The Problem with Numbers

Ryan ODonnellcrossfit tips, UncategorizedLeave a Comment


Heavier, faster and more reps! These are typically the three factors that many Crossfitters use to gauge their progress and overall fitness. However, using numbers as the only barometer to asses ourselves presents a host of problems. Are numbers helpful? Absolutely, but here are a few reasons why focusing strictly on numbers can inhibit you from becoming the most fit person you can be.

Numbers don’t judge technique

We’ve all been there before. We hit a new one rep max on our clean and it looks UGLY. Does it “count”? sure, but is that really how we want to be moving on a consistent basis? Definitely not. For most of the Crossfitters I know, fitness and overall health is the main goal. Moving well is going to help us get there quicker than moving faster or moving more weight.

If we’re talking about a competition, then it’s absolutely OK to sacrifice technique. No one cares who’s reps looked the cleanest in the Crossfit Games, they only care who scored the best. When you’re training in your box, moving correctly and safely should be your biggest concern. If you really want to keep track of your progress regularly take videos of yourself and compare them from time to time. Watching yourself squat-cleaning 100kg with perfectly next to an old video of you squat-cleaning 100kg with bad form can be just as much of an ego boost as establishing a numerical PR. I also suggest working with a coach to establish “technical” maxes and then trying to increase those.

Numbers don’t tell you how they feel

My all-time snatch PR is my body weight. As a number, that looks pretty good. It’s not world class by any means, but it’s better than most people have ever done. What that number doesn’t tell you is that snatching that heavy absolutely killed my shoulder. As a young, naive Crossfitter who looked at my progress as strictly a series of numerical PR’s I couldn’t care less about my throbbing shoulder. I could tell you the same thing about muscle ups. The first time I hit 10 unbroken bar muscle ups I was ecstatic, never mind the fact that I had to take the next week off from any type of pressing or pushing.

It reached a point where I was in and out of the physio every 6-8 weeks and realized something had to be done about my nagging shoulder pain. I decided that ditching muscle ups and scaling the weight way down on snatches while I rebuilt the muscles around the joint was a great idea. Today I’m much happier snatching 20 kilos below my PR without pain.

I know many athletes in every gym work through joint pain in order to try to hit their goals. I was lucky enough to catch myself before I did any serious damage to my shoulders, but you might not be. So next time you hit a PR, pay attention to how it feels later on and ask yourself if it’s worth it.

Numbers keep you in your comfort zone

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done Helen and Jackie, but it’s a ton. Why? Because I’m good at these workouts and I love them. Knowing that, you can probably figure out why I’ve only done Cindy and Amanda once each. As humans we’re all a little egotistical whether we want to admit it or not. Seeing that you perform better than others makes us feel good, seeing that we perform worse has the opposite effect.

If you only go by the numbers then you’re naturally going to keep doing the movements and WODs that you perform well in. It’s OK to have your favorite WODs, but branch out more often. Chris Spealler said, “Find your weaknesses, make friends with them, then beat them to death.” In order to do that you might need to eat some humble pie and come to grips with the fact that your numerical performance might not be up to your standards.

Numbers make you pace

This is something that I believe has become an issue in the Crossfit world. The focus on completing a workout as fast as possible or completing as many reps as we can has encouraged us to starting “gaming” workouts. We break sets or don’t push as hard as we can early in WODs because we know if we burn out, our score will drop. We’ve lost that “go until you quit” mentality.

I encourage everyone to watch this video of Greg Glassman explaining the origin of Fran. Essentially, he says he invented it while trying to simulate what a gymnastics ring routine felt like. It’s supposed to be a max effort workout. However, whenever this comes up at the gym it’s hardly a max effort workout. Nearly every person has a plan:

“OK, I’m going to do the thrusters 15-10, then break the pull ups 7-7-7, then I’ll do the second round 8-7 and 5-5-5….”

If you’re planning out the WOD ahead of time, it’s not going to be a max effort and it’s certainly not going to leave you with that puke feeling Glassman describes in the video. Next time you see Fran on the board, try this: Don’t pay attention to the time or the reps. Just do a max set of thrusters follower by a max set of pull ups 3 times in a row with minimal rest in between. Will you end up doing the prescribed 21-15-9 rep scheme? Most likely not, but I’m sure you’ll end up feeling Fran the way it’s intended to be felt.

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