Written by Jacob Tsypkin
What’s the word for the physical trait that allows an athlete to perform high rep deadlifts with 315 pounds mixed with 30# box jumps, in the midst of a high volume, multi-day event, when he’s very fatigued?
Some may say strength, or more likely, strength endurance. But what if the athlete, despite having a max deadlift and max back squat both approaching 500#, squatting multiple sets of 20 (7 front + 13 back) with 255# for recovery work, running a 19:30 5k, and being very used to multiple days of high volume training, struggles with this event?
This athlete does exist. I know this, because I recently took over his programming, and this has been our challenge, like buying a birthday gift for your rich friend: what do you get for someone who has it all?
In (one of many) million comment threads which spewed forth from something or other I posted on Facebook, my friend Matt said one of the most intelligent and important things I’ve heard in any debate involving CrossFit: “I think a lot of internet nonsense regarding CrossFit arises out of poor understanding of the need for new metrics, and the desire by non-CrossFitters to measure CrossFit athletes by non-CrossFit metrics.”
Viewed objectively, I can see how strength athletes might be unimpressed by the strength accolades of competitive CrossFitters. The heaviest clean & jerks we saw at the 2013 CrossFit Games were between 335-355#. For guys who weigh in the range of 190-215, those are good lifts, but nothing world class. In fact, they wouldn’t medal at U.S. Nationals in weightlifting.
But what does it mean when the athletes doing that can also row a half marathon in under 80 minutes?
We can argue to oblivion about whether or not CrossFit has created anything new in the realm of training. I’m going to say it has. You might say it hasn’t. We will never agree. But I think it’s pretty incontrovertible that competitive CrossFit has brought with it a desire to test something which has not been tested in competition before, and with that desire, a need for appropriate metrics which, as of now, have not been defined.
It’s important to acknowledge first and foremost that CrossFit is not a strength sport. Nor is it an endurance sport. I’ve heard it classified as one or the other by different people, usually depending on what they themselves are good at. But the fact of the matter is that the CrossFit Games does a pretty remarkable job of testing strength, speed, power, endurance, stamina, etc, expecting the participants to be above average but not elite across the board.
The issue is that it’s hard to pin down just what that means. CrossFit calls it “work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” But then, what’s the name for a unique piece of that capacity – such as the ability (or lack thereof) to perform high rep, submaximal but still objectively pretty heavy deadlifts when fatigued?
The question may seem arbitrary to the outsider, but to coaches and athletes involved in the CrossFit Games, it’s very important. Categorizing and better understanding these traits will allow us to better develop them.
Further, it’s an important part of the legitimization of the sport. At the least, I would hope that the acknowledgement of a need, and subsequent design and implementation of novel metrics, we could all stop comparing competitive CrossFitters to competitive weightlifters, powerlifters, 400m runners, or football players.
So, with that in mind, we have to ask the question, “what are the metrics that set the best CrossFitters apart from the pack?”
Personally, I’m not sure. I don’t know that anyone is, yet – the sport is still new and changing. But, I have a broad and unfinished idea to describe a metric which the best in the sport display, and which is talked about in a roundabout fashion, but which hasn’t really been elucidated upon. I refer to it as durability.
This is a hard to quantify trait, but it is what allows these competitors to continue to perform at the same level of intensity and maintain optimal or near optimal mechanics at the end of a grueling 3 day or longer event.
It seems to me that top CrossFit athletes actually lack the top end speed and power which we associate with excellent sprinters, throwers, weightlifters, and even football players. Watch Rich Froning lift: he’s pretty strong, and pretty fast, and pretty explosive, but nothing extraordinary. Same goes for most of the guys at that level.
However, those athletes are able to maintain relatively close to maximal force production under great fatigue in all three of the major energy pathways.
Now we have to determine how best to accurately and precisely quantify this trait. My friend Russ Greene suggested a (working and experimental, not finished) definition for the term:
Durability: The ability to maintain near optimal performance across multiple events and multiple days of competition.
In practice, this would mean that your time/score for an event at the end of the third day of competition wouldn’t be too far off of your time/score for the same event performed fresh.
This further begs the questions: how do we best prepare athletes for it? And, what other novel metrics might be relevant to developing performance at the top levels of CrossFit.
Post thoughts to comments.Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, and the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA. Website, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter