Here's what you need to know...
- Strength and skill can't be developed through methods that employ constant variation.
- Strength is the most important physical attribute, improving all other attributes, like speed, agility, balance, and power. Basic barbell training is the best way to build strength.
- CrossFit and "functional training" completely miss the point of basic strength training.
- A wobble board squat can't translate to a skilled performance in an actual sport, unless the sport is wobble-board squatting with light weights.
- An increase in strength always improves athletic performance.
I have voiced my concerns about CrossFit and "functional training" on T Nation before. Amazingly enough, their practitioners have not been persuaded to discontinue their activities. So this time, I'm just talking to you.
At the risk of being initially perceived as repetitive, I'll revisit the topic from a different angle, and perhaps my revised argument will be more convincing. And this time I'll try to present it in a way that will be understandable to everybody, not just the readers of T Nation.
Strength & Skill: In a Nutshell
Strength, as you already know, is the ability to exert force on physical objects. Skill is the learned ability to carry out a task within a definable framework of time and energy.
Neither of these physical characteristics can be developed through methods that employ the constant variation of stress stimuli, because neither strength nor skill can develop under infrequent exposure to the stresses that cause the adaptation.
Like learning to play the piano, their acquisition must be accumulated in a logical, methodical manner. Not all exercise systems are equally proficient at developing strength and skill. As it turns out, strength training with barbells combined with practice of the sports skill is the best way to develop both.
Now that seems reasonable enough, right? You get both stronger and better at your sport over time, by training for strength and practicing your skills. So why are the two biggest players in the fitness industry telling you otherwise?
Strength: The Best Way to Increase Performance
Strength is simply the production of force with your muscles. It's easily measured by the amount of weight you can lift.
Producing force is the way we interact with the environment – anything you move with your hands and feet, from picking up the groceries to moving an opponent on the playing field, involves the application of force. It is the most important physical attribute we possess.
You may have the healthiest heart and lungs on the planet, but if you're not strong enough to effectively function in the physical situations you choose to engage, you're just not strong enough.
The loss of strength is a normal consequence of aging, but it can also occur due to illness, inactivity, or incorrect diet and exercise. Likewise, the best way to increase physical performance is to increase your strength.
Strength training is the process of getting stronger through the use of specific exercises that cause the body to adapt to gradually increasing amounts of force production. Barbell training is the most effective way to accomplish this process, because barbell exercises are performed using the body's natural movement patterns while standing on the ground, the natural position for a bipedal human in its environment.
Since standing on the ground with a bar in your hands or on your back while you move the load requires that you don't fall down, balance develops as strength increases. Barbells can be precisely loaded to gradually increase the amount of weight you lift, and strength can be accumulated on the basic exercises for years.
Since strength is simply force production against a load, if your loaded movement increases in weight, so does your strength. Getting stronger is simply the process of becoming capable of lifting increasingly heavier weights.
This process is dependent on the fundamental biological capacity that enables an organism to function within a changing environment:
- Stress is a stimulus that disturbs the physical equilibrium within an organism to its current environment.
- Recovery from that stress enables the organism to remain undamaged by the subsequent application of that stress, thus leading to the...
- Adaptation of the organism to the stress. Training is the accumulation of adaptations
Strength training is the process of gradually increasing the load in a way that both forces and allows the body to adapt to the stress of heavier weights. At first these increases can take place frequently, two or three times per week, and then the process gradually slows as you accumulate more strength.
But it's important to understand that training is the process of forcing this adaptation to occur, that if strength is to increase the loads must increase, that the process takes time, and that any interruption slows the process.
Skill: Dependent on Strength
We are told that many other physical attributes are just as important as strength. Balance, coordination, agility, power, and speed – the elements of physical skill – are all characteristics of the good athlete, and therefore must also be trained. But since all of these physical parameters are derivatives of force production against external resistance, they all depend on, and are limited by, strength.
Skill is the learned ability to carry out a task within a definable framework of time and energy. It's the ability to correctly and dependably reproduce a movement pattern that depends on accuracy and precision.
Whether the sport involves a repetitive motor pathway – the same movement pattern under varying conditions of time, load, or intensity, like Olympic weightlifting or the field throwing events – or a non-repetitive motor pathway, like downhill skiing or judo, skill is the demonstration of the ability to perform the movement patterns effectively, conforming to the requirements for success in the sport.
Complex gymnastic movements, the snatch and the clean and jerk – Olympic weightlifting movements that are sensitive to the path of the barbell through space – and sports that require proficiency, like tennis and baseball, must be practiced: repeated often enough to permit the development of technical perfection.
This requires many hours to hone movement patterns that tolerate very little slop. Expertise in many endeavors that depend on physical skill, like musicianship, surgery, sculpture, and golf, require thousands of hours of exposure to the movement patterns. Skill-dependent athletics develop the same way.
Sports that require significant force-production capacity differ from golf and musicianship, in that strength acts as a limiter on the acquisition and display of skill. If the movement patterns that must be perfected also depend upon strength for their execution, then strength must be sufficient or execution cannot occur.
In these sports, the stronger the athlete, the greater the ease with which practice can take place, and the more perfect that practice can be. If you're not strong enough to perform a maltese cross, your skill can be neither developed nor displayed.
Performance: The Display of Strength and Skill
Game Day is the day that matters to an athlete. Game Day is when the cumulative effects of training and practice are displayed under the conditions for which the athlete has devoted time and energy to bring to the highest level possible.
Game Day is a performance, the execution of the sport under the pressure of competition with other athletes, and under the scrutiny of judges or referees, each trying to "win" – which may involve different criteria depending on the sport, the season, or the status of the athlete.
But no matter what "winning" means, a performance is a higher-level event than the training workouts and the practices that contribute to its success. The component workouts of a training program are important insofar as they contribute to the process of reaching the training goal, as are the practice sessions that perfect the skills used in the sport.
The performance is where the culmination of these processes is displayed. A workout or a practice contributes to the performance, and the performance is the reason we train and practice.
The two main players in the modern fitness industry elevate the misunderstanding of these simple concepts to the institutional level.
CrossFit is the fastest-growing fitness trend in human history. As of mid-2014, CrossFit has about 10,000 affiliate gyms around the world.
Started by Greg Glassman in the early 2000s, CrossFit's model is "constant variation" in exercise selection and loading. He described it as a "constantly varied, if not random" assortment of barbell exercises, calisthenics, gymnastics movements, and running, usually performed at high levels of intensity. For many people, CrossFit has been their first exposure to physical activity that's hard enough to make an actual increase in fitness possible.
The object is usually to push for the best performance on the prescribed workout, quite often defined as reducing the time it takes to complete the prescribed series of movements, and the premise is that these constantly varied and often infrequent exposures to a wide variety of physical stimulus will accumulate into improved performance in all these activities.
CrossFit is very popular for several reasons. It's not boring, since constant variation is not boring. And since it's done in a group setting, in a gym or at home in concert with hundreds of thousands of other CrossFitters, with someone else (either the gym's coaches or CrossFit's main website) determining the Workout of the Day, you don't have to decide what to do. CrossFit decides for you, and this appeals to many people for various reasons.
The group social reinforcement of the collective goal for that day's workout builds a sense of community, and this also appeals to many people. And it works pretty well, for a while.
The Problem With CrossFit
The problem is the constant variation. Having worked with CrossFit since 2006 and having done it myself for over two years, my experience agrees with the almost-universal report from people who begin CrossFit and continue the constant variation of exercises: their strength stopped increasing, and all the exercises that depend on skilled execution suffer from a lack of repeated practice.
Not every CrossFit gym has these problems, because not every CrossFit gym follows the CrossFit dogma, and there are some very good people who own CrossFit gyms that have actively addressed the situation. But the exceptions prove the point.
More importantly, when movements that depend on high levels of force production and the accurate and precise execution of a complex movement pattern are performed to exhaustion or failure in the competitive atmosphere of a highly-motivated group of athletes of different levels of ability, the possibility of injury increases.
It should be quite obvious to anyone that the harder you push yourself physically, as happens in a performance, the higher the risk of physical injury. And this is especially true in the absence of the adequate preparation that should be provided by effective strength training and repetitive practice.
Coaches can disagree on which movements to use, but the simple reality is that the acquisition of strength and skill is not a function of variation. It cannot be, because variation prevents the conditions necessary for the adaptations that make it possible.
As anyone who has learned to play the piano can tell you, the processes must be repeated often – at the piano, not on the violin and the cello and the clarinet and the drums – with constant, regularly increasing levels of difficulty and ever-greater attention to detail.
Strength and skill are both acquired through the diligent pursuit of more weight on the bar and more perfect movement execution performed repeatedly in a logical consistent manner. Infrequent exposure to skill-dependent movements under performance circumstances is the polar opposite of the method used in athletics to develop strength, accuracy, precision, and excellence of execution.
CrossFit also places a major emphasis on high-intensity, constantly-varied conditioning, in a competitive atmosphere that rewards a faster performance or more work within a given period of time. This results in a lot of soreness and accumulated fatigue, an effect that many CrossFitters come to identify as the "prize" for doing the program.
The low relative intensity and high volume of high-repetition conditioning exercises actively competes for the body's most-assuredly finite recovery capacity. You cannot effectively adapt to both high-intensity low-volume force production and low-intensity high-rep conditioning at the same time, because they depend on separate physiological mechanisms. Attempting to do so effectively prevents a strength adaptation.
Chronic soreness is a systemic inflammatory condition produced by a high levels of eccentric loading under circumstances that do not permit adaptation to it. Infrequently repeated high-rep workouts with a "negative" component to the movement always make you sore – always, because you cannot adapt to an infrequently-repeated stress.
Chronic soreness is bad because it makes skill-dependent movements more difficult to learn, since it interferes with flexibility and range of motion. Taken to the extreme, it's the equivalent of a chronic inflammatory disease process, and every bit as detrimental to health.
Not everyone wants to excel in competitive sports, but the competitive aspects of CrossFit are powerful motivators that keep even non-athletes coming to the gym. For many people who are capable of moderating their approach to it, CrossFit can be a useful approach to exercise.
However, the emphasis on a competitive approach to a non-competitive fitness-exerciser's workout – in which complex movements are employed which are neither practiced or trained for – is a poor approach sports preparation, and certainly exposes uninformed people to injury risks they may not recognize.
"Functional Training" – Bastard Child of Strength & Conditioning
Almost as pervasive as CrossFit is the interesting trend known within the industry as "functional training."
An offshoot of Physical Therapy rehabilitation techniques used with patients, it relies on the use of light weights, unstable surfaces, and lots of different unilateral exercises in an attempt to produce better results than the machine-based programs commonly used in the fitness industry. It has seen rapid growth through sports-oriented practitioners of fashionable strength and conditioning, especially those who work with high-level talent.
Many people have grasped the problems with machine-based exercise, which involve the lack of normal human movement patterns and the absence of a balance component during the use of equipment you sit on or in. Machines force the body to use the machine's path of movement, not yours, and using an isolated muscle group to move the lever of a machine removes the important balance component – the not-falling-down part – as a training variable.
"Functional training" is a misplaced overreaction to exercise machines, an attempt to restore the balance variable to exercise. But in doing so, several serious mistakes have been made.
Mistake #1: They forgot about barbells. If your primary interest is improving upon machine training, that's just not very hard to do.
Remember: it is possible to fall down when you lift barbells while standing on the floor. It's important to learn not to fall down when you squat, press, and deadlift, and everybody learns how the first day they do the movements.
From that point forward, balance is a factor that is always present, but it's not the bottleneck – the ability to produce enough force to lift the increasingly heavier barbell while not falling down is the objective. Balance is merely a problem you have already solved, not a new dilemma every day, sufficiently difficult that it prevents your getting stronger.
Mistake #2: One of the unfortunate reasons "functional training" has become popular is that unilateral dumbbell exercises using light weights and a balance variable are very easy to coach – much easier than technique-dependent loaded movement patterns such as squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, and snatches.
This may bias an inexperienced coach towards their use when they are not appropriate, since easy pays the bills just like hard does, especially if the trainees don't complain.
The fewer the number of joints working in a movement pattern, the fewer the joints that can move incorrectly in that movement, and the easier the movement is to coach. A leg extension, for example, is pretty damned easy to supervise, while a snatch requires quite a bit of both personal and coaching experience to teach.
Bulgarian split squats are down on the leg-extension end of the spectrum, because the range of motion is short, the load is light, the load doesn't move very far, and because it's light and short, the motion of the load is not the technical aspect of the exercise.
Mistake #3: Making balance the primary variable in the exercise precludes the use of enough weight to drive a strength increase.
Single-leg squats on a wobble board or alternate dumbbell presses while seated on a balance ball obviously cannot be done with as much weight as their stable parent exercises, performed on both feet on a stable surface.
If the components of the program consist almost entirely of relatively light weights moved with one hand at a time while solving a complex balance problem on one leg at a time, while varying the exercises every workout, "functional training" removes the production of progressively higher amounts of force as a manipulable variable, and replaces it with not falling down during a brand-new exercise as the primary objective.
Under these conditions, getting stronger is not even an option!
If force production against the load isn't the limiting factor, force production isn't the primary adaptation to be obtained, and strength as a long-term adaptation can't be achieved. In other words, "functional training" doesn't increase your squat, press, or deadlift, but squats, presses, and deadlifts increase your functional strength, of which balance is an inherent component.
And finally, if an improvement in physical skill is the objective of "functional training," developing it on wobble boards, BOSU balls, and other contrived circumstances in the gym ignores the fact that skill is exquisitely context-dependent.
One practices hockey skills on the ice, basketball on the court, football and baseball on the field, Olympic weightlifting on the platform, with the tools of the trade, because accuracy and precision are defined by the task to which they are applied.
A tennis swing does not apply to baseball, or even to racquetball. A softball pitch does not prepare you for a baseball pitch. These things are obvious to anyone who has played them.
For the same reasons, a skilled wobble board squat with a light barbell may look impressive on the internet, but it cannot translate to a skilled field performance in an actual sport, unless the sport is wobble-board squatting with light weights. It's so specific that it does not transfer, and any sport with a skill component requires specific practice at that skill.
Strength is a general adaptation which transfers as force production to every sport with a strength component. Strength improves performance in these sports no matter how it is acquired. This is why steroids are popular. Since strength is most efficiently acquired through progressive barbell training, it's better than steroids, since you can't get sent to jail for doing your squats and deadlifts.
So, skill is specific to the sport, strength is best acquired through progressive barbell training, and functional training is neither a sport-specific skill nor an effective way to get strong. It is the Bastard Child of strength and conditioning, and it must be stopped.
Strength and Skill Must Accumulate
The most "functional" physical attribute is strength, because in the absence of adequate strength, an increase in strength always improves athletic performance.
Increased strength means the increased ability to produce force, which requires the use of progressively heavier weights. Increased strength also makes skill easier to acquire and display. Any effective approach to strength and skill must involve repeated, gradually increasing exposures to both training and practice, because both require repeated exposure to accumulate them.
Despite the fact that they are fun, popular, and in the case of "functional training," easier, neither constant variation nor light weights are a shortcut. Getting strong under the bar and diligently applying that strength on the field have always been the pavement on the road to success.
The road has not changed.