Athleticism, my view

July 23, 2012 — 15 Comments

The CrossFit games just ended, and those contestants definitely contend for fittest on earth.  But, not most athletic.  In my view, neither do sprinters, high jumpers, or triathletes.  To me there is one key demand which truly tests athleticism: REACTIVENESS TO DYNAMICALLY CHANGING DEMANDS.

I am not intent on taking away any of the amazingness exhibited by competitors who sprint faster than 99.9% of humans, or can do Fran in 38 seconds (or whatever), or can do the iron cross and other crazy stuff on the rings. BUT, there is NO comparing the demands of a sport like basketball or volleyball to other events which contain no dynamic reactiveness. I’m quite sure we could take the best competitors from track and field and they would excel at football and other dynamic sports-that also is not what I’m saying. I’m saying that in my view, the pinnacle of athletic expression is tested in a dynamic field of play or demands.

For instance:

Now, in these sports which require the most athleticism as I describe above, the majority of performance happens between 50ish%-90ish% of the max effort of the athletes. The athletes must be able to fluctuate their speed, strength, effort, and relaxation in order to accomplish always changing tasks.  That IS harder and requires more athleticism than giving everything you have into one task, or even one series of predetermined tasks. This 50-90% of max effort is where the magic happens, and also happens to be where I think most athletes should be training. From a % effort standpoint, that shouldn’t be earth shattering for anyone-we all know that we want to move sub maximal loads faster/more explosively.  But what I think is this: true athleticism means being able to do more with sub maximal loads/efforts.


  • Your max power clean is 200lbs.  Traditionally you might train weights between 100-150 focusing on speed (yes, my %’s aren’t technically exact, i’m just making a point). I believe that has it’s place and should be done. BUT, I also think those cleans should be trained with sandbags, stones, D-Balls, in different stances like a split stance—with the goal being more mastery of sub maximal efforts.
  • Your max broad jump is 10 feet.  I want you jumping between 5 and 8 feet in different directions, landing on different targets, from different approaches.  Again, I want you mastering sub maximal efforts.

Rarely does 90-100% get tested on a field/arena. 100% means lack of control to an extent-and athletes always need control.  This is a reason why sandbag and kettlebell training lends itself to athletic training so well-because they both allow for sub maximal loading in novel ways requiring additional control.  The sandbag especially tests dynamic reactive components in lifts due to its shifting nature.  I believe that we shouldn’t just try to have athletes be faster at lower %’s of weight-but to be able to demonstrate more control over their sub maximal efforts with lifts and exercises.  This gets tricky-because it will inevitably result in someone trying to juggle a kettlebell while standing on a bosu ball wearing a scuba mask—BUT, if done intelligently it can be very valuable.  What I’m talking about lies in the middle of the pendulum, where one end is very traditional “but it’s not max effort and therefore isn’t as good” thought, and the other end is the bosu ball scuba gear knucklehead.  I don’t know what the amount is where diminishing returns are seen on max loads, but it’s probably less than a lot of S&C coaches think it is.

There will be people, friends of mine, who don’t agree with this idea.  They will argue that a split stance swing doesn’t produce as much power as a bilateral stance swing, and that is true.  However, there is more going on in a split stance swing than a bilateral swing: anti rotation, higher loading on one leg, balance challenge, all of which test the athlete’s control of a sub maximal effort aka where sport happens.

Just so people don’t get mad that I didn’t list their sport: MMA, dodgeball, even baseball, basketball, football, soccer, rugby, volleyball, tag, basically anything which has DYNAMIC REACTIVE requirements.  Those requirements demand coordination, agility, and balance that CF, olyweightlifting, and other events don’t require.  Again, I’m not saying one is better or harder, because at the elite levels of track Lebron wouldn’t compete either…I’m just defining what I think athleticism is TO ME. And how I like to train it. Because unless I was competing at an elite level at one thing, I’d like to be better at the 50-90% range of what I’m doing.

This is how you’ll train if you come out to BA training classes with me in San Diego.

15 responses to Athleticism, my view


    I think this is an important distinction, and one of the better criticisms of CrossFit I’ve seen. (most CF criticism takes the form of “CrossFit’s Gay…rabble, rabble, rabble…)

    When I train CrossFit classes, We definitely have a lot of max effort stuff and workouts where you go 100%, but I make an effort to include a lot of your version of “athleticism” and ask for coordination, balance, agility, and other neuromuscular work from those I’m training.

    What are some examples of things you do that illustrate this?


      Most sandbag training drills inherently are sub maximal (compared to BB) and each lift is different due to shifting weight. Simply changing stance from bilateral and static into split stance with footwork will create a more athletic demand on the trainee.


    Athleticism is transference of skill across different athletic endeavors…at least that’s how I’ve always thought of it. Someone like Bo Jackson or Jim Thorpe come to mind. And no, I don’t think those two gave much thought to modals or domains.


    Two of the elements you overlook are (1) the vector element and (2) the multiplicity factor. In some organized “sports”, yes, there is a need to dynamically react to a moving object — but it is only one at a time and it is always coming from the same direction, i.e. the shortstop knows that the ball is coming to him from the batter and he knows in advance whether he will be throwing it to first or second base if he gets it. And there is only one ball.Other sports have more moving elements but the directionality makes it athletic, but not inventive, and not necessarily reactive — when you get a rebound or receive a pass in basketball (e.g. you always know where “your” basket is, even though the people are all moving around). Sports are good. But don’t say that they are inherently better than other activites. Otherwise you wouldn’t have fat old guys as designated hitters in major league baseball. The ultimate sport, prehistoric human survival, demanded way more than any modern game or athletic contest requires. Imagine having to climb a tree to escape a carnivorous beast only to find that there is some other kind of threatening creature already in the tree. So you have to jump down, run and dodge across a boulder field, and hide behind a rock to escape the beast, only to find that an unfriendly tribe of enemies has already hidden there so you have to fight and wrestle to escape, which you do by jumping into a steam and swimming across as fast as you can to avoid the alligators! Then, by the way, you are free to lope across the savanah and kill your dinner by throwing a spear forcefully and accurately at a swiftly moving target. How athletic is any modern fitness activity — especially all those gym things we do indoors and standing still?


      1. I knew putting baseball was a bad idea…and agree that they display less athleticism than any other example i gave. 2. In any sport you aren’t just tracking the ball, you are tracking and adapting to the other players as well-and they are inventive. 3. Prehistoric battle/war tested athleticism like no other. However, the argument of our ancestors having more athletic lives has nothing to do with this conversation. They’re dead. We don’t live like that anymore. I clean and press logs because of the inherent variance, but I’m not training like a caveman. Sport endeavors test athleticism in a specific time frame and often-life requisites are tested randomly and infrequently, your prehistoric man would not see that type of day often.


    Clifton – good post. I agree with pretty much all of what your wrote…and people who challenge things like the old, overweight designated hitter are obviously missing the point.

    The point is…CrossFit is great. You have mastered fitness. I have my CrossFit cert and started doing “CrossFit” in 2007. It is a GREAT way to workout, but misses a lot of “stuff”. One thing is that reactionary, often lateral (or really any direction) movement caused by following a ball or reacting to other players. CrossFit has little or not lateral movement, and has almost nothing reactionary. The athletes even seem like they are exposed to things like the obstacle course before-hand so they know how to attack it.

    You hit the nail on the head with the 50-90% effort. It is only a few times per game that you get to that 100% effort. In fact, tail backs and point guards that are most effective are those that change speeds efficiently. The ability to go from 50 to 90 or 90 to 50 in as short a time as possible is more important than being able to get above 90%.

    Guys like: point guard & two guards in the NBA; safeties, corners, tail backs, tight ends & middle linebackers from the NFL…no one touches them in athletic ability. Their speed, reactions, start/stop, adaptability, strength to weight ratio, lateral quickness, etc… is unparalleled.

    An anecdotal, but interesting thing I always like to think of is, how would that athlete do if they swapped sports after a month or two of training? I have to imagine someone like Adrian Peterson, Adrian Wilson, Patrick Peterson, Mike Vick, Chris Johnson, Derrick Rose, Nate Robinson, Dwayne Wade, and on and on…would be able to play almost any sport or do CrossFit, or basically anything they want. Even guys that are bigger in size like Lebron James or Julius Peppers…they might not excel at CF because of size, but they would probably make a serious run at playing pro in another sport (Peppers did play basketball for North Carolina).

    I think the CF community (and other communities) get caught up in their own respective sport/discipline in thinking the buck stops with them…but there is a reason these guys get millions of dollars per year…it’s because they are the best athletes. If they got more money to do a decathlon or CrossFit…they might think about. But until then, I think the pro athletes stay on top as the best athletes.


    This is an entire field of study in the Sport Psych world. Arousal control, focus and attention are all tools and attributes essential to an athletic performance. I attribute most of my success as an athlete to my ability to perceive change and see plays develop before anybody else. I wasn’t always the biggest nor strongest but I was always able to put myself in position to make a play.


    ***puts down scuba mask*** Thank you for this post Clif! Seriously though, excellent perspective on the difference between fitness and athleticism. To a certain extent, fitness is developed in laboratory-like settings where variables are controlled. Athleticism is displayed when nearly anything is possible and choices have to be made, and thus creativity emerges.


    One of my favorite posts from you bro. That video is insane.

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