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How to focus your progress

Once you get into training in the gym, especially CrossFit®️, the list of things to master seems almost endless. You want to run faster, jump higher, lift more, master gymnastics all while improving your flexibility. The best bit? When you're new to this style of training, you'll get what seem like limitless "newbie" gains almost across the board. This phenomenon usually lasts about 3-6 months and is great for motivation and consistency.

But what about when this seemingly free progress falters, and there are still many, many things on your list? Do you need to choose just one or two things to improve? Can you improve everything at once? The relationships between different physiological and neurological qualities is complex, and training them simultaneously can be a bit of a minefield, so I've outlined some critical points to consider, and some pitfalls to avoid.

Gaining strength while losing weight. This is one of the most common desires of gym-goers in general. Unfortunately, it can be really difficult, if not impossible to achieve. If you have a lot of excess body fat to lose, and you haven't been strength training for that long, then this is possible, however with less fat and/or more strength training behind you, this becomes increasingly difficult. This is why the preferred method of many lifters is to gain a little weight and strength, then cut weight and hold on to as much strength as possible. The idea is that with each repetition of the cycle, your base strength moves up so that in time you still get stronger. Depending where you sit along the body fat and training age continuums, will dictate how much this will effect your goals.

Maintaining strength while increasing aerobic fitness. This is definitely more of a myth, and several high profile athletes exist at odds with the assertion that you can't maintain, or even increase strength, while working on aerobic fitness. The original myth appears to stem from the thinking that only running will improve aerobic fitness, although largely due to the evolution of CrossFit®️ as a sport, we know that even running can improve while strength is maintained or gained, and that the problem appears to have been running volume. It may also be the case that until recent years, those who ran only lifted weights as an accompaniment, and didn't push to actually increase strength. Key considerations are separation of strength training and running, maintaining flexibility, and focusing on intensity when running, rather than great distances. It is worth remembering that even when working anaerobically in the main, that recovery periods, between running intervals, for example, are still the domain of the aerobic system, and can therefore contribute greatly to its efficiency. With all of the above taken into account, there is still a place for combining running and lifting moderate to heavy loads in the same workout. Lifting can serve to pre-fatigue the legs for running, which yields its own benefits, but also lifting under aerobic fatigue can provide a new stimulus, and is essential if you want to improve your overall fitness too!

Improving skills while improving fitness. This one is actually pretty simple; you need to practice and learn a skill first without intensity, then once you have sufficient command of that skill, gradually increase intensity, but also the interference effect provided by movements around it. For example, a handstand hold takes practice, and lots of it. Adding it to workouts early on is a bad idea. You should seek a good level of control before thinking about adding it to workouts, and an even higher degree of mastery before adding it to workouts with pressing movements, for example.

From the three common scenarios above, we can draw out some principles for programming and training to help you make progress, and minimise losses in other areas while you do.

  1. Keep your outright strength training separate from your outright aerobic capacity work, but combine moderately heavy work with aerobic work for broader fitness also.

  2. Allow weight to fluctuate with strength cycles.

  3. Work on skills while fresh, not fatigued, until competent.

  4. Keep total volume low enough for both physiological and neurological recovery.

  5. Bias - shift training towards - your goal rather than training solely for your goal to minimise losses elsewhere.

This is only an insight. There are many other contrasting goals that might be sought, such as speed versus endurance, for example, which could also be discussed. There will also be individual differences based on training and injury history, age, genetic distribution of fibre types, and many other factors. The point is, for most people, it is possible to significantly progress one area of your fitness, while making gains elsewhere, or at least holding onto progress you have previously made. Be smart with your training, and smarter still with your recovery.

Have you made progress in two contradictory areas at the same time? How did you do it? What did you make sure to include, or avoid? Let me know in the comments.

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