One or Two, Not Three

“I need more strength, but my cardio is also not great. I struggle with my gymnastics and when WODs are short and fast I have a problem finding a gear high enough to do well. I go to a weightlifting coach twice a week because my snatch is 30 pounds under the average Regional competitor, I follow CrossFit Weightlifting, Chris Hinshaw’s aerobic capacity program, I use CompTrain for my WODs and work in with the class if they’re doing something that I think I need help with.”

Sound familiar?

It does to me. This, or at least a version of it, is typically what I hear during the first few conversations I have with athletes before I start coaching them.

But I’m not going to rip on this I-need-to-be-better-at-everything approach to training, because I get it. 

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I get that if you’re a mere mortal genetically  without a huge high-level training age (think gymnasts or weightlifters that began as a youth), chances are you’ve got one thing you can do relatively well, a few things you’re average at, and a couple things you’ve got a long, long way to go before you’re considered “great”.

But the Sport of Fitness demands greatness in everything. If you’re not strong enough, you won’t do well. If you’re not conditioned enough, you will lose. If you’re not skilled enough, you’ll walk away embarrassed.

So. We have a sport or fitness program that demands greatness in all areas of physical performance meeting with an athlete who isn’t. This creates a perfect storm of desperate training – doing everything all at once in a frantic attempt to get better.

But this is not the way.

One of the things I’m finding true is that programming can increase one or two core qualities of fitness, but not three or four, at least not in any appreciable way in a respectable amount of time.  

For example, if we ran a strength only cycle for 8-12 weeks, we would see BIG gains in strength. Duh.

If we ran a strength and aerobic capacity cycle, we would see large gains in strength and aerobic capacity.

If we ran a strength, aerobic capacity, and a high intensity WOD cycle, we would see severely blunted growth in all three of those areas.

If we a ran a strength, olympic weightlifting, aerobic capacity, high intensity WOD cycle, it’s probable that we’ll see negligible growth in all areas, or growth in a single area and no growth in the others.
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The body can handle a couple training variables and still adapt. But even then, we have to be careful about what variable those are so that they don’t interfere with each other. Strength and aerobic capacity go well together because they use different sources of energy, muscle fibers and movement patterns so training them together is possible.

Crushing yourself with strength work and high intensity work every day? This won’t work, at least not over your career as a physical being. At the beginning, you’ll improve capacity in both. But sooner or later, your body will dig in its heels until you stop being dumb, or it will fall apart and make you stop altogether.

Some basic ideas here:
1. I want to see a measurable and significant improvement in physical ability in a timeline that is meaningful to the athlete. Can an athlete do everything and improve at everything? Maybe, given enough time. But over the course of a year (or two or three), I don’t consider adding five to ten pounds on each lift, subtracting a few seconds on some benchmark WODs, and being able to do a couple more reps on a movement enough of a significant change to be able to say “this training is working”.

2. I want to see a measurable and significant improvement in those physical qualities that are most important to the sport or activities the athlete participates in. If this is competitive CrossFit, I’m going to show my entire hand here by saying those two areas are strength and aerobic capacity, and if the athlete’s activity is “life” then those two areas are definitely strength and aerobic capacity. Everyone has a limited amount of time, energy, and ability to recover, and I want maximal bang for our training buck.

3. There are high-responders who can handle the training of three or more qualities of fitness. I’ve met a few of them, and it seems like they walk into the gym and almost instantly get better at whatever it is being trained that day. These people exist, are probably Games athletes, and shouldn’t be used to reverse engineer programming for the average person.

4. The qualities being trained can/should be changed as the year progresses. For example, in our training cycle now, anaerobic sharpeners (think WODs, short intervals, etc) have replaced aerobic base building. We’re peaking our strength work and then will go into strength maintenance work when the Open hits. We won’t desperately try to do all these things because we’ve spent the year being smart with our “one or two”.

5. Skill work can be a third quality provided it’s implemented well. This means using progressions that are easy enough to allow a lot of practice without taxing the body in a volume or frequency that doesn’t impede training. For example, taking an average CrossFitter, 30 muscleups for time twice a week is not skill work. It would be too taxing on the body. However, 30 muscle-up turnover progressions off a box twice a week is skill work because coordination is being developed, not muscular endurance.

The Takeaway:


If you look at your approach to training and can’t narrow it down to training two main qualities of fitness, it’s time to throw some things out.

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