We think it good practice to begin to publish some of the scientific observations that could be underpinning our programming.
When discussing strength, it is important to realise that all regimes struggle with the inclusion of strength into the training of athletes. We have chosen to consider our strength regime against the background of the Crossfit Games, with the clear knowledge that 99% of our members will not aspire to compete.
Note: this is a long article with a significant scientific bias. Grab a cup of (paleo) coffee and prepare to be here for a while.
What follows does not claim to be comprehensive or final.
The ultimate challenge of fitness?
The Crossfit Games is a unique challenge that purports to test the genuine all round fitness of the competing athletes (Crossfit, 2009).
The Games are based on the controversial Crossfit Protocols (Cooperman, 2005) which aims to keep its practitioners in a perpetual state of readiness. The training protocols claim to prepare their athletes to be ready for any challenge (Glassman, 2002). The implication is that the Games are an opportunity to demonstrate how fit an individual normally is, not how well they are prepared for a specific event.
The events are not declared in advance but are loosely based on the mix of high intensity, strength and aerobic conditioning posted on the Crossfit main site called the Workout of the Day (WOD). An analysis of the workouts suggests that competency is required in, at least 32 separate skills (see below) drawn from various Olympic sports, weightlifting, gymnastic and track events. Competence, if not dominance, is also required in every energy system.
The problem with periodization
It is increasingly popular to discuss and advocate methods of programming training, in particular periodization. A periodized strength training programme is one which varies on a regular basis in order to bring about optimal short and long term gains (Fleck, 1999).
Whilst overload and specifity are frequently promoted as the dominant principles of training, experience shows that regimes based on these principles generally fail.
This failure can be attributed to a mix of loss of motivation, as well as negative neural and hormonal changes. Hakkinen (1989) noted that performance improvements could be related to enhanced electromyogram activity, serum testosterone levels and anabolic/catabolic hormone ratios (or endocrine balance). They noted that intense exercise can provoke and then decrease neural and endocrine reactions (fatigue). However, one day’s rest could restore the balance, in some circumstances. As such, a variable programme can reduce the possibility of overtraining.
The variables that can be manipulated are:
- number of sets
- number of reps
- number of exercises performed
- rest periods
- resistance used
- type of muscle action (concentric eccentric, isometric)
(From Fleck, 1999)
However, intensity and volume are two frequently over used variables. Intensity refers to the weight lifted (Poliquin, 2008). The reality is that as intensity goes up the volume goes down, and vice versa.
It is worth noting the actual results of Kleck’s (1999) review. The fact that a protocol works in strength sports does not prove its success elsewhere. Periodized programmes will tend to have multiple sets, so will always have more volume than single set protocols. Many studies use untrained individuals who experience rapid improvement in strength gains. Willoughby (1993) only noted superior strength gains in the periodized group in week 8 (of 16) when the training volume was significantly reduced compared to two control groups which had a 5 x10 and 6 x8 protocol.
However, Fleck (1999) concludes that periodized programs can result in greater strength gains than non-periodized, multi-set and single set programmes; manipulation of training volume was identified as a contributing factor. Nevertheless, few studies have evaluated motor performance, body composition and short term endurance. Due to the trainability of novices, periodized programmes may not be needed in the earlier stages.
Irrespective of Fleck’s much quoted review paper, a critical reading of the periodization literature reveals that programming for training is far from agreed, on any level.
Whilst it is common to quote Hans Seyles’ ideas as the underpinning rational of current periodization, the acceptance of his generalized theories is far from complete. Some view his work as converting science into mere sound bites, as his expertise in experimental pathology was, apparently, matched by his excellence as a media manipulator with an eye for a story and a headline (Weissmann, 2007).
The role of stress proteins
Frequently overlooked is the growing body of work on stress proteins, heat shock proteins and stress response (Locke & Noble, 2002), that apparently inspired the infamous high intensity Bulgarian protocol designed by Abadhiev (1999). Recent advances have shown that the protective uses of heat stress proteins can be provoked during high intensity exercise (Murlasits, 2006).
Ivan Abadhiev’s Bulgarian training model is note-worthy as it flew in the face of periodization theory by constantly stressing the body and forcing it into a ‘stress response’ state with the intention of activating stress proteins. This resulted in high volume and high intensity training sessions, with frequent staged competitions.
It appears that exercise is capable of provoking a stress response; once activated, stress proteins can accumulate in certain tissues. The exact significance of increased stress proteins, and the mechanism(s) by which exercise induces them and confers protection at the cellular level, has not been determined.
Other theories on programming
Other planning ideologies that have influenced training design have included photo-periods, biorhythms and the idea that extend training is simply not needed. The design of training schedules have been pushed and pulled between theory, playing season schedules, physiological theories, resource allocation and politics (Wilson and Wilson, 2009)
Periodization, as a theory was essentially pulled together by Matveyev (1977), whose approach armed the systems with laws, and more importantly a quasi-scientific language of its own. In essence, he decided to manipulate volume and intensity as ways of over-coming fatigue. This theory has been criticized as being based on poor understanding of the methods of advanced athlete preparation, speculative assessment of theoretical concepts, limited biological knowledge and limited use of other sciences (Verhoshansky, 1998).
Siff (2003) suggests that later in his life, Matveyev had reservations about Periodization. These included the possibility that an athlete could be kept in a permanent optimal state. Siff (2003) ultimately suggests that the key could be variation. Citing theories from Vorobyev and Ermakov, the common theme is variation, not just in intensity and volume.
Variability: the new periodization?
The above does not undermine the variability of planning training regimes, but it seems that ‘variability’ may be the key to avoiding overtraining (Garhammer & Takano, 2002) rather than the malleable term periodization.
Training plans can be based on a complex training system which according to Siff (2003) involve parallel and concurrent use of different training targets. It can be argued that overtraining is brought on by repetition, whereas a multifaceted plan and schedule can be self supporting.
Whilst acknowledging this may not be optimal with highly qualified athletes with known specialist events, Plisk and Stone (2003) looked towards game theory to enhance training effectiveness for specialist athletes by planning for unpredictability.
There are numerous components of fitness to be enhanced, and for every component to be developed the plan must be self varying. The WODs and skill sessions need to regularly cover the 32 core skills.
However the skills are “strength” skills and are practised in high repetition multiples in the WODs and skill sessions in CrossFit. There is no ‘general preparation phase’ as described by Matveyev (1977), as the moves are the same throughout all phases.
CrossFit training at CrossFit London
Crossfit London plans to attempt to balance the effects of concurrent training but accepts the reduction in possible strength gains (Dolezal & Potteiger 1998) against the loss of high intensity.
Our strength sessions will be multi-joint based, and focused on a sub-set of major lifts i.e. squats, deadlifts and presses.
Within this system, there need not be long-term dedicated exclusive fitness component period blocks. As Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (2006) would put it: there will be no need for accumulation mesocycles, nor the associated transmutative mesocylces which convert fitness gains into specific athlete preparedness. To an extent our athletes will be in a permanent realizational mesocycle.
Many trainers plan solid blocks of activities per microcycle. According to Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (2006) it is quite possible to have two or three main targets per micro cycle
The selection of the one to five intensity range is clinically based and supported by many studies (Ahtianinen et al, 2005, 2004, 2003, Campos et al 2003). According to Poliquin (2008) even in the competitive phase of Bulgarian elite lifters, lifts of 90% were low volume and only 13% of total lifts. These lifts are aimed at improving neural drive without extra muscle mass.
As the nervous system takes five to six times longer to recover than the muscular system (Chiu et al 2004) the inclusion of strength session and a WOD in the same session can be quite fatiguing.
The use of multiple sets should lead to higher and faster rates of strength gains (Benson, et a.l, 2006).
Time under tension, tempo and rest intervals
An increasingly advanced approach is to look at the concept of time under tension. For relative strength, the time under tension per set should not exceed 20 seconds per set. Tempo is another critical and often overlooked variable (Abdessemed et al., 1999, Gentil, et al., 2006)
Inter- and intra- set rest intervals is rarely mentioned, but are a function of the range of motion (Willard son & Burkett, 2005) the neurological complexity of the exercise (Chiu et al., 2004), the prescribed tempo (Willard and Burkett, 2005), and the athletes training age (Kawamori and Haff, 2004).
During a competitive phase, the rest periods can shortened to increase intensity. On the shorter reps as long as the time under tension remains under 20 seconds, pausing in an advantageous isometric position can recruit high threshold motor units (Debrosses, et al., 2006).
If the athlete seems over trained or over fatigued the amount of sets are reduced, not the intensity (Chiu, et al., 2004,)
The underpinning concept is balancing optimal stress and restoration (Siff, 2003)
However to thoroughly understand our regime you will need to see the golden thread; strength gains can be enhanced in skill and WOD sessions. Contributions are made to the deadlift movement for example, by the lift itself, back extensions, good morning and a sledge drag. Many of these skills are carried out under high intensity conditions which are equally capable of improving relative strength (Zatsiorsky & Kraemer, 2006).
Ultimately all training is an experiment carried out against current good practice.
Given the nature of the competition, in particular the lack of age allowance, it is unlikely that I will be able to qualify, but over the next year, observation and recording of my reaction to training will help future planning exercises.
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The CrossFit Games workouts, 2009 Games
- a 7k trail run
- Deadlift burpee combination
- Sandbag sprint 2 x 35lb male, 1 x 35lb for women
- 500m row sledge hammer stake drive, 500m row
- 3 rounds 30 wall balls, 30 squat snatches 35kg
Final heat of:
- 15 barbell cleans, 155llb
- 30 toes to bar
- 30 box jumps
- 15 muscle ups
- 30 push presses 40kg
- 30 double unders
- 15 thrusters 135
- 30 pull ups
- 30 burpees
- 300′ 20kg Overhead walking lunges
Analysing historical work-outs, the following moves and reps can be anticipated:
- Pull ups : kipping appears as 21, 15, 9, and sets of 30, 50 and 100. L sit pull ups in 10’s
- Dips 21
- Muscle ups 30 for time
- Handstand push ups 21
- Push ups 50 an d 200
- Runs 400m
- 1k with 10kg
- Thrusters 42.5 21. 15,9
- Air squat, tabata 20. 50, 100
- Overhead squat
- Front squat
- Deadlift 100kg 21, 15, 9
- Push press,
- Push jerk
- Wall ball (10kg wall to 10ft target) 20, 30, 50 150
- Box jumps 50, 20 x 3
- Row 250, 500, 1000 2k
- Snatch 60kg x 30
- Clean 70kg
- one leg squat
- GDH sit ups 50
- GDH back extentions 50 x 3
- Hang power clean 155kg x9 reps
- Walking lunges 400m, 15 reps
- knees to elbows 40
- Rope climb 15ft x3
- Double unders 50
- Body weight bench press max
- Burpees 40, 30, 20, 10
- 16kg 50 swings
- 25kg 21 swings x 3
- 32 kgs 8 swings x 15