Are You Strong? Context-Specific Strength in Fitness


I want to talk a little about Context-Specific Strength today, in part because of the WOD at CrossFit Glen Ellyn. We’re doing a couplet of chest-to-bar kipping pull-ups and “squat” snatches at a moderate weight, which causes steam to come out of the ears of some orthopedics and anti-CrossFit keyboard warriors. It’s a hard workout that serves to ask an interesting question: 

Are you strong in this context? 

Strength doesn’t exist outside of a task. Lifting a bag of dog food is a task that requires strength, as is  running. When we’re talking about testing or training strength, what we’re talking about is somehow challenging your posture and position. To train maximal strength, we do this rested, but we don't always have the choice of being rested when the world asks us to be strong.  

Traditionally the snatch is done at a low heart rate, with lots of rest in between sets, because it’s a movement with so much nuance that it challenges posture and position all by itself, and because its utility is in training power (speed+strength). 

So when we do seven chest-to-bar pull-ups, a couple things happen: your heart rate goes up, your grip gets a little fatigued, and your lungs start working faster. Now, when you go to lift the bar, you’re breathing heavy and can’t get as still, your grip doesn’t hold onto the bar as strongly (hook grip, guys), and you’re going to create a moment of extreme blood pressure if you need to hold your breath at all to lift the bar. The demand can turn an easy weight into an unreasonable weight. It can turn a good lifter into a hot mess.  

So when are you strong? When your heart rate is 70? How about 170? That’s what we want to train today, not just because 17.3 had these movements in it and it might come up this year in the Open. We want to train strength under duress because we want to have as much strength available to us in as many different contexts as possible. 

This is a big reason a lot of people are turned off of CrossFit. No, the Olympic lifts weren't designed for this, and no, it's not the highest and best use of the Olympic lifts. But it's part of the sport, and I don't believe it's unreasonable to ask, every once in a while, everyone from "elite" athletes to lifestyle fitness enthusiasts to perform technical lifts in a manufactured panic.

Snatches and pull-ups aren’t the only way to train this, of course. It’s just a fun way to train this, and if you're preparing for the Open, the best predictor of success is going to be tests they've already done. So if you haven’t done the workout yet today, take care of some shoulder mobility, prep your calluses, and visualize yourself maintaining good form when it feels like you’re breathing through a coffee straw at Everest base camp. 

Load the bar smart, and have some fun. 

See you on the floor