Virtuosity: The Proof Is in The Wall Ball

Janice Ferguson
July 31, 2023
Virtuosity: The Proof Is in The Wall Ball

by Janice Marie Ferguson
“As a whole, CrossFitters are focusing on a brief period of their life and trying to maximize their fitness gains, but missing the big picture. Futuristic thinking would show them that what really matters is not just how much they can increase their Fitness but how long they can sustain it throughout their lifetime.”

I found this in a recent blog written by Jason Ackerman, of CrossFit Soulshine. Read the rest of his insightful post: “CrossFitters…you’re missing the boat.”

Living in the Now
Everyone wants to live in the now. We have to do the work on the board that day. We have to put “RX” by our name that day. Whatever it takes, if we don’t give 100% of what we are truly capable of physically, we are losing out. We don’t care if that means we’ll be dealing with nagging back pain or limited range of motion for weeks, or even months, as a consequence. We want to be like everyone else. We want to compete. We want. We want. We want.

Wants vs. Needs
Every day, concerned affiliate owners try to balance the “wants” of their gym community with their “needs.” A lot of times, as athletes, we don’t know our needs, and we base our impulsive training decisions off our “wants.” PS: This is a no judgement zone. The only reason I have the wisdom to tell you this is because I’m not above doing it for myself. I learned the hard way that if I’m left to make my own training decisions, my “wants” will get me in trouble. That’s why I hired myself a coach. The value of an outside and realistic professional opinion has become priceless for my longevity and gains.

So, with that being said, my goal as the owner of our gym, and the captain of our ship, is to help our community think about their own fitness futures. I see a future of longevity, achievement and productivity for each of you. From the very beginning, I’ve always known that longevity can only be possible by pursuing two concepts that are at the foundation of CrossFit training, and one of the reasons that the best CrossFit athletes (and athletes of any sport or endeavor) are the best (other than their obvious inherent genetic predispositions):

1. Virtuosity. Doing common things, uncommonly well. If you have technique issues in a simple air squat, back squatting 400# is not going to make you better at squatting. There is a problem with the bare-bones basics of that foundational movement. Adding load or intensity will only increase your risk of injury and dampen your longevity.
2. Technique before load and intensity. Mentioned above in the back squat example. Adding load (weight) or intensity (higher power output, more work, faster) before you have corrected the problems with the basic foundational movement, is not an answer to making you better. At least not for the long term.

Since opening the gym, I’ve also learned another key concept to promote longevity:

1. When injured, you HAVE to stop doing the things that hurt you. If your arm hurts when you do pullups, you can’t keep doing pullups, and hope it will stop eventually. If your shins hurt chronically when you run, you can’t keep running day-after-day, and hope it will work itself out. You will have to dial it down a notch, and substitute something else for the injurious motion, and then very gradually work back to your previous ability. If you do it right, you’ll be back to your previous ability, and soon enough, even better than before.

Working outside of your ability and technique was never the intent of CrossFit, and those things are certainly not in line with the mission of Bandit CrossFit. CrossFit coaches who are unable to control this aspect of their classes are risking their good name, and contributing to the general non-CrossFitting public’s tendency to equate CrossFit as a fitness method with high-risk of injury. Considering the virtuosity command by Greg Glassman, and the idea of “technique before load and intensity” hammered upon all CrossFit Level 1 candidates, it blows my mind when I hear people say “CrossFit is dangerous.” CrossFit is not dangerous. The driving principles behind CrossFit are about helping people move better and increase their fitness. Injured people are not “fit.” It just doesn’t make financial sense for any CrossFit affiliate owner to injure people. It also doesn’t bode well for the future of CrossFit as a training method to promote or accept haphazard training methods.

As a CrossFit coach, it can be frustrating to get your athletes to recognize that pursuing the “RX” status at-all-costs is detrimental to an athlete’s longevity. When coaches work to help athletes work the basics and improve their form before increasing the intensity, it’s not to punish the athlete, or shame them, or make them cry–it happens, believe me. It’s to help them achieve greater levels of fitness in the long-term, and avoid even more loathsome, burdensome, and morale-busting plateaus and injuries in the future.

The Proof is in the Wall Ball
There are many athletes in the gym who can do the prescribed 20/14# medicine ball in their WODs. However, despite our phenomenal aerobic an anaerobic capacity at the gym, (90-95% of our regular gym members (not counting CrossFit competitors) tested the 2k row at less than 8:40, and 99% of men are below 8 minutes, with several approaching the sub-7 mark) we have very few athletes who can achieve a sub-six Karen (150 wall balls for time). While strength and muscular endurance may play a role for some, particularly our women, it is more likely that the athlete’s form causes them to do what I call “leaking energy all over the place.” Many of you have heard me say that in our classes, especially when you’re rowing. Leaking energy is basically moving inefficiently, and no matter your “engine” or aerobic capacity, you’re taxing your muscles in an unbalanced way. This causes you to “tank,” or run out of gas much sooner than you should. A set of 50 unbroken wallballs is next to impossible for someone with these technique problems, let alone doing 150 wall balls in less than 6 minutes time.

Three common technique issues in the wall ball that may cause this energy leak:
1. Rounded back/loss of lumbar curve–This fault places most of the load and work on the lower back and limits the athlete’s ability to recruit power from the glutes and hamstrings.

2. Driving up from the squat on the balls of the feet/toes–When you see someone doing this (in any squat or jump) that means the athlete is using the quads as the primary muscle and leaving out the full potential of the glutes and hamstrings to assist. Ever been extremely sore in the just the quads from wallballs, thrusters, burpees? You’re probably coming to the balls of the feet and putting the brunt of the effort on the quad for the movement. Side note: this habit is often accompanied by a degree of rounded back mentioned in #1, which only adds to the energy leak and your less-than lackluster wall ball performance, despite your 7:15 2K row.

3. Using one arm to throw the wall ball, like a basketball–It should be obvious to anyone, that relying on one side of the body more than another creates an imbalance, and continuing it is only feeding a bad habit. It is certainly possible to train yourself for the capacity to do big sets of one-arm dominant wallballs. However, you’re short-changing yourself from the most efficient way to get the work done. It may take working with a lighter wall ball and slowing things down a bit in the workouts so you can concentrate and think about correcting this bad habit, but once you do, it’s game on!

It’s human nature to seek the shortest path in completing a task. Often times, the remediation efforts to achieve virtuosity are long and boring. We want immediate results. Short cuts. So, we tend to ignore the remediation stuff. We don’t have time for that. I think it’s because CrossFit methods also support the idea of doing the most work in the least amount of time as a way to measure your success and progress. So, we do whatever it takes to achieve the end goal quickly, without considering there could be path less-traveled. That less-traveled path is a lot more work, but the long-term yield is much greater than any short cut. It takes great mental discipline to take two steps back in order to take a step forward. But, I encourage you to quit living in the “now,” and think about your future and the long-term rewards in chasing virtuosity. The reward for pursuing virtuosity, or excellence, in your movement can last you a lifetime. And a lifetime of fitness is what we want to help you find at Bandit CrossFit.

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