The Role of Form in Crossfit Workouts

The CrossFit community has taken the wrong lesson from Glassman’s recent statements on form. Paraphrased:

Your intensity should be high enough that you have some form breaks during the workout. If you’re picture-perfect on every rep, you’re not pushing hard enough.

Some people have taken this to mean that form doesn’t matter. It does. The better your form is, the more reps you can do with the same amount of energy expended.

Take a look at one of the older videos of the Burgeners doing Grace. Notice how good their form is throughout. Also notice that these world-class Olympic lifters both do have some slight form breaks during the workout. That’s probably the right level of intensity.

Why did their form break down? It’s not because they don’t know how to do it properly. Hell, they’ve both done so many lifts that they’re probably within a centimeter or so of the same line in competition and on practice lifts. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be making competition-level lifts at all. Their form broke down because they were fatigued. It’s not necessarily desirable for their form to break; they’re so highly trained that they were undoubtedly fighting for perfect form every single rep. It was, however, inevitable that their form would break down to some extent during the workout due to the format and pacing.

More recent videos from the CrossFit Journal show Jeff Tucker critiquing and correcting the form of affiliates at an affiliate event. A CrossFit affiliate is in practice a trainer, often the head or sometimes the only trainer at the affiliated gym. One of the things I think is both the best and worst point of CrossFit’s organization is that everyone is encouraged to become a trainer. It’s great because it encourages everyone to fully participate by giving back to others through training and coaching.

It’s bad because affiliation is effectively open to anyone who simply invests the time and money to gain that certification. They don’t have to demonstrate more than very basic competence in a handful of movements. HQ leaves most of the quality screening to the community and the individual affiliates. And to be fair, this libertarian approach works pretty well, most of the time.

These people were recorded while attending a clinic to work on these movements, so they were obviously aware of their weaknesses and were trying to correct them, which is to their credit. But, I think that this is indicative of a weak point in CrossFit training, one that I think will (or at least should) be addressed by HQ, sooner or later. I think that the standards for movement should be more strict, and certification should be contingent on meeting that higher standard.

Slop is crap. You should strive for perfect form on everything. The WOD should not be the starting and end point for CrossFit. You should do skill work at virtually every session to perfect your form, and you should do supplementary work to shore up specific movement weaknesses. The WOD is your main workout, yes, but it should not be the only thing you do.

Glassman used to say that part of CrossFit is learning new sports and skills. Maybe he’s changed his mind about that, but I think that was a great admonition to give a group of new converts, who all too often fall into zealotry in their early enthusiasm and put on blinders that exclude anything but their chosen path. Glassman also used to say that “virtuosity”, which is learning movements to a high level of skill, was an element of CrossFit. That means you should learn and practice skills that standard CrossFit WODs don’t often address, and learn to do them well, if not necessarily to perfection. Can doing yoga or playing golf improve your WOD times? Possibly, if it addresses one or more of your weaknesses.

This is not an either/or proposition. Every weakness you address also increases your strengths. Greg Amundson wrote a CrossFit Journal article (The Chink in My Armor) about how his inability to do double-unders kept him from qualifying for the 2009 CrossFit Games…and how addressing this specific weakness led to an improvement in his box jump cycle time, his 400 m sprint time, and firearms accuracy and speed.

Amundson is one of the original firebreathers, who has been doing CrossFit for years. Just look at the guy; he’s built like a demi-god. Yet his deficient skill in jumping rope — one of the things that actually does come up in WODs occasionally — kept him from even qualifying to compete. Similarly, a softball throw effectively knocked out thirteen male competitors at the last CrossFit Games.

Skills matter. Accuracy matters. Form matters.

Work on your form, and your times will improve. Work on your form before you ramp up intensity or rep count. Make sure that you have sufficient strength and control to have virtually perfect form on gymnastic movements, like muscle ups, and skill-dependent movements, like the Olympic lifts, before you start doing high-rep WODs with those movements. You should be working singles, triples, sets of five at the most, and be capable of doing them with perfect form before you tackle something high-rep or high-weight with a time component.

If you don’t learn proper form, you’re just drilling yourself in inefficient movements that will take easily twice as much remedial work to fix later as it would have to learn the movements correctly in the first place. You’ll be stalling on lifts that you have the physical strength to do, and that plateau in progress will also keep you from increasing your strength to your fullest potential until you do the remedial work to train out your mistakes — if that’s even possible with thousands of bad reps drilled into your movement patterns. You’ll be losing time to wasted energy that didn’t go into moving the bar or your body through space.

That’s assuming you don’t injure yourself somewhere around rep 63 of the new WOD, “That Bitch Sarah”, because your form was so bad that you looked like an arthritic chimpanzee.