A friend of mine, and a great CrossFit coach has asked me to write an article for his clubs blog post. I have heard nothing but great reports from his gym (or ‘box’ for you CrossFitters) and as mentioned he’s a great coach so I have happily agreed to write a few words. Those who know me, will know that I am not a CrossFit convert however, anything that improves physical performance such as CrossFit interests me. As a sports scientist and strength and conditioning coach I try to take an evidence based approach to my training philosophy and have consulted various journals and research papers to help write an unbiased article.
When it comes to CrossFit training methods, everyone seems to have an opinion. The trouble is, opinions are rarely neutral, people invariably either hail it as the ultimate fitness experience or ridicule it as cultist pseudo science.
Lets get one thing out of the way, without question I believe CrossFit has positive attributes. I like the fact that it creates a sense of camaraderie among the participants. CrossFitters feel like they are part of a fitness community. The focus on competition pushes them to be their best and exercise becomes fun. Not surprisingly, adherence in CrossFit gyms tends to be much better than in traditional resistance training programs.
And despite what some people claim, there is nothing really wrong with the CrossFit training model. Is it going to maximise your muscular strength or hypertrophy? No, but it is a great strategy for improving overall fitness. Depending on your current fitness level, you’ll generally get stronger and bigger from CrossFit workouts, and you’ll almost certainly improve muscular endurance, and when combined with proper nutritional programming, it can help to expedite the loss of body fat. In other words, for a large segment of the population, the CrossFit model works, and I have seen it!
To further validate my point a recent study on CrossFit demonstrated that “high-intensity power training was an effective exercise stimulus. Data showed that CrossFit significantly improved VO2max and body composition in subjects of both genders across all levels of fitness” (Smith et al. 2013).
Unfortunately this can came with a cost. Of the original 54 participants only 43 completed the study, 9 had to drop out citing overuse or injury as the reason for withdrawing. While not definitive, this study was a good indicator of the risks associated with high intensity exercise. As the authors note, “This may call into question the risk benefit ratio for such extreme training programs, as the relatively small aerobic fitness and body composition improvements observed among individuals who are already considered to be ‘above average’ and ‘well-above average’ may not be worth the risk of injury and lost training time” (Smith et al., 2013).
All in all, the study makes clear, the results of CrossFit are very real, but the potential drawbacks and injuries are, too.
The purpose of this article is not to give my opinion on the CrossFit method, if you are interested, this can be viewed by clicking the link below.
As the research tells us injury risk is our biggest concern. The purpose of this article is to suggest a few exercises that I believe will not only help take your CrossFit to the next level but more importantly help you stay injury free!
CrossFit athletes pride themselves on being ready for any athletic event at any time, training across multiple training modalities. While any well developed CrossFit program does cover a lot of ground, there are a few exercises I feel that CF folks would benefit from that I very rarely see in a CrossFit program.
Some may argue that since certain exercises will never be included in a CrossFit event, they are not worth taking the time to do. I beg to differ. I have trained a variety of athletes and although the focus is specific to their sport or activity I always include movements / drills they may not be accustomed to, for example taking a triathlete out of the sagittal plane, using counter rotational exercises with a golfer or performing soft tissue work on a rugby player. This will reduce imbalances and help reduce injury risk.
Now to the nitty gritty…
There are a few movement patterns that CrossFitters generally want to get better at.
Pulling – pull ups, pull phase of olympic lift, rope climbs
Squatting – back, front, pistols etc
Hinge patterns – kettle swings, olympic lifts, deadlifts
Overhead movements – handstands, snatch, overhead squat, jerks, presses
You may have noticed, they almost all have one thing in common… they are bilateral movements. This means you are using both sides of your body at the same time. By doing this, you run the risk of compensation patterns, since no one has a totally symmetrical body. Over time this can lead to more muscle imbalances and compensation patterns, possibly resulting in pain or injury.
I have included a few strength based exercises that I believe will help you improve in all aspects of CrossFit. The reason for these exercises is that they are unilateral, while as you know many of the weightlifting exercises in CrossFit are bilateral. I agree that nothing can replace the barbell for true strength. But, some of these unilateral strength training exercises can help improve the big lifts by reducing muscular imbalances, asymmetries, and risk of injury.
- One arm dumbbell row
- One leg Bulgarian split squat
- One arm overhead press
- One leg deadlifts
- Barbell one leg hip thrust
Let’s take a closer look at the benefits these symmetry exercises have to offer.
One arm dumbell row
Horizontal pulling is the most underused movement pattern in CrossFit. Pull ups are a great back builder, but horizontal pulling balances out all the overhead movements that CrossFit usually entails. The one arm dumbbell row helps build a lot of upper back strength and helps reduce the risk of injury to the shoulders. Most people spend the majority of their day sitting, which causes the rhomboids and the mid and low traps to get lengthened throughout the day. (I talk about this here https://thinkfitnessjg.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/the-sitting-disease-poor-posture-follow-my-5-steps/) By adding the one arm dumbbell row, you wake up these muscles that help stabilise the scapula.
One leg Bulgarian split squat
This exercise has been around for a long time, and for a good reason. You can build a lot of strength and flexibility in the hip flexors and quads without stressing the low back too much. Again, we sit lots causing the hip flexors and quads to shorten. By placing the back foot on a bench, we actively stretch the hip flexors and quads one leg at a time. You can also load up this exercises quite a bit to improve overall lower-body strength and muscle growth.
One arm overhead press
Vertical pressing movements like push presses teach your chest and shoulders to work in unison with your hips and core. Now, do this with only one kettlebell and dumbbell and see how much your core and shoulders have to work even harder to press the weight above your head. By always pressing a heavy bar above your head, you can cause many compensation patterns to happen during this movement. By adding in some one-arm overhead presses, you challenge each side of your core, shoulders and chest to work harder to press the weight. Get both sides of your body equally strong and watch your overhead press personal records increase.
One leg deadlifts
A strong posterior chain for a CrossFitter or any athlete for that matter is crucial. To perform heavy Olympic lifts, you need to have strong hamstrings, lower back, and glutes. By adding in one-leg deadlifts you balance out your posterior chain muscles in order to help increase your Olympic lifting, conventional deadlifts, and even box jumps. By including one leg deadlifts, you also place less stress on the lower back and hips, which can help increase you’re training volume of the posterior chain.
Barbell one leg hip thrust
One of my favourite exercises! Having strong glutes is a must as a CrossFitter. You can do all of the squats and deadlifts you want, but sometimes that may not be enough to activate the glutes properly. I have included both one and two leg hip thrusts in my training for the past few months and cant recommend them enough. I like it because it’s a back-friendly, knee-friendly exercise to work the posterior chain. If you are dealing with some injuries, add these in to keep the posterior chain strong and balanced. The one-leg bench hip thrust is the perfect exercise to strengthen the posterior chain, while giving your body a break from the heavy squat grind. (I talk about this here https://thinkfitnessjg.wordpress.com/2016/09/11/the-era-of-the-booty-how-to-get-a-strong-and-shapely-behind/)
So there you have it, try to include these unilateral exercises to help reduce muscular imbalances, asymmetries, and risk of injury. Have fun, keep up the good work and make sure your Box doesn’t become a litterBox, knowing your coaches I know this will never happen!
Baechle, T.R. and Earle, R.W. (2008). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (3rd ed.). Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics.
CrossFit (2010). Crossfit Training Guide. Santa Cruz, Calif.: CrossFit, Inc.
Schoenfeld, B. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24, 10, 2857–2872.
Smith, M. et al. (2013). Crossfit-based high-intensity power training improves maximal aerobic fitness and body composition. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research