From The Gym to The Box

What bodybuilders, powerlifters and weightlifters should expect when crossing into CrossFit.
By Bob LeFavi, Ph.D., CSCS, USAW ,

This is an exciting time in fitness.

The entire fitness industry seems to adapt and change to a new way of thinking just when the ideas of the previous trend have moved beyond maturity. The running boom of the 1970s gave way to the “aerobics” explosion, which then morphed into a gym industry capitalizing on an interest in bodybuilding. In the ensuing years, a more generalized and broad-based appreciation for fitness resulted in the development of large, multidimensional fitness centers.

Now, with the advent of functional fitness, we have a return to “fun,” a sense of community and practical training. And don’t miss that word, advent; it literally means “the coming of something important.”

Functional fitness as an industry and CrossFit as a business are at the forefront of a trend whose immensity we are only just beginning to grasp. And because we are experiencing the inception of something highly popular, that means people are coming to CrossFit from something else. That something else could be a local gym, running, a particular sport or even the couch, but we’re willing to bet that most new CrossFitters come from a local gym. What were they doing at that gym? Probably one of the “big three” weight-training sports — bodybuilding, powerlifting or weightlifting. While there are athletes who program their training to be successful at some combination of the big three, the vast majority have goals focused on only one.

The point is that there will be a transition period for these athletes, meaning their new CrossFit training regimen and experience will be different from what they are used to. And because the positive adaptations they experienced from their training have been specific to whatever training stress they were engaged in before, they have become proficient in some aspects of human performance but are perhaps not so good at others.

So what assets do bodybuilders, powerlifters and weightlifters bring with them to the box, respectively? And what areas of performance will they find challenging? Read on for an analysis of the biggest single advantage and disadvantage these former gym-goers bring with them to functional fitness.

The Bodybuilder

A bodybuilder is an athlete whose goals are to maximize skeletal-muscle mass and minimize subcutaneous body fat to achieve optimal size and proportion of musculature. When bodybuilders transition to CrossFit, the single biggest advantage they have is lactate tolerance. That is, they have developed an efficient system to circulate out waste products produced by repeated muscle contraction that would otherwise sabotage their ability to continue exercising at high intensity.

Bodybuilders continually push the lactate threshold. In doing so, they have become accustomed to pain — during the workout and the next day (in the form of DOMS: delayed onset muscle soreness). This capacity serves them well in high-repetition WODs, where they often feel at home.

But the chief problem bodybuilders face in the box is range of motion (or mobility). ROM is affected by seven factors: joint structure, gender, age, connective tissue, activity level, training with limited ROM and muscle bulk. It’s the latter two factors that create problems for bodybuilders.

Muscle mass limits ROM particularly in the upper arm and shoulder such that many common CrossFit movements are negatively affected. Chief among these is the clean (specifically the “catch” portion) and the thruster (specifically the front squat or “rack” position).

Further, bodybuilders often train in limited ranges of motion to accentuate muscle contraction and minimize the brief relaxation of the muscle that can occur at the beginning and end of a completely full repetition. These two factors together negatively affect ROM in some joints, the most obvious of which is the shoulder. Most commonly, the problems center around external rotation at the shoulder and shoulder flexion.

One way to evaluate whether shoulder external rotation, rarely performed in bodybuilding, is a limiting factor is to have the bodybuilder place his elbow at his side, bending it 90 degrees with his forearm pointed straight in front of his body (called the “neutral position”). Ask him to swing his forearm away from his body as if he is opening a cabinet door to the widest point that the forearm can move laterally. The range of movement from the neutral position to the final position is the degree of external rotation.

An athlete who cannot achieve 90 degrees of rotation should perform external rotation mobility exercises as long as there is no contraindication to do so (surgery that limits movement, etc.). Otherwise, the bar will never sit correctly on the clavicle during the clean or thruster and the athlete will constantly be pulled forward in those and similar movements.

Shoulder mobility exercises also will help a bodybuilder become more proficient in shoulder flexion (arm overhead) exercises. Bodybuilders do not press overhead as much as CrossFitters do, and even when they do, bodybuilders do not usually take a wide grip. So the final position in the snatch can give them difficulty, and they often struggle to maintain position in the overhead squat. The good news is that ROM can be improved and that any disadvantage can be erased with mobility training regardless of muscle mass or previous training limitations.

The Powerlifter

Powerlifters’ goal is simple: to move as much weight as possible in three lifts: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. Powerlifters have a tremendous advantage transitioning into CrossFit. Not only are they strong and have a solid core, but their strength also transfers well because those basic movements are the foundation for so many CrossFit exercises.

The bottom line is that if an athlete comes into a box able to squat, pull and push a lot of weight, he or she will have a leg up on everyone else. Is there a single WOD that does not require one or more of those basic movements? Clearly, the powerlifter has the foundation of a successful CrossFitter.

But the disadvantage of a (classically trained) powerlifter is also clear: speed of movement. Powerlifters train with slow speed because athletes generate more force concentrically (i.e., on muscle-shortening

actions) with slower movement speeds. It can take a powerlifter 10 full seconds to complete a heavy deadlift. It may seem as if the bar is barely moving, but that doesn’t matter as long as the bar eventually comes up.

CrossFit WODs are much different. They should be seen as athletic events, and the vast majority of athletic events require a high “rate of force development” — the speed at which a muscle or muscle group can apply maximal force in a movement. As one might imagine, the earlier maximal force is developed in the movement the better.

Here’s what’s important to know: Studies show that while heavy-resistance–trained athletes (i.e., powerlifters) may be able to produce higher levels of absolute force in a movement, those athletes who train explosively and with high speed generate more force earlier in the movement. And that’s what counts in athletic events. In most functional movements, force is applied very briefly — often for 0.1 to 0.2 seconds. Therefore, the fact that a powerlifter can ultimately generate more force at 0.6 to 0.8 seconds becomes moot.

But there is good news. Ballistic, explosive and high-speed training actually does change the muscles’ ability to produce greater force earlier. The powerlifter simply has to train that way (enter plyometrics). And if he or she is able to make that mental and physiological shift to explosive training, the sky’s the limit for the CrossFitting former powerlifter.

The Weightlifter

he goal of a weightlifter is to maximize the total amount of weight lifted in two specific lifts: the clean-and-jerk and the snatch. (Remember, “weight lifting” as two words refers to the general activity of exercising with resistance, whereas “weightlifting” as one word refers to the Olympic sport.)

Right away, the advantage a weightlifter has in CrossFit is clear: These lifts are standard and commonplace in functional-fitness movements. Weightlifters are able to avoid one of the most frustrating experiences of a neophyte CrossFitter — learning the highly technical Olympic lifts. This means that there is essentially no learning curve on many WODs, including “Grace” or “Randy.”

Yet, more than that, the weightlifter brings with him or her an appreciation of two elements critical to CrossFit success: (a) the importance of power, and (b) the necessity of developing and maintaining good technique. These two elements are part of the landscape of weightlifting, and no athlete really succeeds in that sport or in CrossFit without them.

The chief disadvantage the weightlifter experiences is one of “repetition volume,” defined as the total number of repetitions performed in the entire training session. In other words, weightlifters are simply not used to high-repetition sets. In fact, that’s an understatement. If we want to be strictly accurate about it, we should say that in their normal training, weightlifters never perform sets of more than eight reps. Ever. (One reason for that is the common belief among weightlifting coaches that technique in these lifts begins to break down at about five to six consecutive reps.)

Moreover, because they deal with highly technical movements and train with fairly heavy loads and keep rep ranges low, weightlifters take a good deal of time between sets. Therefore, what they have not developed is the capacity for repeated muscle contractions over a long WOD.

Is this disadvantage physiologically a function of lactate intolerance, low muscle endurance or an untrained cardiovascular system that is taxed replenishing energy stores? All of the above. The good news is that all these factors can be improved with endurance training. It takes effort (a commitment to taking on the mentality of an endurance athlete), focus, good programming and time, but not nearly as much time as it takes to learn the Olympic lifts in the first place.

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