The Female Lifting Revolution
Has anything advanced the case of female super-fitness more than CrossFit? That's a rhetorical question. The answer is obviously "no."
Today, more women are lifting weights, getting strong, and looking better than ever because of the popularity of CrossFit training. Bodybuilding couldn't pull it off, and even the popularity of "bodybuilding light" – Figure, bikini, etc. – hasn't drawn in modern women as much as CrossFit has. Love or hate CrossFit, these are the facts.
In the past I've referred to CrossFit as "the Scientology of fitness" among other unflattering references, but it's hard not to notice the legions of super-jacked, crazy-strong women that seem to be popping up all over the place.
Back in the late 80's when I was just starting my coaching career, a woman who could clean & jerk 135 was about as rare as seeing someone doing deadlifts at Planet Fitness. Today, however, women who can do "the king of lifts" using 200 pounds are a dime a dozen.
Three decades ago, the only place you could see a six-pack on a woman was at a bodybuilding competition. Today, it's commonplace, and this is mostly due to CrossFit.
Looking Past CrossFit's Shortcomings
I can already hear the objections beginning to percolate in that brain of yours. You're thinking CrossFit is dangerous, they all use drugs, yada yada yada. But guess what? Just like the greatest athletes, pretty much all popular training systems get some things wrong, but end up succeeding anyway because they do so many other things right. There's no perfect program.
Let's look past the shortcomings of CrossFit in an effort to discover why it's producing so many goddamned insanely strong women who could out-lift the average guy during her warm-ups.
After watching the CrossFit phenomenon with interest for a number of years, I've isolated four primary reasons why you'd probably place dead last if you entered the women's division at the next CrossFit Regionals. (Oh, and you'd also have the worst abs too.)
Note: CrossFit men are no slouches either, and many of them could (and often do) fare quite well in Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and physique competitions. So don't get sidetracked by the focus on females – there's lots to learn here for all of us.
Reason 1 – Work Capacity
How many hours a week do you work out? For me, it's between 8-10 hours. That seems like a lot, but in my conversations with a number of CrossFit coaches and competitors, high-level CrossFit competitors train between 6-8 hours a day, at least when the CrossFit Games are coming up. That means they train about 4-5 times more than you do, and manage to recover from it as well.
What's that? You're concerned about overtraining? Hey, I totally get it, but as the years roll on, I find myself less and less concerned about this much-feared malady.
Remember that the key driver of muscle growth is training volume, which just means workloads. As long as your intensity is at or above about 60% of 1RM, the more work you do (and as long as you can recover from it, of course), the more adaptations you can make.
Look, I'm as amazed by the workloads of top CrossFit competitors as you are, but I chalk it up to the gradual evaporation of scientific ignorance. Some of you are too young to know this, but the IOC didn't allow women to compete in the marathon until the 1980's because it was widely assumed that "the weaker sex" wouldn't be able to tolerate the stresses of such long distances.
Today, less than three decades later, the women's world record is only 15 minutes slower than the men's. Oops, guess we were wrong, and maybe we're also wrong about how much work a resistance-trained athlete can do.
In related news, I know of trainers who think that if your workout goes past 60 minutes, your efforts will be nullified by a sudden shitstorm of catabolic hormones. This was "common knowledge" in gyms only a few decades ago, despite the fact that some pretty decent bodybuilders (like Arnold, for example) had apparently never caught wind of the idea.
Take Home Lesson: Maybe the problem isn't that you're doing too much work, maybe it's that you're not doing enough work.
Reason 2 – Enforcement Of Progression
We all know that progressive overload is important, and listen, it's great that you're doing your best to add 5 pounds to the bar every week. In CrossFit, it's a little different.
Each WOD (workout of the day) is a group competition. WODs typically involve beating your best time for a specific workout, or trying to do more total work within a fixed timeframe. Either way, WOD's are total hell, and likely a lot more intense than YOUR typical workout.
I'm not suggesting that you should be puking your guts out after every (or any) workout, but many typical gym lifters lose track of the importance of progression and intensity somewhere along the way. Sure, we all try to beat our PR's when we can, but in CrossFit, there's usually a heightened sense of urgency about this subject.
In CrossFit, it's not like you go in to the gym and "see how I feel today." If you're in, you're ALL in. It's much more of a do or die scenario. Sure, there are some cons to go along with that pro, but it cannot be denied that the typical CrossFitter works hard and is always trying to work harder.
Take Home Lesson: Maybe you're not working as hard as you think.
Reason 3 – Novel, Unexpected Training Threats
If you've ever watched a legit CrossFit workout, you might have noticed that it's a bit different from what you're used to doing. You probably never do more than 5 reps on deadlifts, or 2-3 reps per set if you're doing Olympic lifts. And as everyone knows, "low reps are for bulk and high reps are for tone."
Okay, couldn't help myself with that one (sorry), but you probably do buy into the idea that the "sweet spot" for gains is roughly between 8-12 reps per set. Or, if you're trying to improve strength, you probably do between 1-5 reps per set. In addition, you probably lift during some workouts and do cardio on others. And you know what? Science more or less agrees with you on all this.
Thing is, CrossFit hasn't really gotten wind of these ideas as of yet, so they do things a little different. So if you wander into a CrossFit box just as they're about to start a WOD, you might see people doing one of the following:
The Filthy 50
- 50 box jumps to a 24-inch box
- 50 jumping pull-ups
- 50 kettlebell swings
- 50 walking lunge steps
- 50 knees to elbows
- 50 push presses with 45 pounds
- 50 back extensions
- 50 wallballs with a 20-pound ball
- 50 burpees
- 50 jump rope double-unders
- One-mile run
- 100 pull-ups
- 200 push-ups
- 300 bodyweight squats
- One-mile run
Three rounds of:
- 455-pound deadlift
- 2 muscle-ups
- 3 squat cleans with 250 pounds
- 4 handstand push-ups
I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that you haven't done anything that even remotely resembles workouts like this. After all, at least at a quick glance, they seem to violate every known training principle ever conceived.
But as whacked as these workouts seem (and maybe are), they do offer a unique advantage: They impose threatening demands on the body that trigger homeostatic disruption.
In other words, your body is literally threatened by the extreme novelty of these workouts and begins to increase both muscle size and strength levels to protect itself against similar threats in the future.
At the core of this premise is the idea that novelty is a key feature of effective training, particularly for muscular hypertrophy. Think about it: If you needed to be sore tomorrow, what would you do today to create that soreness? Would you do something familiar, or something very unfamiliar?
Further, the more experienced you become, the more it is that novel training sessions grow in importance. After all, as a beginner, everything you do in the gym is novel, right? And of course you grow like a weed no matter what you do. Later on however, it becomes harder and harder to "shock" your system, even if you work hard, because the exercises you do are familiar, and you've already adapted to them.
Take Home Lesson: Consider (carefully) scaring the shit out of your body with novel, unexpected training challenges.
Reason 4 – Social Support
My final observation about why CrossFit seems to be effective for many people involves social pressure, er, I mean social support. We all know the value of having a motivated training partner. When you have a workout buddy, you can push and support each other to bigger and better performances, and a bit of friendly competition definitely helps you push hard when you otherwise might not.
Now multiply this effect by 15 or 20, which is what happens in a typical CrossFit environment. As you're about to start your WOD, as the large electronic timer mounted on the wall approaches 00:00:01, you and a bunch of other classmates are now involved in a highly charged athletic competition, not just a workout. It's competitive, it's intense, and you can't help but want to do as well as you can to save face.
Note also that at high levels of sport training, even in individual sports like weightlifting and wrestling, athletes train in team environments. Take a look at the famed Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio. Over the years, several noted strength experts have told me in confidence that they believe 90% of Westside's success stems from their highly intense team environment, and not the unusual training methodology they espouse.
Take Home Lesson: You'll train harder in a group environment. Consider finding one.
A Little Perspective
Sure, a lot of what CrossFit does seems (and probably is) flat-out stupid and dangerous, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you take the time to look a little deeper, there are hidden gems to be discovered.
And as a final thought, I'll remind you the very activity that we all know to be so valuable to health, performance, and sports preparation – resistance training – was almost universally considered to be a bad idea several decades ago.
Scientists, doctors, and sport coaches warned that lifting weights would stunt your growth, slow you down, and make you "muscle bound." We laugh at these notions today, but have you ever wondered what they'll be laughing at 50 years from now?