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Is there a place for high skill movements in CrossFit?

The debate continually rages as to the validity and relevance of higher skill movements, both weightlifting and gymnastic, in a well rounded fitness programme, for the general population, namely CrossFit. Those in favour of simpler programmes will advocate the use of simpler movements, and argue that these can be combined just as effectively for those not requiring high skill movements for their lives or athletic goals. I agree. Strength, speed, power, aerobic capacity can all be developed and improved just as efficiently without the likes of handstand walks, or handstand push-ups. We can easily say the same for the snatch and muscle-ups. In fact, some of the greatest sportsmen and women on the planet have never had any need for these movements, so why on earth should Jackie, the 45 year old housewife, mother of one from the Midlands require them? Furthermore, isn’t including them in her programme just increasing the risk of injury for little or no reward? Yes, most definitely, if taken at face value. You would be forgiven for thinking, at this point, that the programming in my gym consists purely of push-ups, jogging, sled pulls and pushes and some basic barbell lifts. You could also be forgiven for thinking were I to include high skill movements, I would be contradicting what I just said. Let me clarify, I fully advocate the teaching of complex movements to the general population, and I let the only limit to the number of movements I use, be the limits of my knowledge and imagination. Here’s why:

  1. By eliminating movements based on their complexity, we limit the total number of movements available to us. Regardless of your preferred training methodology, it is widely acknowledged that variety is the key to continued progress, and avoiding plateaus. This is true of the elite athlete and the Jackie from the Midlands alike.

  2. We use sensible scales and progressions (two different things) to build somebody towards higher skill movements. We do this even if they will never likely achieve full versions of the movement. The reasoning is simple, firstly the progressions and scales are movements in their own right, and still serve to add valuable variety in training. Secondly, I find it best to not single people out, when everyone is tackling their version of a movement, or working on their progression, it helps fuel their sense of community and being part of the group. People continually improve better within that setting. Thirdly, and I would argue most importantly, each progression Jackie masters will give her a sense of achievement and accomplishment. If somebody can perform a handstand push-up scale with their feet on a box for the first time, then this is celebrated the same as somebody achieving the full version for the first time.

  3. Nothing serves as a better, more motivating goal than doing something you have never done before. It gives your training meaning and purpose. It helps you focus on the little things the coaches tell you. It means that if Jackie wants a handstand push-up, and her coach has told her an improved strict press will help, she’ll focus more on every detail of that strict press to chase hr goal. Somebody more focused on their training is never a bad thing.

  4. The movements patterns these higher skill movements create, and the control in unfamiliar positions and planes of movement, has real, tangible results that have great carryover into daily life, but also help with injury prevention. We also know, and Greg Glassman noticed in his creating of CrossFit, that gymnasts have the greatest strength to weight ratio and body control of all athletes. Whilst Jackie might not require the same level of these attributes, you’d be hard pushed to argue they won’t help her in day to day life.

  5. Achieving something new, that you have never done before is an unbeatable feeling. Adding a couple of kilograms to your squat, or an inch to your max box jump, knocking 10 seconds of your 5k run are all great feelings; ones of progress and improvement. Completing your first muscle-up, first handstand push-up or backflip is a feeling beyond that. It means that you as a human can do something you couldn’t yesterday. It’s one more skill you have, in a growing list which, directly or indirectly, makes you a more functional human being.

  6. The mind muscle connection is improved performing high skill gymnastics and lifts, whilst under fatigue, in such a way that can’t be replicated in other ways. Nailing a squat snatch at 85% of your best lift after getting off a fast 1km row requires a level of motor unit recruitment under fatigue that improves coordination, accuracy and agility. These skills are invaluable as much to Jackie as they are to an elite sportsperson.

To summarise, I programme all the movements that I have the equipment to facilitate safely. Each movement is taught in a controlled setting, before being allowed into a workout. We apply the principle of mechanics, consistency and then intensity. When we work a skill, we will use progressions to move people towards the level above where they sit, or towards the full movement. During workouts, movements are appropriately scaled (or substituted) to best benefit the individual, and ensure they get the most from the workout. It is not uncommon to have a class of 10 people all doing a slightly different scale of the same movement. With careful planning and good coaching, everybody can work towards achieving something new in a safe effective manner, that will most definitely benefit them. As a finishing thought, this programme is designed to push and develop everyone. Whilst it is less common, should an Olympic gymnast walk into our gym, you’d better believe I will do my job, and come up with a way to progress him/her, safely, beyond their current skill set. Scaling works both ways!


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