The emergence of CrossFit into the global fitness mainstream has exposed its lift-for-sport athletes for what they really are: awesome. And one of the effects that said awesomeness has on people who are new to CrossFit is a deep, bullish desire to look like Rich Froning or Camille Leblanc-Bazinet. So out of some hard-wired or habitual leaning — some preconceived notion of what it takes to achieve a better body — converts take to simply mixing in a few thrusters or kipping pull-ups to their already prolific diet of “shaping moves” like dumbbell curls, lateral raises and dumbbell flyes. These single-joint exercises are ubiquitous on the franchise gym scene, but you’re not likely to find them done in your local box. Some CrossFitters are very vocal in their opposition to these moves for athletes; others don’t see the harm. Their actual place in the CrossFit curriculum may lie somewhere in between.
“It’s not that they don’t belong in the repertoire of an athlete,” says Andy Petranek, a former U.S. Marine and current owner of CrossFit LA (crossfitla.com). “They just need to know when to use them. In my opinion, they’re best for warm-up and for therapeutic purposes.”
One thing that new CrossFitters learn very quickly is that full-body moves are the foundation of fitness because that’s the way your body moves — not in single-joint segments but in multidimensional, multi-joint events.
“In terms of training, I try to promote that your body doesn’t think ‘muscle,’” Petranek says. “When you go to throw a ball, it doesn’t think about individual muscles. It just throws the ball and does what it needs to do to accomplish that. You may have to break a movement down into component parts in order to do something well, but training like an athlete is about moving.”
One example of a CrossFit movement that combines elements of common gym exercises is the thruster. The average person looking to improve the look of his or her legs and shoulders may do heavy volume on squats and overhead presses. But by combining the two into one fluid, dynamic exercise, the thruster kills two birds with one stone in a manner that is more consistent with real-world movement while also providing more of a metabolic challenge than doing either exercise alone. The thruster, then, is decidedly more athletic than overhead presses or squats alone. That’s not to say that you should go and combine random exercises — as a matter of practicality and efficiency, it simply doesn’t make sense. But you should train to move, Petranek says, and curls just don’t cut it.
“You don’t ever really do anything from a single joint,” he says. “You don’t do that when you write or put your pants on. You just don’t ever use just one muscle. It doesn’t make sense to me. The purpose of CrossFit — and here’s the real key — is simply to enhance functional movement.”
Still, the reduction or elimination of single-joint exercises from one’s routine can be a challenging endeavor for most CrossFit newbies, for various reasons:
I’ve Always Done It
Some guys, even those who are proficient CrossFitters from the start, will still want to cling to their curls and flyes, arguing that those moves aren’t hindering their progress. That may well be the case, but Petranek isn’t buying it. “I’ve kicked people out of my gym for doing biceps curls before,” he admits. “My question to these people is, ‘What are you training for?’ Because if it’s to become a better overall athlete or to have the type of broad-based fitness that CrossFit advocates, you’re making poor use of your time.
I Have Some Weak Muscles
Petranek admits that he will incorporate some additional shoulder work each week to bolster those small muscles against injury but is quick to reference previous injuries and decades of experience as the motivation. Others may have the same mindset, and he won’t argue. It’s when people claim they want to address “weak muscles” that he gets his coach hat on: “If you can actually pinpoint a muscle that’s a weak link, then have at it. But really, why isolate the biceps or the lateral head of the deltoid unless you have a specific neurological condition or other pre-existing condition that has brought about a weakness in a specific part of your body? If you can identify a particular weakness, that’s different. It’s very rare that that type of weakness is going to be that obvious.” In other words, if your concern is really about addressing weaknesses, it’s important to be sure that a weakness actually exists. And if “my pecs look a little flat” is how you define a weakness, then you may be choosing the wrong training protocols.
I Want To Look Better
Those who want to live dueling existences between the platform and the pec deck may be letting another factor hinder their progress: vanity. “Most of the people who go in to do bodybuilding-type training may want to do that more than CrossFit training,” Petranek says. “When you’re thinking that, you’re off. It’s all about muscle building, which is not inherently bad. I used to do quite a bit of it. But again, it goes to just what are you training for? The problem is, when people are just going and doing chest-shoulders-tri’s — it’s not a problem, it’s just not athletic. It’s not CrossFit.”
Want To Get Stronger On Big Moves
Even those who honestly just want to get better at frequently occurring CrossFit moves like deadlifts or pull-ups may take issue with the unwritten ban on single-joint moves. Biceps, for example, may be considered a limiting factor when doing pull-ups with an underhand grip. Forearms may be a limiting factor when pulling 300 pounds from the floor. Doesn’t it then make it sensible, or even advisable, to train biceps and forearms independently to snuff out weak links in the chain? Petranek challenges the motives: “If you feel that biceps are a weak component of your underhand pull-up, perhaps it’s a better solution to do more underhand pull-ups? I can’t think of a case where it’s important to do single-joint movements for primary movers. I wouldn’t ever prescribe biceps curls for someone with an underhand pull-up deficiency.”
Put simply, whether you’re wanting to be a CrossFitter or just look the part, Petranek thinks you should train for the movement, not the muscle.
From the moment it sprung onto the scene, CrossFit was at odds with traditional training. Shunning hypertrophy for hypertrophy’s sake, CrossFitters have still molded themselves into a lean, muscular population of weight-moving worldbeaters. But compound and isolation moves don’t have to be competing concepts. Instead, you should simply identify goals and train to them.
“The way CrossFit was originally designed was as a way to teach people athletic movements that could be taken back to whatever sport they participate in and use it effectively,” Petranek says. “It’s not so much about compound movements being great for CrossFit, it’s just about them being good for your body, no matter what you do. It’s normal, important, and it takes practice.”
There is, however, one other reason new CrossFit students have a tough time shaking the training practices of yesteryear: They’re easier. “You just need the desire to work hard,” Petranek counters. “It’s much easier to go to the gym to do flyes and lateral raises. It’s much harder to go to the gym and do a CrossFit workout that’s gonna lay you out afterward. But here’s the thing — you don’t have to go Rich Froning’s pace, just your pace. If you’re not willing to go the depths of your soul the way CrossFitters do every day, then bodybuilding-type training is probably better for you. Just know that you might get the physique, but it’s a façade because it’s not founded on athletic movement or solid foundational athletic movement strategy.”
Shoulders: The Exception?
Regardless of the sport or activity, the one joint that seems to give people the most trouble is the shoulder. Because it moves in so many directions and is held together by so many small muscles, the shoulder joint is just more susceptible to injury than others. Even mundane activities can trigger problems, and problems are much more likely to occur in shoulders that are less stable or that are not properly warmed up. That’s where single-joint moves come into play.
“I do a lot of single-joint moves for shoulders,” Andy Petranek says. “They’re a particularly troublesome joint because they have such a wide range of motion; they’re notoriously bad at being stable. Strengthening muscles of the rotator cuff and connective tissues, as well as warming up, is very important.”
Front delts get a lot of work from push-ups and presses, and the middle delt works pretty hard during overhead movements, but the posterior delt head is typically the weakest of the three. Still, Petranek thinks that dedicated, isolated training isn’t required for athletes. “I just don’t think it’s necessary,” he says. “Do more negatives with your pull-ups to learn how to control the weight and hit that area harder in the way it’s intended to move.”