Is the CrossFit Games Open all about Conditioning?

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17.1 at CrossFit Pearl City. Source.

The CrossFit Games Open is all about conditioning. It’s generally five metcons over five weeks and rarely, if ever, tests maximal strength or power. So if you want to get ready for the Open, just train a lot of light weight and body-weight movements, and don’t worry too much about your max snatch. You only need to focus on heavy weights if you plan to make it to Regionals.

You’ve heard these sentiments before. But does any data support them? A new study suggests otherwise. Its title is “Self-Reported Measures Of Strength And Sport-Specific Skills Distinguish Ranking In An International Online Fitness Competition.”

The Open has only once programmed a maximum lift–the max clean and jerk in the second half of 15.1. And yet, the Open workouts seem to select for strong and powerful athletes without specifically testing for strength and endurance.

Authors Paul Serafini, Yuri Feito and Gerald T. Mangine took the top 1,500 male and top 1,500 female athletes from the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games Open. Then they divided each sex into five groups (quintiles) ranked by Open finish order. Next, the authors compared the athletes’ self-reported benchmark data in each quintile (remarkably, the authors got this study published in the NSCA’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research without including fabricated injury data).

We should be careful about drawing firm conclusions from this study. First, the benchmark data is self-reported, so we don’t know how long ago the benchmarks were performed, or what movement standards the athletes held. Yet the authors,

“assumed that all performance scores were completed per the criteria described by the competitive organization and that all scores were current.”

These might not be safe assumptions. Here are Rich Froning’s current benchmarks on the current 2017 CrossFit Games site:Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 7.55.04 AM.pngNow, here are Froning’s stats from March 2013:

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So have Froning’s Fran, Grace, Fight Gone Bad, max clean and jerk and max pull-ups not changed at all in the past four years? In other words, did he really do Fight Gone Bad in 2013 and get 508 reps and then re-test it in 2017 and score 508 again? It is interesting, however, that he has updated his max lifts since 2013 (also, look how much Froning hates running).

On the other hand, it is conceivable that these reporting errors might balance out overall among the quintiles. So let’s look at the findings anyway. Here are the male strength and pull-ups numbers, sorted from the highest performing, Quintile 1 (Q1), to the lowest performing, Quintile 5 (Q5):

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And here is the table for the female athletes:

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In both tables, one pattern is clear: The top performers in Q1 had higher maxes than most everyone else. And the same is true comparing Q2 to Q3, or Q3 to Q4. As the authors put it,

“With some exceptions, competitors in Q1 reported greater loads (p < 0.05) compared to all other successive quintiles”

You may recall that the 2016 Open did not have a pure strength or power event. Here’s the programming:

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The heaviest possible loading occurred in 16.2, but the athletes only got to the 315-lb. (142.9-kg) cleans after completing a total of 125 toes-to-bars, 250 double-unders and 48 squat cleans at lighter weights. That’s about as far from a weightlifting meet as you can get.

The heaviest snatch in the 2016 Open was 75 lb. for men and 55 lb. for women, but the highest-performing athletes still boasted significantly higher max snatches than the other groups. The average Q1 male snatched over 24 lb. (11 kg) more than the average Q5 male, and the average Q1 female snatched nearly 22 lb. more than the average Q5 female. A similar pattern holds for the max deadlift, back squat and clean and jerk. The 2016 Open did not specifically test any of those lifts either.

So the men who excelled in the 2016 Open had the stamina and endurance to race through 84 thrusters and 84 bar-facing burpees in 10 minutes or less, while also snatching nearly 1.4 times their body weight and clean and jerking over 1.7 times their body weight. For women, those numbers were under 11 minutes and 1.2 and 1.5 times body weight respectively.

What inferences can we draw, keeping our earlier concerns in mind? From a programming perspective, it might not be necessary to specifically test strength and power in order to select for relatively strong and powerful athletes. This may seem counterintuitive, but it goes back to the very point of classic CrossFit workouts: to get a sense of an athlete’s overall capacity beyond the workout itself. If Fran indicated nothing about overall physical fitness, we’d all be lunatics for submitting ourselves to it (OK, we still may be lunatics, but we’re lunatics who are better prepared for unknown challenges than we’d otherwise be).

On the other hand, does this data suggest that the best way to get fit is to follow a strength program with the occasional short metcon as a finisher? Were that true, Katrin Davidsdottir probably would have figured it out instead of “warming up” with a 36-minute EMOM of GHD sit-ups, rowing, wall balls, running and GHD hip extensions. Nope, there are still no shortcuts to fitness.

7 comments

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing our study. I agree that the self-reported data was the biggest limitation (weakness) to the study, but I think considering the total number of participants we treated appropriately We hope the findings provide some valuable information for all athletes.

  2. Excellent. I had this same thought 3 years ago, “the Open is never really too heavy unless you’re elite, I’ll condition my ass off 3 months prior.” That did nothing but reduce my capacity overall. I don’t know that the “Black Box” is still holding all the secrets. A well rounded athlete is a better athlete, and consequently, fitter.

  3. For certain types of mathematical functions, it is possible to determine the value at all points by sampling the value at a few points. (A trivial example is two points determining the value of all points on a line, but there are far more sophisticated functions that can also be determined by sufficient sampling).

    If Coach Glassman is correct in defining fitness as a function (see here: http://journal.crossfit.com/2009/02/crossfits-new-definition-of-fitness-volume-under-the-curve-1.tpl) then it is not surprising that the Dave Castro and staff have succeeded in choosing sampling a sufficient set of data points (Open WOD’s) to accurately predict an athlete’s power output at nearly all data points. This may be why there is such a high correlation between Open results and Game results.

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