Welcome back.

In Part 1 we established the importance of picking a training goal before seeking out the best means to achieve it.  And as a coach, it behooves you to learn more outside your chosen methodology, just in case someone other than you has some useful information to impart.  Lastly, we were just starting to investigate Crossfit and other training programs to see if you’re truly getting everything that’s on the label.

Let’s continue exploring the idea that isolation exercises are unnecessary if you’re incorporating the same muscle groups with a compound exercise.  Another popular example given at the Crossfit Level 1 certifcation course is:  We don’t need Bicep Curls because we do Pull Ups.

Unlike the Lateral Raise and Push Press replacement, at least this substitution includes the same muscle group.  Unfortunately that’s about where the praise ends.  To fully understand why this part of the Crossfit philosophy is so flawed, we need to look at some basic anatomy.

A Look Inside

The elbow.

It flexes (think: bicep curl) and it extends (think: tricep pushdown).  It deserves its full function, range of motion, and balance.  Otherwise, you’re headed towards pain, injury, or simply suboptimal performance.  Ok, so how do you know if your elbow fits these healthy requirements?

Function.  If you can bring your hand towards and away from your face, it’s working.

Range of motion.  A “normal” elbow opens all the way to make a straight line with your arm, and closes to 145° (where your hand is about 35° away from your shoulder).

Balance.  This is where things get interesting…

Imagine I handed you two lumps of clay – a small red lump and a larger blue lump – and asked you to stick them together.  You would have a lopsided red and blue lump.  Now, each day I will give you the same amount of red and blue clay, and I want you to start shaping it into a symmetric sphere with same amount of red and blue clay on each side (like a Pokemon ball).  The only catch is, you must use all of the red clay and all of the blue clay I give you each day.

Will you ever get that symmetrically-colored sphere?  No.  Given the same amount of each color, you’ll always have a lopsided object.

See where I’m going with this yet?  If your elbow flexors are not in balance with your elbow extensors, then continuing to do more of the same movements will not magically balance them out.  You’re just going to solidify those imbalances even more.  And since some muscles that act on the elbow also act on the shoulder, you could be setting yourself up for a downstream effect of pain and/or injury somewhere else.

“I take my fish oil and do my foam rolling, so I’m not in pain and not worried about injury.”

Ok, let’s say we’re in the Land of Make-Believe, and pain or injury is not a concern for you.  How about performance?

What if your biggest sticking point in a shoulder press is the lockout?

What if your biggest sticking point in a clean or snatch is your pulling (particularly your third pull under the bar)?

What if your shoulder external rotators and scapular retractors are so weak they are limiting the amount of weight you can bench press?

THEN would you be interested in addressing the problem?

By following the philosophies taught at Crossfit certifications, you might decide that the solution to these problems would be to incorporate more of that category of movement into your training.  For example, if your pulling is weak you can just do more Pull Ups to strengthen your biceps.

I know the Crossfit certification staff does not need to be told what muscle groups are involved in a Pull Up.  But maybe they need a reminder that it is the larger stronger muscles of the torso that do most of the work.  The short and long heads of the biceps contribute minimal contraction and at certain points in the movement are only stabilizers.

So, if your biceps are already weak, guess what’s going to compensate for most or all of the work during a Pull Up?  You guessed it – the larger stronger muscles (like lats and traps).  Just like our red and blue clay analogy, we’re only building a BIGGER lopsided lump.

Zoom In and Enhance

The same is true for the lower body.  For example, one common cause of knee pathology is an imbalance between the quads and the hamstrings.  You could have a similar imbalance of knee flexors (hamstrings) and knee extensors (quads).  The thigh muscles also serve other functions, but we’ll focus on those two.

Following the compound-movement-only philosophy, the best way to strengthen either of those muscle groups would not be with isolation exercises, but with the most bang-for-your buck exercise.  The Squat.

Now, as anyone that follows fitness models on Instragram knows, squats are THE way to develop a divine derrière.  Ummm… maybe.  Yes, squats do involve the posterior chain during certain ranges of the movement.  However, most variations of bilateral squats place significantly more emphasis on the quads.  More squats, more red and blue clay.

Plus, if someone is already neuromuscularly wired to be quad-dominant, he is predisposed to signal his quads to take over most of the work.  This can be caused from years of exercise, athletics, or any movement where someone has created a stronger neural signal to the quads, leaving the hamstring twiddling their thumbs.

PLUS, consider how many other Crossfit movements are quad-dominant.  Push Press, Wall Balls, Thrusters, Double Unders, Cleans and Snatches, and more.  Don’t believe me?  Next time you’re at the box, look at everyone’s leg development.  Quads for days.  But how many hamstrings are filled out?

So, before we break for Part 3, let’s take review what we’ve gone over. I know as soon as I mentioned Crossfit, half the readers shut off because they hate it, and the other half are so fiercely loyal to it that they felt personally attacked by each paragraph.

  • I am not opposed to Crossfit.

  • It has a place in competition and in training

  • If it is your chosen activity, understand where the holes in the system are to optimize your health and performance.

In Part 3 I’m going to do the impossible.  I’m going to show you how bodybuilding plays a crucial role in Crossfit (and other sports).  Tune in next week.


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