Like my last post, this one is about progress. One of the great things about our gym is that we draw clients from such a unique background of sports and activities. As our new member John said the other day, the classes are a great way to improve your performance and get motivated because “everyone here is good at different things.” While this provides a great atmosphere for us all to learn from each other, it can also be slightly disheartening. Some people can do muscle ups and double unders by the end of foundations, while others may work for years before getting these skills. Some make jumps in weight on their lifts consistently, others hit plateaus quickly. This can cause frustration over seemingly slow progress when others jump into CrossFit and make gains with ease. It always makes you wonder, how is it so easy for them?
Genetics and Sport
There is a big genetic variance in our species. From hair color to height to coordination and beyond, there is a wide range of differences among everyone on Earth. In the sport and fitness world, the eternal question that’s asked is, ‘are great athletes born that way or are they made?’ Of course this question is a fallacy because an athlete that gets to a world level must have a tremendous amount of innate talent in addition to years and years of hard work.
I think a better question to ask is: which aspects of sport and fitness are better developed through hard work and which are predominantly a genetic blessing? Interestingly enough, I think quite a bit of what we do in CrossFit is based on what we were blessed with genetically. These genetic blessings exist in our physiology and can be tested for in very simple ways. Those blessed with a high capacity for strength and power usually have muscular, mesomorphic builds and can put on muscle and lose fat with even an average diet and training program. They are likely to have a larger proportion of explosive type 2 muscle fibers and thicker bone structure and connective tissue, evidenced by large wrist circumference. Simple testing will show these people to have phenomenal strength and power at young ages. Benedikt Magnusen, the deadlift world record holder, supposedly pulled over 450 pounds in his first workout as a teenager. You can see Benni has another physiological advantage, long arms, which make deadlifting much easier.
At 14 years old, Usain Bolt was only 1 second off the world record 200m sprint. He and Benni Magnusson put on muscle easily and have a very high proportion of explosive muscle fibers. In terms of endurance, the physiological gold standards are VO2 max, lactate threshold, and cardiac metrics like stroke volume. Lance Armstrong, Steve Prefontaine, and world champion rower Rob Waddell have three of the highest VO2 maxes ever recorded. Waddell has the best 2000m time ever on the indoor rower, clocking at 5:36. After winning gold in Sydney in the single sculls, Waddell took 8 years away from the sport then returned to defeat the current world champion single sculler.
The point is that even when all of these athletes were very young and untrained, they already had physiological capabilities that a majority of men couldn’t achieve with 15-20 years of training. They could also likely take many years off from training and still be miles ahead of an average athlete in their sport. This shows just how wide the variance is among our species in terms of fitness for athletics.
Genetics and CrossFit
CrossFit presents a very interesting case study for genetics and physiology. All of the athletes I mentioned above compete in sports that involve very specific movements and physiological adaptations. You could say that CrossFit is a combination of all of these sports and more. Lifting, sprinting, and rowing are all major elements of CrossFit. So the ideal CrossFitter is someone who is built to do all of these things (in addition to gymnastics) concurrently. For that, you’d want a muscled frame, to be relatively short with a long torso, a high strength to weight ratio, a good mix of type 1 and type 2 fibers, very high VO2 max and lactate threshold, and good hormonal signaling and metabolism to build muscle and recover quickly between workouts. And you see exactly that in the best CrossFitters…
Hard Work and Your Own Improvement
That’s not to say that hard work and skill aren’t also a huge part of the equation. Every champion I’ve mentioned above has been able to fully express their natural gifts by working incredibly hard at their craft. The more complex a sport or activity becomes, the more dependent it is on practice and hard work than it is on genetics. While someone may be blessed with excellent coordination, balance, and quickness, they’ll never reach advanced levels of sports like gymnastics and tennis without putting in many years of hard work learning the intricacies. Because of the sheer number of movements we do in CrossFit, hard work and skill play a huge role in your improvement over time. You will continue to improve your ability to do strength workouts and met cons concurrently while also getting technically better at the exercises. A great sign of your fitness and recovery is when you can do a hard met con one day then come in the following day for a strength workout and get close to your PR or even set a new one. This happened yesterday when Marcia PR’ed on her deadlift after putting in a great effort on Bulger the day before.
The key here is to always continue to focus on your own progress and not get discouraged by the feats that others are able to accomplish. We all have such different backgrounds, body types, and genetics that the rate of improvement in CrossFit will be different for everyone. Try not to question yourself or get frustrated if someone comes into the gym and immediately beats one of your PR’s. Be thankful that you have someone that will push your own performance and motivate you to improve.