COVID-19 shook our world, and thousands of athletes, coaches and personal trainers simultaneously flocked online and began offering at-home workouts ideas consisting of hundreds of bodyweight reps, day after day, week after week.
The result: Thousands of CrossFit athletes of all levels began posting at-home videos featuring hundreds of fatigued and sloppy squats and lunges and push-ups on repeat.
Hip impingements from 200 lunges, three times a week, anyone?
That warning comes from Dr. Sean Pastuch, a chiropractor and the founder of Active Life Rx, a company that works with 60-plus CrossFit affiliates and 1,000 coaches to help their clients improve movement patterns and eliminate pain.
“Air squats, burpees and lunges on repeat will lead to hip problems (among other ailments), and people will start finding themselves with aches and pains,” Pastuch said.
Chris Hinshaw, best known as the endurance coach who works with dozens of top CrossFit athletes, including Rich Froning, Mat Fraser, Katrin Davidstottir and Tia-Clair Toomey, agrees with Pastuch: More bodyweight reps isn’t the best approach for most.
- “I have seen a lot of that incredibly high volume stuff and I’m a little perplexed,” Hinshaw said. “Doing (high) volume can have tremendous value, but doing something like 100-plus reps of the same movement all the time gets to the point of being unnecessary and counterproductive.”
So, if you should avoid high-rep bodyweight movements completed for time for weeks on end, what should you be doing?
Understand the why and tackle weaknesses: Hinshaw said the first thing CrossFit athletes need to think about is intention.
- “People need to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and the value it’s going to provide to their overall fitness. The athlete should be asking Why? I don’t see a lot of that. People are throwing logic out the door and just doing a lot of reps,” he said.
It’s also a great time to work on weaknesses, he explained. One major weakness Hinshaw said he sees with the majority of CrossFit athletes is their ability to recover.
“For most CrossFit athletes, getting tired is their limiting factor, meaning that fatigue is the thing that prevents them from doing more work, not their strength. So they should use this time to improve this by performing lighter loads. That means they need to actually be doing more lower intensity work,” he said.
A great way to do this, Hinshaw explained, is to focus on working at a lower intensity at times you would normally rest.
- “CrossFit athletes will sprint 100 meters and then rest for three minutes. They sit around and do nothing so they can recover to go fast again,” he said.
Instead of doing this, consider jogging as a recovery.
Hinshaw’s challenge: How fast can you jog and still recover?
- “If I give you a high intensity sprint, how fast can you jog and still be able to sprint again? Is it an 8-minute mile pace or a 20-minute mile pace? Do you need to walk? Or can you recover at a 7:30 mile (pace)?”
This concept also extends to CrossFit-type of workouts, he explained. For example, thrusters.
- “How is your ability to clear fatigue?” he asked. “Can you recover by doing thrusters with a PVC pipe at a slow pace? Can you use a 15 pound bar and do thrusters? A 25 pound bar? The goal is to recover from a heavier load at a faster speed.”
The mental side of training in lockdown: Five-time CrossFit Games athlete Michele Letendre said she’s empathetic about how many CrossFit athletes are feeling right now. They’re stuck at home without equipment, unable to lift heavy and craving a good sweat, hence their desire to hit 200 air squats.
- “Right now everyone is experiencing a change that can be hard to accept, much like injury…It’s understandable because it’s fun to do all those big lifts,” said Letendre, who has worked closely with CrossFit Games podium finishers Patrick Vellner and Laura Horvath, among other Games athletes, in recent years.
- “But we tend to see what we can’t do rather than what we can.” she added.
Instead of focusing on the fact that you can’t lift heavy and substituting that with hundreds of reps at high intensity everyday, Letendre said now is the time to take a step back and work on “more boring” aspects of fitness — which will eventually translate to improved lifting, she explained.
“Patience is a virtue that you (should) currently practice…The type of training we can do right now is exactly what Games athletes call the ‘not so sexy’ part of training: Accessory (work), stability, rehab, prehab work that either help avoid injury or allows you to train through injury. That kind of stuff got me to PR all my lifts following a back injury,” she said.
Back to the basics: Invictus Fitness Coach CJ Martin explained it’s the perfect time to work on foundational things, such as structural balance, bodyweight strength, and active ranges of motion.
Structural balance: This could be an exercise like a trap-3 raise, Martin explained, which is easy to do from home, and will help improve your lifting when you head back to the gym.
- “Neural inhibition from weak stabilizers is an extremely common reason for performance deficits in core lifts. Most of these stabilizers don’t require heavy loads to train, but rather can be trained with bodyweight only, light dumbbells or household objects,” said.
Active ranges of motion: Martin recommends breaking up the day with dedicated time to mobility.
- “(It) helps keep people sane and moves them closer to their goal at the same time,” he said, adding that his gym has been offering various mobility courses online.
Foundational Bodyweight Movements: These could be as simple as a hollow hold or L-sit variation, or as challenging as press to handstands and freestanding handstand holds.
- “These movements aren’t just cool party tricks, they also build strength and range of motion necessary for more complex gymnastics skills and weightlifting,” he said.
- “In my mind, these aren’t new training goals for most athletes. They’re just subsets of things that have to be improved in order to accomplish the current, sexier goals of a 1RM clean and jerk or max effort muscle-ups,” he added.
Shift your goals, perspective, or try a new sport: Eight-time CrossFit Games athlete, affiliate owner and long-time coach Chris Spealler said it’s a good time to reassess your goals and priorities. Or, choose something you still can do, such as running, and focus hard on that one piece of fitness.
- “I know not many of us like it, but in these times there is some good opportunity to improve in this area, which may help increase your overall GPP depending on your current fitness level,” said Spealler, who became ill with COVID-19 in March and has been recovering in recent weeks.
- “(Or) choose a sport that you want to improve on, and that you have very little experience with. It gets you outside of the gym, allows you to apply your fitness, and your learning curve will be steep to start in most cases. And, it’s part of the original prescription of world-class fitness in 100 words. Use it.”
Considering he and his family’s personal battle with the illness, Spealler knows firsthand the importance of health and longevity. Hence, his overarching message to athletes is to relax and be less consumed with PRs as we ride out this time.
- “This might be a good time to adjust and focus on maintenance…I believe this season should be one where we aren’t as concerned about making huge gains in regards to performance and really focus on health and longevity due to the uncertain times,” Spealler said.
- “We have to let go of some of our preconceived ideas that if we aren’t constantly setting PRs that we aren’t improving. It’s just not true, since there are so many other metrics we can use (to measure improvements), both tangible and intangible,” he added.
Food for thought: Though most coaches agree training is different now than it was in the gym, OPEX Fitness Founder James Fitzgerald believes that as much as things have changed, if your goals are the same, then the intention of a training program doesn’t need to change, even with a lack of equipment.
“Keep the exercise as similar as you can in dose, with what you have to work with—more importantly at the same frequency, time of day and effort,” he said.
This means, we need to consider intention, modality and our individual abilities the same as we always would, he explained.
Transitioning back to the gym: “When returning to the gym, athletes need to understand the principles of progression,” Martin warns athletes of all levels.
This is true even if you have been working out hard in lockdown, he reiterated.
- “Even if you have been diligently exercising at home by running, working on bodyweight exercises and mobility, you need to observe the principles of progression when it comes to loading. You don’t want to step back in doing reps at 90 percent of your back squat if you haven’t loaded heavy in the past four to six weeks. Even if your body is healthy and willing, your central nervous system isn’t primed for that effort,” he said.
Hold back more than you want: “Finishing a training session and wanting more allows excitement for the next day. Each day, you add a bit more intensity to the effort until you feel like you can give a solid effort and still recover,” Martin added.
Hinshaw offered similar advice.
- “People will come back (to the gym) who haven’t done strength-based training in a while, and they’ll have lost strength. They will see a dramatic improvement quickly, but the problem is that lifting heavy doesn’t just create muscular fatigue. It also creates neurological fatigue. It challenges your central nervous system, too. So we have to be really careful when we come back,” he said.
To prepare your body for this, Hinshaw recommends working on some power-based movements right now.
“Simple ways of doing this are ballistic-type of movements, like low reps of weighted box jumps, broad jumps, or jumping split squats. Movements that require higher levels of force that contribute to higher levels of muscle fibers to support the demand,” he said.
Doing this will essentially prepare the central nervous system for the demands you’re about the place on it when you return to heavy lifting.
How much you might need to hold back when you return to the gym will largely depend on your fitness level going in and how long you have been away from the gym. For many, it’ll feel like they’re starting CrossFit again, Pastuch explained in this Morning Chalk Up OpEd.
- “When you first started CrossFit, you had built-in brakes in your brain. You had self-regulation in the form of signals that told you to slow down when things got really difficult,” Pastuch wrote.
- “And still, with all of that slowing down, doing workouts at half the speed and half the weight you can do them now, you were sore as hell. Now you’re going to go back to the gym without the brakes, and whether you realize it or not, without the capacity.”
Read more here for practical advice from Pastuch about making the transition from the living room to the squat rack.
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