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The Balance Between Safety and Intensity

In CrossFit we are often pushing the threshold between technically sound form, and intensity that might cause imperfections in form but help generate the results we’re after. A case can be made for “imperfect training”: in which we occasionally vary the balance of loads, stances, speed and other aspects of movement to better prepare an athlete for sport. Obviously, the nature of sport is unpredictable. And we often use the training room to prepare an athlete for that unpredictability. 

But, how does this relate to us who are engaging in exercise not for sport, but for life?

“Imperfect training,” in my mind, can be spread across a broad spectrum:

  •  inherently unsafe, with little value (risk > reward)
  •  inherently unsafe, with moderate-to-high value (risk = reward)
  •  inherently safe, with moderate-to-high value (reward > risk)
  •  inherently safe, with little value (risk + reward = 0.)

It’s irrelevant to our purposes to discuss activities which create no reward.“Imperfect” training raises the risk associated in training.  But all training carries an element of risk. Small “injuries” – including muscle tearing, elevated blood pressure, glycogen depletion and exhaustion – are necessary to spur super compensation, growth, and desired fitness results.

There is even some gray area between “small injuries created on purpose” and “small injuries that are a side effect”. How do we feel about small injuries that cause no real limitation or long-term damage, like blisters or scraped up shins?

Where do box jumps fit into the risk/reward picture? Low-rep box jumps done to a tall box? High-rep box jumps done to a medium height? Where is the “safe” line in either scenario? How do we live in that third bullet point of safe with high value?

The answer to all of these questions is a less than helpful “it depends”.

As a coaching staff it is our responsibility to help you, the athlete, know when to scale load, reps, or movement. And  let me say-it is our great joy to do so! It is why we’re here! 

But how do YOU know? What experience — short of causing injury — tells the coach, or you the athlete,  “This far and no further?” How do we know how to answer “it depends?” Depends on what? 

I’ve got two simple concepts to help us: The Triangle and The Law of Averages.

The Triangle of Variables

One way we gauge when to properly scale, or when we’ve reached our limit is individual variations in musculature, injury history, and movement exposure.

Variations in musculature simply means that some individuals are able to be in a mechanically safe position, and others for a variety of reasons, are not. Some individuals have the shoulder/hip mobility and strength to maintain a stable overhead position while overhead squatting, while others are not, and therefore, we adapt to a front squat or goblet squat. What we would consider good form takes into account an athlete’s musculature. 

Another aspect is injury history. A person recovering from rotator cuff surgery will need to address the snatch much differently than an individual who has had zero shoulder injuries. During the snatch session, the person with a recovering rotator cuff could/should avoid snatching all together, and instead, perform resisted internal/external rotation and abduction exercises. In time, he/she can graduate to a PVC, then to an empty bar, and finally the barbell with weight.

Movement Exposure is the notion that the more we are exposed to an exercise, the more data we have to use to make good decisions about adapting and scaling. We do this nearly everyday. At the beginning of class when the coach says, “these ten power cleans need to be done unbroken…” we begin to assess our clean history (both number of repetitions as well as our weight capacity), and confidence with that specific movement.

For example, I have power cleaned 235 pounds only a handful of times. Each time was done for one rep, and each time it was hard, and each time my form left a lot to be desired. So, I can safely say that 235# would not be the weight I choose for my 10 unbroken power cleans. Now, I have a lot of confidence in doing 95# unbroken for 10 reps because I have done that weight hundreds of times, it is a weight I can move mechanically well, and a weight I can move with confidence that I could manage any slight variations in form.

Movement Exposure also indicates progressions. There are reasons we teach scapular pull-ups before kipping pull-ups before muscle-ups.

Law of Averages

A second way of helping us diagnose is with the Law of Averages. We can say that, on average, a lifter whose knees collapse inward will have less power in the squat. We can say that, on average, a lifter whose torso tilts forward will place more stress on their lower back; and a lifter whose torso stays too vertical will place more stress on their knee. But we cannot say that a barbell must be vertically placed at 64.3% of femoral length relative to the pelvis at the start of the squat, because your legs are longer than mine.

We base a lot of form adjustments and workout adaptations on the averages taken from the immense amount of research-both clinical and experiential.

Exceptions to the Rule: AKA: Not Us.

Well, this is all fine and good, but what about the folks we see on social media and pay pricey tickets to watch compete? The best, elite, professional (and by this I mean, the folks who deadlift the most weight) deadlifters tend to execute the lift with an anteriorly-tilted pelvis, extended back and elevated chin.  But I’m not Brian Shaw or Hafthor Bjornsson  (who deadlifts over 1000 pounds), and neither are you. And that’s okay.

The majority of us are not trying to win the Rogue Invitational. We’re simply trying to make moving boxes in the garage easier or  to heal an already damaged back.

Elite athletes are pushing the boundaries of what their body’s are capable of. Not only do they have a high degree of movement exposure and therefore understand what kinds of variables can be adjusted for, but they are making decisions OUTSIDE of the realm of health. They are choosing to put their body on the line for a chance at a world record performance, a chance to qualify for the next level of competition, or simply to “go for the gold” and beat their competitors. I mean, have you ever shot blood from your nose during a deadlift in class? 


We, on the other hand, are trying to improve the quality of our life through fitness. Our goal is not jeopardize our bodies for the sake of a faster score, or a heavier weight. We are showing up each day to celebrate what our body is capable of. We take into account the Law of Averages and our Three Variables of movement exposure, injury history, and musculature to ensure that our training is safe AND productive.

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