What is CrossFit’s Obsession with Full Range of Motion all About?

Posted: December 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

I am a product of Mainstream fitness. I played sports growing up, with coaches who coached the same way their coaches did twenty years earlier. I went to school in Physical and Health Education and became a trainer along the way. Coming from that background, I have always been analytical in my thinking about how to train and be trained.  I looked at components of fitness as wholly unrelated and separate from each other. Strength was different than flexibility, which was separate from cardiovascular endurance, etc. I looked at energy systems the same way, and made many assumptions about energy system training and limitations based on factors like muscle fiber type etc. Muscles each have a point of insertion and origin and perform singular (for the most part) actions, and are trained categorically based on those factors. My training background came largely from the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s (NASM) Optimum Performance Training (OPT) method of training. (Although NASM and James Fitzgerald’s training programs share the same acronym and name, they are unrelated). While I agree and use many aspects of the model, I have also come to question some of the methodology. One area that I have changed on is the concept of specialized training for very specific patterns of movement. Let’s use the squat as an example. I used to instruct people to never pass 90 degrees at the knee. My reasoning was that unless you were a Catcher in baseball, you had no business being in such a compromised position, and thus would not benefit from squatting past the square. This idea was based on information which I now know is archaic, outdated and based on data gathered from cadavers (dead tissue)! It’s also the same source that teaches that the knee should never cross the plane of the toe (another wide-spread misconception). Until I started CrossFitting, I would have held those concepts as law without exception.

Enter CrossFit. Ingrained in conventional fitness, I misconceived CrossFit as dangerous and ineffectual. I viewed it the same as other fad programs like P90X, shake weight, strippercise, body blade, and understood that it was only a matter of time before it too disappeared. Anyone who is reading this has most likely come to the same realization that I was wrong. I was so wrong. CrossFit’s training methodology went against everything I believed. The idea of “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement” was the exact opposite of the standard training methods of “structured and periodized, low impact, controlled movement patterns.”  Forget about “quickly moving large loads over a distance;” that would be unsafe! Right? Despite my reservations, I drank the “Kool-aid” and I started to see results. It caused me to rethink everything I have ever known about fitness. I was annoyed that I was wrong, and even more annoyed that I didn’t understand why it worked. I started to understand as I saw that the primary goal of CrossFit is to “increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” What the hell does that mean? I have found that it basically means that CrossFit’s objective is to improve life. As much as I am a convert to the sport, I still find misconceptions from my past fitness life creep up regularly. An example of this happened a couple of weeks ago about the proper execution of a skill having to do with the range of motion.

During a recent WOD that included Abmat situps, I was performing the exercise by coming up high enough to touch my feet before returning to the ground. One of my coaches cued me to come “all the way up” so that my hips were at 90 degrees and my back straight. I thought she was crazy. I mean, the exercise is designed to work the Rectus Abdominus, right?…. and that muscle only is designed  flex the spine a few degrees, right?….and going up higher is only going to use the hip flexors, right?…….. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. My preconceived idea of an Abdominal exercise was flawed by individualizing the muscle, instead of the function. I was worried about blowing through the reps, instead of performing a movement. It led me to ask: why are the movements in CrossFit designed to be performed through a wider range of motion than those in mainstream fitness and body-building? I came up with a few answers.

① Full Range-of-Motion exercises force muscle synergy. I already mentioned that muscle in themselves limited in scope and in the movement they can generate. For the most part, a muscle contracts and causes movement in a singular plane of motion. Daily living requires more than a combination of individual movements strung together, unless your job is dancing and performing  “the robot.” Living is made up functional movements that require muscles to work together to accomplish a task or perform a movement. Because CrossFit is about increasing the ability to live a fuller life, its training is based on movement s and exercises that are designed to take the body through the widest range of motion. Lets look again at the abmat situp when compared to the conventional abdominal crunch.  A standard crunch requires a person to lie facing up, with arms crossed at the chest, and knees bent. The exercise is performed by contracting the abs and lifting the chest strait up. It’s a simple exercise in one plane, with limited movement, limited and limited range of motion (and most likely limited results). On the flip-side, an abmat sit-up is much more involved. The starting position, with the assistance of the abmat, maintains the lumbar curve of the back, in an over or hyper-extended spine position. The knees are bent and the upper-leg is externally rotated so that the soles of the feet are together and knees are pointing out. The exercise is performed by quickly sitting up to an upright position before returning back.  The starting position alone exposes the body to a much wider range of motion. The execution of the exercise requires the coordination of more muscles than the abs alone, and because of the starting position, the recruitment of extra muscles to synergistically assist, and the speed at which the exercise is performed, makes the efficacy of the abmat situp much higher than that of a standard crunch. The same observation can be made for nearly any CrossFit exercise;  whether it be box jumps, thrusters or pullups, the wider the range of motion of a movement, the more synergistic muscles must be recruited for strength and coordination. Many fail to see that a kipping pullup is a different exercise, and shouldn’t be compared to a conventional, dead-hang pullup. Although they have different objectives, that won’t prevent those outside of the box (pardon the pun) from commenting on every CrossFit message board and youtube video about “proper form”

② Moving through the full range of motion increases proprioception (one’s awareness of their body in space) and coordination. By extending a limb through its joint’s complete range of motion, it changes the body’s center of gravity and forces the core musculature to work harder to stay stable; which is also why there is such emphasis on moving from the core to the extremity. In a study published in The Journal of Experimental Biology in 2010, it was found that there was significant correlation between coordinated movement and increasing power and muscular efficiency; which is also why there is such emphasis on form in CrossFit. During my Level 1, Eric O’Connor (who is an amazing instructor and person) talked about how after he had attended an Olympic Lifting seminar, he pr’d all of his lifts. He went on to discuss that it wasn’t due to the fact that all of a sudden he was stronger, but rather that the coordinated and efficient movement patterns allowed for his power output to increase.

③ Finally, and probably most obviously, is the role that full range of motion movements have on functional flexibility. There is a learning curve to being able to perform every CrossFit exercise correctly.  Someone who has spent 40 hours a week for 20 years sitting at a desk in front of computer is going to have tight hip flexors, weak glutes, and week core. There chest may be tight and back weak from always having the arms forward for typing. Those muscle imbalances will make it hard for that person to perform each and every one of the CrossFit foundational movements. Everyone has little imbalances, but the great thing about CrossFit and good coaches is that a person will be supported in their efforts until that functional flexibility is achieved. While other programs ineffectually use static stretching to increase flexibility, CrossFit uses actual movement, as well as specialized techniques like myofascial release with foam rolls and lacrosse balls taped together. A person who can safely and correctly perform all of the CrossFit exercises will be prepared, from a range of motion standpoint, for any of life’s hurdles, without the added risk of injury due to immobility.

So the next the time your coach yells “Ass to Grass!” or “Lock it Out!”, take it in stride and know that they have your best interests at heart, and ultimately you will improve in CrossFit and therefore, life.

  1. […] back and thoracic muscles which just breaks the chain and leads to inefficient movement and injury. Here is a great post about why full range of motion is important in Crossfit and […]

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