The Role of Intensity, Skill, and Strength in General and Competitive CrossFit(Part 1)


By Luke Duross, CF-L1, Strength and Conditioning Coach

I understand the word “metcon” is incredibly broad and there is literally an infinite number of metcons given how many movements and rep ranges there are to take into consideration when structuring one, but I am generally referring events where you have a defined task and must accomplish it as fast as possible, or a defined time domain in which you must accomplish as much work as possible, all of it done at a high intensity. This is the essence of competitive CrossFit. There are some events at high level competitions that can be classified at pure strength or endurance events. But I think we can agree that most of the events you see/saw at late regionals/sanctionals and the games can be placed into the category of what the CrossFit community would refer to as “metcons”.  

Metcon, which is short for metabolic conditioning, is the word CrossFit has created to give a distinctive identity to their brand of high intensity exercise. There is an infinite number of possible pairings of exercises and rep schemes when structuring a metcon, but the intended stimulus is clear: get the heartrate up, breathe hard, move at a high intensity. It is a fantastic way for a person to burn calories, raise their metabolic rate and build muscle as well. For someone with the very common goal of trying to burn fat and build some muscle, it is a fantastic approach. You could maybe go so far as to make an argument for it being the best approach in most circumstances. High intensity exercise is definitely the best approach when it comes to an hour long class, you are providing the gym goer with the guarantee that they are going to get in and out of the gym in an hour or less and have accomplished something worthwhile for their health. The individual is also surrounded by and suffering with other like-minded people, something that is incredibly valuable. For the general population whose primary life obligations are outside of the gym, it is fantastic. CrossFit is great in this context, 10/10 from the Russian judge, and well done Greg Glassman you wealthy, wealthy man. 

If you are a competitor it makes sense that the majority of events you encounter in a competitive environment are going to look like what CrossFit calls ”metcons”. 

Since the inception of The Games, we have seen the standard of movement and weight demands in universal CrossFit metcons steadily increase along with the base level of fitness of the average CrossFitter. RX weight demands are heavier, movement variants are more challenging. It makes sense, the sport of CrossFit is young, as is the methodology. A rapid increase in overall quality of the athletes makes sense. It is easy to track that progress by looking at The Games. Go watch any event from the early CrossFit Games and compare them to a more recent event. The difference in overall fitness between the elite crossfitters of just 10 years ago and those of today is staggering. 

Now, with this in mind, lets ask ourselves a couple of questions. Going back to the person who is doing CrossFit classes 2-3 days a week and just wants to live long and prosper…does this person need to be proficient at double-unders, squat snatches and handstand walks in order to better their health and wellness? No, the primary goal here is to get them to move, whether they are doing double unders or single unders should be of secondary emphasis. 

PLEASE DO NOT TAKE WHAT I AM SAYING OUT OF CONTEXT. For the love of God, I am NOT saying that we do not need to develop the skills of our clients. CrossFit’s defined methodology does an excellent job of preaching the importance of mastering the skill of a movement and being proficient at that movement at a low intensity, before performing that movement at a high intensity. This is very important to ensure injury prevention for any member and forgoing the former and jumping straight to the latter is where most injuries occur within CrossFit. CrossFit has received a lot of early criticism for being dangerous, and in my opinion, it is not warranted. CrossFit made it clear from the outset that skill must precede intensity, it’s not CrossFit’s fault people are idiots or bad coaches. The injuries don’t come from the methodology itself, but the improper application of it, or poor adherence to it. 

The point I am trying to make is that the continuous advancement of their skills is of secondary emphasis to their developing basic movement skills as it pertains to those found in CrossFit, so they can exercise safely, at a high intensity. That being said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with trying to progress the skills of every client to as advanced a level as they can achieve, and if a client wants to make that their primary goal, great. But for the general population, it should not be the primary emphasis pushed on them by the affiliate they attend. It is not the job of an affiliate to turn every client into a competitive crossfitter. 

This how the CrossFit methodology was created; with the intention of being all inclusive regardless of age, morphology, or level of fitness. 

Now let’s go back to the competitive crossfitter. If you have the goal of being competitive in today’s sport of CrossFit, it is of the utmost importance for you to be better than good at every movement that can be thrown at you in competition. It is also in your best interests to be stronger than everyone else; those barbells just keep getting heavier. The rapid growth and advancement of the CrossFit athlete has declared that basic proficiency is no longer adequate in order to survive in competition. In fact, inability to achieve a basic proficiency in a sole possible tested movement will solidify your mediocrity in any high-level competitive scenario. I guarantee you that everyone standing on the podium at any RX CrossFit competition can handstand walk and perform double-unders. If you are a competitive CrossFit athlete but can’t handstand walk, every metcon that has handstand walks in it that you ever come across will be your own personal Separator. The same goes for any movement you don’t have in your wheelhouse. In fact, you can no longer have a wheelhouse, or rather everything has to be in your wheelhouse. 

But how do you achieve the above? What is the best route to take to well-rounded high-level fitness?

There is no simple answer to this question. In fact, more questions must be asked in order to provide an answer. 

Now, everything I have just said above may already be obvious to some. It is easy enough to explain the methodology of CrossFit as it pertains to the general populous. But something that may be not so obvious is where CrossFit is today as a sport. There seems to be a lot of contention about what the best route is to maximize your overall level of fitness. Due to the rapidly developing, but admittedly limited knowledge of the sport of CrossFit, it is incredibly easy to misapply information, ingest bad information, develop misconceptions, and feel generally lost. People end up stagnated, confused, burned out, and fried by constant high and unbridled intensity. 

In the articles following I will address common misconceptions and provide in depth, scientific analysis of capacities, skill, and strength as it directly relates to competitive CrossFit. I hope to eliminate bad knowledge and provide some clarity to a muddied methodology.