The first step in any athlete’s journey is to learn to perform basic movement mechanics. Movement mechanics refer to the physics of the movement or the relative positions, angles, and velocity of the body parts involved in the movement being performed. Mechanics create the structure of movement and dictate the safest, most efficient way to complete it. Thus it is critical that an athlete develop sound movement mechanics before pushing for intensity in the form of load, high reps, or rapid execution.
CrossFit makes use of a variety of movements and movement categories, many of which have multiple applications. A good trainer will help an athlete navigate a myriad of essential skills in an organized fashion. Often, this process involves learning a base skill and then, once competency is gained, challenging the base skill with a variation. For example, the air squat introduces the fundamental principles of squatting that will carry over to a front squat or overhead squat. Most trainers intuitively recognize that a beginner will likely have more success by learning a less complex skill initially, then applying what they’ve learned to a more difficult variation as competency allows. This natural process loosely describes the process of putting mechanics first.
When a beginner is asked to complete a movement, the critical positions must first be introduced and effectively performed (for example, the starting and finishing position of the deadlift). Once the athlete experiences the basic positions of the movement, they must next learn how to transition between these positions efficiently and without deviating to poor mechanics. Often, reducing the speed of execution will be necessary until some level of positional understanding is reached.
Trainers typically will describe the process of completing a movement by teaching the points of performance. For more complex movements, a progression may be used to further simplify and codify the learning process. In the early stages of learning, maintaining the positions and points of performance requires a great deal of deliberate focus. During this phase of learning, it is very easy to push the athlete past the limits of their skill and break down the efficiency of the movement. A minimal amount of fatigue, the need to perform several different skills during the same workout, and/or simply losing focus will be enough to degrade the athlete’s movement significantly.
Most athletes have a razor-thin threshold between good execution and a breakdown in movement mechanics early in the learning process. In much the same way a new driver struggles to merge into high-speed traffic smoothly, the beginner athlete simply has not yet built up the capacity and resilience to move in a physically intelligent way. It is one of the jobs of the trainer to recognize this and guide the athlete along their path. A significant portion of the art of good training exists in providing enough of a challenge to drive progress without completely overwhelming the athlete and pushing them beyond their current threshold. Insufficient challenge will stagnate progress, but too much will discourage at best and push the athlete past their limits at worst.
At times, trainers may take their own experience for granted and fall into the trap of believing their athletes will not receive the benefits of a “real workout” when taking the time to focus on movement mechanics. In such instances, trainers would be served well by remembering the sustained effort required to execute a new skill to a high standard. Despite the seemingly low number of reps or load on the bar, the dedicated performance of the mechanics will undoubtedly provide a challenge. New ranges of motion and positions (or those long since experienced) will often create more physical response than might be evident from just looking at the numbers on paper. The most successful CrossFit trainers recognize that a long, slow trajectory of advancement in skill and capacity toward a distant horizon is most effective both in terms of athlete development and retention.
Finally, it is worth noting that an athlete’s overall capacity may not serve as an accurate gauge when applied to a new skill. It is entirely possible to have an athlete with a high level of fitness in one area struggle mightily when exposed to a movement outside their strengths. As with so many elements common to good training, these instances need to be observed and approached on an individual basis as often as possible. The former linebacker who can squat the house needs to start on the low rings with his feet on the floor when learning the basic positions of the muscle-up. Even if he may be successful simply by having the strength to power through the motion, if the mechanics are never truly refined then the distance between his potential and performance will always be greater than necessary.
A large portion of the challenge and art of training is deciding when an athlete is ready to be pushed beyond the initial learning phase. The basic mechanics of the movement need to be understood and, more importantly, performed well. However, do not confuse this standard with technical perfection. In the next installment of this series, we will discuss how the concept of consistency should act as a guide for how and when the athlete should be challenged.
To learn more about human movement and the CrossFit methodology, visit CrossFit Training.