection that helps us improve our productive strength. Our muscles have motor neurons that are connected to our brains. When we think “perform a bicep curl” our brains send a signal to the motor neurons in our biceps, which cause contraction, and picks the weight up. However, when we’ve never lifted, there aren’t that many motor neurons in our biceps–and we aren’t all that efficient at using them! While a bicep curl is quite a simple movement, try and remember the first squat that you ever did. Most likely, you had a hard time keeping your legs from shaking, your hips from moving side to side, and getting to depth seemed nigh impossible. While there are several reasons for this, one reason is because our brains’ timing is off as we learn new movements. When we measure new lifters’ muscle contraction, we actually see that different motor units (motor neurons+muscle fibers) contract at different times, in opposition of each other.1 Essentially, your muscles are playing tug of war with each other! As we perform more squats, our brains get more efficient at using our muscles, and we lose the baby-giraffe-learning-to-walk feeling.
However, it’s not just contracting at the right time that our brains learn to do better. We also have protective mechanisms in our brains that prevent us from using too much force when we contract muscles–this is called neural inhibition. If you’ve ever heard urban legends about mothers lifting cars off of children, it’s been hypothesized that during times of extreme stress, we actually turn off neural inhibition in order to recruit as much power as possible. While we don’t want to completely shut off the protective mechanisms of our brain, we do need to teach our brains that producing force through a new range of motion is safe. Luckily, sustained strength training does just that! Untrained lifters placed on a resistance strength program showed reductions from 17-100% in neural inhibition in various muscle groups through the upper quad. (Note that we didn’t see a complete elimination of neural inhibition–just that some parts of the quad had completely fired, while other muscle fibers still demonstrated lower levels of inhibition.)2 This is why weights that feel heavy one day can feel much lighter a few trainings sessions later.
Now–what does this mean for new CrossFitters? First–it means that you should expect to get better each training session! This is NOT an excuse to throw form out the window and put more weight on the barbell just because you lifted a certain weight last training session. However, in order to maximize strength gains in the beginning of your training life, you should regularly lift heavier weights than you have previously. This will continue to challenge your central nervous system to become more efficient. It will also give you the confidence that comes from continued success. Finally, since the main limiter of our progress at the beginning is neurological efficiency, it actually takes some time before we are able to lift weights heavy enough to challenge our muscles enough to stimulate muscle growth. Therefore, pushing yourself to lift heavier weights (with good form) will lead to long term progress as well.
Secondly, it means that new CrossFitters shouldn’t add standalone strength programs into their programming. While we haven’t discussed recovery yet, here’s a sneak peak: we only get physically stronger from what we can recover from. While sleep, nutrition, and other factors impact recovery, one big factor for new CrossFitters is the total volume of work that they do. Your body is getting used to working out in a new way, and you’re absolutely going to be sore and tired. Adding another hour of lifting into your regimen is going to negatively affect your ability to recover. Moreover, because time and exposure to these new movements drive your improvements at the beginning, the weights used in CrossFit workouts and warm ups will be enough to make you stronger! Finally, there’s the psychological piece–when we start CrossFit, everything is new and fun and enticing. However, doing too much too soon is a good way to burn yourself out. At the beginning, come in and work hard during class. Get to know everyone, have fun, and don’t overwhelm yourself. Once you’ve gone a month or two without PRing a lift, then it’s time to start thinking about adding in some extra strength work. Remember–long term progress is the path to true strength! Trying to get everything done in 6 months is a good way to get overwhelmed and stop coming to the gym–which will just throw all of your newfound gains out the window.
By: John San Filippo
Goal setting is a critical component of progression. Goals should be lofty, measurable and have deadlines. Consistent check-ins are extremely important for assessing progress and keeping motivation high. Finally, don’t forget to celebrate achieving goals before you move on to the next one–and to love yourself through the inevitable difficult times.
Last week we covered Skill Acquisition in CrossFit–if you missed it, you can find the link here. Now that we have an understanding of how to acquire new skills from a physical standpoint, I wanted to cover the concept of effective goal setting, so that we can tackle the psychological side of achieving new heights.
You may or may not have heard of the concept of SMART goal setting. SMART goal setting was first coined by George Doran in the November 1981 issue of Management Review1 , and it stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound goals. Today, we’re going to add Evaluation and Review to our goal setting template, and create SMARTER goals2. This will provide a template for how to put goal-setting into action–and why each specific component of SMARTER goal setting works with subsequent components to lead to goal achievement.
The first task in goal achievement is to set a specific goal. We can think of specificity as the gatekeeper through which our other attributes are attainable–goals that are too general (I want to try harder, I want to lose weight, I want to be competitive) have several problems. They prevent us from being able to measure our progress, set deadlines on when we want to achieve our goals, and prevent any possible evaluation or review of how our efforts went. This will result in decreased motivation and performance. So, if we make our goals more specific, we will be able to increase the clarity of our goals and reduce anxiety associated with meeting the goal Vague, non-specific goals cause greater self doubt and uncertainty, due to the feeling of unknown inherent in a non-specific goal. This can cause our goals to become threatening, instead of motivating. The human brain thrives on certainty–so make sure that your goals are in line with that need! In order to think about how to set a specific goal, either have it be numerical (a weight, a number of reps, or a time) or skill/action based (a muscle-up, an unbroken mile run, finishing under a time cap, completing a workout with RX weight.)
Once we’ve set a specific goal, we now have the ability to measure our progress towards that goal. With some goals, this will be easier than others: measuring how much weight is on the barbell is just simple addition. However, what about an action goal, such as being able to perform every workout as prescribed? This is where daily recording of your progress is important. When we’ve studied long-term goal success, so called “learning goals” are usually more successful than outcome goals–even if the outcome goals are specific. For example, MBA students who focused on mastering specific, difficult sections of the syllabus had higher GPAs than students who simply focused on a specific goal GPA at the end of the semester3 . A good CrossFit example of this is a ring muscle up. There are no half reps of a muscle up–and yet the divide between zero and one is overwhelmingly large for some people! Instead of setting the specific, but unmeasurable goal of achieving one ring muscle up, set a goal to first master the kip swing on the rings. Not so coincidentally, this lines up well with the skill acquisition order that we learned last week–simple to complex. While specificity is important, we also need day to day measurability in order to be successful. By measuring your progress in the components of your goal, you’ll be more successful in achieving your goal.
Now we arrive at the aspect of SMARTER goal setting where it is easiest to go wrong–setting an attainable goal. When we read the word attainable, we think within reach, which is easy to interpret as easy. However, somewhat counterintuitively, difficult, far-off goals actually inspire greater performance and goal acquisition than close, easy to reach goals. In fact, as long as we possess the skills and motivation necessary to accomplish our goals, and don’t have conflicting goals, there is a linear relationship between the degree of difficulty in our goals and our performance.4 It is the skills component of that equation that attainable refers to–not the degree of difficulty or improvement in our goal. We simply need to possess the requisite skill to make progress towards our goal. For example, if your goal is to set a new 2k row PR, and you already know how to row, you will achieve better results if you set your goal to be a significant improvement, rather than a few seconds. However, if your goal is to do 25 unbroken double unders, but your single under PR is only 10, you should instead set a lofty single under goal, and then focus on achieving double unders. Talk to your coach if you need help determining what a realistic, but far-off goal is for you.
Relevance is the key to the motivation aspect of goals. Remember–the relationship between difficult goals and improvement is predicated on possessing both the skills AND the motivation in order to achieve maximal progress. Relevant goal setting boils down to two questions:
- Do I actually care about this goal?
- Is this goal conflicting with any of my other goals in life?
Question one is a deceptively complex question, especially in a CrossFit setting. Every day, you’ll watch other gym members accomplish movements, weights, times, and performances that are beyond the scope of your current abilities. It is easy to have a fleeting moment of desire to also accomplish these tasks. However, we’ve just finished discussing the need to set lofty goals. Those goals will require both time and hard work. Without true, lasting desire to accomplish these goals, our motivation will quickly wane. When you’re deciding on a new goal, write out all of the work and time necessary to complete that task. Do you still want to accomplish that goal after seeing the investment necessary? Question 2 is a function of the limited time in our lives. While we all want to be great CrossFitters, successful professionals, wonderful family members, and fun humans, it takes time to be successful in any area. If you pick a goal that actively detracts from another goal you’re working on, the indecision this generates will create the sensation of the unknown, and we’ve already covered the impact of that on achieving our goals.
Time-bound goals serve two purposes:
- Pressure of a deadline
- Allowance for feedback
Anyone who has ever procrastinated knows the burst of productivity that accompanies an impending deadline. While we can’t procrastinate our way to goals (nor should we try. Not squatting for six months and then trying to put 50 pounds on our squat in three months is a good way to make friends with an orthopedic surgeon) we can use the natural pressure imposed by deadlines to keep our goals forefront in our minds. However, it’s the allowance for feedback where our deadline provides the most value. Picking a deadline shouldn’t be an arbitrary process, it should be a function of laying out the necessary time for the work our goals require. Once we’ve laid that out, we can then go back and measure our progress against that timeline. While small deviations will be inevitable, large discrepancies allow us to alter our approach to achieving our goals, and get back on track. If we’re trying to lose 50 pounds in 6 months, but after 1 month, we’ve only lost 2 pounds, we know that we need to adjust our eating habits accordingly. Furthermore, time-bound goals allow us to more effectively evaluate and review our goals.
All of these goal setting techniques center around the idea that the more objective our goals are, the more effectively we can accomplish them. Evaluation and review of where we are in our progress towards our goals will lead to more effective completion of our goals, but without objective data to review, the review process can be tainted by our perception of effort levels, progress, and adherence to our plans. There is one more important ingredient to mention in regards to evaluation and review: studies have found that without a physical record of progression towards goals, evaluation of progress doesn’t impact goal attainment5. The research is mixed on whether those physical logs need to be public or private, but simply thinking about how we’ve progressed doesn’t lead to any increase in attaining our goals! So make sure we’re somehow logging our progress toward our goals. This can take the form of a notebook, notes on our phones, or using our gym software.
There is one component of goal-setting that isn’t included in the SMARTER framework: self-love. Setbacks and failure are a necessary part of any self-improvement. Please make sure that we continue to love ourselves, to stay positive, and celebrate the small victories. While this applies to all aspects of our lives, CrossFit is supposed to make your life better outside these four walls. While we need to be honest in our evaluations of effort, persistence, and practice, don’t ever lose sight of the fact that just by showing up, we’re making ourselves better.
So, if we really want to make goal-setting work, make sure that our goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound, and don’t forget to evaluate and review your progress along the way. Give yourself the respect and kudos you deserve, set high goals, and persevere through inevitable rough patches.
Our brains adapt first, then our muscles, then we are able to do skills under added intensity. Slow down to teach your brain and build muscle. Progress from simple movements to complex movements. Finally add intensity.
One of the wonderful aspects of CrossFit is the never-ending procession of new skills to master. We get pullups and want chest-to-bar, then muscle ups, and so on and so forth. However, sometimes it’s easy to get frustrated by our inability to master a certain skill. This article is designed to give you a roadmap to mastering new skills. While it’s written from the perspective of CrossFit, this can be applied to any motor skill–so if you’re looking to learn to play an instrument or swing a golf club, this will work just as well.
Before we get into what’s going on in your body and brain when you’re learning a new skill, let’s talk about the fundamental principle that drives all progress in the world of fitness: The SAID principle1. The SAID principle stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. That’s a fancy way of saying that your body will only respond to the specific stimulus that you place on it. In order to progress in any sort of skill acquisition, we’re going to need to place the right demands on our bodies to achieve the result that we’re looking for.
Very generally speaking, there are three stages of skill acquisition:
- Neurological improvement.
- Physiological Improvement
- Skill usage under added intensity.
The first improvements in any skill are always from an improvement in our neurological system’s ability to perform a given task. Some of this is because of an increase in motor units–your brain’s connection to your muscles. Some of it is due to an increase in neural efficiency–your body’s ability to recruit the existing motor units. Finally, some increases in skills come from our brain’s ability to automate lower order parts of a skill with practice over time2. So, when learning a new skill, step one is to begin with the least complicated aspects of the movement and move slowly through many perfect repetitions. This will give our central nervous system time to adapt. For example, if we’re learning how to squat for the first time, slowing the descent and pausing at the most challenging portion of the squat (the bottom) will allow our brains time to automate the process of squatting, since we’re reducing the neural demands of moving quickly through different stages of motion. This also means that more complicated movements are easier to learn because we’ve already ingrained the less complicated movements. Attempting to learn how to overhead squat prior to mastering a basic goblet squat will force your brain to expend energy both on the new aspect of the movement (the overhead position) and the aspects of the movement that you’ve only halfway mastered (the squat). Compare this to learning the overhead squat after a simple squat has become completely natural–your brain will only have to concentrate on learning the motor pattern of the overhead position during squatting. This phase happens on the span of days and weeks–but the next phase will require more patience and perseverance.
Once our brains have learned a movement pattern, the limiting factor in motor skill acquisition shifts to physiological characteristics: we may have the ability to successfully execute the snatch with an empty barbell, but loading 200 pounds onto the same bar will exceed our muscular system’s ability to accelerate the barbell enough to pull our body underneath the bar. The rate of improvement once we get to this stage will unfortunately be much slower than the increase from neurological improvement–building larger muscles, improving our heart’s stroke volume, or creating other physiological adaptations requires weeks or months, as opposed to days and weeks that neurological improvement occurs over. One of the most common mistakes that CrossFitters make is to grow impatient once their faster gains from neurological improvement slow down, and give up before enough time has passed to impose sufficient stimulus to create the desired effect that they’re looking for. For example, someone who has a good grasp of kipping on the rings and good pulling strength may be able to kip through the transition into the dip portion of a muscle up, but without the physical strength to do a ring dip, they won’t ever be able to perform a muscle up. With complex, strength based movements, respect the fact that it may take a few months to achieve your goals–and chase gradual improvement over a quick fix.
In terms of gaining strength (either with a barbell or gymnastics) improvement from physiological adaptations, there are three important facts to consider:
- Most strength and hypertrophy is built in the eccentric (lengthening) portion of movements rather than the concentric (contracting) phase. Because slowing down the movement also has the benefit of increasing neurological adaptations, slow eccentrics have a double benefit in regards to skill acquisition. However, be careful with the amount of volume you do with negatives–their increased stimulus leads to increased potency as well.3
- We only gain as much strength from the work that we are able to recover from. Once we’ve reached the end of your neurological adaptation with a movement, progress will stall unless we get enough sleep, eat well (and enough!) and give our muscles adequate time to recover in between sessions.
- Returning to the idea that our bodies only respond to the stimulus we deliver to them, it’s important to slowly ramp up volume and intensity over time. Doing the same number of reps at the same weight and tempo will quickly lead to plateaus.
The final piece of the puzzle when we’re learning new skills is to add intensity. Intensity can take the form of more weight, longer sets, faster cycle time, or doing the movement under fatigue. Intensity is a wonderful driver of fitness–but simple skills are quick to master. Complex, skill-based movements can take months to reach a level of mastery that can withstand fatigue. Respecting the process of building true adaptation will allow for years of healthy CrossFitting–and better scores in workouts!
So what does this mean? Learning new skills takes time. We have to progress from simpler to more complex, from slower to faster, and from few reps to high reps. One point worth reiterating–it’s your brain that learns movements first. Doing 100 reps in a day, getting frustrated, and never returning to that skill won’t give your brain the opportunity to adapt and learn. Practice skills often (3-4 times a week) at low total volume. As you get better, start to increase volume and decrease frequency of practice. Finally, add intensity in order to transfer those skills to workouts, and life.
This year, we’ll be doing a slightly different take on Friday Night Lights.
Everyone who signs up for The CrossFit Open this year will be placed on a team, and we’ll be doing an intra-gym team competition around the open.
Every single person will have the opportunity to score points each week for their team–for hitting PRs, for coming to Friday night lights (even if you have to do the workout at another time!), and in a few other ways that are still to be announced.
Each Friday, we’ll have food, drinks and community at the gym–and prizes for weekly challenges.
Talk to John or Kumi for more details.
Make sure to go ahead and register for the open in order to give us time to prepare the teams. We’ll have computers set up for everyone to register on 1/27, but feel free to register on your own before then here.
Don’t know what The CrossFit Open is? Here’s a (less than two minute) video that explains it all.
Thanks for being the best members always!