Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My experience with Crossfit - part 3

After my successful bout of weight training, I decided to take a break from it for the summer. My training partner is interested in competing as a Crossfit athlete, and I promised him we would work on it for three months over the summer.

There's plenty of skill required to be good at Crossfit so it makes sense to practice it. It's hard enough to get a solid back squat going, but Olympic lifting is an order of magnitude more difficult. Difficult to the point that many have criticized Crossfit for not taking it seriously enough. There's also jump rope double-unders and muscle ups to deal with. Both require serious athletic chops, but also are difficult skills to master.

I was a little apprehensive. Would I be starting back at square one with my Crossfit after basically ignoring it for eight months? You would think so, but it didn't work out that way.

I was happy to find out that I was pretty much at the same place I left off. My times in the WODs were about what they were when I quit. The exception being that I no longer had to scale my weights. I was able to do most of the workouts with the prescribed weight.

No doubt I lost some metabolic capacity during those eight months, but the gains in strength offset it. Plus, if you've ever done heavy squats then you know how taxing they are on your cardiovascular system. As it turned out, I had been getting a decent metabolic workout during that off time.

The other benefit of the approach is that it is comparatively easy to improve metabolic conditioning compared to acquiring strength. Once I started Crossfitting, I improved rapidly. In three months I shaved a whole minute off my best Helen ( 3 rounds of 400m run, 21 kettlebell swings, 12 pullups) time - from 12 minutes to 11 minutes. Now those times are not fast, but the improvement is pretty nice. And I was able to crush my goal of 11:30.

Even better, that 12 minute pre-strong me performance literally crushed me for a week. I dragged my ass around, slept poorly, and didn't do any workouts at all during that time. The 11 minute time was just another day at the gym. It sucked (it always sucks), but an hour later I was fine. I continued my workout program in the following days with no ill effects. The improvement was even bigger than the time difference.

To be honest, the Crossfit program I used this time around was not put together as a normal mix. I only did one real metcon a week and only three total workouts a week. The other two workouts were doubled up strength sessions like a 5-5-5-5-5 overhead press combined with a 1-1-1-1-1 deadlift. For example, you would do sets of five presses and try and work up to a 5 rep max on you last set. Likewise, for the deadlift except only singles. Generally in classic Crossfit programming, one of these workouts would be the complete work for a single day, but I did two.

Compared to classic Crossfit programming, which is generally 30-40% strength training I did 80%. In spite of the relatively infrequent metcons, I made great progress. I also got stronger which was a little bit of a surprise since my goal was simply to maintain my strength. It was a very productive three months. The difference between this and the previous Crossfit cycle was stark.

What did I learn? Quite a bit.

Lesson 1: Metcons are strong medicine - you have to respect them. If you can make quick progress doing just one a week then just do one a week. It's easy to overtrain them assuming you take them seriously. Of course at some point you have to do more to get better, but make sure you need to and have the capacity to do it.

Needless to say, I disagree with the Crossfit main site programming. Maybe, just maybe, it's appropriate for a really high level athlete. But for an average Joe it is not realistic. The Crossfit retort to "just scale" the workouts leaves me cold. That doesn't address the main issue, which is too much volume.

Lesson 2: I'm relatively old for this shit so my recovery it not what it used to be. I have no recollection in all my previous athletic pursuits of feeling beat to hell like I have since I started training like this. One silver lining to all this (and let's not pretend it doesn't suck ass) is that you have to be efficient with your training. If recovery is in short supply then you have to make the most of what you do have. I don't fuck around in the gym. Everything I do is part of a plan and has a reason for being there.

Lesson 3: Crossfit is not for beginners. I wasted 8 months trying to gain capacity as a beginner and having nothing to show for it except a lot of unnecessary suffering. If strength is the foundation of all athletic endeavors then jumping into Crossfit without a good strength foundation is akin to trying to build a house on sand (remember that old nursery school song?). You can't build anything substantial because the foundation won't support it.

Anybody who trains with me is doing a Starting Strength program for at least 6 months unless they have an extensive strength training background. Just for the record, your average commercial gym rat would not qualify. In spite of all the time these guys spend doing concentration curls and lat pulldowns, 90% of them are still beginners.

Thus ends the Crossfit saga. They'll be more later since I will be starting another Crossfit cycle in November. I will also be trying to lean out and get my body fat down to 10% (currently around 13%). Should be interesting, and you, gentle reader, can get real time updates on how it's going right here.


  1. In lesson 2, do you mean I have *NO* recollection in all my previous athletic pursuits of feeling beat to hell like I have since I started training like this.