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Technique vs. Load (and intensity)

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Imagine you wake up and you’re in the seat of a world-class race car. You know how to drive…heck, you’ve been up and down Highway 400 countless times. But now you’re in a RACE CAR! What do you do in this scenario?

A. Go pedal to the metal and rip that thing around the track as fast as possible? or

B. Ask someone there to properly train you to drive this powerful machine until you feel you have a good grasp of what it, and more importantly, you, can do?

I’m not saying there is a right answer to the above, as many of us would opt for A and some of us might not have even thought about B as being a viable option. But what if you picked A? What would happen? Chances are many of us would have some VERY close calls, some wouldn’t push the car to its max, and a good sized group would completely smash the car into a wall! Whoops…trip cancelled!

OK, so why are we talking about race cars? Well because we learn from metaphors and this was the one I came up when deciding to write about technique vs. load…specifically related to us CrossFitters. So switch gears here (pun intended) and assume that race car is a barbell now, and let’s assume you want to get really good at lifting that barbell (with a lot of heavy weights!). Now what option would you choose? It’s easy to say “Oh, I’d go with B”, but in the moment, many of us turn to option A, and I think we can all agree, this is not the best way to master something. Moreover, it’s dangerous to your health…the main thing we are trying to help you with at our gym!


Technique can be defined as the following: a skillful or efficient way of doing or achieving something. When applying this directly to CrossFit, think about someone in the gym who moves extremely well. Whether it be a 95# deadlift or a 250# snatch…it’s technique that is the key to mastery, and ultimately power output. As Greg Glassman (founder of CrossFit) put it: “Proper technique is the mechanism by which potential human energy and strength are translated into real work capacity.”

By now most of you have probably heard of Rich Froning (4x CrossFit Games Champion). If you haven’t, here is your chance to dive into a one hour google/youtube rabbit hole to watch that guy workout. Do you ever see his back round on a deadlift or front squat? Does he ever “starfish” his cleans or end up on his toes in an overhead squat? Hell no. In fact, Rich wears regular Nanos when performing his Olympic Lifts, which is insane, given no Olympic Lifters do this (that I know of). And is there any coincidence to the fact that he is a four-time CrossFit Games Champion? Well if you doubt it, you should at least acknowledge the massive correlation happening here.

Now we can all agree Rich is a freak of nature, but one thing we must also agree on is that he never compromises his form when training, and this has enabled him to be the best CrossFitter. Ever.

Application to Training

So how can we apply proper technique to our training, yet still get to brag to our friends about how much we lifted on a given day? Well to start with, think about how much weight you put on the board when you’re injured? Not a lot, right? Hopefully zero actually, as that’s a good sign you need to rest and recover first.

But let’s get positive here. Most training programs only allow for 1RM testing every 8-12 weeks, meaning you are only going to work off of a percentage of your 1RM until that testing day. This means you don’t need to be a superhero everyday you come to the gym…just on testing days. 😉

The reasons for this are countless, but here are a couple main ones:

(i) Your body cannot handle maximal training all the time. For one, it puts a big strain on your central nervous system, meaning it takes longer to recover. But moreover, you increase the risk of injury (typically due to poor technique and overuse); and

(ii) Strength is a skill. You need to practice the principals of a lift in order to master it. Periodization will also give you a chance to build the foundational muscles in order to max out a lift. A world-class deadlifter will set up for 300lbs the same way they will for 1,000lbs, and their lift will look the same too!

What does this mean for you? Well for most of us, it means that everyday we come to the gym does not need to be a “max” day. If Coach Raul programs a 10 round EMOM, and you decide to “start light” so you can max out at the end, are you really getting the best of your session? You probably breeze through the early rounds, not even thinking about technique, and then by the end of it, you haven’t even been practicing perfect technique, so things get sloppy. Sure, you can hit the lift, but was that your best use of your training time? Probably not. Therefore, get a good warm-up in, and try to work within a given range of your 1RM for that movement (i.e., 70-85% the entire EMOM). I’d be willing to bet you’ll see better strength gains in the future, and that steady focus on technique will become more natural and won’t degrade when maxing out in your testing weeks.

Taking this further, into our workouts, pick weights that are manageable for YOU, and ones that allow you to keep proper technique. We don’t assign Rx weights randomly…we assign them for the more polished CrossFitter who can handle that load. Please do not feel you need to strive for Rx when you only lift half as much as others who are using the Rx weight. Your training should be relative to your abilities…no one else’s. For this reason, you will start to see more percentage based workouts in class.

One quick side note: we love those of you newer people who come to class at the beginning of your CrossFit life and tell the coach “I just want to get the technique down before adding a lot of weight”. This is exactly the right approach. HOWEVER, this article is for you too…because if we coaches tell you to add weight, we are doing so knowing your technique is there and have a better sense of your abilities than you do. Consider us the driving instructor who decides to turn off their instructor brake, and let you let loose (just a bit) on the race track that day. 😉


To steal a paragraph from another CrossFit programmer’s blog that I read while researching this:

“In order to achieve these benefits from weightlifting, however, you need to practice proper lifting mechanics. And you need to master lifting mechanics to be able to move more load. See, the better you get at activating the right amount of muscle fibres in the correct sequence, the more capable you are of imparting force on the barbell. More load on the barbell will certainly encourage the body to activate more muscle, but your potential to move more load will forever be diminished with incorrect patterns.”

I know this article primarily focused on barbell training, but it’s applicable to other movements we do. Take the muscle-up, for example. Many people are actually capable of performing a ring muscle-up, but until they have built the correct base of strict ring dips, etc., they could do damage to their shoulders while trying perform a high volume of these.

Be impressed with people’s movement patterns and their progressions, not just the amount that’s written beside their name on the board. And try working your percentages more…we think you will actually lift more when it comes time to test.

Any questions? Ask a coach! We are always here to help.

Happy training!