Six years ago, I walked into a CrossFit gym, intending to see what it was all about. It was a new box, the WOD was snatches and I was handed an empty barbell and told to “jump in”. No intro class, no on ramps, just a waiver form filled out, a quick look around at what the other athletes were doing and attempting to do it myself. (You look pretty fit, I was told.)
So began the perfect storm for injury and plateaus. As long as I — a 26-year-old former collegiate athlete— could physically do a weight, I would. It was a bad combination: my own ego and the gym’s adherence.
I think of that time, and countless other stupid fitness and nutrition things I did over the years (hello, an hour on the elliptical before the bar!), often. We can’t go back in time and change our injury history and the amount of wear and tear that’s accumulated from years of overuse, improper form and other life experiences. But what we can do, as we become smarter, more informed and acutely aware that fitness is something we want to do for life, is find ways to take a step back. More specifically, to build a better base.
There’s no better way to do that than bodybuilding.
“Bodybuilding [is the most common deficit] in the Athlete Development Blueprint,” said OPEX’s director of operations Carl Hardwick, referring to a portion of the Mixed Modal course aimed to help competitive athletes reach optimal fitness.
“When we go back and look [at healthy, successful athletes], it’s about building up those characteristics of motor control before we go dynamic. Doing a million reps of strict pull ups before you even attempt a muscle up. Doing thousands of reps of a squat before you throw 300 lb. on a barbell and try to clean it. Building strong tendons and ligaments before you do dynamic contractions. The biggest thing most athletes missed is a base of bodybuilding support.”
As Hardwick points out, it’s already common at the upper echelon of the sport.
Rich Froning had a strength and conditioning background and lifted for years before he found CrossFit. Mat Fraser has a well-documented history as a weightlifter. Four-time Games competitor Kari Pearce was a collegiate gymnast and Annie Thorisdottir had eight years of gymnastics, two years of ballet and two as a pole vaulter under her belt before she found functional fitness. Each experience has a common thread: vast experience accumulating reps in different movement patterns.
Now you’re probably thinking, “OK so having a base is important for those who want to compete at a high level in CrossFIt. But what about the rest of us?”
Maybe even more so.
Ninety nine percent of us are not genetic freaks. Most of us didn’t spend our formative years immersed in weightlifting or gymnastics. (So, we wouldn’t do so hot in the ideal Athlete Development Blueprint.). Yet we felt compelled to skip the steps that include body awareness, motor control and building reps that —ideally— are skills built at 12-18 years old.
Me, as a 26-year-old, figuring out how to snatch an empty barbell —which progressively became heavier and heavier—without first mastering an air squat (let alone an unweighted overhead squat) seems insane. So does taking someone who can’t perform a hollow hold and asking them to repeat it dynamically as part of the kip swing on a pull-up bar.
Yet it happens every day, in gyms all over the world.
“It’s like telling a 12 year old kid that can throw 85 mph and has the physical ability to throw a curveball to do that in youth league,” Harwdick said. “Then he has Tommy John [elbow ligament replacement surgery] before he gets to high school. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean it’s best practice to do that if we want to last for the next decade.”
BODY BUILDING IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK
Let’s get some of the misconceptions out of the way when it comes to bodybuilding for fitness athletes. The goal is not to become the bronzed guy on stage in a bikini. It’s to develop high quality repetitions and build the mind-muscle connection, two important facets of bodybuilding.
It’s about accumulating volume in a non-dynamic setting to better enable us to handle the demands of kipping, olympic weightlifting and other explosive activities.
ISOLATION IS NOT THE ENEMY
This age-old theory, which dominated in the early years of CrossFit, is starting to fade. But it’s worth repeating: isolation is not the enemy. It’s an incredibly effective tool that can have strong carryover to any complex movement pattern or sport.
“People need to understand that doing years and years of biceps curls makes our biceps stronger for chest to bar [pullups] or dynamic muscle ups,” Hardwick said. “Strict dips and pec flys for years and years will help you press more [as well as bench, jerk and all other variations] and avoid pec tears.”
WANT BETTER BODY COMPOSITION?
Trying to lose weight or get jacked? Bodybuilding is your friend. High intensity is not. (Read this, if you don’t believe us.)
YOU CAN’T BUILD A BASE OVERNIGHT
You can’t do bodybuilding on Monday and on Tuesday do a WOD with kipping muscle ups. If you truly want to build up a better base, be injury free (and look damn good) you have to take some time and truly commit to it.
You can’t half-ass things or you won’t actually fix them.
“We’ve all tried to do [move up our timeline],” Hardwick said. “I’m not saying it’s not admirable for someone to push the limits and try to be the best today but I want to make sure people understand if you want to do this along time, especially in this sport, as its extremely damaging on your body, you have to think about building that base of support.”
Those interested in taking their fitness to the highest levels can download the Athlete Development Blueprint for free here: https://opexfit.com/blog/first-step-creating-podium-caliber-athletes/