Quantity vs Quality

Synopsis: This blog looks at the argument of quantity over quality in exercise programs. Is doing a lot of one thing poorly, better than doing less of the same thing well?

With the recent explosion of the CrossFit fitness movement, more people are exploring their athletic potential. This is an exciting direction for American society, which still leads the world in obesity, with heart disease and cancer as the top two leading causes of death in both its men and women. Within the rapid growth and excitement, however, there is debate regarding the importance of proper technique both in training and competition.

Within the concept of Aikiology, fitness is paramount. (Read the About section for reference.) The short argument on this topic for those who consider themselves warriors is that one cannot call himself or herself a warrior and not care for his or her own body. This goes beyond merely watching what you eat, but how you maintain yourself physiologically, and how you excel athletically. For the purpose of this blog, it’s a foregone conclusion that a significant exercise program is paramount in the life of anyone who considers himself or herself a warrior.

The impetus for this blog is the aforementioned explosion of the CrossFit methodology of high intensity interval training, which focuses on metabolic conditioning. CrossFit is defined by its founder, Greg Glassman, as “constantly varied, high-intensity functional movement.” For those unfamiliar, CrossFit workouts can involve a wide variety of exercise modalities, such as Olympic-style weightlifting, body weight exercises, running, rowing, and a litany of other variations of hundreds of exercises involving kettlebells, dumbbells, and medicine balls, to name a few. Selected exercises (or occasionally a single exercise) are grouped into a workout typically lasting from 5 to 20 minutes, occasionally longer, and can be performed in a variety of modalities, i.e., for total time, for total reps, for most rounds completed, etcetera.

The clincher for CrossFit workouts though is that the athlete works against the clock under a given modality. The positive side of this is the motivation it gives to the athlete to push harder. Additionally, by establishing a set maximum time to complete a workout, intensity must be maintained. This is the counter culture to standing around the gym for two hours doing curls.

The down side to racing against the clock is that in the heat of it all, form WILL break down. The body begins to recruit incorrect muscle groups to replicate the correct movement, and the invitation to injury is sent. When this happens repeatedly over time, the cumulative effect will most likely (and often does) result in an injury. Anecdotally, the bulk of injuries in CrossFit occur in the shoulders. When you consider that the weights are typically prescribed (Rx) heavy and with higher volume than a traditional weightlifting program of 3 sets of 10 reps, one has to question the concept of quantity over quality, and search for the balance.

In sport-specific fitness programs, such as a college football team or an Olympic athlete training for a decathlon or swim meet, the exercises and drills themselves are merely the tools that allow the athlete to perform a different task better: they are the means to the end. In CrossFit, and similarly evolving programs, the exercises themselves are both the means and the end. For this reason, CrossFit and metabolic conditioning programs like it may need to be assessed and approached from a slightly different perspective.

This is a longtime argument in CrossFit that is polarized into two groups: the purists, who state that exercise is to be performed with proper form on every repetition throughout a full range of motion (ROM), and the non-purists, who believe that a breakdown is inevitable and there is no point in worrying about improper form because it’s just going to happen. Essentially, the purist believes in driving the car responsibly in training, and the non-purist believes in crashing the car in training and competition.

World class martial artist and fitness guru Scott Sonnon says that when the form begins to break down in a particular technique or exercise, for example a sagging torso during a pushup, or a hunched back and forward lean on a body weight squat, it’s time to cease that exercise, or modify it to a position where the structure is no longer compromised.

The logic behind this simple concept is that once your structure breaks down, you’re no longer doing the exercise you started, assuming you began with proper form and structure. At this point, it is prudent to modify the exercise. A full planked pushup can become a kneeling pushup until the knee form fails, then it’s time to stop. With a weighted movement like a push press with an Olympic bar, dumb bells, or kettle bells, the weight can be lowered to a weight that allows proper form to return. There is a natural progression and digression in exercise that follows a planned and logical pathway.

The non-purists don’t hold this point of view. They hold a philosophical approach to exercise (as opposed to the purist’s scientific approach). This approach says to gut it out, push it out. Your body is only as strong as your mind. This approach seems successful. The non-purist pushes hard, uses a lot of weight, and seems to make it through the routine exhausted but successful, measured by the fact that “he made it”, he didn’t quit and he got in all of his repetitions faster than anyone else. This is acceptable to him or her until the body breaks. Then, there’s a lot of head scratching and second guessing, perhaps a visit to an orthopedic surgeon, and a bigger recovery period that won’t be fun physically or psychologically.

To give credit though, many athletes in CrossFit circles have realized the broader benefits of the inclusion of general, fundamental training protocols such as standardized warmups, cool downs, mobility and periodization.

There is a point, though, where exercise ends and competition begins. Remember that CrossFit is a sport. Its partnership with Reebok in 2010 and the resulting increased marketing has landed ESPN coverage. What becomes problematic for those training for local events or regional and national competition though is how to properly and safely train to become better for competition. For programmers at boxes (gyms) there is also the consideration that the majority of people participating in CrossFit aren’t actively training competitors, but are part of the general population realizing the fantastic benefits of CrossFit’s metabolic conditioning.

Consider that a football player, for example, goes through an organized training routine throughout the week which will involve strength and conditioning, sprinting, mobility and flexibility drills, agility drills, etc., and scrimmages and real play. The format depends on the position played, so not all football players train exactly alike. Much of the work prior to the scrimmage, or the actual game, is not anything that the player will be replicating on the field. Sprints and sled pushes, yes. Snatch, dead lift and push ups, no.

For the CrossFit athlete, the work done in training is exactly what is being done in competition, taking into account some oddball tasks that local competitions and even CF itself are known to throw into the mix. These are minimal though, and the vast majority of training work is the same as competition. This doesn’t mean that you should train the way you compete, balls to the wall, “crashing the car”.

These theories sound great, almost heroic, (the way you train is the way you perform), but are a pathway to setbacks. Rich Froning said it well: “In training, I listen to my body. In competition, I tell my body to shut up.”
This approach has lead him to two consecutive CrossFit Championships.

So what does all this mean? For the competitively focused, avoid injury, develop a plan and a set of progressive goals. Listen to your body and save yourself for competition day. For the non-competitor, do the same, and save yourself for the moment of truth when your new found strength and smart training approach rewards you with real world success.


About Nathaniel Ryan

Nathaniel has been a martial artist since 1983. He has matched his training experience in real-world environments since 1997. Nathaniel is on the constant pursuit of refining technique and tactics for real world environments.
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