Right now, our blog is all about football/soccer. First, Fabi has talked about injuries in his blog post, then Tom Geitner, athletic coach of the womens’ team of FC Ingolstadt has demonstrated how a football pre-season can be designed and executed with athletic training. Now comes an article that tries to accomodate several different aspects in one that all are related to the previous articles: CrossFit and football. What does this have to do with the recent blog posts? Well, let me explain.
It started with an article that I noticed in my Facebook timeline. It was about the new athletic coach of Werder Bremen, Jörn Heineke, and how he prepares the Bundesliga team with CrossFit for the current season. If you take a look at famous CrossFit athletes like Rich Froning and Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, this seems understandable at first.
CrossFit itself claims that it prepares its athletes in the best possible way for any physical challenge: ‘The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness. We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable.” (crossfit.com) And if you can finish the grueling CrossFit competitions, you should easily be able to play a game of football for 90 minutes, right? This is also part of Heineke’s reasoning behind his training choice: ‘CrossFit is a very challenging training method consisting of three elements: olympic lifts, cardio, and gymnastic elements. These are combined in a short yet highly compressed unit. This will give you an extremely high calorie output and an enormous basic fitness.’ At second glance, however, some questions arise. Doesn’t CrossFit work a lot with barbells? How does this impact the transfer to football? And what about the risk of injury?
What do the experts say?
To discuss the applicability of CrossFit to football you better ask the experts. The experts I am referring to in this article are Mark Rippetoe, based on an article he published on the Bodybuilding platform Testosterone Nation, our good friend and FuncMoveExpert Jim Ferris who is an athletic coach with over a decade of experience with professional athletes from all kinds of sports, and Tom Geitner, the newest addition to our gang of FuncMoveExperts and the athletic coach of the womens team of FC Ingolstadt. In order to alleviate some of the pressure you must feel in anxious expectation of the final answer whether CrossFit is a suitable training method for football according to the three coaches, I will already give you the answer: no, it’s not. But why is that so?
Why not CrossFit?
The reasons why all three coaches, without even knowing each other, explicitly voice the same concerns with CrossFit as part of an athletic training are manifold. All three state more or less the same points, albeit with different emphases. The most problematic aspects in this discussion are:
- The (seemingly?) random workouts
- The high intensity of the WODs
- The bad transfer to any other sport
I want to elaborate on these three points because all CrossFit advocades are probably already bracing themselves for another of the numerous uninformed hate posts about this topic. But all three coaches have good reasons why they see the aforementioned points as problematic.
The random workouts
CrossFit is built around ever-changing WODs (Workout Of the Day) with different exercises and training protocols each day. To give one example: the WOD from Nov. 4th, 2015 consists of only one exercise, split jerks, with three reps for 7 sets. The WOD of the day before looks completely different:
- Seven rounds of:
- 95 lb power cleans, 7 reps
- 95 lb thrusters, 7 reps
- 7 bar-facing burpees
What these two WODs have in common is the fact that they focus on the barbell as the only training equipment and that the barbell is pushed overhead. Apart from that, they differ in the training protocol (7×3 reps of one exercise vs. 7 rounds of 3 exercises in succession) as well as in the goal (split jerks for total load, the other WOD is for time). The three workouts before the two described WODs include two exercises with 5×3 reps, then three rope climbing exercises for time, and finally four different exercises that are all done in a tabata protocol.
It is this arbitrariness of the WODs that is almost a knock-out criterion for our three coaches. Mark Rippetoe describes his own experiences with the trainees in his own CrossFit box as follows: ‘Strength stopped increasing, and all the exercises that depend on skilled execution suffer from a lack of repeated practice.’ The problem Rippetoe has when it comes to developing strength with CrossFit is the randomization of the workouts which doesn’t allow for the body to adequately adapt to increasing loads: ‘The simple reality is that the acquisition of strength and skill is not a function of variation. It cannot be, because variation prevents the conditions necessary for the adaptations that make it possible.’ To conclude: if your body isn’t exposed to the same impulses repeatedly, it doesn’t learn to handle these impulses more efficiently. The human body is generally pretty lazy and likes to have everything as easy as possible. Thus, when you train with heavy weights repeteadly, it will simply add some muscle and make lifting these heavy weights more easy. If, however, you train for cardio, your body doesn’t need all these muscles and focuses on a better endurance. When you train both at the same time or in irregular intervals your body can’t conclude a certain pattern from your workouts and is unable to adapt to specialized challenges: ‘You cannot effectively adapt to both high-intensity low-volume force production and low-intensity high-rep conditioning at the same time, because they depend on separate physiological mechanisms. Attempting to do so effectively prevents a strength adaptation.’ (Rippetoe)
The high intensity of the WODs
As mentioned before, the workouts in CrossFit are goal-oriented. You either try to move as much weight as possible or you do as many repetitions in a certain amount of time as you can. So generally, every workout is designed to push you to your limits and beyond. The result is a very high demand on your body’s ability to regenerate which becomes especially hard when your body has to complete the football-specific training as well. ‘When I look at the intensity of CrossFit training in comparison to the training workload in pre-season: the players won’t be able to regenerate fast enough!’ says Geitner. Thus, CrossFit doesn’t ‘allow’ other workouts next to it, according to the athletic coach. The time that lies between two WODs is better spent on regeneration because of the high intensity nature of the training. For professional football players who have to train football-specific elements like technique and tactics, study paths and team play, perfect shots and free-kicks, this can become too much.
Particularly, when risk of injury increases: ‘Muscle soreness increases the risk of injuries and, at the same time, reduces performance’, says Geitner. Rippetoe agrees: ‘When movements that depend on high levels of force production and the accurate and precise execution of a complex movement pattern are performed to exhaustion or failure in the competitive atmosphere of a highly-motivated group of athletes of different levels of ability, the possibility of injury increases.’ Movements, that demand a huge amount of strength, depend on the near-perfect execution, otherwise injuries can become more likely. Especially when they are executed in an environment with group dynamics that will lead you to overestimate your own performance when totally exhausted. Injuries are something that professional athletes won’t be able to avoid completely, and yet they are extremely expensive for their clubs. In the Bundesliga, there are only a handful of clubs that can compensate temporarily losing a key player – if there are any other than Bayern Munich at all. So when it comes to whether the club will play the Champions League or Europe League, no club can afford playing without all of their key players. For comparison: while the German Champions League teams received a starting fee of 8.6 mio € each, the EL teams received 1.3 mio €. Being under the last sixteen nets the CL clubs additional 3.5 mio €, while EL clubs only receive a measly 350,000 €.
The bad transfer to any other sport
Now we come to a point where Ferris and Geitner differ greatly from Rippetoe’s assessment. Rippetoe is a big proponent of barbell training: ‘As it turns out, strength training with barbells combined with practice of the sports skill is the best way to develop both [strength and skill].’ According to Mark Rippetoe, the best training for a professional player is a combination of olympic lifts and sport-specific movements. So a football player practices shooting and passing, basketballers train throws. The rest is left to barbell training: ‘An increase in strength always improves athletic performance.’ Rippetoe says that you more than enough train your balance when training with barbells because you need your balance no to tip over while moving the bar. How that is supposed to improve a players ability to change directions while sprinting, he doesn’t explain, though.
Ferris and Geitner more or less completely oppose the barbell-centric philosophy of Rippetoe. For Geitner, there can only be an athletic training when the used movements have a direct relation to the corresponding sports. Thus, a pure olympic lifting training with barbells has no place in football training for Geitner, even though he uses a barbell from time to time: ‘The movement patterns have mostly nothing to do with the movements in football.’ Jim Ferris takes the same line: ‘CrossFit trains predominantly in sagittal plane typically under bilateral influence. Soccer is a multi-directional reactive sport relying on multiple systems and abilities. Soccer at the higher level just has too many specifics and CrossFit focuses on everything from a general standpoint with little to zero individualization.’ To make clear what sagittal plane means we can think about which movements this definition excludes: rotational and unilateral movements. While Rippetoe finds this perfectly acceptable – see his remarks about balance – Ferris and Geitner see a big problem here: ‘Footballers often suffer from asymmetries which can clearly be seen in Functional Movement Screens. This is due to the fact that they have one shooting foot and one standing leg. In my experience, 98% of all players have also problems with their shoulder, hip, and ankle joint mobility’, says Geitner. Thus, he follows, a barbell training with big weights is out of the question and would only unnecessarily increase the injury risk. In addition, football players need to change directions quickly in different speeds, be able to precisely control the ball when sprinting and have enough power in one-on-one situations on the ground and in the air. None of these situations can be simulated with a barbell. But almost all of these situations greatly challenge the core of the players with rotational and anti-rotational movements.
What are better alternatives?
As I have already mentioned, Rippetoe is a big barbell fan. So his perspective might be shaped by his personal preferences too much. A barbell-only training in combination with doing sport-specific movements is not optimal according to Ferris and Geitner. Ferris and Geitner have a very pragmatic attitude: ‘We need to look at training age, training needs, and abilities before we decide what tools will help progress performance. In terms of what you use to advance depends on the coach, the equipment available, and the clients.’ (Ferris) So he doesn’t want to include or exclude a certain piece of equipment before assessing his clients. Olympic lifting, which is a big part of CrossFit, is a good way for Ferris to train for total body power. But it is simply one training method from a pool of various methods that a good coach should have in his tool box. He summarizes it perfectly: ‘If you are strong enough work on getting faster. If you are fast enough add more strength.’
It comes as no surprise that the far superior option in order to train athletic abilities in combination with the pure football training is a functional training that is explicitly tailored to the requirements the players have to meet during the game. Geitner divides his training plan during pre-season in three segments: endurance, strength, and speed. He shows his personal concept of the perfect athletic training plan in detail in his blog post so I can only recommend you check it out if you haven’t already.
The fact that Rippetoe sees functional training as a bad choice for athletic training is due to the fact that he misinterprets it as balance training with light weights on unstable surfaces. The only thing that this proves is unfortunately his own aversion to dwell upon what functional training actually means. Strength training with a barbell certainly has its advantages when it comes to building pure strength. However, football players need more than just strength. Otherwise, you would have to ask yourself why players like Arjen Robben or Marco Reus look relatively skinny and like the complete opposite to powerlifters. As an american, Rippetoe probably thinks of American Football first when he thinks of athletic training, which is totally acceptable. But even in this sport, where giants clash with each other, his training would probably be too one-dimensional.
Whether the CrossFit-inspired training method of Jörn Heineke benefits Werder Bremen remains yet to be seen. After 12 games played, Bremen is 14th of 18 teams and in touch with the relegation spots as well as the one-digit spots. When it comes to average missed days due to injuries on a player-level, Bremen took an inglorious 15th place at the end of the last season with about 66 missed days per player. Whether this number changes significantly at the end of this season will be very interesting to see for Heineke and his superiors. Only then, and with a deeper analysis of the team training, they can conclusively determine whether CrossFit as an athletic training makes sense for a football team.
The positions of our presented coaches are definitely clear already: no, CrossFit does not work as an athletic training for football players. This goes especially for professional football players whose schedule is already pretty tight with up to three games per week. This calls for optimal training to make the most out of the short periods of time they actually have to spend on training and regeneration. The main goal here is to not only make the players better athletes but also make them less injury-prone. Tom Geitner and Jim Ferris wouldn’t use CrossFit for these goals: ‘CrossFit for soccer, if I had to put it in a program, would maybe be used in the start of the offseason to give the team a break from the monotony BUT that is if I was only forced to implement it in.’ (Ferris)
The best way to look at it probably comes from Manuel Ruep when he sees CrossFit not as a training method for other sports but for a sport in its own right: ‘I think you should look at CrossFit as a sport, this will put the critique into perspective. How many injuries are there in football, boxing, or American Football? As an athletic coach I think it is pretty useless to do 30 jerks for time. In the sport of CrossFit, however, this is one of the requirements that I can prepare for. This is no goal-oriented athletic training – and that is exactly where we should differentiate!’ (from Athletikblog, translation by me)
Thus, the claim of CrossFit to be the best preparation for each of their trainees for any forseeable und unforseeable physical challenge can at least be limited. CrossFit prepares its trainees for all physical challenges that await them in CrossFit, for football, however, there are far superior methods.
What is your take on this topic? Do you maybe play football and do CrossFit at the same time? Share your experience with us in the comment section further down!