Before you begin reading you need to know one thing first: this is not a hate piece on Crossfit. Crossfit is a fun sport that I have trained clients to compete in before. It makes the athlete a good mover also gives them something to train for. However, Crossfit may not be a good fit for athletes preparing for special operations selection. I discuss why below.
1. Training Modalities
If you ask anybody what you could expect a special operations candidate to do on selection most people’s answers would include: running, swimming and rucking. Although these movements are incorporated into Crossfit at the higher levels (regionals, crossfit games) they are not consistently or properly dosed and as such will not benefit a special operations candidate as much as a slow and steady progression would.
2. Training Focus
In Crossfit the focus of the sport is either high repetition low load “touch and go” type exercises or on ladder type build ups of Olympic lifting. Special operations candidates can expect to perform longer, more “grinder” type activities such as: farmer carries, rope climbs, burpees, dragging odd objects, etc… Special operations athletes need to be prepared to use tools around them and get used to push through awkward movements carrying or lifting odd objects under fatigue.
3. Event Duration
In Crossfit a single workout can last from a minute to several hours, for example: Grace vs. Half Marathon Row. Crossfit competitions can last either a single day or up to several months. On a special operations selection an athlete can expect to complete multiple events every day for 1-3 weeks. Due to the sustained and enduring nature of selection, training that focuses on cyclical, sustained aerobic activity will lend to better performance on selection.
4. Energy Systems Trained
As mentioned above, special operations athletes are aerobic athletes. They perform at a submaximal intensity for long durations, with short bursts of high intensity activity. Crossfit is a sport which does train the aerobic system, however, there is a heavy focus on maximal, anaerobic training. This simply means that your body’s oxygen supply cannot keep up with the demands of the work you are completing. Your body will look for alternative ways of fueling your exercise, creating lactate and leaving you with that “I’m going to puke” feeling in your gut. Although special operations candidates should include some anaerobic training, especially closer to selection, their time is much better spent focusing on aerobic training and strength training.
5. Strength vs. Power
Due to the nature of the sport, Crossfit athletes must be powerful. Being powerful means not only can you move weight from point A to B but that you can move it fast. Examples of exercises that require power are: cleans, jerks, snatches, thrusters, push press and box jumps. For a special operations candidate being powerful is low on the list of priorities. If an athlete had all the time in the world to train and prepare for selection then adding in power training would be a no brainer. However, most special operations candidates are working full time on top of familial responsibilities. After being aerobically fit, a special operations candidate must be STRONG. A lot of candidates train for their fitness tests, and not for the actual selection itself. As a result they perform hundreds of sit ups, pushups and pullups, only to fail or get injured when told to lift heavy objects during selection.
6. Sport Specific Fitness
In Crossfit, athletes are training for the sport of Crossfit. Becoming proficient in Olympic lifting derivatives, gymnastic movements and assorted modalities such as rowers and AirDynes are beneficial not only to their fitness, but to their skill in the sport of Crossfit. For combat athletes fitness is simply a means to an end. Special operations candidates must complete timed runs and rucks not because they are competing in races, but because on the job they must be fit enough to fulfil their role as an operator. A lot of the more technical movements that are emphasized in Crossfit will not benefit a special operator who is using Crossfit as a means of improving fitness. Why? Because special operations candidates will not be asked to do a power snatch on selection and there are many simpler ways to achieve the same results. Training for special operations candidates should be used to improve physical qualities that will transfer over well to the movements performed on selection, not to prepare for a sport.
7. Squatting vs. Lunging
Crossfit has a heavy emphasis on double leg movements such as front squat, back squat, squat clean, squat snatch, deadlifts, etc… For a special operations candidate single leg exercises are much more beneficial and applicable to the sort of events that they will be participating in. Exercises that we use to train special operations candidates are: step ups, forward lunges, reverse lunges, split squats, rear foot elevated split squats and dozens of variations for each movement. Developing single leg strength is crucial not only for performance on selection, but also injury prevention. Single leg exercises improve proprioception (balance) and work out muscular imbalances that often cause pain and can be a limiting factor on selection.
8. Trunk Movements
In the sport of Crossfit there is also a heavy emphasis on trunk extension (deadlift, RDL, Sumo Deadlift) and trunk flexion (toes to bar, GHD sit ups) Training this way, with a perfectly balanced bar in a controlled environment is appropriate when training for a sport such as Crossfit. A special operations candidate, however, would want to include much more trunk stabilization work. For example, when you are carrying a jerry can full of water on one side, your obliques work to keep your torso upright. Using asymmetric exercises such as a suitcase deadlift or unilateral front rack KB carry will prepare an athlete for selection in a way that a perfectly balanced barbell cannot.
9. The Mental Piece
During a special operations selection a candidate will not know what is happening until it is happening. You may have some idea of what will be occurring but there are no prescribed sets, reps or duration for a lot of events on selection. This requires candidates to be motivated to keep working even if there is no concrete finish line. In Crossfit there will always be a time, rep range or weight to strive for and you will always be able to measure your performance in a “rep or no rep” fashion. Although this is great for motivating competitors, special operations candidates would be better suited performing grinder activities that include constant work such as those that they may face on selection.
Crossfit’s Saving Grace – Grip Strength
There is one area in which Crossfit is similar to special operations selection training. Grip strength plays a huge role in both instances. On selection a candidate will either be carrying a weapon or be dragging, lifting or carrying other odd objects. In Crossfit, an athlete has a barbell, pullup bar or rowing handle in their hands throughout the workout. Grip strength is essential to both sports and special operations candidates could benefit from the grip strength training stimulus Crossfit would provide.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is not saying that Crossfit is “bad” or in any way not beneficial for those participating in the sport. This article hopes to highlight the key differences between the two types of events and why Crossfit training will not prepare a special operations candidate as well as they could have been if they had trained differently.