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.

14 thoughts on “Specificity, or, Systems Only Matter To A Point

  1. But this seems so deterministic. Sure, there is genetic variance, and we here are talking about elite athletes, the extreme .01% right of the bell curve. But saying that their training program doesn’t effect their performance seems to say also that the scientific method needn’t be applied to elite athletes, and they could just hop around and do kipping pull ups until they feel lighter and quicker and in better shape (or whatever). I don’t *think* this is what you’re saying, but that’s how it could be read, especially in some of what CrossFit says/does.

    The alternative, of course, is to apply the scientific method to all areas of physical training. In appealing to the empirical evidence, however, we would end up in a very BBS-like place. HIT workouts, even for elite athletes, would be done infrequently, perhaps with metcon workouts every once in a while, and sport-specific skill training done more often. However, this would still make sports into something of a weeding-out process; that is, the high school -> college -> professional athlete pathway serves to weed out the genetically-average and glorify the .01% right of the bell curve. And so, it’s deterministic because, if I’m not in that .01%, then I can’t become a great athlete.

    Or, maybe I don’t understand the main point of what you’re saying. All I’m saying is that there must be some underlying reason that these programs all work. Perhaps the elite athlete is just better at getting to that reason. For example, many say that intensity (aka effort) is the main factor in driving strength increases. So perhaps elite athletes are better able to increase their workout intensity because of a favorable set of genetics. I dont know if that makes sense, it s just a thought.

    1. “Perhaps the elite athlete is just better at getting to that reason.”

      This, Ben. The super-high athleticism lends itself well at both cranking the intensity and maximizing the physiological effect of that effort.

      Perhaps the elevator pitch would be: holding up a pro athlete as evidence of the quality of a program is incredibly wrongheaded because they are the .01%. The winners and the losers are likely doing something incredibly similar (hence my linking to Klosterman’s article) so it’s not the program that is making the winners win and the losers lose. Necessary not sufficient.

      1. And this is what I mean by deterministic: so much of being a good athlete depends on genetics. What’s the average joe (i.e. me) to do? I wanna be an athlete…

        I guess the only answer is to emphasize your strengths… “be the best *you* you can be.” I think I heard that from McGuff in the T21C video. In my own training, I’ve moved away slightly from the big 5, mostly due to mechanical sticking points in crappy machines, but also because I need a new physical goal to work toward. I know Ferriss talks about this. Currently it’s Baye’s 3×3 HIT workout: deads, dips, chinups. Maybe I’ll try kettlebell swings a bit later. And as you said, the program isn’t going to do *that* much for me; as long as I’m working hard and not injuring myself, it’s all cool.


      2. Well if you’re a workhorse, you can beat a prima donna. Lyle McDonald talks about this extensively in his “Talent vs. Work” series:


        Understand that I’m not saying hard work doesn’t matter, only that the successful training programs share more similarities than differences that that often the difference between a winner and a loser on a similar program is the coach’s temperament for peaking the athlete at the right time..not overdoing it and holding back the competitive edge in the gym so that they can be a monster when they do compete, as opposed to tired or injured from being a monster in the gym.

  2. As a Colorado resident I have to wonder if CrossFit didn’t make Moreno a *worse* athlete considering he’s been out all year so far with injuries;-)

    I’m also curious how you feel about Westside specifically then, if we are talking about specificity it would seem like the Westside method contradicts that. Louie’s philosophy seems to be the opposite of “if you wanna get good at something, practice it”, instead his philosophy is that you should work around the lift and address weaknesses, while almost never touching that specific lift. Doesn’t that suggest there are two schools of thought? At least in power lifting you always have the guys who say if you wanna get good at a lift, do nothing but that lift, and others who say you should do everything BUT that lift.

    Also, the other point I was going to bring up in regards to sports is maybe not *everything* has been though of, and I was wondering if you remember a story that Tim Ferris recounts in the “The Four Hour Body” about a strength guru who developed a system of detecting left-right imbalances and fixing them, and he was talking about how teams who have worked with him have gone from having tons of injuries to becoming the healthiest teams in the NFL.

    Maybe elite level athletes do equalize all strength training methods, but maybe strength training is a bigger umbrella then what we narrowly define it as.

    1. Westside is interesting because it’s clear they’ve had success but I wonder if it’s not because of the fact they had a culture that elite powerlifters gravitated toward. There are other high end powerlifting gyms that do lots of the movement that is going to be improved (Metal Militia and Ed Koan’s programming comes to mind). Like I said to Ben, the winners are doing westside but so are the losers…so what?

      Tim Ferriss was referring to the Functional Movement Screen, which is really a guru estimation that leaves a lot to be desired:


      The two studies showing positive stuff that’s made by Kyle Kiesel, one of the creators of FMS…

      If you read Swedish or you don’t mind Google translate you have a write-up on the subject here…
      the translated version

      Maybe a modicum of attention paid to being a little bit more balanced has athletes being more mindful of what they do and that reduces the injuries. I don’t know, every decade has a panacea in every sporting arena. Smart hard work fits under a pretty large umbrella and the experimental stuff should comprise a small percentage of the total workload until it proves itself to be both useful and productive.

  3. Ben,

    Here’s my take on your question: “What’s the average joe (i.e. me) to do? I wanna be an athlete…”

    Pick a sport that requires more skill and less raw athleticism. Wide receiver in the NFL is a position for freakazoid athletes. Golf, on the other hand, requires skill and the right mental approach but nobody is concerned over their 40 times. I played high school basketball with a teammate who was a good high school basketball player but limited due to his athleticism. He might have been able to play for some DIII programs but he was such a good golfer he earned a full ride to a DI school on a golf scholarship. Not that I’m pushing golf or anything, just making a point.

    I agree with your comment to emphasize your strengths. There are plenty of examples of athletes who have seemingly overachieved (I don’t buy that label, they have simply gotten closer to their potential than anyone believed they could) due to intelligent and hard training.


    1. I like that strategy. I’ve always been interested in mma, and I’ve had some experience with mma, BJJ and capoeira. I’m also tall, so I have a good reach for striking. Currently, I’m at a school with a DIII baseball team, and I’d like to see if I can play for them. But I’ll see how that works out in the next few months. If it doesn’t, then I’ll probably continue strength training and look into doing more martial arts. Thanks a ton for the input David.

  4. So many great ideas here. Thanks for posting Skyler!

    Quick, 30,000-foot type of question: If CrossFit makes you above average at many things rather than best at everything, isn’t that precisely why it is a great program for non-competitive athletes? (So yes, it might NOT be the smartest for competitive non-CrossFit athletes, agreed.) But if you have no goals involving sports, wouldn’t a general physical preparedness program (that prioritizes health over performance) be ideal? This of course would vary gym to gym and coach to coach. Thanks!


    1. If the slant can be balanced away from pure metcon to a strength bias it would be a fine way to achieve health. The coaching and frequency would need to be addressed because it would be very easy to get sucked into the crossfit “hardcore” mentality and end up overreaching your capabilities and capacities. Understand this is not a complaint leveled only at Crossfit: when I powerlifted it was easy to get caught up in attempting way more than my capacity. It’s how I hurt my back deadlifting. I’ve also done the same thing in hot-room yoga, where an external stimuli was interfering with my internal feedback mechanism of telling me when enough was enough.

      So intelligently implemented Crossfit with the goal of general health/fitness/nakedness, from a competent coach, and an ability to take the 30,000 foot view (or someone to do it for you) to make sure you’re not overdoing it would be just fine.

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