Fitness: Build a workout that makes sense, avoid those that don’t

How well your workout benefits you depends on a lot of factors. Key among them: Matching proper training methods with your training goals.

For more than a couple of decades now, I’ve been hitting the gym. I’m fascinated by fitness, bitten by a bug when I first began hitting the iron and saw the fruits of my labor in quick order.

Like any eager young gym rat, I devoured any piece of knowledge regarding weight training and fitness that I can find. Powerlifting, body building, plyometrics, you name it. I still see myself as a learner, not an expert. So I still absorb what I can, and watch new trends with interest.

The hottest trend in fitness right now is Crossfit. I won’t jump into anything I haven’t analyzed, but I know people who do it and love it. It has a lot of interesting concepts and non-traditional training methods that are intriguing. But like a lot of things in this field, I like to see it vetted before I jump in.

Crossfit has its boosters and fans. But it also has its critics. To me, however, judging it comes down to breaking down fitness goals, training methods and marrying the proper methods with the desired goals. It’s going to be under this framework that a fitness system will succeed or fail.

In short, Crossfit combines a number of different forms of fitness into one quick workout. Speed is emphasized. Crossfit combines plyometrics, weight lifting (with an emphasis on Olympic lifts), body-weight work and high-intensity cardio work (such as speed work on a spin cycle).

What this reminds me of is circuit training or station drills. But unlike most circuits, Crossfit is more radical in that is mixes a number of types of training methods into one workout.

So what do all these things do? Will they work together? And will they give you the desired fitness results?

Plyometrics (box jumps and exercises like that) are designed for explosive power. Power lifters, football players, track athletes, fighters, basketball players and a number of other athletes will use these to facilitate power in jumping, sprinting, takedowns (in wrestling), and lots of other tasks that deal with fast-twitch muscle performance. They key is performing these exercises explosively and repetitively. It’s hard work, taxing the muscles as well as the heart.

Weight lifting is designed to build mass, strength and slow-twitch power. The key, as so eloquently put by the folks at Lean Bodies Consulting, is tension. You are taxing your muscles, using dead weight in the form of barbells, dumbbells and other weights to stress your body to the point of muscle breakdown and rebuilding. The key to exercising your muscles with tension (as opposed to explosivity) is to perform the exercises in slow, controlled repetitions, with minimal breaks between sets. I’ll see unfit lifters break form by trying to go too fast or use too much weight and completely thwart their goals in the process. Anyway, you’ll notice I mentioned power as a stated goal here, but it’s a different power than plyometrics. Think of it like this: the explosiveness of plyo work is a lot like a high-end street bike that can rip 0-60 in less than 4 seconds. Tension work with weights is more like the low-end torque you get with a 4-wheel drive truck in low gear.

See the difference? People who employ this type of training will include all the athletes I mentioned before, but it will also include body builders. This type of training is how you build bulk, strength and symmetry.

Olympics lifts are their own animal, as they combine elements of both. But unlike plyo work or traditional weight training, Olympic lifts go way beyond “good form.” They are very heavy on proper technique. You won’t derive the benefits of Olympic lifts unless you do them right, and that’s a learning process that takes time and good coaching. Learning how to do a proper snatch or clean-and-jerk isn’t like plopping down on a bench press and slinging the weight around.

What’s more, Olympic lifts, while able to be performed in single reps or multiple reps, are not done “fast.” They are performed with explosiveness, but this is not a form of exercises you do with stopwatch in hand, looking to see how many reps you can do in a given amount of time. Sets are done with technique in mind, with the lifter taking as long as he or she needs to properly complete a set without breaking form. This is important, and I’ll come back to it later.

Cardio is likewise broken up into different types, and again, it’s very dependent on what you goals are.

If I want to lose weight – particularly fat – I’m going to do intervals, where I start slow, then increase intensity in segments of time, rising to a crescendo of difficulty (speed) and then drop it back down to an easy level of effort. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) follows this pattern; many runners and triathletes will be thinking of fartleks when people talk about interval training.

But if your goal is running a marathon, competing in an Iron Man, or perhaps mountaineering, this type of cardio training will only get you so far. I can speak from experience here. HIIT cardio helped me drop a lot of weight fast, and it helped me from an athletic perspective in activities that involved lots of jumping, sprinting or other short, intense levels of physical activity. It’s also great for quick recovery. But when I’m hiking or climbing above 12,000 feet, intervals by themselves fell way short.

And needless to say, intervals alone won’t get you very far in endurance sports like distance running, long-ride biking or triathlons. To succeed here, you’ll need those long-burn, steady-state workouts that last an hour, two hours, or even more for marathoners and triathletes doing Olympic- or Iron Man-length races.

But steady-state cardio, even when it’s on the higher end of effort, is not the most efficient way to drop weight. Sure, it can be done. But intervals just work better.

In any case, you can see what I’m getting at here: Specific goals need specific types of training. If you do it wrong, it just won’t work.

If you lift too fast, you will injure yourself.  Half-hearted box-jump routines will leave you wanting. Similarly, low-intensity interval training will do little good. And no one finished a marathon by sprinting from start to finish.

But what if you mixed all these methods together? Isn’t muscle confusion a proven way to get fit fast?

Well, sort of. But I would argue that the concept of muscle confusion (exploited well in programs like P90X) is different than mixing methods. A program that employs muscle confusion that’s worth anything will still have continuity in methods that are designed to achieve a specific fitness goal.

So here’s where Crossfit comes in. Crossfit mixes methods. It combines plyo, tension and high-intensity cardio, and does it all at a high pace in a short amount of time.

So here is what I’m wondering: Aside from getting your heart rate up, can this blend of rather incongruent methods of training actually work? My thinking is that in the short term, it might. But over the long term I have my doubts. My fear is this: Lifting fast is not inherently bad, as long as you rep slow. Repping fast (performing repetitions fast) leads to injuries. Doing Olympic lifts for time (repping fast) can and probably will lead to serious injuries.

And this is where I find fault with this type of workout system.

I know there are a lot of people certified in this, and many of their clients, who will staunchly defend Crossfit and similar workout plans as effective. There are likely loads of positive testimonials to back it up.

But I will stand by this premise: You will get more out of your training when you match your training methods with your training goals. You can’t bench-press your way across the finish line, you can’t swim your way to a 500-pound squat and you can’t rush your way through weight training for the sake of getting your heart rate up.

In short, analyze your workouts – any workouts – to see if they’ll work for you or if they’ll work at all.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Fitness: When Crossfit goes horribly wrong

The one thing that I love about the world of fitness is that people are always innovating, trying new things to help people become more fit and active. We need that sort of innovation so badly.

What I also like is that these types of innovations draw new people into active lifestyles. We need more of that!

But there are times when half-cocked instruction meets amateur exercisers, and this is where things can go terribly wrong. Fitness “students” trust their instructors to show them how to properly perform an exercise, and when that doesn’t happen, people overestimate their abilities, build bad habits and rarely achieve the results their looking for.

Worse yet, people get injured.

Crossfit is a fast-growing and effective exercise phenomenon that has become very popular. It combines high-intensity cardio work, weightlifting (sometimes Olympic-style) body-weight work and other exercises all done in a way that taxes the muscles and cardiovascular system of the person who is doing it. It’s become so big that there are actually televised Crossfit competitions on ESPN.

But I have a serious problem with people who are being incorrectly coached on exercise technique, particularly when it comes to Olympic-style lifts such as cleans, snatches, clean-and-jerks and deadlifts. These are great lifts, but they aren’t as simple as a bench press or weightlifting machines. They are very technique-driven, and breaking form can be injurious.

When I saw the video below, I thought it had to be a joke. But it’s not. These people were serious. And the form exhibited — and encouraged by trainers — was seriously bad.

This is the text accompanying the video, which describes is thusly:

Taken from an event with veteran CrossFit athletes. Hitting axle clean and jerks. Supervised by Strongman Certified Coaches. Axle weight is about 10-15lbs. This lift is not a standard Clean and Jerk.

“Veteran” atheltes? “Certified” coaches? All this experience and training led to this?

Notice the incorrect initial grip. It’s fine for a standard deadlift, but not a clean. And then there’s the fumbling around with the weight on the hip, back twisted back awkwardly as the lifter readjusts to a proper grip (it looks like they’re playing bass guitar in a rock band!). And the overall bad form that barely uses the true driver of power on the lift — the legs.

How in the world did these people not seriously tear up their backs?

Here is a video of a properly executed “axle clean and jerk.”

Proper grip, proper form, good use of the legs. Yep, that’s how it’s done.

My hope is that somewhere along the way, the exercisers in the first video can achieve their fitness goals and gain self-confidence while also learning good form. Here’s also hoping that this is not the direction Crossfit is going. Encouraging poor form and performance will only lead to injury and disappointment, and that is a failure on the part of the coaches and a disservice to the trainees.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088