November 20, 2013 1:22 PM

The Importance of Fundamentals: Beginners and Advanced

When I started CrossFit, I didn't know shit. I knew I did not know how to lift properly nor did I have command over basic bodyweight movements like push-ups, pull-ups, and squats. If any experienced CrossFitter would walk up to a random person on the street and say, "Show me how you squat," you can expect that our immediate response would be, "No, that’s not right. Your butt should go down and back, and your knees shouldn’t collapse out in front of you or cave in." We also can spot the difference between the push-ups we learned in school and the full range of motion exercise we perform now.

The biggest changes in our CrossFit performance likely came in the first few months of joining the sport. Why? Because we were learning the fundamental movements like pushing, pulling and squatting. We learned hand release push-ups and strict pull-ups and negatives and box jumps and wall balls (yuck!) and burpees. We picked up the bar and were taught the basics of dead lifts, cleans, presses, jerks, and snatches. Once we had these basics, it was easy to add weight and start setting PRs each week.

Then something else happened that I call the sophomore syndrome. Just like high school, sophomores have a little knowledge and think they know everything to succeed. In CrossFit, this means you got some pull-ups and started to kip. You started to kip, so you started working on muscle-ups. You have push-ups, so you started on handstand push-ups. You also have kipping, so you start on kipping handstand push-ups. You have kipping pull-ups, so you start on butterfly pull-ups. You may have some small nagging injuries at this point, too.

Likewise, you start to push for PRs in all the lifts. In every WOD. You can add a couple more nagging injuries here, too.

After about a year of CrossFit, I noticed that I was not improving as quickly as I would like. I was not getting stronger or faster or even generally better at a recognizable rate. At the same time, a couple other things were going on in my life that started to give me a clue.

I coach my son's sixth grade travel soccer team. These kids are the strongest players in Westwood, and we started the fall season with two convincing wins. Our third game was against a much weaker team than we had played so far, and we only managed a tie. We then lost 2 of the next 3 games. It seemed our opponents were improving faster than we were. I started searching online for clue about how to make a strong team better. Contrary to the belief I had been employing, all the experts agreed: practice the fundamentals at every training session. I had assumed that the kids had dribbling, passing and shooting down pat; so we practiced more esoteric skills and combination plays. I refocused my weekly sessions to emphasize ONLY the fundamentals. The team immediately showed improvement again and got back to their winning ways.

Additionally, Katie is in the middle of her junior year algebra class. She had difficulty with some equations and it showed on a quiz. The grade was not horrible, but it wasn't great, either. We decided to revisit the topic even though the quiz was done and there was no improving on it now. We recognized that math class teaches each subject with the intent of building on the existing knowledge to understand and master the next (and more complex) topic. Having a weak grasp on a fundamental concept would have a ripple effect on the future quizzes and tests.

Circling back to CrossFit, I am convinced that the key to avoiding injury and realizing the fastest improvement comes down to continuing to work on fundamentals.

Strict pull-ups are the key to avoiding injury with kipping and butterfly pull-ups. You can certainly master kipping pull-ups, but you should still be working on strict pull-ups at the same time. Kipping and butterfly pull-ups put a huge strain on your shoulder joint. Strict pull-ups build strength around the joint and allow you to use muscle to help get your chin over the bar (instead of relying solely on momentum).

Push-ups and squats are fundamental to most Olympic lifts. The ability to push and pull the bar with control and balance and the right alignment will allow you to reach new PRs and will keep you healthy.
Just as we have learned to mobilize before and after our daily workouts, spending extra time on fundamental movements will accelerate your improvement rather than hold you back. You may feel silly working in basic movements, but when it is time to combine these in a WOD, you will have the advantage. And you have a much better likelihood of finishing un-injured.

Ron Lohse on the importance of CrossFit fundamentals