Written by Jacob Tsypkin
The 2015 CrossFit Games Open started off with a bang. Changes were expected from the get-go, and Week 1 delivered in a big way: a one-rep max clean and jerk, the first time any sort of max strength test was included in the Open.
To make the event a truly CrossFit experience, of course, the clean and jerk was the second part of a two-part workout. Athletes would have 6 minutes to establish a 1RM immediately after a 9 minute triplet of toes-to-bar, deadlifts, and snatches.
No one predicted the rash of PRs that would follow, including from highly qualified athletes; though I don’t think anyone who’s been involved with CrossFit for any appreciable length of time should be particularly surprised.
I personally know one Games athlete who PRed both clean and jerk, and clean in 15.1a. I know another just-shy-of-Games athlete who PRed clean. Secondhand (from their coaches), I know of two other Games athletes who PRed their clean and jerks. All of these athletes posted very high-level scores on 15.1, and all of them have clean and jerks that would be nationally competitive in their respective weight classes.
This leads me – and I assume others – to wonder at the mechanisms behind this phenomenon.
The easy way out, of course, is to downplay the athlete’s ability in the lifts or the intelligence of their training. But this seems backwards to me. After all, the CrossFit athlete’s goal is to excel in CrossFit, and hitting a PR clean and jerk (at national-level weights) under fatigue is about as CrossFit as you can get. So let’s take a look at some possible reasons for why this occurs, and how you can best prepare for it.
How It Happens
Specificity of Adaptation
If you read Juggernaut regularly, you’ve likely come across this term before. It’s fairly self explanatory: The body will adapt directly and specifically to the stressors imposed on it.
Fairly often, distance runners will run their fastest 400m at the end of a max effort 5k, or their fastest mile at the end of a marathon, sometimes even hitting lifetime PRs in the process. Some of this, of course, comes down to masterful pacing. However, it would be foolish to downplay the role of their training for this specific ability.
In light of this, it becomes clear that hitting PRs under fatigue is not all that strange an occurrence. CrossFitters train (or should train) in a way that demands them to maintain near maximal strength levels when pre-exhausted from other events.
Specificity of Stressors
It seems intuitive to assume that being pre-fatigued from a workout like 15.1 would preclude any possibility of a PR, or near-PR lift. This assumption, however, warrants further investigation, specifically into types of stress and types of fatigue.
15.1 is a 9 minute triplet, particularly fatiguing to the grip and midline. The primary energy sources for the workout are likely to be local glycogen stores, particularly in the abdominals, hip flexors, forearms, hamstrings, and lats.
Obviously, these muscle groups are active and important in a maximal clean and jerk, and reduction in local glycogen stores does have the potential to impact a 1RM effort. However, it is important to consider not only the musculature in use, but the energy source: A 1RM clean and jerk is powered primarily by ATP, not glycogen. While ATP stores will have been impacted early in 15.1, an athlete with good aerobic development will have had sufficient time during the workout, and in the 60-90 seconds of relaxed movement during the shift from 15.1 to their first attempt in 15.1a, to recover ATP stores to a level where high force and power production are possible.
CrossFitters are primarily aerobic athletes, so it isn’t unreasonable to assume that the difference in a CrossFit athlete’s ability to pull this off comes down to aerobic capacity.
The nature of an event such as 15.1a is such that it creates an odd dichotomy. The competition aspect raises arousal, while the clock functionally destresses the athlete by not allowing her time to think about the lift very much.
Many CrossFitters, and a good amount of weightlifters as well, have set a PR in a timed set type of workout – something like every minute on the minute. There are, of course, physiological factors at play here, but I believe the psychological factors are more important. The athlete is put into a situation wherein she is unable to dedicate much mental energy to worrying about how heavy the bar is, how close she is to her PR, or how unlikely it’s supposed to be that she can make this lift under these conditions. Instead, she simply makes a game plan and sticks to it, with no hesitation – simply because she has no other option.
Additionally, it is important to consider the power of the athlete’s psyche in such scenarios. In fact, that power is perhaps the most compelling reason to watch sports in the first place: watching athletes overcome tremendous obstacles in pursuit of victory.
Couple these conditions, and it is easy to see the potential for big lifts in 15.1a.
How To Prepare For It
Understanding the phenomenon is well and good, but what we really want is to understand how to prepare for it. Fortunately, it’s a fairly simple task – albeit not at all an easy one.
The first step is to get yourself used to lifting on a clock, and the safest and most productive way to get started is by using timed sets in your strength training. I believe this is the best first option for a few reasons:
- Timed sets are valuable not only to prepare you for maximal lifts under fatigue, but are an effective strength development tool on their own. They allow the athlete to accumulate substantial training volume and improve special work capacity for greater training loads down the line, with the sport specificity to CrossFit as an added bonus.
- For relatively novice lifters, a scenario more like 15.1/15.1a is more likely (though not inherently so) to degrade technique. For these same lifters, repeated timed sets of the same pattern can actually improve mechanics as fatigue accumulates.
Practice The Sport
The second step is as simple as it gets: Do CrossFit. In that prescription, include varied forms of lifting under fatigue.
It is wise to wait until an athlete’s mechanics are firmly cemented before practicing this type of training. Then, work on reducing the amount of time between the pre-fatiguing element and the lift.
As an example, an athlete may start preparing for this type of event by doing a conditioning session in the morning, and lifting in the afternoon. Gradually reduce the break to 30-60 minutes, and eventually start practicing events like 15.1/15.1a, with the lift immediately following a CrossFit piece of some type.
As important as training the physical element is training the psychological element.
First, learn to approach each day’s work with a calm and collected mind. Stop getting hyped up for every lift and every workout. This is likely to lead to burnout. Instead, treat training as a professional: Show up, do your work, enjoy it, but don’t let your emotional state be in a constant flux of highs and lows. Strive for equilibrium.
Second, let go of what you can’t control. 15.1/15.1a calls for you to clean and jerk as close to maximum as possible while fatigued. You don’t have a choice in the matter, so why worry? Commit to performing to the extent of your ability, period.
Finally, keep a positive mindset. Don’t ever convince yourself that you “can’t” do something, either on the macro scale (“I can’t possibly qualify for Regionals with a 20 person cutoff”), or the micro scale (“I can’t possibly clean and jerk close to PR weight after 15.1). This is simply not something that top athletes succumb to.
As you approach this event and events like it, practice positive affirmations, and don’t be afraid to go big just because you’re not “supposed” to be able to. You may surprise yourself with your strength and capacity.
Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, and the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA.