The Evolution of Equipment in CrossFit
Since the beginning of sports, equipment has constantly evolved to help athletes win. Companies and inventors are always looking for ways to create gear that is worn by athletes to be more comfortable, prevent injury, and improve biomechanical efficiency to increase speed and power.
The CrossFit Games began in 2007, and in this short amount of time, we have already seen many changes in the gear used by competitors. This evolution of CrossFit equipment has moved quickly, as there have been many opportunities to innovate and a steep learning curve, due to the infancy of the sport.
But, now we are entering a new era. The equipment is becoming more sophisticated as more money is entering the arena, and companies are dialing in on the minutiae of what improves performance specifically for CrossFit.
Each year, the CrossFit Games Competition Rulebook releases rules governing equipment to ensure fair competition. However, in the last few years, there seems to have been more attention to “technology doping,” which refers to using sporting equipment to gain a competitive advantage. In the 2023 CrossFit Games, the two pieces of equipment in the crosshairs were belts and grips.
Looking back at the history of equipment in CrossFit, we can gain a better understanding of where certain advances could possibly be headed.
Flashback: If you have done CrossFit for a while now, you will remember that Chuck Taylors, aka Chucks, were the first shoes that many adopted for training (circa 2010). With a flat, low-profile sole, Chucks were one of the most reliable shoes on the market for lifting and running.
Then came the Reebok CrossFit partnership, which resulted in the Reebok Nano, the first shoe specifically designed for CrossFit. The Nanos were the first to feature technology that would help with stability, comfort, and durability, such as a wider toe box, a breathable abrasion-resistant upper construction, and a sole that can stand up to rope climbs.
In 2015, Nike entered the CrossFit scene with the Metcons, further expanding upon durability, stability, and breathability technologies, and eventually building in Hyperlift inserts to raise the heels for easier squat mobility.
Jump ropes have also evolved to meet the demands of the sport. In 2009, RX Smart Gear created the first jump rope in the world to be offered in custom sizing based on height, as well as four different cable weights from 1oz. up to 4oz. based on the stimulus the athlete wanted. The ropes allowed athletes to perform double-unders with increased speed and efficiency.
But the biggest evolution of any piece of equipment in the CrossFit space could arguably be gymnastics grips.
Adapted from dowel grips used in artistic gymnastics, grips have gone through numerous significant design changes and material offerings. Like shoes, there were no grip offerings that were specifically designed to meet the demands of CrossFit. Athletes first used gymnastics grips made of cheap leather that were intended for kids in beginner gymnastics.
Then, there were grips made of athletic tape. Remember Natural Grip? These grips did not hold up, nor could they properly protect the hands of adult athletes doing kipping pull-ups and muscle-ups at high volume.
Enter Victory Grips: Within the last decade, several companies have come on the scene and started making grips designed for adult athletes that are more protective, durable, and better performing. Synthetic materials began to overtake leather for grips because they were found to be more durable and grip bars better. The most significant innovation in grips came from Victory Grips, which used a rubber polymer called Hypalon or CSM.
What makes this innovation so significant is the tunability of rubber polymers. Rubber can be adjusted to create variations in abrasion resistance and coefficient of friction (COF), which is basically how grippy a material is on a bar.
But how grippy should grips be for CrossFit competition?
The CrossFit Games Rule Book addresses technology doping stating,
- “In general, support gear that improves safety and/or comfort but does not confer advantage is allowed…Athletes may not use protective gear in a manner that provides additional grip assistance or weight support, e.g., wrapping a gymnastics grip around the bar for deadlifts or pull-ups.”
Limitations are set on various pieces of personal equipment, including belts, wraps, swimsuits, adhesives, shoes, and hand protection, amongst others. However, there is some gray area mostly with shoes and gymnastics grips. Will athletes start using shoes with bouncier foam and carbon fiber plates like the Nike Vaporfly shoes that Eliud Kipchoge used to run a sub-two-hour marathon with a 4:37 per mile pace? Should gymnastics grips be allowed in competition if they’re made of rubber polymers that greatly increase grip efficiency?
In speaking with Victory Grips owner and founder Victor Pellegrino, he shared his perspective on the matter.
- “I believe personal equipment, in general, should help an athlete perform their sport with safety, comfort, and at the best of their natural ability. An athlete’s gear used in competition should simply exploit the physiological gains or adaptations that an athlete has worked for. The gear should also mitigate environmental factors that could cause injury or otherwise hinder an athlete’s natural physiology,” Pellegrino said.
- “Gear should not alter an athlete’s physiology, bringing about increases in performance that are not natural, especially in the moment of competition. Nor should it substitute or override natural physiology,” Pellegrino continued.
Pellegrino acknowledged that there may be some gray area here, but that is where common sense and logic should come into play. In his opinion, nothing should be allowed that is grossly enhancing performance to the point of being ridiculous. It is a company’s responsibility to keep pushing the envelope through innovation to improve an athlete’s performance. He feels that it is better to go too far than not go far enough. The sports governing body’s responsibility is to ensure a fair playing field.
The bottom line: As with so many other pieces of equipment used by elite athletes, innovation, improvements, and changes are constantly being made. New iterations are being released, and it seems that each year brings about a different version of a familiar product.
Pellegrino explains that experimentation with rubber polymers for grips is now being done frequently by companies within the space. Speaking on behalf of Victory Grips, he shares that they are starting to see and understand both pros and cons.
- “Rubber that tends to be very grippy wears out quicker and becomes slippery in the presence of chalk and sweat. You can’t always control your environment, especially in competition,” Pellegrino said.
Pellegrino: “I am constantly looking for ways to improve our grips in both materials and design. Design-wise, I feel that grips are not durable and comfortable enough. I have put a lot of effort into addressing this issue. In 2024 you are going to see some significant innovations in both materials and design from Victory Grips.”