Three Principles For Decoding Crossfit, by Nate Helming

And how a lack of motor control or mobility is at the root of athletic inefficiency and injury

As a CrossFit Coach, I spend several hours per week leading athletes of all abilities through our “basics” class, teaching our core curriculum of movements (squat, pushup, deadlift, press, etc., etc., etc.) so they can safely and successfully enter our group classes.

We have a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it in. To make matters worse, the movements we cover can be quite technical, i.e. gymnastics skills and Olympic lifting. Athletes spend their entire careers specializing in just one of these skill-based sports and yet we ask our athletes to be “fluent” across all of them—in 3 or 6 sessions no less. Thus it’s easy and understandable when athletes get their head stuck in the weeds and overwhelmed trying to learn all that CrossFit requires.

And athletes who start to over think move worse, remember less, and get frustrated. As a coach, it’s easy to get frustrated too with athletes who don’t “get it” especially when we rush them through a program the athlete barely understands.

To battle these potential frustrations, it’s best to first review three simple movements: the body weight squat, the pushup, and the gymnastic hollow rock, and more importantly to introduce the principles of midline stability, load/tension, and torque. By taking more time to introduce these principals upfront, athletes learn the more complex, skill based movements faster later. Athletes also begin to understand that we are interested in making better athletes (not necessarily just CrossFitters), and that these principals apply to their sport as well.

This approach is helpful for these below reasons:

From the get go, we can introduce the three athletic principles that apply to all CrossFit movements: how to create trunk stability, how to load and tension, and how to create torque through external rotation in most cases and internal rotation in others (i.e. shoving the knees out in a squat, or “breaking the bar” in a shoulder press).

We progress from simple to complex movements. Athletes who fail to understand the push press or push jerk, for example, have been progressed too quickly by their coach. Period. Chances are this athlete does not yet know how to keep their trunk stable in a pushup, they don’t know how to initiate the pushup with the shoulder (versus the elbow), and they don’t know how to “screw” the hands into the ground to create additional torque to further stabilize the shoulder. A pushup is a simple enough exercise most people can do. Fortunately, it’s also technical enough that we can apply the principles of midline stability, load/tension, and torque making it a very powerful skill transfer exercise for all other upper body and overhead exercises seen in CrossFit. And ultimately, this skill transfer is the entire point to making us better athletes!

Finally, with these principals in mind, we further help the athlete by breaking down their movement into more digestible chunks: mobility and motor control. Mobility captures range of motion in a joint in addition to the muscular flexibility surrounding that joint. For example, in the shoulder, we want to know that the shoulder can “slide and glide” in the socket, but we also want to look at muscle flexibility in the surrounding musculature that equally affects the range of motion. Motor control involves our ability to coordinate movement and muscular engagement in the right sequence consistently and repetitively. It does not require massive amount of strength. For example, how strong do you have to be stand tall and squeeze your butt?

By looking at these two components, we provide more specific feedback to help the athlete understand their limiters and how to overcome those limiters. Let us look at the shoulder in general and the pushup to demonstrate how we can decode pain, inefficient movement, and create a template for better shoulder positioning and strength.

Trunk stability: in a pushup position, the athlete’s legs have to be squeezed together with belly and butt squeezed tight. This trunk stability is a prerequisite to a stable pushup because it provides a firm foundation for the shoulder to stabilize. An unstable trunk equals an unstable shoulder that tends to pop out into an internally rotated position. Clearly, trunk stability falls on the motor control side of the athletic equation, and without it shoulder stability will not happen.

Load/tension: we teach athletes to initiate a squat from the hips (not the knees). This keeps their weight on the heels and effectively loads the posterior chain for a deeper, more powerful squat that also removes pressure off the knees, a good thing all around. In a similar vein, we teach athletes to initiate the pushup from the shoulder (not the elbows). Here athletes often struggle. In order to load the shoulder effectively, athletes require sufficient internal range of motion in the shoulder joint. (See Kelly Starrett’s MobilityWod post for more information:

Without this range of motion, the elbows tend to creep outwards and strain tends to increase in the front of the shoulder as well as in the neck. Attempting to perform a proper shoulder-loaded pushup makes this mobility problem plain to see and quite simple to solve with a lacrosse ball and some bands (again see MobilityWod here for videos). While it requires some motor control to initiate from the shoulder, proper load/tension equally falls on the mobility side of the equation.

Creating torque: in flexion (think deep in a squat), we teach athletes to generate torque (for greater trunk, knee, and ankle stability) by shoving the knees aggressively outwards and by pushing the floor “apart” on the way back up. Applied to the pushup, we queue athletes to screw their hands into the ground and flick their elbow pits forward on the way back up. Done effectively, this keeps the shoulders stabilized together by adding external rotation torque. Creating torque falls equally on the mobility and motor control sides of the equation. As a new concept, athletes require time to practice this queue and develop this skill. Furthermore, athletes who lack internal rotation at the shoulder will equally struggle to generate torque because they cannot find a strong position to push from.

And athletes who struggle with this mobility in the pushup will struggle even more when performing a parallel bar or ring dip, handstand pushup, or an overhead press. Furthermore, swimmers who lack internal range of motion fail to develop a strong connected catch and pull. And runners cannot drive their elbows straight back for an effective arm swing.

By breaking dysfunctional movement down into mobility and motor control, we can better see the root of an athlete’s injuries and inefficiencies. We can better explain this to the athlete so they understand, and we can better empower the athlete to make the corrections themselves. Additionally, by introducing and applying the concepts of midline stability, load/tension, and torque we make the more complicated Olympic lifts and gymnastics skills easier to comprehend. And we make the movements seen in CrossFit more relevant to athletes’ specific sports.

Train Well