Is there a single, perfect workout? A workout with the best weight training, plyometric, flexibility and endurance exercises? A workout with the precise number of sets and repetitions? A workout that tells the athlete exactly how much weight to use? The answer is no.” That’s what the National Strength & Conditioning Association Journal concluded in a report in the Nineties.
Instead, the sports scientists concluded that variety is essential for effective performance. There is no single way to work out which will do everything. Or, in the words of martial arts legend Bruce: “Use no way as way, use no limitation as limitation.”
To many this is an alien concept. Some men date not step on a treadmill in case it sends their body into a catabolic state, “burning” all their hard earned muscle. Equally, others may avoid the weights room like the plague in fear that they’ll end up “bulking up.”
These fears are unfounded.
Thanks to Greg Glassman, the founder of Crossfit, we now know that it is possible to have training methods which improve both strength and speed. Back in 2000 he created a “hybrid, jack of all trades” approach to training: through his desire to become stronger to improve his gymnastic ability, he found that by supplementing his bodyweight training with dumbbells and barbells he was able gain a strength advantage over the competition. Coupled with his love of cycling and running, he had found a magic formula, which improved ten areas of fitness including cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, coordination, balance and accuracy.
Greg’s goal was general physical preparedness. Not a specialised technique which applies to one area of fitness. That was a different way of thinking about fitness. But Greg, a self-declared “rabid libertarian”, felt fitness as we knew it needed to change.
Now – as Reebok celebrate their fifth anniversary sponsoring the Crossfit Games – I look at the impact the sport has had on the world of fitness. I speak directly to the Director of the Crossfit Games – Dave Castro – and analyse the physiological adaptations that occur inside the body (should you embrace it).
The Fran workout
Before we delve into our first workout I must admit that it is impossible to fully explore Crossfit in an article of this length. So what we’re going to do is take a sample Crossfit workout, and compare it with some more “conventional” training.
The example we’re going to use is a Fran workout; a benchmark workout of the day (or WOD for short), it’s a training routine that people use to monitor their progress, and is particularly notorious among Crossfitters.
Fran was created under the ethos of “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.” In other words, the workouts are always changing so your body is subjected to different stimuli, at a high intensity, through movements we’re biomechanically designed to do already.
Most workouts typically combine squats, deadlifts and heavy Olympic lifts with the sort of cardio-based circuit that would test even a Kenyan marathon runner. Fran is known as a couplet of barbell thrusters (a front squat and push-press combination) and pull-ups.
Fran reps and sets
Three rounds, 21-15-9 reps of 95 pound barbell thrusters and pull-ups, all completed for time.
21 Barbell Thrusters
15 Barbell Thrusters
9 Barbell Thrusters
Complete 3 rounds. Record your time.
Complete 21 thrusters quickly followed by by 21 pull-ups, 15 thrusters again followed by 15 pull-ups, and 9 thrusters finally followed by 9 pull-ups. All completed as fast as you can. It’s that simple.
Why is Fran a benchmark workout?
In the world of Crossfit, Fran is a litmus test. It taxes many different components of fitness, so your ability to complete it quicker and more efficiently marks an increase in fitness. If you’re new to Crossfit you might expect to complete Fran around the 12-minute mark, but after a few months of Crossfit-style programming you might surpass the 5-minute mark. This is all highly dependent on a number of factors, but that’s the beauty of Crossfit (and Fran): your progress is constantly measurable.
So how does this compare to your traditional 5 sets of 12 repetitions performed in the comfort of your commercial gym? Dave Castro, is a decorated former US Navy Seal, and now the director of the Crossfit Games. He’s the person responsible for orchestrating the workouts of over 10,000 Crossfit gyms around the world, as well as those at the Crossfit Games televised to millions. Here’s the advice he had for me:
There’s no magic Crossfit formula
Castro says the ethos of Crossfit is “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement”. There’s no magic formula. “Too many people get caught up in programming and formulas. It’s the movements combined with intensity that’s the secret. It’s much simpler than people think.”
Get in the gym and try new things
For anyone new to training his tips are to, “get in the gym, try some stuff, make mistakes, take advice and learn yourself. You’re not going to hurt yourself as long as you do the movements safely with the right technique. It’s not going to kill you, that’s the reality.”
Get your body out of its comfort zone
To get fitter, stronger or quicker you must load your body above its habitual level, or whatever it’s used to doing. If you do this, your body will have to adapt and become fitter to cope with the “stress” placed upon it. As Castro says, “get in the gym and train, it’s not going to kill you.”
Focus on your weaknesses
The most telling piece of advice that Castro had for me was: “if you’re strong then train for speed. If you’re quick then train for strength. If you’re neither, then just train.” In many this is the most important element Crossfit has brought to fitness.
When asked how he begins to design a workout his reply was, “I take inspiration from everywhere. Other sports, my military training, martial arts, rock climbing… I approach it like a blank canvas. Sometimes workouts come to be in the most random places, on a long run or long drive. But I take more inspiration from outside off Crossfit just as much as I do from inside of Crossfit.”
Use yourself. Don’t just focus on the workout
“You don’t try and make the workouts just so wild and crazy where the workout is the focus. A lot of times I will make the workout with simple ‘tools’ and I let the athlete’s be the artists and show the full potential of themselves. I look at it from this wide 360 degree perspective from all different angles.”
Crossfit’s advantage: improved fat loss
One of the advantages of Crossfit is its improved ability to lose fat.
Researchers in Canada (from the Physical Activity Sciences Laboratory at Laval University, Québec) have previously found that higher intensity training produced metabolic adaptations that greatly favoured the process of lipid oxidation (fat oxidisation) compared to steady, moderate cardio.
That ideas has been echoed by research conducted at the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Purdue University, which found that this form of high intensity training increases post-exercise energy expenditure through increased metabolism in Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC).
This “after burning” effect on calories (and fat) works because the oxygen requirements of exercise were not met during high intensity training. It means that when you’ve finished at the gym and are sitting at home, there are millions of physiological reactions occurring in the body requiring calories, hhence the increased metabolism.
That effect doesn’t occur with slow, steady-state aerobic exercise. In that case, the oxygen demands of the body are met during training. Meaning you only burn calories for the period you’re training.
That’s not to say low-intensity cardio is without merit, but it might mean Crossfit will get you beach-ready in the shortest time possible.
There are also advantageous hormonal and muscular responses to Crossfit training. It’s widely accepted in strength and conditioning circles that large, heavy movements increase testosterone levels, which is supported by research from the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University. They found that “strength training can induce testosterone release, regardless of age.”
In Crossfit, heavy movements like squats, deadlifts (and slightly more complex Olympic lifts in the form of power cleans and snatches) are commonplace. So there’s clear potential for boosting testosterone.
That’s not all: Crossfit style training might also help release Exercise Induced Growth Hormone Release (EIGR), through stimulating neural input, catecholamines, lactic acid and nitric oxide in response to the changing overall acid-base balance within the body.
In summary, it’s important to understand that the body’s reaction to training is complex. It’s not as simple as counting reps, sets and percentages. I’d highly recommend trying Crossfit, or at least embracing its philosophy. Rip up the ‘commercial’ rule book on training and experiment with new training stimuli.