By Jeremey DuVall Men's Fitness
CrossFit - even the word can stir up conversation and arguments at the smoothie bar. Regardless of whether you like to crush WODs for your workouts or stick with old school strength training plans, there’s no doubt that CrossFit exercises are both hard and effective. By pairing difficult exercises together, often times in a race against the clock, CrossFit has a way of leaving athletes completely gassed and zapped of strength. The exercises themselves aren’t new to the strength and conditioning field. In many cases, they have simply become popular since tied alongside workout names like Fran and Linda. Almost all work your entire body at once and build skill, coordination, and flexibility at the same time.
To get those same benefits in your workout, we picked five popular CrossFit exercises that every lifter should have in their own routine and talked with Micah Macbeth, head coach at Crossfit 215, to find out how you can improve on each movement.
1. Overhead squat
So, you’ve mastered the back squat and perhaps you’ve even tinkered with the front squat. The overhead squat (OHS), popularized by benchmark WODs like Nancy, provides an added challenge in comparison to your typical squatting staples. By forcing you to lock the bar out overhead, your upper body and midsection have to work overtime to provide stability as you descend down into the movement. Just getting into proper position requires a decent amount of flexibility from your upper body.
Macbeth acknowledges that upper body flexibility is going to be a limiting factor for the majority of guys. The fix? A whole lot of soft tissue work like foam rolling and tons of practice with lighter weight. “I think people miss the fact that sometimes the best mobility for a movement is just doing the movement over and over. With some of my athletes who lack OHS ability, I just make sure they do the movement every time they are in but with a PVC pipe or an empty barbell.”
To get the best of flexibility and strength with the overhead squat, implement the movement into your warm-up while you practice and master form. After you have the move down, you can begin adding weight for a complete workout.
If you thought pull-ups were a way to impress your lifting buds, think again. Muscle-ups may be the king of upper body exercises combining both the pulling motion of a pull-up and the pressing motion of a dip to bring the lifter up and over the bar in one movement. Often times, this exercises is performed on rings increasing the demand for stability at the shoulder joint.
Macbeth acknowledges several limiting factors preventing most guys from being able to get themselves up and over the bar. First, lifters should develop baseline strength levels. “We make sure that people can complete 3-4 dips to end range of motion, and then they need to be able to perform a strict chest to bar pull-up.” Outside of strength standards, Macbeth indicates that shoulder flexibility is a huge component to avoid getting injured at the bottom of the dip. “You are thrusting yourself up and then down into the bottom of an extreme range of motion. This can be a compromising position if you do not have extensive time spent under tension in this position.”
Outside of building baseline strength and flexibility, work on what may be the hardest part of the exercise - the grip. “A lot of people forgo the turn-over portion of the muscle-up. Do drills just to practice that turnover from the pull-up to the dip like jumping into the bottom position of the dip to work on technique,” says Macbeth. Familiarity with the equipment certainly plays a role as well. While focusing on building strength in the two exercise components, work on the rings for bodyweight rows and dips to become comfortable with the equipment and build shoulder stability.
Anyone that has attempted to complete the most popular CrossFit WOD of all-time, Fran, certainly is familiar with thrusters. The combination of a front squat straight into a press overhead is the epitome of a total body exercise. After a string of several in a row, you’ll find that it’s not simply a strength exercise either; it will blast your cardiovascular system as well. Macbeth indicates that the reason this exercise is so taxing is primarily due to the distance the bar travels. Since lifters are dropping down into a squat and then pressing the bar all the way overhead, the weight is traveling an incredible distance therefore increasing the work that needs to be done.
The main issue limiting the performance of most guys on the thruster is front rack mobility. According to Macbeth, “An athlete must be able to keep their elbows up all the way through the movement for safety reasons.” Due to limitations in the upper body, the elbows of most athletes fall as they descend into the movement making it much tougher to keep the bar in place.
Working on the individual aspects of each exercise - the front squat and overhead press - will certainly help alongside building flexibility. Start by using this exercise as a warm-up with a light bar to master the bar path before incorporating it as a strength exercise with heavier weight.
4. Kettlebell swing
If you’re looking for an exercise to build up your back side while also feeling like you just spent 10 minutes on the treadmill, look no further. The kettlebell swing combines power with cardio while emphasizing one of the most important, yet rarely practiced, movements - the hip hinge. While this certainly isn’t a CrossFit-only exercise, it came to the forefront of the fitness industry with WODs like Helen.
The kettlebell swing, although powerful, is actually rather simple to teach according to Macbeth. “I can get someone churning some pretty high intensity sets with rather minimal direction. You can get most people doing a safe KB swing in a few minutes,” he says. The foundation of the movement lies in the hip hinge pattern, much like a deadlift. To prevent injury, athletes should master the deadlift form first before attempting sets of this powerful exercise. Reinforcing form with lighter kettlebells is also important as repetition helps to build proper movement patterns.
If you’re looking for a strictly cardio-based exercise to get your sweat on, look no further. Although rarely utilized, the rower offers an intense workout in just a few minutes. This exercise combines elements of power with coordination from the upper and lower body making it a little tougher than your typical elliptical workout.
Perhaps the most downplayed aspect of rowing is the form. According to Macbeth, “Rowing and running are two movement that people just do not practice enough. They think that as long they pull on the handle or pick their feet up and down as fast as they can the two movements will be effective.” In fact, both movements have some very common form errors. Macbeth encourages lifters to learn from someone very familiar with rowing technique rather than trying to teach themselves. Sequencing is perhaps the most important area where people go wrong. Macbeth indicates, “The most important aspect is understanding the sequence of events which must happen in order to have an efficient stroke. Too many people fire them in the wrong order.”
To start, find someone that’s familiar with rowing technique and has a good amount of experience to help you learn the form. Incorporate rowing as a warm-up exercise before your lifting session focusing on form rather than cranking as hard as possible. After a few sessions of technique, you can begin implementing faster sprints for an intense cardiovascular challenge.