The debate about the best way to train new members of your gym has raged for a million years in the CrossFit world.
The 2 sides go something like this: Some people think it’s best to slowly and progressively work within a person’s current abilities, build up their strength and coordination with fundamental exercises, and move them on to more complex loading patterns when it’s appropriate and/or necessary. Others think that everyone should have the same workout with never-ending variety, and learn complex and fundamental movement patterns at the same time – but maybe just with a broomstick or an empty bar at first so they don’t get hurt.
This would be pretty similar to taking 2 identical people who don’t know how to speak English and deciding you want them both to do Shakespeare.
We could send the first guy straight on to Hamlet, and just start learning it off by heart phonetically (because that’s probably the fastest way to do it, right?). He’s going to be completely lost at first, but eventually, if you repeat it enough times he might figure out a couple of the sounds…then maybe he might be able to remember a few sentences in a row. After a couple of months he might even be able to deliver something that sounds like a soliloquy. The trouble is, he has built a house of cards which will crumble under the slightest pressure. If we ask him to move on to Macbeth he’s screwed! He’s got no foundation from which to understand it, and we have to go back to square one every time.
Meanwhile, we’ve got our second guy, who started by learning the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make. Then he got the hang of putting them together into words. Then he learned sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, rules of grammar and all those other “boring” fundamentals for a while. When he finally gets to Hamlet bits of it might look a little tricky at first. Some of the words may be spelled oddly and seem to have too many e’s, but he’s quickly going to discover that “this bit” looks kind of like “that other bit” he’s already familiar with, and he’ll be able to figure it out based on his experience with the principles that he has already mastered. Later, he can then breeze through Othello, Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth and the rest afterwards.
Clearly, the second guy is in a much better position. The thing is, the first guy is going to LOOK like he’s making way more progress. If a casual observer checked up on both of them after 3 months, Guy 2 will be studiously attending to “C is for Cat” and “ D is for Dog” while Guy 1 is asking us if it’s better “to be or not to be”. If we didn’t know what we were looking at, we might conclude that Guy 1 has got a much better teacher!
This is exactly what happens in gyms across the world: where well-meaning but inexperienced coaches decide they’re going to teach all their new members how to do Olympic lifts, kipping pullups and all kinds of “racing against the clock” with high-skill, high-coordination exercises.
It comes from a good place – they want to teach all that awesome, fun stuff they themselves love and share the journey of them achieving things they never though they could do – but they are going about it completely backwards.
The vast majority of new members they train are busy, adult beginners who have probably not been taking great care of themselves for the past 10 years. Their muscles and connective tissues are tight and in need of strengthening. They’ve lost a lot of coordination. They don’t sleep as well as they used to and find it harder to recover from training now. Their bodies need to spend a few months (or perhaps years!) getting back to grips with A, B and C, but their trainer is trying to get them to do Shakespeare.
Sure, you CAN take a client who can’t do a solid set of pushups, or even hold a plank, and start teaching them to snatch. The world doesn’t end or anything. You cannot, however, do it for 5 years. The best case scenario is you just annoy and frustrate them when they look back on a year’s training and discover they have made almost no progress. The more likely outcome is you hurt them, they have to stop training and they end up more overweight and unhappy than they were before they started.
Greg Glassman – the founder of CrossFit – said pretty much the same thing nearly 13 years ago in an open letter to CrossFit trainers (which you can read here if you like http://library.crossfit.com/free/pdf/Virtuosity.pdf).
I’m blowed if I know why this conversation is still going on, and why this still happens in more gyms than not…
If you can’t squat yet, you won’t receive any additional benefit from overhead squats. If you can’t overhead squat, it’s a waste of your time to snatch. If you can’t snatch….well, you get the idea.
If movement is the language of the body, then squats, deadlifts, presses and pull-ups are the words we speak with. When you’re really good at them you can put them together into fancy sentences, paragraphs and turns of phrase like the snatch or the kipping muscle-up up…but if you start on the other end there is nothing but frustration and injury waiting for you.
(“Really good” usually means somewhere between level 3-4 on the Strength Standards chart: https://www.crossfitsandyford.ie/strength-standards/ )
A person’s training programme should be made to suit the person, not the other way around. You don’t try to bang the square peg into the round hole, and you don’t keep banging inappropriate exercise against someone who needs fundamental work instead.