CrossFit is more than a simple workout template and sport; it is a lifestyle and training methodology. Its domain of influence extends beyond the barbells, rigs, and walls that make up the gym facility because its emphasis is on everyday functionality. The journey of personal physical (and mental) fitness is a complex endeavor, dependent on a host of diverse variables at work in every facet of daily life, and CrossFit attempts to account for this reality at every turn.
As a result, the CrossFit training methodology is necessarily vast and comprehensive, employing countless tools, as varied as the movements the human body is capable of. Some of its favored training implements are much more complicated and demanding than others, drawn from a myriad of athletic disciplines, which compels some fitness participants and training enthusiasts to ask: Why should I learn how to perform all of these movements? The answer to this question is very closely related to the aforementioned reasons listed, but in this piece I will add a few observations of my own, occasioned by my experiences as both coach and athlete.
In order to navigate such a broad question, I will divide it into what I see as the question’s two primary points of inquiry: 1) Why should we learn so many different movements?; and 2) Why should we learn such complicated athletic movements? Preparation and balance are the keys to answering the former, while answering the latter comes down to the development of functional attributes like coordination, body awareness, and mental discipline. I will elaborate on each answer below, and there is some crossover between them.
It is easy—especially for newer CrossFit participants—to become overwhelmed by the volume and variety of movements used in the CrossFit training context. To address lack of prior exposure, somewhat burdensome steps must also be taken to instill basic principles of movement. Time spent on this learning curve may even seem wasted, because progress is slow and nagging. But this process is essential for preparing fitness participants to confront life’s random events. More often than not, those trigger events we all face in life—those events we consider at best inconveniences and at worst destructive obstacles—are so impactful because we are unfamiliar with how to handle them. By introducing fitness participants to diverse training implements, and guiding participants through what should be rigorous technical protocol, CrossFit’s reliance on a vast vocabulary of movements helps individuals create their own conscious and subconscious libraries of athleticism, which then prepare them for the unknown and unknowable. It is the range that is important, as well as developing a basic set of skills that is adaptable and useful in an abundance of circumstances.
CrossFit’s goal is not, on the other hand, to create experts. Rather, explicitly stated, its aim is the promotion of eclectic competence through functional diversification. There is a certain danger in narrowing our gazes to that which we are already familiar, and the temptation to do just that is greater as we get older because time is perceived as even more of a luxury. (We are mortal organisms, after all.) When our time appears limited, we tend to forgo activities that require us to take steps backwards. The moment we choose to stop learning, however, we have given life’s inevitable speed bumps a sizable advantage when put up against our own ignorance and naiveté.
Similar to preparedness is the idea of balance, which is another reason fitness participants should embrace learning how to perform a wide array of movements. The logical opposite of balance is imbalance, and imbalance is at the root of many injuries that occur at and away from the gym. Almost every single one of us is afflicted by some type of imbalance. Most of us are structurally imperfect beings, and regardless of how we made out at the biogenetic lottery, we are the products of our past activities and experiences: Sports, playing with siblings, car accidents, chronic obesity, child rearing, etc. All of these factors affect how we move, and where imbalances are present, overcompensation is always close by.
The cycle provoked by imbalance and favoritism can only be exacerbated when left unregulated, until injury puts an end to all of it. Thus, it is necessary to add variety in the physical training context, and although progress will not happen overnight—we are talking about countering years of corrupt movement, however subtle the deviation(s)—it will make a difference in the long-run. It is worth mentioning that even in specialized sports and athletic disciplines, participants perform accessory work to address imbalances, so this concept is not entirely unique to the CrossFit training context.
The other side of the question originally stated is less about variety and more about the complicated nature of some athletic movements encountered in the CrossFit training context, such as highly technical weightlifting movements (snatch, clean and jerk), powerlifting movements (squat, deadlift, bench press), and intense gymnastics movements (pullups, handstand pushups, etc.). When watching elite athletes (weightlifters, powerlifters, and gymnasts that specialize in these disciplines) perform these movements, observers become preoccupied with “strength” and “power”, but doing so is to misunderstand the most important contributing factor: The mechanical coordination involved in successfully executing these movements. In our minds, we associate “strength” and “power” with “heavy”, and from “heavy” the leap to “injury” is too enticing to pass up. (Interestingly, weightlifting enjoys one of the lowest incidence of injury rates relative to the other competitive Olympic sports; but, CrossFit is NOT weightlifting, even though it incorporates weightlifting movements, and injuries do arise in the CrossFit training context because of poor instruction and participant ego. For more information, see my previous article: “Am I Going to Get Hurt Participating in CrossFit?”.) In addition to the fear of injury, there is undoubtedly an element of intimidation that can also creep in and dissuade fitness participants from wanting to learn the more complicated athletic movements utilized in the CrossFit training context.
At the roots of these compound barbell movements and gymnastics movements, however, are fundamental principles of muscle recruitment, core engagement (“core-to-extremity”), and motor coordination that translate to daily activities we engage in away from the gym, like picking up and holding our children, shoveling the snow, playing summer softball, and escaping an elevator stalled halfway between floors. So many people have moved athletically through their lives without consciously thinking about how they are moving and the quality of their movements—whether they are engaging their cores, using the right muscles, moving their joints in proper motor sequences, etc. The cost of mindless movement is poor body awareness, and one possible remedy for improving that deficiency is teaching people how to move odd objects and how to move around odd objects. That is really what the sports of weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and gymnastics are all about. That analogy would even apply to running lengths across terrain. Learning how to do difficult tasks at a CrossFit gym is a great way to avoid injury outside of it. Because the CrossFit training methodology is committed to functionality, these movements are appropriate for most fitness participants, as long as volume, intensity, and technical precision are closely regulated by qualified coaches.
As alluded to above, many fitness participants want to see results fast, and that mindset can be in direct conflict with the tedious processes of developing the coordination, range of motion, and stability fundamentals necessary to perform the more complicated athletic movements employed in the CrossFit training context; hence, some fitness participants are averse to learning these movements. Nonetheless, precisely because performing these movements safely requires constant attention and technical precision, they teach participants humility and mental discipline. Confidence is a positive mental trait that is developed over time, beginning with small accomplishments that add up and matriculate into bigger achievements. But unchecked by humility, it can lead to ignorance, characterized by zealous action that precedes cognitive thought—the proverbial “shoot first” mentality. Practicing complicated athletic movements can be a taming and rewarding experience that forces fitness participants to “think” before they “do”. Tens of thousands of good, quality repetitions later, those movement patterns will become more natural, and when called upon to react quickly or instinctively, the body will resort to safe and efficient motor sequences. Perfection, with respect to some of these complicated athletic movements, is unrealistic, but striving for it is a worthy enterprise for all fitness participants.
The unfamiliar can be quite appealing for some individuals, but for many everyday fitness participants, varied and complicated athletic movements pose daunting challenges. Sticking to what we think we understand and what we think we are good at is a much more compelling path to pursue. But indulging this hubris is the surest way to curb fitness progress. By contrast, learning diverse skills in the gym and patiently adapting to new training stimuli, like complicated barbell and gymnastics movements, are excellent ways to develop humility, mental fortitude, body awareness, and how to productively apply these functional attributes to daily tasks. Additionally, addressing weaknesses is a way to attack imbalances, and doing so better prepares us to confront life’s hurdles. Learning how to perform all these movements may even awaken some untapped athletic passion sleeping deep within. Accept that good things take time and that progress is never finite—there is always room for improvement—and embrace the challenges that variety and complexity pose.