The Specialists

CrossFit Specialty Courses delve deep into the heart of CrossFit.
By Michael Myser ,

From left to right: Jeff Tucker (Photo Courtesy of CrossFit Media), Tony Blauer (Photo by Rick Hustead), John Welbourn (Photo by Getty Images), Greg Amundson (Photo Courtesy of CrossFit Amundson)

CrossFit programming focuses on general physical preparedness and the famed “unknown and unknowable” — from the physical demands of a police officer chasing down a suspect to the weekend shopper carrying groceries to his car. But if you’ve spent any time at a CrossFit box or in a garage gym, you know it’s critical to be prepared for certain specific movements. To assist its practitioners in executing some of the more complicated and difficult movements inherent to the sport, CrossFit has spawned a range of specialists and courses that dial in to a particular set of skills. Where CrossFit training focuses on a broad range of movements and abilities, CrossFit specialists focus intently on one single aspect, with the goal of refining performance — or just applying similar movements to another sport or pursuit.

Across the board, the specialties are either a core tenet or natural extension of the CrossFit ideal. “If you’re not Olympic lifting, doing gymnastics or don’t know how to swing a kettlebell, you’re not doing CrossFit,” says Jeff Tucker, who leads CrossFit’s gymnastics seminars. “The beauty of this methodology is that we’re combining all these things.”

The Specialty Courses contribute in-depth lessons to the CrossFit knowledge base and give boxes and athletes a myriad of fresh training ideas. To get more in depth with any of these skills, you can attend the seminars yourself at affiliates across the country or tell your coaches you want to learn more. It’s time to get specialized.

CrossFit in Translation

Gymnastics and bodyweight movements are of course central to CrossFit, which intrigued former gymnast Jeff Tucker in 2006, when he added CrossFit to the offerings at his own gym, GSX CrossFit in Fort Worth, Texas. The gym hosted a Level-1 seminar at which Tucker taught the training staff how to perform back tucks. He was soon invited to join CrossFit as a subject-matter expert, and by 2008, he was leading gymnastics courses.

While Tucker says he “can’t certify anyone to be a gymnastics coach in 16 hours,” at the CrossFit Gymnastics Course, he has taught nearly 50,000 individuals the basics of gymnastics movement, how to develop the required strength to perform exercises like the handstand push-up or muscle-up, and how to properly scale and spot these movements as athletes progress.

Moreover, the body awareness and control and the basic gymnastics positioning found in these courses transfers directly to many of the weighted movements found in CrossFit WODs, like thrusters and cleans. “If I can teach you good habits, form development and these basics, you’ll be able to advance along very quickly,” Tucker says.

Kettlebell usage has a similar capacity to transfer skills throughout the fitness spectrum. While today they are a well-known and popular additions to many programs, including CrossFit, in 2000, when Jeff Martone says he was one of the first instructors certified by Pavel Tsatsouline (the Russian credited with bringing kettlebells to the United States), Martone had to forge his own kettlebells.

Since 2006, it’s been a bit easier, particularly for CrossFit athletes and trainers signing on to Martone’s hands-on course, which drills down into 20 specific kettlebell exercises. From well-known kettlebell swings and Turkish get-ups to tricky hand-switch swings and double-kettlebell cleans, Martone walks participants through the techniques and progressions to learn and teach these movements.

“I want to take someone who’s a novice and demonstrate how to get them to an expert level as quickly as possible,” Martone says. Trainers, in particular, will learn about the common errors inherent to kettlebell movements, the coaching cues and techniques to spot and correct them, as well as ideal ways to incorporate kettlebells into WODs. It’s also a good way to get new CrossFit members, or those with limited flexibility and lingering injuries, performing Olympic lifts and other typical movements quickly. By learning proper hip extension and timing while using core-to-extremity exercises, beginners and experts alike can translate those skills throughout the CrossFit skill set. “It builds strength, flexibility and mobility at the same time, so this is very synergistic,” says Martone, who is also the author of Kettlebell Rx: The Complete Guide for Athletes and Coaches and a forthcoming book of WODs for CrossFit and kettlebell sports.

Quick Defense

While CrossFit is rooted deeply in functional fitness, focusing on movements that can and will be applied to daily life, it’s not every day that you’ll need to defend yourself. But just to be safe, the CrossFit Defense Course aims to impart “functional fighting,” in which basic ingrained, as well as CrossFit, movements can be applied to self-defense.

Tony Blauer, CEO of Blauer Tactical Systems Inc., who leads the course, realized in 2005 there were similarities between the defense training he had been honing since 1979 and CrossFit’s methodology and intensity. Today, his course helps prepare attendees for sudden aggressive surprise attacks using a combination of CrossFit’s movements, some of which mimic self-defense moves, and the body’s natural inclination and ability to defend itself in dire situations. “Athletically, our training system is really about functional movement, just like CrossFit,” Blauer says. For example, CrossFit’s knees-to-elbows or squats lead to knee strikes, while split-jerk footwork mirrors Blauer’s combat stance, and medicine-ball drills are used for perfecting fighting techniques. “I want athletes to recognize how CrossFit has predisposed them to be effective in a fight, and that pure straightforward self-protection can be learned very quickly,” Blauer says.

While Blauer models CrossFit movements for defense, other specialists instead tailor their CrossFit courses to particular sports, honing the GPP, or broad-range physical capacity you can build with the typical CrossFit programming, to a specific set of requirements.

John Welbourn knows exactly those requirements as a retired offensive tackle who spent nine years in the NFL, logging more than 100 starts. He competed in the 2008 CrossFit Games shortly after his NFL retirement, founding CrossFit Football that same year on a suggestion from coach Greg Glassman.

“[CrossFit] does a great job educating coaches with how to prepare folks for the unknown and unknowable and get them fit,” Welbourn says. “But when I played in the NFL, we spent week after week preparing for the known variables between teams. That didn’t stop when it came to our training.”

With that in mind, his CrossFit Football Course delivers a framework for sports-specific training, with a focus on skills, drills and WODs designed to match the particular demands an athlete will see on the field of play. That means making a player more powerful, faster and stronger in-game and then getting the athlete to repeat that performance over and over. And Welbourn points out that despite his specialty’s name, female athletes shouldn’t shy away, because they often perform particularly well.

During the course, athletes and coaches perform and analyze strength lifts, including the deadlift, squat and bench, Olympic lifts, and conditioning centered on sprinting and agility drills. And if that sounds familiar, CrossFit Football in fact builds on much of the CrossFit framework, including nutrition, generalized strength and conditioning, Olympic and strength lifts, and gymnastics. But the goals of CrossFit and CrossFit Football are different. CrossFit Football programming is aimed at on-the-field performance rather than simply putting bigger numbers or shrinking “Fran” times on the whiteboard. “If all you know is GPP, then you need to add tools to your toolbox when building a power athlete,” Welbourn says. “That’s where we come in.”

Head Games

Not all CrossFit’s specialties rely on physical prowess, however. Perhaps the most interesting of those is the CrossFit Goal-Setting Course, created by CrossFit’s “original firebreather” Greg Amundson, who got his start with Glassman in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2001. When Glassman put him through a straightforward WOD: 1,000-meter row, 21 kettlebell swings, 12 pull-ups — like many after him, Amundson was instantly hooked. Stemming from an article he wrote for the CrossFit Journal in 2010, “Coaching the Mental Side of CrossFit,” his course is far from its straightforward title, though it does provide a guide, tangible ideas and even progressions for setting goals in the CrossFit gym. More important, it covers the “intangible” parts of CrossFit.

“Although there are awesome physical accomplishments every day in CrossFit,” Amundson says, “the real value of the program is going to be your mental and emotional development.”

Specifically, Amundson guides attendees through leadership skills development, mental imagery to achieve goals and “positive self-talk,” in which how you talk and position your words can impact how well you, or in the case of a trainer, your athletes perform. He focuses attendees on the positive side of language, training them to speak about what they want, not what they lack. For example, instead of using the popular CrossFit jargon “unbroken,” you would instead use the word “consecutive” to describe how you hope to perform a set of pull-ups.

If it sounds a bit New Agey, Amundson insists it has ties to the Bible’s and history’s great teachers and healers, and he offers this modern-day CrossFit anecdote: Last year, Amundson was consulting with a CrossFit Games athlete who told him he wanted to do a free-standing handstand push-up “without falling over.” Instead, he told the athlete that what he really wanted to do was a handstand push-up “while maintaining your balance.” Within 24 hours, the athlete was successful.

Amundson says CrossFitters often train and eat correctly but simply give themselves the wrong mental cues. Additionally, he’s giving CrossFit athletes a way to translate their accomplishments and developments in the gym to their everyday lives. “The workout will last 20 minutes at the most, but there are 23 hours left in your life that day,” Amundson says. “The gym becomes a microcosm for what’s achievable in an athlete’s life.” 

Other Specialties

Not finding what you need to improve — or are interested in focusing on — among the above? Here are some other CrossFit Specialty Courses available to you.

CrossFit Movement and Mobility

Treat, diagnose and improve poor movement and range of motion.

CrossFit Olympic Lifting

Tackle two days of intensive training on the snatch and the clean-and-jerk.

CrossFit Rowing

Learn technique and how to better coach efficient rowing from former and current Olympians.

CrossFit Striking

Learn proper fighting technique and how to incorporate striking into a CrossFit program.

CrossFit Strongman

Apply strongman’s odd-object approach to lifting to the CrossFit paradigm.

CrossFit Endurance

Learn the programming to run, swim and bike by training shorter distances with CrossFit.

CrossFit Powerlifting

Use the powerlifts — squat, bench and deadlift — to improve strength and performance.

Loading ...