What’s the Best Sort of Training?

Is it Yoga or Pilates? …Bodybuilding or Powerlifting? …Crossfit OR P90X? …Functional Training or Calisthenics?
A few people have asked me this sort of question recently, and it got me thinking about the way people tend to approach their training. Why does it have to be one training ‘system’ or the other? In life things don’t tend to be back or white but somewhere in between, and it’s the same with your fitness training.
You see, the problem is that whilst all these training systems have their good points, they also tend to have their fair share of bad points too.
Take CrossFit as an example; in many ways it rocks! The CrossFit movement has managed to get more people than ever performing compound lifts such as Deadlifts, Squats, Olympic Lifts etc.. It encourages the use of high intensity training at the expense of continual low intensity endurance training for fat loss. The motivation provided by the group setting is awesome, and the ‘Workout Of the Day’ (WOD) provides a constantly changing short term challenge and subsequent sense of achievement that lends to further increases in motivation. Boom! Isn’t that the perfect training system?
Well, actually no, not really. Quite apart from the widespread rumours of drug abuse by elite CrossFitters, which is certainly not something that we should encourage our youth athletes to aspire to, the cult of CrossFit continues to receive harsh criticism from many experts in the fitness industry, and for a variety of valid reasons.
Before we go any further, I should point out that I’m actually a fan of CrossFit, and would personally love to see it in the Olympics. It certainly has much more right to be there that many current sports such as Golf, Tennis, Soccer etc., and I say that with good reason. CrossFit performance is actually quantifiable (i.e. can be measured in grams, centimeters or seconds) and therefore comparable; one of the founding principles of the Olympic Games. However, it certainly concerns me when I see CrossFit training methods applied to either a general fitness population or sports performance training.
So why do I say that?
Well, firstly, whatever you are training for, both exercise selection and exercise technique are extremely important. Many of the exercises used in CrossFit, such as the Olympic Lifts, are highly technical and can take literally years to master. Asking people who are not trained to an elite level to perform these exercises to fatigue and with near maximal loads is just looking for trouble.
Perhaps more importantly, exercises such as these demand high levels of mobility and motor control to perform correctly, and even then, place high levels of stress on a some of our most susceptible joints. Cleans, for example are a fantastic exercise, and used successfully to enhance power output and performance in many sports. However, if you make your living by throwing or hitting a ball then I wouldn’t generally recommend them. You almost certainly have enough stress on your shoulders, elbows and wrists already without bending them backwards and dropping 100 kg on them!
Furthermore, if you are training for a particular sport, why on earth would you want to perform a randomly thrown together WOD as opposed to a session that is specifically designed to optimize your performance? It’s highly likely that neither the energetic demands nor the movement characteristics of your WOD are specific to your requirements. Unless you are training for the CrossFit Games of course. I mean, think about it; do you really think Usain Bolt preforms CrossFit? …Rory Mclroy? …or Novak Djokovic? …or any other world class athlete for that matter?
You might say that CrossFitting yourself into shape is better than not training at all, and for some people you might be right. However, for a lot of people, the CrossFit journey is one of cumulative micro-trauma that will sooner or later result in chronic pain, and potentially career ending injury. Moreover, with the high volume of training required, there is little time left for corrective or prehab exercises; something that most people and all athletes should be performing. This won’t deter the hardcore CrossFitters, who seem to wear their injuries with pride, but it is surely cause for concern if movement quality is something you value and want to maintain.
Finally, despite what many people seem to believe, there’s really nothing magical about the WOD. In fact, if you just want to get stronger, or faster, or build endurance, that’s actually relatively easy to accomplish. The real challenge is doing all of these at the same time, whilst remaining healthy and ensuring it actually translates into improved performance. To do that you need to train smart.
Nuff said.
Another great example is Pilates. I personally have a lot of respect for Pilates, and borrow much from their training philosophy. However, Pilates also has its limitations. The main problem is that once you have mastered any exercise using just bodyweight, you cannot really progress in terms of strength. In order to keep progressing and getting stronger you need to increase the stress you apply to the body, such as by adding load (e.g. Weights) or distractive force (e.g. Resistance Bands). This is one of the basic principles of training; known as Progressive Overload. With Pilates you can’t do that effectively. You also couldn’t effectively use Pilates to  increase muscle mass, or reactive strength or prepare you for a high intensity period in a competitive sport. But that’s ok, it’s not supposed to do those things. That’s not why you do it. You use Pilates to develop relative core stiffness and dynamic stability in the presence of specific limb movements. It makes you focus on posture and movement quality, and certainly has its place in a comprehensive training program. It just isn’t a complete system on its own.
One further problem common to all such training systems is an inherent lack of individualization. Every system tends to have its own way of performing an exercise, and everyone is taught the same technique. The problem with that is that we don’t all move the same, because we aren’t all made the same. For example, the right way to squat for one person might be totally different from another person (more about that in another post). It’s true to say that a good coach with an understanding of functional anatomy can always correct these flaws. However, in my experience good coaches are hard to come by. Moreover, many of these systems are designed as commercial products, often to be performed alone, and thereby taking the place of the coach or trainer.
Overall, there are lots of great training systems out there, but instead of just blindly putting your faith in one system, I would encourage you to learn from a variety of different systems. Use the bits that work, forget about the bits that don’t, and create a system that really works for you.
I’ve personally spent years doing just that, and that’s why the only training system that I really trust is my own. That doesn’t mean that I think I know everything about fitness or performance training, but that I’m still continually learning from others and adapting my system to ensure it is as good as it can possibly be.
So, if you want to eliminate the guess work, why don’t you contact Spike-Fit to discuss  what sort of training will help you reach your potential.
Until next time… Train Smart!
James Brown