Don’t Skimp on the Fundamentals

“You need harder workouts? Bullshit. I saw you row 500m, you walked away after. What you need is some honesty.”

This quote is often attributed to Tommy Hackenbruck. Tommy and his team from Ute CrossFit were the first repeat Games champions, winning prior to both Annie Thorisdottir and Rich Froning. It’s one of my favorite quotes, because it shows how even something as simple as a 500m row can be absolutely brutal given the right focus and effort.

Furthermore, Tommy gave this quote in the early 2010’s, when everyone was pushing more and more volume in their training, and higher and higher skill. Tommy was here to remind everyone that fundamentals are key, and he’s 100% correct. You cannot build  a high pillar of fitness without a big base. In the case of the 500m row, that would be pure anaerobic power. In other words, how solid is your engine?

Similarly, many CrossFitters dream of performing advanced gymnastics movements like butterfly pull-ups, muscle-ups, handstand walking, and pistol squats. But how many of us can perform a perfect air squat? When you did “Murph” a couple weeks ago, were all 300 of your squats pristine? I doubt most of us can say yes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard an advanced athlete say “pistols hurt my knees.” Chances are, there’s an issue with their squat movement pattern. Fix that first, and then the pistol will come. Why? Because improving our fundamentals can generate tremendous carryover to advanced movements, while the converse is not true. Anecdotally, I once improved my max number of butterfly pull-ups from 50 to 70 simply by improving my strict pull-ups.

When we look at technically complex movements like the snatch, we don’t improve them by snatching repeatedly. We break the movement down into its constituent pieces: the pull, the turnover, the catch, etc. We work on those pieces individually, improving each one. Then, we put everything back together and improve the whole.

This approach works with everything – break down a movement into its skill components, and prime movers (muscles that do the work). Strengthen the lagging muscles, fine tune your skills, and then put it all together and revel at your improvement. In fact, working on lagging muscle groups is one of the best ways to add volume to your training day, without frying your nervous system.


Any sturdy structure needs a strong base. The same is true for fitness. The bigger the base, the higher we can build. Even Mat Fraser acknowledged that during his run as champ, his days would start by “selling his soul” to the Assault Bike. Spending all your time on advanced movements, the sexy and flashy things, while neglecting the fundamentals, is a recipe for injury and stagnation. Believe me, I’ve been there, done that, and got a sling rather than a t-shirt. Don’t skimp on the fundamentals; they deserve your focus and effort. Your body will thank you later. See you in the gym.

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