CrossFit is full of standards, “full lock out,” “hip crease below the knee,” “the bar must be received in a squat position in one fluid motion,” etc. On top of that, every WOD you see in your box will have RX weight and movement specifications. These standards and specifications serve an important purpose and provide nice goals to shoot for. However, they should only be met if you can perform the movement properly and safely. This post aims to outline some of the issues that arise from athletes pushing to meet standards or “go RX” and some of the most problematic movements.
WHAT IS A STANDARD?
A standard, in my understanding, is put in place to ensure that movements are performed consistently by all athletes. This can vary from sport to sport (I.E. power lifting, Oly lifting, Crossfit), competition to competition (can you hold your opposite foot on a pistol? Does a squat clean thruster count as our first rep on this WOD?) and even gym to gym (Do we have to jump on the burpee or just open the hips?).
HOW CAN STANDARDS BE PROBLEMATIC?
Standards don’t care about technique, plain and simple. In the CrossFit judges course they even make it a point to say that as a judge you are not there to critque technique. This can be a safety issue as well as a fitness issue. If you’re ripping through Diane and your back looks like a turtle shell, the back pain worth isn’t the letters next to your name on the whiteboard. If you’re squatting and yanking the kettle bell above your head while doing Helen, you’re meeting the standard for the WOD. Yet, you’re missing all the posterior chain work those swings could be helping you develop. As coaches, we’re much happier to see a lighter weight and a slower movement that looks techniquely perfect.
WHAT ABOUT THE PROS? THEY DON’T ALWAYS LOOK PERFECT
The difference between them and you is that they’re professionals and you aren’t. Powerlifters are willing to sacrifice form in order to add weight to their lifts and games athletes will power out a few nasty reps to finish a WOD. That’s fine, they’re trying to win an important competition. You aren’t trying to win anything at 6pm on a Tuesday after a long day at the office, slow down and go lighter.
WHAT MOVEMENTS PRESENT THE MOST ISSUES?
You can see Crossfitters in just about every gym breaking technique and sacrificing safety to meet standards. We see this with rounded backs in squats, heads slamming too hard back on to the ground during handstand pushups or “chicken winging” muscle ups. There’s many more examples, but as I said in the intro, I want to touch on a few I feel present the most issues.
Aside from the obvious safety issues with deadlifting incorrectly (adios lower back), I see a lot of technically incorrect deadlifts among CrossFitters. A deadlift is a hinge movement and as such the focus should be on the posterior chain. Too often I see athletes dropping their hips and “squatting” the weight off the floor while defaulting to their quads. If you’re hamstrings aren’t sore after high volume deadlifts, it’s time to think about talking to your coach about your form.
(Try to keep your hips higher in the deadlift instead of dropping your hips)
Presses and Jerks
The standard for the overhead movements in CrossFit makes it easier for judges, but lets face it, it’s not very functional. According to the standards for Open workout 17.5, “arms, hips and legs extended and the bar over the center of the athlete’s body when viewed from profile.” Look at the picture below, which one looks more natural?
The “head through” cue is one I’ve grown much less fond of. For Crossfitters with superior shoulder mobility this results in them smashing their head forward and over exaggerating the movement. They end up over extended, putting too much pressure on the lower back. This also compromises your shoulder position leading to shoulder issues. If you can press the bar up comfortably above the center of your body without pushing your head through, don’t do it.
(Don’t press your head forward with force if you don’t have to)
When those with weaker shoulder mobility press their head forward they tend to shrug into their traps and disengage the lats, pecs, biceps and teres major. This leads to an imbalance in the muscles used to stabilize the shoulder and will certainly lead to nagging shoulders issues down the line (I know this from experience).
(Notice the traps down and lats engaged on the left, as opposed to the shrugging on the right)
Snatches and Overhead Squats
Snatches provide the biggest technical challenge in the Crossfit world. Weight and intensity should only be added to this movement after an athlete proves they’re adequately proficient. I’ll get more into the safety issues we see with snatches when I talk about overhead squats, but I want to focus one of the biggest technical issues I see, the press out.
In this Babell Shrugged pod cast (it starts around 13:30), Strongfit founder Julien Pineau talks about the problems with pressing out. He basically says when technique is bad the wrong muscle groups are activated, when the wrong muscle groups are activated the correct muscle groups are switched off, when the correct muscle groups are switched off they are not being worked. This will lead to muscle imbalances and ultimately pain or injury.
(The lifter in this picture is committing just about every fault you can in an overhead squat, but these problems also appear individually)
The typical problems with overhead squats are almost too many to list because of the mobility challenges it presents. Like I described above, athletes often shrug the traps to support the weight and many athletes will shrug more on one side. You can see this in athletes that overhead squat with an uneven barbell. These people are looking at shoulder pain as a best case scenario and bulging discs as a worst case. Other athletes will compensate for a lack of lower body mobility by letting their knees collapse or coming onto their toes. Now we’re dealing with the potential for hip, knee and ankle injuries (all of these faults can be applied to snatches as well).
SO WHAT CAN I DO?
First, let me tell you what NOT to do. You should never work on reaching the movement standard by forcing yourself into a bad position. I made this mistake with the overhead squat and it killed my shoulder. I worried strictly about meeting the RX requirements for the movement and increased weight even though I was shrugging badly with my shoulders. It has taken me over 8 months to get rid of my shoulder pain and I still don’t feel comfortable enough to start overhead squatting again.
What I have found has worked the best is accessory movements. In order to balance out my shoulder I’ve been doing loads of rope pulls, overhead carries, dumbbell presses, rows and bicep curls (yes you read that correctly). For my lower body I’ve worked on my hinge pattern with stiff leg deadlifts and my squat pattern with sandbag squats and yoke Anderson squats. My movement patterns have improved greatly and I’m pain free after workouts.
I strongly suggest anyone who has any of the issues I have talked about in this post check out the strongfit youtube channel. As with my sandbag post most of the information I used to write this blog came from Julien Pineau and Strongfit, from online videos, the seminar I attended and the programming template I subscribe to. However, most importantly I used a lot of knowledge that I discovered myself using their methods and experimenting in the gym.
If anyone has any questions or wants help working on their movement patterns you know where to find me. Thanks for reading.
– Coach O’Dons