The workout is: 3 rounds for time – 20 overhead squats (95/65), 20 pull-ups, and 20 box jumps (24/20). But here’s the problem: you have poor mobility in your hips and shoulders, keeping you from going below parallel on your squat and keeping the barbell pressed directly overhead; you can’t do a pull-up, and you can’t jump on a box. So what do you do? Some people might think that if they can’t do any of the movements then they shouldn’t do the work out for that day/period, but that’s the beauty of CrossFit: every movement can be modified so individuals of all skill levels can workout well.
In CrossFit, there are nine foundational movements: the air squat, front squat, and overhead squat; then the shoulder press, push press, and push jerk; and finally, the sumo deadlift, the deadlift high pull, and the medicine ball clean. Each of these movements is also part of a hierarchy – a collection of hundreds of different movements used in CrossFit, some more complex than others, and some the stepping stones to more difficult movements. It is important for every CrossFitter to start with the basics – the air squat, the shoulder press, etc. before progressing on to more difficult versions of these movements.
For example, using the workout and hypothetical ‘you’ described above let’s do a quick recap: you have poor mobility in your hips and shoulders that hinder you from correctly performing an overhead squat. You are not alone. It is common in many Crossfit gyms for the attendance on a “snatch” day or “overhead squat” day to be sparse in comparison to the rest of the normal programmed days for that week. Why is this? Well, the most obvious answer is that people don’t like to work on their weaknesses. The overhead squat is one of the most difficult movements to master in Crossfit because of the level of mobility required to correctly complete the movement. We go to the gym to feel good about ourselves and to feel like we got better. But when there is a movement programmed that we can’t do, or can perform but with very poor form, then we don’t get the same feeling of accomplishment that we would if we went in and crushed a workout we were good at.
CrossFit is a unique program of fitness in that each movement belongs to a complex hierarchy. Therefore, even the most complicated movements can be broken down into simpler ones so that anyone can complete the workout of the day to some degree. It is important to understand this complex hierarchy in order to determine how to correctly scale and modify movements that are too difficult for you. Let’s use our above workout example as the basis for this analogy.
The first movement in the workout is overhead squats. ‘You’ lack the mobility to complete an overhead squat correctly. Therefore, you need to modify this movement to one that you can complete well. The squat hierarchy looks like this: box squat – air squat – dumbbell squat – back squat – front squat – overhead squat. Therefore, if you cannot complete a proper overhead squat, then you need to move backwards down the hierarchy to the previous movement (front squat) and use this movement in the workout instead. If you can’t correctly perform a front squat then you need to move backwards down the hierarchy again (back squat) until you find a movement that you can perform well. What is better? An athlete who performs front squats at the prescribed weight? Or an athlete who overhead squats with the barbell and only meets a quarter of the depth? Definitely the latter.
You might be thinking, ‘But if I always modify movements that I cannot perform, how will I ever improve?’ This can be a tough question to answer, and the answer might not be one you want to hear. It becomes the athlete’s responsibility to improve by coming in a few minutes before class, staying a few minutes after, or attending an open gym period to work on their weaknesses or mobility issues. A good and bad aspect of a normal CrossFit class is that you obtain a high level of fitness in just one hour, but that doesn’t leave a lot of time for members to work on extra skills outside of the programmed class agenda. Therefore, it is imperative for you as an athlete to find a few extra minutes in your day to dedicate to this pursuit of excellence. It’s the “boring” things – the mobility exercises, the gymnastics skill work, the rowing intervals, etc. – that often get overlooked, but it is also these things that separate a good athlete from a great one. If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this post it’s this: don’t overhead squat until you’re ready, but don’t wait too long to be ready. Make it a priority to work on your weaknesses daily and you will open the door to do things you never thought possible.