An athlete can do 10 strict pull-ups, 10 strict ring dips, and 20+ kipping pull-ups. This athlete is unable to perform a muscle-up. After a couple weeks of practice, the athlete’s pull-up and dip numbers haven’t increased, but the athlete successfully completes a muscle-up. Has this athlete gotten stronger? CrossFit defines “strength” as “the productive application of force.” Based on this definition, the athlete has indeed gotten stronger.
I think this is a great definition, though I’ve seen it bashed by detractors in the past. So, let’s look at a couple other examples. You’re going for a PR attempt on your snatch. You miss your first attempt because you swing the bar out in front of you instead of pulling your elbows high and outside. On your second attempt, you fix this error, and hit a PR. Did you get stronger between attempts?
Last example: you’re going for a PR attempt on your push press. You hit a solid dip and drive but forget to engage your arms on the way up. You miss the lift with the bar stuck just above your head. On your second attempt, you coordinate the push of your arms with your dip and drive, and successfully lock the bar out overhead. Once again, did you get stronger between attempts?
What’s the point of these examples? Skill and technique are a HUGE part of getting stronger. This is included in the definition: “the productive application of force.” Without proper technique, our we waste effort in our lifts and are more likely to fail.
From a physiological standpoint, there are 4 ways in which we get stronger:
1. Improved intramuscular coordination. This means engaging more fibers of a specific muscle – flexing harder, if you will.
2. Improved intermuscular coordination. This means muscles working together in the proper sequence. Our push press example above illustrates this.
3. Improved technique/bar path. Our snatch example above is a good illustration of this.
4. Increased contractile potential across a joint. Simply put, your muscles get bigger (this is still dependent on #1).
Three of the four means of getting stronger are neurological; they are skills. This means that they must be trained through PRACTICE. Every lift, every bodyweight movement, even cyclical movements like rowing/skiing, all have multiple skill components involved. This is obvious with the Olympic lifts – we frequently focus on specific pieces of the lift using pulls, pauses, etc., and then put everything back together. We can use the same approach with any movement. Want to work on running? Your posture, gait, breathing, your ability to pace, all are skills that you can practice.
Now, let me ask you this: if you wanted to learn to play the piano, would you be better served by practicing for 10 minutes a day, almost every day, or once or twice a month for 2 hours at a time? Hopefully it’s obvious that the near daily practice is the better option. Frequency is immensely important for skill development, if you don’t overdo it on volume and intensity.
We see this in a couple ways. First, when working with beginners, we have them perform lower weights at higher reps to learn movement patterns. Second, we program specific lifts and movement patterns with greater frequency than the typical CrossFit model might. We snatch and clean weekly, rather than monthly. Heck, we squat and press multiple times a week to build these movement patterns. And, when we have a particular benchmark on the horizon, we perform the necessary movements with greater frequency than you might see the rest of the year.
There is a balance between novelty and repetition. You cannot master a movement without consistent practice, and we must spend more time practicing the more technically complex movements than simpler ones. I think we can all agree it’s easier to master a burpee than a snatch. Skill and strength go hand in hand, and practice is key to getting stronger. It’s the only way to ensure we have a productive application of force. See you in the gym.