Using Deep Work Principles to Succeed in CrossFit

Deep Work Principles for CrossFit

If you’ve been doing CrossFit for even a few months you will have marveled at the athletic ability of the athletes that compete at the CrossFit Games. Doing the same workouts as them within the four walls of your gym, you find yourself staring at a chasm between your own abilities and theirs.

How did they get so good?

And, how can I ever achieve that level of fitness?

In Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” he puts world-class performance down to three variables: innate ability or genetics, the ability to learn and adapt quickly, and the ability to perform deep work. While genetics are somewhat fixed, all three have some degree of flexibility and when you look at a sport like CrossFit it becomes easy to see how these phenomenal athletes managed to achieve such elite levels of fitness and do things most of us only dream of being able to do.

The Genetic Blueprint

Genetics plays an undeniable role in athletic performance, influencing everything from muscle composition to cardiovascular efficiency. In CrossFit, where a broad spectrum of physical capabilities is tested, genetic predispositions can tip the scales in favor of those naturally inclined towards strength, stamina, or agility. This realization, however, is not a call to resignation for those who find themselves at a perceived disadvantage. Instead, it’s an invitation to tailor your training and strategy to align with your innate strengths, while diligently working to improve areas of weakness.

The best athletes understand what workouts fall in their wheelhouse. They look for opportunities to score more points in events that favour their genetic makeup and go into damage control if the event is less favourable.

Play to your strengths, if you are a taller, heavier athlete you will have an advantage in workouts where you are moving heavier loads (barbells, sandbags), covering distance (lunges, wall balls), or on machines like the rower. If you are a smaller, lighter athlete you will fare better in gymnastics or bodyweight style workouts and have an advantage in running and box jumps. As a power athlete, you will do well in shorter more explosive movements and workouts, while endurance athletes will want to see longer, grinding workouts.

Remember, the best athletes don’t win everything. They just don’t lose by too much when they can’t win.

Adaptability: The Learner’s Edge

The ability to adapt and learn quickly is a game-changer in the ever-evolving world of CrossFit. With constantly varied workouts and the introduction of new movements and challenges, athletes who can swiftly assimilate new information and translate it into action often rise to the elite levels and stay there much longer. This capacity for rapid learning extends beyond physical skills to encompass mental resilience and strategic thinking. Developing adaptability involves embracing a growth mindset, seeking feedback, and dedicating time to mental and physical practice. By becoming a student of the sport, you position yourself to navigate the complexities of CrossFit with agility and insight.

The 10,000 hours concept asserts that the key to achieving true expertise in any skill is simply a matter of practicing, albeit in the correct way, for at least 10,000 hours. This requires the accumulation of deliberate practice, that is, a practice that stimulates the brain and forces new neural connections. It’s not enough to come in and get the work done. The best athletes are cognizant of exactly what the purpose of each session is, how efficient they are in their movement, and how they might be able to gain an edge by making small tweaks and innovating.

Set an intention for every piece of training you do, if you aren’t good at this it might be better to find a good coach. An objective third party can make observations about your movement or your training tendencies and adjust as needed. Sometimes this is in the form of changing up movements or entire workouts, and other times it might be to bring your mind back into the present and stay focused on the training.

Hard Work: The Common Denominator

While genetics may lay the foundation and adaptability sharpens the edge, hard work remains the universal currency of progress in CrossFit. It’s the one variable entirely within your control, capable of bridging gaps and turning potential into performance. Hard work is not just about the quantity of effort but its quality and direction. It means training smart, with a focus on consistency, recovery, and a well-rounded approach that addresses both strengths and weaknesses. Setting realistic, incremental goals and celebrating progress, however small, can sustain motivation and foster a culture of perseverance and excellence.

In a previous blog post, I talked about Minimum Effective Dose for athletes wanting to make consistent progress in their training. By setting the goal and determining the MED for your training you will have more clarity and be able to spend your energy wisely and achieve much greater results.

Strategies for Maximizing Your Potential

  1. Understand Your Genetic Strengths and Weaknesses: Use benchmark workouts and competitions like the Open to find your strengths relative to the competition. Monitor your performance to identify your natural inclinations in training and competitions.
  2. Embrace a Growth Mindset: View every workout as a learning opportunity with a clear intention. Be willing to try new strategies, and ready to adapt your approach based on performance data and outcomes. Work with a coach to get objective feedback.
  3. Quality Over Quantity: Ensure that your hard work is smart and targeted. Incorporate evidence-based training methods, prioritize recovery, and avoid the pitfalls of overtraining by using the Minimum Effective Dose principle.
  4. Set Process Goals: Instead of fixating solely on outcomes, focus on actionable process goals that contribute to improvement, such as keeping to your training program, maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, or timing your meals to optimize your energy levels for training.
  5. Build a Supportive Community: Surround yourself with coaches, peers, and mentors who understand your goals and can provide the encouragement, knowledge, and accountability needed to thrive.

Success in CrossFit, as in any endeavor, is multifaceted and requires excellent genetics, adaptability, and mountains of hard work. By acknowledging and addressing each of these variables, athletes can craft a more informed and effective path to achieving their CrossFit ambitions. Remember, while the role of genetics and the speed of adaptation may vary among individuals, the commitment to hard work is a non-negotiable requirement for high performance in any area, and CrossFit is no different.

Play to your strengths, train with purpose, and be the hardest worker in the room. If you do this consistently over time, the results will follow.