An important part of the success of Crossfit is the idea of “constantly varied”. This concept works well with fitness because it provides a continual shock to the system for untrained individuals, it is exciting, playful, and keeps people coming back to find out what crazy workout they’ll be doing next.
As a form of exercise this is a fantastic approach because the body is really going to be put through its paces and forced to adapt. People who stick with this model for years will be far more fit than your average person. For people learning the language of their bodies for the first time, this approach works really well too because it exposes the person and their body to a whole array of new movements which will force the body to wake up and learn to be useful.
Way back, before Crossfit focused so hard on selling the Competition side of things, success in CF meant being pretty darn good at a lot of cool things. General physical preparedness was the goal. It was more about 35 year old Stan challenging his body for the first time and learning how to bring fitness into his life, than it was about 24 year old Jessica training 10x/week and cleaning 205#. Neither path is right or wrong, but they are indeed different.
Crossfit, as a training methodology and a sport, provides a huge amount of opportunities to strive towards mastery. There are so many, that it becomes impossible to truly master them all. If one defines an area of Crossfit in which mastery can be attained as those areas of which there are specialized masters who dedicate their lives to that one thing, then our list is quite long. And there are sub-masteries within each of these listed.
Powerlifting (Bench, Squat, Deadlift)
Olympic Lifting (Snatch, Clean & Jerk)
Gymnastics (Muscle-Ups, Pullups, Handstand Walk)
Strongman (Carries, Stones, Yokes)
Mobility- I am adding this in not because it is a sport or something you can compete in, but a certain level of mastery of mobility is required to excel in the language of the body and is probably the most common “weakness” in any CF gym, at-least for the male population.
I like to say that training is learning the language of the body, and that it takes time to learn just like a verbal language would. Even though we could greatly break down each of the areas I listed above into many sub disciplines, if we even take those six over generalized areas and imagine them as different languages you can imagine how difficult it would be to learn all six at the same time.
Imagine going to a language class for one hour/ three nights a week. In that class you learned a bit of Spanish, a bit of French, a bit of Icelandic, a bit of Mandarin, a bit of Danish, and finally a bit of Russian. One can imagine that eventually you might be able to understand a little bit of each language and have a very basic understanding of each, but the depths of understanding those languages would go unattained. Crossfit is quite similar to this metaphor, and since it is often done at high intensity, it would be like trying to learn 6 new languages at full conversational pace from the get go.
If you decide after sometime that you really want to learn Danish in depth, what would it take to reach that goal? Well, likely you’d go to a Danish only language class 3-4x/week. You would need to dedicate significant time to that one area if mastery was the goal.
The body is no different. If you want to get really strong. You will have to commit your time and energy to that goal, and make sure your training aligns with it. You will not be able to gain strength to near the same degree if you are also simultaneously trying to improve your 5k, your Fran time, your gymnastic, training for a half-tri, etc.
For people who decide that they want to go into a deeper understanding of some area of fitness, it should make complete sense that they are going to have to drop the generalist approach, and specialize. You have to move from exercising to training. If you have a goal of deadlifting 500#, the bulk of your time spent in the gym should be on strength training, because adding in three or four other “languages” is only going to slow down the process.
The human mind has a limited ability for learning. It is possible for someone to learn a bunch of different things at once, but it will take much longer to master any or all of them. Your learning ability is spread out over too many areas.
Over the years I have dabbled with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu because a close friend has made it his life, and I find the sport fascinating. There are hundreds of submissions in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu that one can learn, numerous guards and styles of fighting, and to make it even more complicated your opponent can present an infinite number of problems for you to solve. The sport is highly athletic, but even more cerebral.
Now what I absolutely love about BJJ, is that it takes the average person 10+ years to become a black-belt. That’s a decade. Likely over 10% of your life dedicated to mastering the art of BJJ. This is because of how many things you need to be proficient in to really exhibit mastery of this art. But what is underlying here is a deep respect, shown on a timeline, for the process of learning. It takes a lot of time to really learn one thing well, but a really long time to learn many things well.
When we bring this mentality back to Crossfit, I hope it is humbling. I hope we are also clear on what Mastery means. Mastery isn’t “I finished a 10k”.
Simply being able to do, is not mastery of.
If you are aiming for mastery of the human body, and chose the gym as your way to do that, it is important to respect that it is going to take some time. If we can imagine Crossfit and some of the movements within it as being as complex to master as BJJ and some of the movements in it, then we should expect that it takes at-least a decade to be really really good or masterful at Crossfit. But sometimes people expect to be master’s in as little as six months.
How many times in a CF gym do you see someone who’s trained for less than a year making the error of either being disappointed and talking themselves down because they can’t do a pull-up, or expecting they should already be able to do a pull-up. People compete against each other at movements they have not yet mastered, and this occurs at the highest level of CF as well. The fitness industry has made us all want and expect the quick fix, but I wish a different approach was pushed. One that focused on the journey and the process as the prize.
In Bjj when you enter, and leave, the training space you take a small bow. I love this aspect of martial arts so much. When you bow you are paying respect to art, the history, the process, the moment. It is a reminder that you are part of a process bigger than yourself. I often think that most boxes and gyms would foster a different culture if its members bowed before entering the training space. Bowing to the process of learning, and the time it takes to become a master.
Depending on your goal level of proficiency in a given craft, the constantly varied approach might be just fine. If you want to be pretty good at a lot of stuff, which I think is a great goal, then doing a little bit of a bunch of different things will work. If however, you want to go into more detail, and ‘move up a belt’ in ability on one given thing, then you will need to specialize more. There is no way around it. Remember that mastery takes a long freaking time. And it should. If something can be mastered in six months, is it really worth mastering? Take pride in being in it for the long haul. The more time you put into something the more meaningful the results will be.
The clients that I work with are generally people that have spent a lot of time trying to get better at too many things at once. And once the beginner gains subside, they are plateau’d and wondering why adding more volume hasn’t worked and why their lifts don’t improve. They want to move on from being a "strength white-belt" but are unsure how. The answer to this issue can have many faces but the underlying structure is always the same when leading them towards the strength gains they’ve been after. It is as simple as focusing on strength and going into a greater degree of detail on movements that before weren’t given adequate time.
If you are looking to move from a generalist to a master, having a coach who’s been there and knows how to guide you through that process is important. To be fully transparent, I only have a couple of spots left open for remote-coaching, so if you are thinking you are ready to step-up shoot me an e-mail to set up a consult.