Specificity, or, Systems Only Matter To A Point

Life is full of happy coincidences.
Last weekend I was commenting to my wife how America, land of the “best at anything at all costs” has a massive hard on for college football, which is absolutely not the highest level of competition in this country. To this she replied, “They’re kids prone to mistakes which means anything can happen.” Not 2 hours later we see aTexas come back against BYU and Michigan pulls off a silly come from behind victory against Notre Dame.

Not to put too fine a point on this but Chuck Klosterman (who looks like he sells insurance at a bank nearby) just wrote an article over at Grantland about how, the further down the college levels you go, the crazier the offenses become because it works at that level, or to put it another way:

A platitude endlessly parroted by broadcasters is that the NFL is “a copycat league,” but it’s one of those platitudes that’s true: Because the level of athleticism is so high, there are only certain things that work. (Emphasis mine) The smartest guys and the dumbest guys know all the same secrets, and it pushes the whole game toward a virtual singularity.

But move down one level, and things start to change.

This relates to a discussion I had in class just yesterday.


Brand new commenter Steve and I are in the same Exercise Physiology class and yesterday got to talking about my gym. After explaining what we do (“If it’s efficient, effective, and intense, we’ll use it. No dogma.”) he asked if it was like Crossfit (HQ hereafter). No, no it’s not and my general complaint about HQ is that the programming only serves to improve your ability to crossfit. And if you’re really good you can end up on ESPN2, competing in exercise…but I digress. While holding up a pro athlete doing your system is really great for a box selling memberships, read Klosterman again:

…The level of athleticism is so high there are only certain things that work.

Or to put it another way, what an athlete does in the off-season is not going to make them a better athlete, not by this level. If they perform smart in the off-season, they have prepared their body for the rigors of the season. If they aren’t smart, they set themselves up for injury. Once they can practice with the team and the strength coaches, they’re going to do whatever the strength coach demands of them because it is one of the few things that works when everyone is that athletic. None of it has an advantage of any other system.

And even then, the strength and conditioning coaches are all equally smart at finding ways to keep their guys strong throughout the season. Championships have been won on just about every type of system: from HIT to Westside variants and everything in between. If we were to make the claim that the system of strength and conditioning is responsible for team performance then the 1972 Dolphins, who went undefeated, prove that Nautilus-based HIT is the best system for training athletes. This is a foolish statement; a good strength training system is necessary but not sufficient.

Raw Materials

Here is a video of Knowshon Moreno doing Crossfit. He is a running back for the Denver Broncos.

Here is a video of Vincent Rey doing HIT. He is a linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Neither of these systems are making them better athletes; in fact their athleticism is allowing them to perform these workouts at a much higher level than any layperson with such little experience. These systems are however improving their raw materials which, if properly integrated with their skills, will allow them to scrape the last bit of the barrel of their potential as football players. Neither system, however, is responsible for making them good football players, nor can either system hold up a single player doing well one season as “proof” of a system’s effectiveness. What if the season “Joe Running Back” happened to just kill it was the same season that the offensive line was the most dominant it had been in over a decade? Performance does not exist in a vacuum when we talk about team sports.

Mired in minutia

A general criticism of HQ programming is that it is too metcon/general physical preparedness focused. This is true: go back to my reference to the Crossfit games and the events are HQ workouts, which are often the programming used at gyms (or “boxes”) across America. So the system dictates competition by way of these workouts, which in turn makes the gyms train to improve athletes times in these workouts. So you get good at working out but if you want to be better at things other than doing HQ workouts, you’ll have to go somewhere else or find a way to match the metcon demands of many HQ workouts with your sport.

In fact, there are many former HQ box owners who splintered off to do their own things with a specific focus: Max Effort Black Box ( a strength-focus template), and Crossfit Football (a template geared toward the needs of football players) come to mind. Cross training alone, no matter how intense, isn’t going to cut it. This bears out in the research: if you want to get good at something you have to do that something. So often athlete try to do everything when that only makes you maybe average at all of those things, or if you’re really good, you become an Olympic Decathlon. Keep in mind that the decathlete is rarely as good in any even as an athlete who specializes in any one of those events. If you’re trying to improve your weighted chin up, improving your Fran time might not cut it. However increasing your weighted chin is likely to improve Fran. “Before you can have strength endurance you must first have strength with which to endure.”

A Final Note

Steve and I are in disagreement about a few things and that’s fine. However he did have one point that I think rings true:

“I find the people who get injured are trained by inexperienced coaches who had enough money to open a box.”

This isn’t just an HQ problem, but they’re so visible as to how true this statement is that you don’t have to look hard to find an example.