In CrossFit we do a broad variety of movements and exercises, and to the uninitiated many of them feel awkward at first.
This is normal.
Throwing a punch is awkward at first too, but if you ever piss off a violent drunk in a bar you’d still better be able to do it.
One of the three pillars of CrossFit is functionality—everything we do carries over to other activities in some way.
For those wondering what applications our exercises have, I will clarify how proficiency in these various movements benefits things you would do in other sports or in real life.
Air squat—Sit down. Stand up. That’s an air squat.
Practicing this improves balance and leg strength & flexibility.
Standing from a sitting position and going up stairs become significantly easier, and
the implications for functional mobility and efficiency of movement are far-reaching.
Getting good at the air squat is also magically restorative to “bad” knees.
Pull-up/muscle-up—The utility of a pull-up should be self-evident.
It’s the only elbow flexor (“bicep”) exercise you will ever really need and is vital in any kind of climbing,
be it a fence or a rock wall.
The muscle-up—a pull-up into a dip—is extraordinarily handy.
During the Spartan Race, I get over the 9-foot wall in about five seconds by leaping up to hang from the top,
doing a muscle-up, and jumping down the other side.
Everyone that doesn’t hurdle the wall in a similar way has to scramble up awkwardly or get help.
Push-up/sit-up—I shouldn’t even have to explain how these two come up in life.
Lie on your stomach. Push yourself up. That’s one.
Now lie on your back. Sit up. That’s the other.
Jump rope/box jump/step-up—Jump rope is great for speed, coordination, agility, and cardio.
Now jump up onto something, like a bench. That’s a box jump.
Pretty useful if you have to jump onto something, ever.
If you ever encounter stairs, a step-up just might be a good thing to practice.
Lunge—Most movements in sports require a staggered stance, and anything that
trains this foot placement with a load is going to be tremendously useful.
Lunge-type movements are also great for balance, overall hip stability, and preventing left-right strength imbalances.
Handstand—Once you get into gymnastics & tumbling (beyond the realm of basic calisthenics)
the movements’ utility may become harder to visualize but it’s still there in spades.
Balancing on your hands is insanely effective at improving balance and body awareness
along with shoulder girdle and triceps strength.
If you want to beef up your pressing strength, get better at handstands.
Pistol—You need good hip strength and mobility to even attempt this, along with balance and coordination.
They’re just f’ing hard.
But if you get them down it’s really easy to get in and out of your car,
not to mention doing literally anything else with your legs.
We primarily train distances up to a mile as those are the all-around most useful.
I discuss this in more detail here.
Deadlift—You ever pick something up off the ground?
That’s a deadlift. Doing them properly builds total-body strength along with training for safe heavy lifting.
As Rippetoe puts it, having a 400# barbell deadlift makes an awkward 80# box much more manageable.
He’s right. “There is no reason to be alive if you cannot do the deadlift.”
-Jon Pall Sigmarrson, Icelandic strongman
Strict press—The single most useful upper-body exercise.
Putting a box on a high shelf is a press.
Anything held by the arms at or above the level of the shoulders becomes easier as the press gets stronger.
Push press—If you have a very heavy box to put on a high shelf, use a push press to get it up there.
Other benefits include overhead positional strength and explosive strength (a push press mimics a vertical punch);
improving your push press allows you to punch harder and throw faster.
Jerk—While it may not appear as immediately transferable as the push press,
the jerk is immensely valuable as a builder of positional strength due to the heavier weights used.
Additionally, the requirement of lightning-fast speed develops more explosiveness
for jumping, punching, and throwing than any other movement (except maybe the snatch).
Back squat—I used to think this was the single most-important total-body exercise, but I’ve changed my mind.
Back squats are primarily for overloading the legs and trunk through full hip & knee flexion.
You want stronger legs, do the back squat.
Also, as far as I’m concerned, just so we’re clear there is no back squat besides high-bar.
Low-bar squat is useless for anyone who isn’t a geared powerlifter.
Learned this one the hard way.
Literally everyone who isn’t a powerlifter agrees with me.
End of discussion.
Kettlebell swing—Bridges the gap between deadlift and clean; the swing teaches you how to stabilize your spine while dynamically producing force from the pelvic musculature.
This is another “if you could only have one movement…” contender because it works so much of the body with a relatively light load in an athletic manner.
I’m referring to the Russian variant, of course; the “American” swing (let’s be real, it’s the CrossFit swing)
is useful for competition and overall work capacity, but it’s far inferior for strength development.
Use the Russian swing for strength with a heavier KB, and the CrossFit swing for cardio with a lighter one.
(Or learn the one-handed KB snatch. The CF swing is just a two-handed KB snatch anyway.)
Clean—Besides being the only safe & effective way to get something really heavy
from the ground to shoulder height, the clean is a wonderful developer of explosive leg and upper back strength.
It’s also lots of fun if you’re like me and enjoy throwing heavy shit around.
Front squat—Imparts all the benefits of the air squat, along with the added distinction of being the weighted squat variant most likely to see use in real life due to the unbelievable functionality of the clean.
I have used the front squat with odd objects many times, both from the ground (essentially a sumo deadlift)
and at shoulder level.
Snatch—Develops overall athleticism and badassitude.
If you can snatch over your bodyweight we can infer that you have a solid strength-to-weight ratio
along with good mobility and body awareness.
Snatches are the most fun/rewarding/fucktacularly frustrating lift in existence.
These exercises were omitted due to being combinations or variants of others previously listed:
Burpee, thruster/wall ball, power variants of Olympic lifts, chin-up, dip, barbell complexes
Another group of exercises was omitted since their main use is in building positional strength for other movements rather than direct real-life application:
Back/hip extension—improves low-back strength for the deadlift and back squat,
along with dynamic stretching for the hamstrings
GHD sit-up—improves ab strength for all movements through the trunk’s maximum ROM
Bench press—chest/triceps strength for horizontal pushing movements
L-sit—improves core and hip flexor strength for higher-level gymnastics
Hollow rock—strengthens the hollow position used in pretty much any gymnastics movement you can think of
Barbell/dumbbell row—technically makes you better at starting a lawnmower, but we use it more to train scapular depression and retraction.
We can also include the rowing machine here since it’s essentially the same movement.
Curl—Ah yes, the ultimate “bro” lift.
Before you get out your pitchforks, have you ever had to carry a heavy box?
What angle were your elbows at? Looks an awful lot like the midpoint of a curl, doesn’t it?
The thing is, you can do a whole bunch of stuff that gets you better at curls without actually having to do curls,
like rows, chin-ups, rope climbs, muscle-ups, and cleans.
But if you intend on participating in a 1RM strict curl contest, go nuts–just don’t kid yourself into
thinking that they’re more important than the other more-useful pulling movements.
And stay the hell out of the squat rack unless you’re alone.
You probably should be alone when you’re curling anyway unless you’re doing twelve-ounce beer curls.
And now, to discuss the bench press:
Note that it has been relegated to a minor role of strengthening the chest and triceps for pushing movements,
namely the push-up and the dip (it’s also sport-specific for football linemen).
This is because, while it serves that function marvelously and is definitely worth doing for that reason,
the bench press really isn’t good for much else.
Yes, it does help somewhat in the range of motion of a punch or throw, but
not to nearly the same degree as the jerk or snatch.
Remember, power comes from the legs.
You may argue that building the triceps on the bench helps the positional strength in the overhead position,
and you’d be partly right, but overhead stability comes more from the shoulder complex
and abdominal midline stabilization than from the triceps.
In the lockout range of the press/push press/jerk, the triceps are in a position of very high mechanical advantage
and are seldom a limiting factor; people who have trouble in overhead lockout range invariably have near-nonexistent traps.
This is why there are men who can bench press 400 but can’t put up half of that with a strict press
since they neglect their traps and abs; a more balanced ratio would be 1.5-to-1 bench-to-strict.
If I want to know how strong you are in a general, useful sense, I do not care what you can bench press.
I’ll ask what you can clean & jerk.
So as you can see there are three main categories of CrossFit movements.
Tier 1: Necessary for life.
We train more than anything else these couple dozen core movements that are directly applicable to life, sport, and combat.
Tier 2: Useful and somewhat functional.
These pieces and hodgepodges of the core movements are a bit less frequently trained, used for more specific purposes like conditioning or power development.
Tier 3: Useful though technically not very functional.
Some are done regularly as assistance exercises, others for strength building.
While extremely valuable aids for the core movements, these pretty much never come up by themselves in real life.
I could add a fourth tier comprised of not-functional, not-useful movements like single-joint isolation exercises and pretty much anything done on a contrived machine through an artificial range-of-motion,
but we don’t do any of those.
That’s what makes CrossFit (and any other program that uses the same principles) awesome—I won’t waste your time with stupid crap that doesn’t work in immediately tangible ways with a high degree of time economy.
Now, why do we bother using rings?
Rings force you to develop balance and awareness on your hands, both of which
carry over to added strength and efficiency in the barbell exercises.
Honestly, the fact that rings make everything harder is important in and of itself.
Due to a lovely phenomenon called the neuroendocrine response, when your brain has to work harder through an application of productive force, more wonderful things like HGH, IGF-1, and testosterone get released to your muscles to recover from whatever it was you did.
This is why back squats are unbelievably more effective than leg presses.
Translation: Doing exercises on rings makes you stronger than doing those same exercises on the floor or on parallel bars.
Well, I hope this cleared up any misconception about the functionality of what we do in the gym.
If CrossFit didn’t work as well as it did there’s no way I’d have stuck to it religiously for all these years,
including an extended period where 90% of the time I completely lacked access to equipment.
Yes, it actually is that useful.
Yes, I can actually think of examples where I’ve used every single tier 1 and almost every tier 2 CrossFit movement in sports or in daily life.