As a beginner how should you best approach an exercise program (CrossFit or similar), that involves a lot of technical movements involving the whole body and require competency in areas such as strength, stability and mobility, to minimize risk of injury and maximize results towards your goals?
BEGINNERS GUIDE TO CROSSFIT: STAGE 1. MECHANICS
Focus on movement patterns (how you move) and mobility (the ability to express full range of motion in the joints)
When first starting CrossFit, your main focus should be on learning correct movement patterns
(how best to move during an exercise to stay safe and to maximize efficiency). In this stage you should keep loads light and movements slow and controlled to learn the correct movement patterns regardless of how strong you are. Each of us moves differently so there will be variances in how each of us performs the same exercise so this should be factored in by coaches and by individuals.
When learning exercises, establish what the correct movement patterns are and try to replicate that movement pattern with light loads and slow, controlled movement. You may find that your joint mobility does not allow you to achieve optimal positions, therefore you should identify what mobility work, specific to your movement restrictions, you need to perform to allow you to achieve the correct movement patterns. Your instructor should be able to help with all of this. Find one that does!
You may have the joint MOBILITY and the POTENTIAL to perform the exercises with good form, however you also need joint STABILITY to perform the correct movement patterning for that exercise. For example, If you have excellent hip mobility but lack ankle mobility, performing the squat may cause your hip to rotate anteriorly (forwards) to achieve depth in the squat which puts additional strain on your lower back and diminishes transfer of power from the glutes and hamstrings into the drive upwards. Your coach should be able to help you with specific mobility exercises and specific stability exercises to help you work the correct muscle groups during an exercise.
In a CrossFit Box, I recommend the following:
Learn the correct movement pattern for a particular exercise by listening to what your instructor recommends
Try to perform the exercise with the correct movement pattern during practice time
With the help of a coach, identify any mobility or stability issues and what specific work needs to be done (this should be tailored to you)
Work on your mobility plan every day to address your specific mobility and stability issues.
Use light loads and slow, controlled movement to re-train your body to achieve the correct movement pattern once mobility/stability issues have been addressed. This will help prepare you for the larger loads and faster movements (Snatch, Clean and Jerk, Muscle up etc).
Work the fundamentals and work them well – Get the basics right first and do them to your best ability before attempting the more complex movements like the Olympic lifts and complex gymnastics movements.
Go slow and controlled in a timed workout too – Just focusing on holding your body in the right positions is hard work and will work your strength and cardiovascular fitness too.
When your coach tells you to slow down or scale back the workout, they’re basically telling you that they care about your safety and you should too!
BEGINNERS GUIDE TO CROSSFIT: STAGE 2 – CONSISTENCY
Once you’ve learnt correct movement mechanics for exercises, then you should focus on being consistent with those movement patterns. During workouts and skill work, keep the loads light and move slow with full control so that you can complete multiple repititions with the same patterning. Each rep should look the same. This will help make that particular movement pattern a natural movement without you having to think about it.
Think of the workouts or Workout Of the Day as a test to your ability to maintain the safest and most efficient movement pattern whilst being challenged metabolically (when your lungs and heart are working really hard and you’re out of breath). Holding the correct body shape during exercises is safe but also the most efficient and effective way to help you get strong and fit.
BEGINNERS GUIDE TO CROSSFIT: STAGE 2 – INTENSITY
By this stage you’ll have learnt the correct movement’s patterns, developed the mobility and stability to move well and be able move well without thinking about it too much. Stage three is the time to progressively increase the loading and speed of movement (intensity) with guidance from your instructor. Now you can speed up the reps during workouts and start taking larger loads to help you get fitter and stronger. If you find that your form is breaking down, then reduce the load or speed of movement and/or have a rest.
Most people use CrossFit as a means of exercise, therefore you should NOT be too concerned about your score on the board. A high score does NOT tell you how well the exercises were performed. In classes your focus should be on good movement mechanics to ensure you stay safe and progress towards your goals faster. If you’re competing then the score on the board is an important factor, however you should still focus on maintaining form during classes as you’ll soon know about it if you let form totally slip at the expense of poor reps for a better score.
THE TAKE-AWAY MESSAGE – Focus on good movement mechanics first before taking larger loads and moving faster. Aim for 80% of your reps during a workout to be near perfect. You want to see results as well as stay safe therefore, don’t put your body on the line every session at a CrossFit gym for the sake of an extra few reps on the board.
My thoughts on Olympic lifting in WODs – Great if you can maintain form for reps with loads. Keep it out of workouts if you’re still new to Olympic lifting. There are safer alternatives and should only be used once you’ve been through mechanics and should only be used once you’ve been through the mechanics and consistency stages.