Fitness in 100 Words
World Class Fitness in 100 words, according to Greg Glassman:
“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”
This short paragraph is the earliest CrossFit prescription. Before we heard about modal domains, unknown and unkowable, and work capacity, Greg Glassman came up with these 100 words. While many would say he didn’t really come up with anything new, it takes a stroke of brilliance to describe something as complete as overall fitness in such a simple package. Along with this prescription, Glassman also would say something along the lines of, “show me someone with great proficiency in olympic lifting, medium distance track events, and basic gymnastics and you have yourself a hell of an athlete.” In this statement and the paragraph above, the point is made clearly that the program is designed to have people learn and practice new skills. Greg Glassman was able to identify some very powerful and basic physical skills that, when learned, could create a strong, coordinated, agile, and well balanced individual. Not to mention the fact that all of these things are incredibly enjoyable to do once you put in the groundwork and take the developmental steps needed to learn them.
Despite this original emphasis on skill, it seems that a lot of CrossFit gyms these days focus very heavily on the part that says, “Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow.” Their programming involves trying to think up the craziest mix of reps, sets, and exercises possible in order to destroy people as much as possible. This is not good coaching, especially for people who are relative novices to CrossFit and still need to go through the steps of really learning the skills involved. That is why Roger makes a significant effort to program a wide variety of skill work into our training, also including many max effort days that will allow you to practice exercises and ingrain the movement patterns.
Ingraining Neuromuscular Patterns
In reading The Talent Code, there is a very interesting section talking about how world class coaches develop skills in their proteges. There are certain sports or skills that involve what I would call open chain demands. These types of skills require quick reactivity and on the fly changes. Sports like football, soccer, basketball, and tennis or skills like creative writing and stand up comedy fall into this category. During competitions or performances, the neuromuscular system will never execute a command in the exact same way during these skills and sports. Comedians read an audience on a second by second basis in order to change jokes or tone. In sports with defenders, your body, their body, and the ball will always be in a slighly different position from situation to situation. These things require instinctual reactions that happen on the level of a microsecond and do not follow an orderly path. The book describes that great coaches in these open chain sports are quite passive when it comes to technique corrections. They allow their athletes to learn organically by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. Their biggest improvement comes from competing over and over again in order to build a wide net of neural connections that teaches them to react to many situations on the field.
Conversely, there are sports and skills that have closed chain demands that typically involve well rehearsed routines. Whether you’re talking about golf, playing the violin, singing, ballet, or diving, the individual knows exactly what they are going to do before their performance. There is very little, if any, reaction and spontaneous adjustment required. They simply execute exactly what they’ve learned and practiced thousands of times. In skills that require closed chain demands, master coaches do nearly the opposite of what master coaches do in open chain endeavors. They work closely with their students to build a strong foundation of the specific skills required for the routine, always highlighting errors when they crop up and stopping to fix them before moving on. They will break down the full movement into small chunks and ensure they’re being done correctly before continuing. With these activities, there is usually a stepwise progression that begins building a basic foundation at slower speeds. Over time, the teacher ratchets up both the complexity and speed, but only if the student can maintain accuracy and precision with their movements.
It makes sense when you think about it. The closed chain teachers are trying to deeply ingrain the habits of that very specific and precise neuromuscular skill that will be repeated over and over again during practice and performance for years. With open chain skills, there is no single specific neuromuscular pathway that’s created. It’s more like a jumbled connection with all of the wires connected to each other in order to react to any situation as quickly as possible. Because of the crucial need for a hands on approach to closed chain learners at the early stages, it’s rare to find a superstar in a closed chain field that was self made. Most violinists, singers, and golfers who reach the apex of their profession had extensive personal coaching as children. On the other hand, you find quite a few soccer players, basketball players, stand up comedians, and creative writers who reached an international level of fame without having world class instruction as children. They simply started competing and performing early and had an uncommon ability to develop their skill through trial and error over time against better and better competition.
Knowing all that, think about all of the things we do in CrossFit. What types of skills are they? They are ALL closed chain skills. Gymnastics, weightlifting, kettlebell swings, box jumps, running, rowing, and jump rope are all specific movements that should be executed the same way each time. They involve neuromuscular pathways that need to be grooved in a straight line. Learning how to clean and jerk or do a muscle up is no different than learning how to hit a golf ball or play a piece on the violin. The difficulty with CrossFit met cons is that it’s the equivalent of driving a golf ball down the middle of the fairway then immediately grabbing a violin and playing a flawless concerto.
This makes it all the more important to ingrain the individual skills we practice in the right way. During skill work, really feel the movements from the ground up. Watch other people who move well and focus on different aspects of their form. Even talk to them about the differences between your technique and theirs and how to best bridge the gap. Figure out which coaching cues work for you. Ask the trainers about something you think you’re doing wrong and get a roadmap for how to improve it. Think about building those skill pathways for each movement and all of your workouts will start to improve in a big way.