Mastering the Basics: The Key to Injury Prevention and High Performance in CrossFit

Ready to train for the CrossFit Games? STACK Expert T.J. Murphy explains why focusing on the basics will help you perform better and avoid injury.


Photo: AP Photo/The Idaho Statesman, Chris Butler

On Jan. 1, Reebok announced the schedule for its 2014 CrossFit Games. If you're thinking about competing, you may be wondering how best to train.

According to one of the world's top CrossFit competitors, it's not about training more, but training right. If you want to achieve your maximum potential and reduce your chance of injury, revisit the core movements—Squat, Deadlift, Push Press, etc.—and get them thoroughly squared away before you start on the more difficult moves.

Neal Maddox, the owner of CrossFit X-Treme Athletics, finished 9th overall at the 2013 Games. At a recent CrossFit seminar in San Jose, Calif., Maddox taught a class on the Overhead Squat, pointing out technique errors along the way. He suggested that one participant work to improve his shoulder position and squat depth.

"It's hard for me to get into the right position without a loaded barbell," the participant replied.

"I'll tell you what [CrossFit training director] David Castro once told me," Maddox responded. "He told me that one of the best ways to improve my overall performance was to master the fundamental movements without using any weights."

Apparently, that advice worked for Maddox, who weighs 205 pounds and can Deadlift 505 pounds, Clean & Jerk 315 pounds, and Back Squat 455 pounds. His power goes beyond just one-rep maxes. Maddox also has the stamina to perform a 2:04 "Fran," a timed workout involving a 21-15-9 rep scheme of Pull-Ups and Thrusters (Front Squats combined with Push Presses using 95 pounds). That's one of the best-ever times recorded for the workout.

Castro's advice also jibes with one of CrossFit's bedrock principles: "virtuosity," a term borrowed from the gymnastics world. CrossFit defines virtuosity as "doing the common uncommonly well" and advises newcomers to master basic movements before ratcheting up the intensity.

Years ago, when injury rates were an issue, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman warned that "a lack of commitment to fundamentals will doom physical training programs and encourage trainers to nitpick the mechanics of fundamental movements.

"There is a compelling tendency among novices developing any skill or art, whether learning to play the violin, write poetry or compete in gymnastics, to quickly move past the fundamentals and on to more elaborate, more sophisticated movements, skills or techniques," he continued. "This compulsion is the novice's curse—the rush to originality and risk."

CrossFit coach Annie Sakamoto, co-owner of Santa Cruz CrossFit Central and the star of one of CrossFit's viral videos, says she continues to learn the most as a coach by teaching the fundamental movements.

"I'm sure I know what happened with Neal after he got that advice," Sakamoto says.  "He mastered his Air Squat, and from there his Front Squat got better and his Clean and Jerk got better. The same goes for teaching. If you step back and really master the teaching of an unweighted Squat, you're naturally going to become better at teaching the more advanced movements."

So commit yourself to the basics and your hard work will pay off.

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