People train for a variety of different reasons, including health, performance, or a combination. Many people become addicted to the feeling of being exhausted after a workout because it makes them feel accomplished. Although feeling accomplished after a workout is great, our efforts may be misguided. Let’s dive into why.
A lot of people are what I like to call “fatigue chasers”. I have tons of respect for people who love to work hard, but many of them would be better suited taking a more focused approach. While it is admirable that athletes enjoy the feeling of being smoked after a workout, some of the main qualities that they need to train to perform at their best cannot be optimally trained in this state: I’m talking speed, power, and strength! Whether you are an athlete or recreational exerciser, don’t just do a workout for the sake of completing it. More importantly, don’t judge your workout quality on fatigue alone! There is nothing inherently wrong with being tired after a workout: I just wouldn’t use it as a measure of workout effectiveness. Whether an athlete or weekend warrior, we’re going to break down being broken down.
Good Exercises, Improper Application
One thing you will often see with athletes is poor implementation of Olympic weightlifting. These exercises are incredible and some variation of them should be included in MOST athletes’ programming assuming proper coaching is available. However, if programmed and performed incorrectly, they can be a recipe for disaster! In the worst-case scenario, the athlete can suffer a catastrophic injury. At best, even if they remain injury-free, they are not reaping all of the benefits they should be from these exercises because they are not being performed correctly. To put it in perspective, Olympic weightlifters rarely ever perform more than 2 or 3 reps per set in these exercises! Sport athletes can perform slightly higher volume because they need more reps in order to learn, and the absolute load is not as high as that of a professional. Having said that, I would personally never have an athlete perform more than 5 reps per set as any more will likely lead to insufficient weights being used, along with technical breakdown. Some CrossFit workouts ask an athlete to perform 21 reps of an Olympic lift in a single set! This is utter nonsense and, put simply, a recipe for disaster. I don’t jog for speed work, so why would I Olympic lift for conditioning?
The same problem exists with sprinting; I’m not talking about running, I’m talking sprinting! Many athletes will partake in a proper speed session and feel better after the session is over than when they started. Some will even find they are having a hard time getting to sleep if they perform these sessions in the evening because their CNS is so revved up (this is a good thing). You cannot develop power, speed, or strength while fatigued. “But coach, I play my sport in a state of fatigue: shouldn’t I always train that way?” While this thought process may seem logical, it is flawed. We have to remember two things. First, we can divide our physical capabilities into our maximal output (our best in ideal conditions) and our operational output (how we will actually perform when fatigued, and reacting to environmental factors). The higher the absolute value of our max output is, the higher the operational will be; we will never be faster, more explosive, or stronger when tired than we are when fresh. The following graph will put this in perspective, using our 40-yard dash time as an example:
In the above graph, MO stands for Maximal Output and OO stands for Operational Output. Assuming in this case that our Operational Output is 80% of our Maximal Output for simplicity’s sake, you can clearly see that because Athlete A’s MO is faster than Athlete B, their OO will also be faster! Conditioning plays a significant role as well, but the Maximal Output must first be higher.
Second, we have to remember what conditioning is: increasing our ability to repeatedly produce outputs at or near our maximal output. If our max is not very high, then what are we getting better at? Running slowly or being weak repeatedly? I cannot think of a single sport where this would be of any benefit. If we’re going to keep telling our athletes that “SPEED KILLS, BRO,” then how can we ask them to sprint in games at speeds they have never reached in training due to training fatigued? This is why I often argue that we should be called strength AND THEN conditioning coaches!
Without turning this into a physiology lesson, the body relies on three separate energy systems with different force-production and endurance capabilities, and conditioning is energy-system specific! A football player generally competes for <6 seconds at a time, and then rests for 25-30 seconds. A hockey player generally competes for 45 seconds, and then rests for 90. A round in a wrestling match usually lasts 3 minutes. Basketball and soccer are more continuous-paced longer-duration games with multiple high-intensity bursts interspersed throughout. Can you see where I’m going with this? All of these sports have very specific energy system demands with very specific work-to-rest ratios required. Why, then, do so many sport coaches continue to run their athletes into the ground? One of the classic football “conditioning” tests is to run the length of the field (110 yards) as fast as possible, rest 15-20 seconds, and repeat. Often times players will perform anywhere from 16-20 reps in the workout or test. Does this sound anything like the work-to-rest ratios I mentioned above? Athletes should adhere to energy-system specific rest-to-work ratios when doing conditioning to truly become game-ready.
Many sport coaches claim that these long-duration, puke-bucket worthy conditioning sessions will improve mental toughness; I’m not buying it! Not only are they suboptimal, they can be unsafe (multiple examples in the media of athletes becoming injured or, tragically, DYING in a team workout). Having your athletes consistently work hard in a program that is properly periodized and specific to their needs while being able to balance academics and other commitments will do more for their mental toughness than running them into the ground ever will.
CROSSFIT SUCKS (FOR ATHLETES).
Unless you plan on competing in the CrossFit Games, you should not use CrossFit classes as your means of training for your sport. You will never specialize or optimally perform in anything. The goal of CrossFit is to become equally proficient at cardiovascular / respiratory fitness, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. Does this sound optimal for sports? Every athlete likely needs a bit of each of these, but they definitely need way more of some than others! Think about these qualities as buckets, and we have a naturally finite amount of water (effort and potential for development) to put into each bucket. The more we fill one bucket with water, the less we have available to fill the next bucket with! The more endurance a shot putter builds, the less capacity they have for strength, power, and speed. As an athlete, we don’t want to be a “jack of all trades, but master of none.”
Additionally, CrossFit is simply not individualized enough. At IPC, we perform a structural balance assessment on everybody that identifies specific tightness and weaknesses and are able to use it to personalize an optimal program, especially within the athletes’ accessory work. We take into account their training history, time of season they are in, etc. CrossFit, in contrast, is set up so that a Workout of the Day is written on the white board and everyone does it, competition-style. Often times, movement quality suffers at the expense of getting “As Many Reps As Possible” or the heaviest weight possible and competing against my classmate beside me. While competition does breed success, safety must always take precedent. Every athlete has their own specific needs that should be addressed in their program, which is impossible when everyone in the room is following the exact same program.
Athletes and clients must earn the right to perform more complex movements by first mastering the basics! If an athlete cannot properly perform a bodyweight or goblet squat, why are we putting a barbell on their back? If they cannot overhead or front squat, why are we snatching or cleaning? This is horrible and irresponsible coaching; we have an obligation as health and fitness professionals to be better, and our clients deserve better.
Finally, whether you are an athlete or client with general fitness goals, please stop looking at elite CrossFitters as an example of how to train. If you watch any of the CrossFit documentaries released annually on Netflix, you will realize that these individuals’ dedication to their training is incredible. The best athletes have coaches, train for hours on end daily, and optimize their nutrition and recovery; they truly leave no stones unturned. Most of them were all elite athletes prior to beginning Crossfit (NCAA athletes, national level weightlifters, etc.), so they have an athletic background. They were not sedentary individuals who picked up Crossfit and turned into beasts! Due to the nature of their training, none of them (or very few) will be the best at anything in the world in any one discipline compared to elite people of that discipline because that does not align with their training goals and methods. So, having said that, if you are looking to specialize in one sport and optimally develop a few of the above qualities more than others, Crossfit is simply not the answer.
Intensity Reigns Supreme
“Ok Coach, performance and planning make sense, but what about me who’s just looking to stay fit and be healthy?” At IPC, it’s not all about the athletes; we train anyone looking to become the best version of themselves! While I love hard work as much as the next person, we have to shift our mindset a bit to ensure the proper quality AND quantity. When people gauge the quality of their workout on whether or not they feel wrecked, it causes a bad mindset where they equate the absence of this feeling to failure. In a well-constructed program, there is a time for everyone to perform some type of power, strength, hypertrophy, and conditioning work in appropriate proportions! Clients who’ve attended so-called “HIIT bootcamps” in the past provide feedback such as, “I feel like I’m working way harder here at IPC and getting more out of my session because I can lift heavier, rest properly, and get coached.” The typical bootcamps that people attend just aren’t cutting it because they’re asked to perform bouts of work that are too long to be intense enough, coupled with too little rest to recover for the next round! Instead, at IPC, they’re able to become stronger and build more muscle, and in turn increase their outputs when we do get to our conditioning work! Also, their resting metabolic rate will improve with their increased muscle mass which will help them to burn more calories at rest. Win-win across the board.
Training programs should be properly periodized. Part of this is progressive overload, a vital factor in an effective training program. Week to week, we should be trying to manipulate a piece of the program to continually drive progress: weight, number of reps, rest periods, etc. This progress is tough to measure when we are doing different exercises every week! Bootcamps and CrossFit classes generally do not have periodization built in because it’s simply too hard and impractical. With an optimal training program, everything should build on each other. My question is this: are we working out or training? Both are good, but there is a distinct difference; working out entails exercising for the sake of exercising (which is fine for a lot of people), but training is specific to, and focused on, a goal.
It’s not all doom and gloom and I’m not just a hater. As mentioned, I absolutely LOVE seeing people addicted to hard work, whether they are competitive athletes or weekend warriors. My primary goal is help people focus their efforts so that they get the results they deserve from all of the hard work they are doing, instead of just spinning their tires. There are times to lift heavy and times to focus on conditioning, regardless of your goals. Hire a CERTIFIED Strength coach who has earned more than a weekend certification and can guide you optimally through the training process. Focus on movement quality first, and we can always add quantity after!
Myles specializes in contact sport performance. He is the head strength coach for Laurier University’s Men’s Rugby squad and helps develop local football athletes to take their game to the next level. Myles also works with dedicated members of the community looking to improve personal fitness.