Muscles, Movements, CrossFit, and Zombies

By Deane Barker tags: health

Once, when I was in the military, I was doing a PT with the Marines. I was 19-year-old gym rat at the time, never far from my copy of Muscle and Fitness, and I thought it wise to explain to the drill sergeant that sit-ups were inefficient. They used too much of the hip erector muscles, not the abdominals. If we switched to crunches, I reasoned, we’d all see a lot better ab development, and isn’t that the point?

The drill sergeant paused, took a deep breath, and responded:

Son, the United States Marine Corps doesn’t give a sh-t what your stomach looks like. The Corps only cares THAT YOU CAN SIT THE F-CK UP WHEN WE TELL YOU TO!

Profanity aside, that’s a pretty profound thought.

For the record, I was right – sit-ups are technically inefficient if the point is to develop your abs. However, they’re not inefficient if the point is to get better at sitting up. If that’s your goal then full-range sit-ups are exactly what you should be doing.

More generally, if you’re a soldier in an active combat zone, do you care what your muscles look like? Or do you simply care that they help you perform work? The brick wall at the end of a dead-end alley doesn’t care how many strict bicep curls you’ve done standing in front of a mirror at the gym. All the bicep curls in the world aren’t going to save you if you can’t crawl over that wall in 60-pounds of gear.

For as long as I can remember, the American exercise industry has been muscle-centric. Most everything we do in a gym revolves around specific muscles. In the average health club, they have machines to isolate almost every individual muscle and this is how they tell us to work out. Go muscle by muscle, making sure you exercise them all.

We’ve been told that it’s essentially a three-step process.

  1. We should do Exercise A, which will

  2. Develop Muscle B, which will

  3. Improve our performance on Movement C

A “movement” is defined as a coordinated use of multiple muscles to perform some type of work in the real world. Getting better at a movement is really the entire point of strength training.

For instance, we might do a shoulder lateral raise (the exercise) to develop our deltoids (the muscle) so that it’s easier to lift something over our heads (the movement).

But what if we just cut out A and B? What if we just went straight to Movement C and practiced that? Instead of doing a specific exercise like shoulder laterals designed to isolate and develop our deltoids, what if we just started lifting stuff over our heads? I mean, that’s the entire point, right?

This is a movement-centric method. Instead of doing exercises to work out muscles so we get better at movements, we just do the movements, and, in the process, we work muscles. The movement is the thing. The muscles are just along for the ride.

This flies in the face of everything I ever learned in the gym as a teenager. Back then, we obsessed at what “lifts” were the best to develop each individual muscle. Isolation was key – you tried to find some lift that just destroyed a single individual muscle, to the exclusion of everything else so you contorted yourself into increasingly contrived positions that had nothing to do with reality and only existed inside the walls of the gym. But it was okay, because movements were just a means to the end of developing muscles.

Then I went to CrossFit, and all this changed.

In CrossFit, you isolate nothing. CrossFit is almost totally movement-centric. You do movements, which end up developing muscles, but that’s just a side-benefit. The focus is on the movement. Yes, yes, your muscles will get bigger over time, but that only matters insofar as it makes you better at the movement.

I’ve never done a shoulder lateral raise at CrossFit, but I’ve done a hell of a lot of lifting stuff over my head. I’ve never done a crunch either, but I do sit-ups all the time – either all by themselves, or as part of some other movement that requires me to get up off the ground (Reverse Burpees, anyone? Turkish Get-Up?).

For example, take the dreaded Toes 2 Bar. For this movement, you dead hang from a bar, and then you swing your feet all the way up until you touch them to the bar where your hands are. (As you might suspect, this sucks very, very much.)

When explaining this movement, at no time did a CrossFit coach ever tell me which muscles I was supposed to be working. That wasn’t the point. The point was to get my toes to touch the bar, full stop. Any muscle development that occurred because of that was, well…incidental.

An outsider could critique this movement a dozen different ways: “If you stop halfway, you’ll isolate the abs better,” etc. But these critiques would be mostly misplaced. The idea of a Toes 2 Bar as an exercise specifically designed to isolate the abdominals is a strawman that’s easy to tear down. The fact is that the Toes 2 Bar is nothing more than you touching your friggin’ toes to the bar.

You might not know exactly what muscles you’re working, but that’s cool – while you’re intellectualizing about it, some dude half your size just did a dozen of them. Stop over-thinking it, dumbass.

Does not knowing what exactly muscles are involved detract from this exercise? Nope. The morning after I did these for the first time, everything hurt. My forearms, my biceps, my lats (upper back), my abdominals all the way down through my groin to my upper thighs. The entire front of my body was a seething mass of pain. Turns out, I worked a lot of different muscles, and to this day, I can’t tell you what they all are. But I still do Toes 2 Bar, and I get better at them every week.

At CrossFit, you don’t think about muscles. No movement is ever done with the primary intent of developing any specific muscle. The movements are done with the primary intent to get better at the movements. Secondarily, you’ll develop the muscles involved, but you’ll also develop all the ancillary functionality necessary to do the movement well – things like coordination, timing, balance, stamina, and kinetics.

Remember that our physical lives – you know, the stuff we do outside the gym – are a series of movements. Muscles are just a means to an end. We should be doing strength development to get better at movements, not just work muscles. Do you care if your shoulders are strong, or do you care that you can lift a box over your head and put it on a shelf? If you concentrate on the latter, the former will come.

Admittedly, you can do it the other way around, but I maintain that this is inefficient. The movement of lifting a box over your head requires perhaps a dozen muscles working together – to say nothing of the balance and coordination involved – and if you’re isolating your shoulders, you’re just getting one of them. But if you just lift something over your head a lot, you’re getting all of them together.

Like most things in life, this point is best summed up using zombies.

One day, the zombie apocalypse will happen and you’ll find yourself running away from a teeming horde of the rotting undead. Sucks to be you. Suddenly, ahead, you’ll see a tree branch hanging just low enough for you to grab it and pull yourself up.

When this happens, are you going to make sure you dead hang, then arch your back to ensure maximum isolation of the lats with no lower body movement so that the zombies stand back in silent awe and admire your form and range of motion? No. You are not going to do this because if you do, the zombies are going to eat your damn feet.

Rather, you will do anything you possibly can to complete that movement without giving a second thought to the muscles involved. The zombies will make you completely movement-centric. Your only goal will be to get up on the damn tree branch. The exact muscles involved in completing that movement will be the furthest thing from your mind.

And therein lies perhaps the greatest marketing slogan CrossFit will ever know:

CrossFit: Because Zombies Like to Snack on Toes

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