My Engine is Bigger than Yours: Efficiency vs. Effectiveness in CrossFit

athletics CrossFit effectiveness efficiency fitness sports

This distinction comes up a lot in productivity circles. Office workers spend so much time dealing with useless, seemingly urgent e-mails that they have no time to dedicate to their actual projects. They may be very good at dealing with the e-mail, but the acceptance of the need to deal with trivialities is preventing them from being effective producers.

The concept of efficiency also comes up a lot in CrossFit athletics. Some of the movements we use are more efficient for getting a set amount of work done. A good example of this is the kipping pullup. For the purpose of getting one's chin over the bar, kipping is much more effective than simply pulling with the arms. Non-CrossFitters consider this cheating, but when the point is to get your chin over the bar as many times as possible, it is hard to argue that kipping pull-ups are the most efficient way to do it.

Furthermore, because the whole point of the sport of fitness is to be efficient, it makes sense that the efficient movement is the most effective. This bare-bones emphasis on efficiency has given CrossFit a rightly deserved reputation as the most effective program for developing well-rounded athletes.

Conditioning or Sport

However, there is another side of the equation. CrossFitters who are successful in competition do not train the most efficient movements. In fact, they go out of their way to train inefficient movements if they are smart. Why? Because inefficient movements are those that develop the strength and stamina necessary to compete. Anyone who is good at kipping pull-ups is also good at strict pull-ups. In fact, kipping pull-ups don't train strict pull-ups well at all. They are too efficient and thus don't stress the shoulders and back sufficiently to develop strength.

This isn't a huge problem though, since CrossFit, like any other sport, has its competitions and it has its training and conditioning programs. Or at least this distinction ought to be recognized. All too often, however, CrossFitters see their competitions as an extension of their training. The Sport of Fitness is supposed to be just turning a strength and conditioning program into a competitive event. Instead, CrossFit as a sport has become a completely different animal than CrossFit as a conditioning program. This raises some questions as to its effectiveness as a general conditioning program.

In general, the sport of CrossFit demands a much wider range of skills of its athletes than most other sports. Therefore, simply by training to be good at CrossFit, one would develop the fitness to be good at anything. Unfortunately, CrossFit is falling prey to some of the problems associated with any regulated sport. Because the CrossFit community selects its own standards and competitions, it can also choose what to emphasize, thus influencing training designs. If the sport drew a lot of runners, would there be more running in the competition WODs? If it drew a lot of really big lifters, would lifting become overemphasized? Simply put, does the CrossFit community select its sports criterion based on what best suits the people designing the courses? Why is a 400lb deadlift fairly common among the top levels of CrossFitters, but a free handstand is still a rarity? Much of the older CrossFit literature implies that tumbling ought to be included in workouts, but I never see tumbling assigned in a WOD, or even taught. Inefficient means of moving over ground? Parkour practitioners would disagree, and they know efficient traversing better than anyone.

Spinning Your Wheels Won't Necessarily Get You Where You're Going

All this brings us back to the question of effectiveness versus efficiency. If the whole point is effectiveness at the sport of CrossFit only, then there is no difference between efficient and effective. Set a guy in front of a bar and have him move it vertically a lot of times fast (this pretty much covers about 70% of CrossFit workouts nowadays). But if the point is effective general conditioning and fitness, some holes begin to show. A kipping pullup is great for getting your chin over the bar, but it sucks as a means of climbing a ledge, tree, or rope, all more commonly encountered climbing implements in the real world. CrossFit also lacks much movement in all but the sagital plane (up and down, flexion and extension), missing out entirely on lateral and rotational movements. This lack seriously compromises any claims to train balance and coordination, which require comfort in all direction and planes of movement by definition.

I am not suggesting that CrossFit is a waste of time, or that it is an in-effective training modality. It has been shown to improve the performance of firefighters and soldiers, as well as Olympic and professional athletes. Cleary, it effectively confers great general fitness benefits. It is also an efficient means of becoming fairly fit; most workouts take no longer than 30 minutes. CrossFit's strengths lie in the fact that it has mastered the art of getting people to increase their work capacity, to become engines of simple movements. By training the muscles and metabolism to to deal with slow heavy grinding, light quick revving, long-term chippers, and short bursts of power, it has the ability to drastically improve health and fitness in a number of ways.

But an effective car is much, much more than just an engine. It needs well coordinated tires and steering, good balance, and an intelligent driver with good reaction time, not to mention flexible shocks so that it can run for years. I worry that CrossFit has devolved into a car show in which we get together and see whose engine revs the fastest and the loudest, with less and less concern for skill or finesse. One might claim that these attributes are skill-based, not fitness or conditioning-based, but we train a lot of 'skills' already, such as Olympic lifting and kipping pull-ups (seriously if it was only about conditioning we'd just do strict pull-ups). Why is the ability to dodge around obstacles a skill while the ability to throw a 20lb ball at a 10ft target a fitness attribute? Why aren't there any obstacle courses in CrossFit WODs?

Because CrossFit training isn't about being fit. It is about being fit for CrossFit competitions. Incidentally, that will do a lot for your general fitness, but it does leave a lot of holes. So it pays to ask yourself why you're doing one movement or workout. If your goal is to be good at CrossFit, that's fine, and admirable (God knows it's difficult). If your goal is to be in significantly better than the majority of Americans, CrossFit is probably the best sport to do it with. If your goal is to develop elite levels of fitness as well as the ability to apply that fitness in real world situations than involve objects other than nicely balanced bars and flat terrain…maybe you should add some supplementary work. The great thing about CrossFit (as a strength and conditioning method) is that it is flexible enough to include new goals and to be applied towards pretty much any fitness goal.

As a devout CrossFitter, a lot of this is me thinking on developments in the community, so I'm very open to explanations or criticisms. Post to the comments.

Image Courtesy of Dain Sandoval on Flickr