I think by this point everyone has noticed the trend toward functional fitness, cross-training, and tactical elite athleticism that’s been creeping into the fitness industry. With the rise of Crossfit and everybody else rushing to copy-cat, it’s hard not to notice the rush of people jumping on the bandwagon of functional circuits for time, the sudden appearance of people wearing Vibrams or Chuck Taylors — the hallmark of shaved-headed powerlifters c. 2001-2008 — while doing weird combinations of deadlifts and plyometrics and other assorted exercisey things not generally seen in your average gym.

Those of you that know me know I’ve been half-ass critical of that in the past. Only half-ass, though; I couldn’t and still can’t bring myself to full-on hate, because there are a lot of positives that have come out of this trend. It’s hard to deny that getting people more active in general, and exposing them to solid strength & conditioning practices in the process, is a good thing on balance. Even putting aside benefits like the Andro Broads, Crossfit and the wider functional-fitness movement it has spearheaded has done a lot to popularize the effective training methods that I’ve tried to promote for years.

Again, on balance, this is a good thing. But this does not preclude any criticisms.

If I have one big beef to pick with this entire concept, it’s that there is very little attention given to exercise selection, sequencing, and programming. There is nothing wrong with using a diverse range of exercises, implements, and training methods. All the same, it’s potentially bad to ignore good practices, where “bad” may equal anything from “mostly unproductive” to “causing potentially severe injury”.

It’s hard to separate that particular criticism from a larger discussion of setting and achieving goals. If you’re happy doing quasi-random circuit training, then far be it from me to criticize. My goals aren’t your goals and that doesn’t cause me any chafing. That said, if you want to achieve Goal X and Workout Strategy A isn’t getting you there, then you need to evaluate what you really want out of the process.

Cardio conditioning “metcon” type workouts have acute and very obvious effects. You get lung-burn, you sweat a lot, you get nauseous, and importantly, you get that oh-so-precious endorphin rush when you come down. Don’t think that just because it’s a natural opioid that you can’t develop a kind of addiction. Addiction to your own brain chemistry is why people overeat, sleep around, turn greedy and ruin the economy with derivative trading, and just about any other aberrant obsessive-compulsive type behavior you can think of. Point being: the euphoria you feel after a metabolically-intensive, cardiovascularly-challenging workout is not reflective of that workout’s effectiveness, where effectiveness is defined as moving you toward your goal.

Unless your goal is to have workouts that leave you breathless, sweaty, and euphoric. Which, in fairness, is all some people want. If that’s you, cool. Keep doing what you’re doing. If you’ve got real performance, athletic, or aesthetic goals, keep reading.

I often get accused of being the “strength guy”, of only caring what I can lift for a 1RM, because I promote strength as a foundational quality that people should emphasize. I’m told that other people don’t care what they lift in a squat or bench, and that they only want to pursue other activities. The interesting part is that these statements are not in conflict.

As I’m so fond of saying, “strength” is not powerlifting. Powerlifting is a specific sport that tests specific exercises in specific ways. Training for powerlifting is a very particular sub-goal of Training For Strength. Training For Strength means training the ability to apply force against external resistance. This can be a barbell, a dumbbell, a kettlebell, your own bodyweight (if you’re a gymnast or a sprinter), somebody else’s bodyweight (if you’re a martial artist or wrestler).

When I say strength should be emphasized, the implicit meaning is that strength in the set of core barbell exercises is only useful as a means to an end. Getting a decently impressive squat and deadlift and overhead press and weighted chin will set you up to do likewise impressive things in your activity of choice. Even if you don’t care what you lift, the point remains that you don’t always train for a contested event the way you do the actual event.

Case in point, I very rarely do chins with over five reps in training. At my uninjured best, when I’m able to do solid sets of 3-5 reps with at least 90 lbs/40 kg around my waist, it’s pretty trivial to walk in the gym and hit at least 15-20 pullups with bodyweight. The same goes for ladders — when you stick to sets of 1-5 reps but work up to an impressive volume (which represents a substantial strength gain even though you didn’t actually “lift heavier”), you’ll almost always find it trivial to walk in and hit a high-rep set without any prior practice.

Of course, this leads to another adage, which I’m paraphrasing from Glenn Pendlay: how you get strong matters as much as how strong you are. There are nods to specificity of strength that you must make, depending on your goal. As in the above example, getting stronger in chinups by doing a lot of ladder sets is different from doing heavy sets of 3-5, and probably more applicable to doing high-rep sets of pullups.

This also means that you don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t, limit your strength training to barbell exercises. I always think of Ross Enamait when I talk about this. A few years ago, he got into it with some Forum Experts because he doesn’t tend to do traditional barbell strength training. All the same, Ross does do a lot of strength work — just with different implements and exercises. The loudmouth told Ross he couldn’t deadlift five plates because he virtually never did the lift. Then Ross put up a video of an easy five plate 495 lb pull.

Another case where the training for the event is not the event. Ross didn’t train the specific lift, but he did do a lot of resistance exercise with other movements which developed the required strength.

The point remains: Getting Strong is a kind of general preparation which carries over to a wide spectrum of other fitness abilities. You don’t train for marathons by running marathons every week. You train by building up an aerobic base over time, letting your body and the relevant muscles adapt for the real test. What gets you in shape for the event is not always the same as the event. For power and strength-endurance activities — which is what circuit training tends to target — a foundation of strength is a base to build on.

Time and again I’ve seen this in play, where a “traditionally strong” person spends a short time training specific skills and endurance and totally cleans up against people that only focus on tested events. There is a difference in general preparation and specific preparation. Only worrying about the specifics without building the general foundation leaves you deficient. You might be okay with that. You might only be working out to work out. If you have performance goals, you want to shore up any possible weak links.

How strong do you need to be? My particular rule of thumb on that is to get as strong as you can without interfering with the training for the event(s) you care about. This will be dependent on your activity, obviously — if you’re somebody doing ultra-distance endurance work, the answer is “probably not very” (although in my opinion there is a case to be made for doing at least some strength work for muscle balance and injury prevention purposes). The more anaerobic short-duration your goal is, and the more it relies on quick bursts of high-intensity effort, the more likely Getting Strong will help.

Seasonal sports can devote off-season time to this and so it’s not as big a concern; they can use more traditional periodization methods to keep strength and skill, power, and endurance work separate. Sports with no real off-season and on-going events, like mixed martial arts, have to slot strength work into the routine in ways that don’t interfere with sparring and conditioning, which are more important.

If you’re a recreational exerciser after general fitness, you don’t have that kind of limitation. I always try to think in terms of economy. What’s going to create the largest gain for the amount of time invested? We can invoke the Pareto principle here: 80% of your gains are going to come from 20% of your efforts. You want to push and prioritize that 20% to maximize your results.

I’ll add the caveat that if you’re already reasonably strong — I’m not giving numbers for this, but reasonable multiple-of-bodyweight numbers for the main lifts — then you can probably get away with putting strength on the back burner, only maintaining or giving a nod to getting stronger.

Athletic development is a long term process, and the needs of the beginner are different from the needs of the old hat with 5-10 years of constant training. For a beginner, it’s all about building a base — build strength and muscle, as these are traits that take the longest to ripen and mature. Do other things in the process, sure, but don’t neglect strength. A person with several years of mixed strength and anaerobic training behind him/her will be in a much better position to dominate than a person coming out and sticking to no-rhyme-or-reason circuit sessions that don’t encourage long-term progression.

Within a workout, there’s a reason that high-skill movements and “power” movements come before strength movements, and both come before conditioning or endurance work: fatigue. You order exercises according to how sensitive they are to fatigue. Olympic lifts and and technique work you may be doing (sprinting, jumping, punching technique, whatever) should come when you’re fresh; tired muscles are uncoordinated muscles. Strength work won’t really be affected by skill/power work, and may even be improved thanks to potentiation and general warm-up effects. Conditioning work won’t be substantially affected by either, and the entire point is to train to resist fatigue, so you put it last.

The point being, there’s a rationale for this that I can explain to you rather than just waving my hands and telling you to do something. You train the fatigue-sensitive stuff when you’re fresh, and train the fatigue-causing stuff last when it doesn’t matter. For this very reason I tend to keep away from circuit training — at least the “throw it in a blender” circuits that mix strength and skill elements into a circuit which has the real purpose of conditioning. Let me repeat myself to clarify: circuits are for conditioning work. Don’t put high-skill or strength-building work in there. Leave conditioning work, which includes ‘metcon’ circuits, to low-skill exercises.

Endurance-building work trains the heart and lungs, and they don’t particularly care whether they’re getting trained because you’re running, or pulling a sled, or doing power cleans supersetted with kipping pullups and 400m sprints. Your joints, however, do.

So I ask again: what is your goal? Are you training for “fitness”? If so, then repeatedly doing quasi-random circuits for time, with no apparent rationale for that structure, no respect for exercise choice or sequencing, probably isn’t going to help you. Then again, if you’re not terribly concerned with much besides getting off the couch, hanging out with friends, and getting a nice lung-burning endorphin rush, then cool. I wish you the best.

If you want to maximize your performance results, then you’ll only help yourself by paying attention to solid practices. This isn’t unique to me, mind you. So-called hybrid programming is becoming more popular in the functional community these days. The ever-versatile 531 program can be used as a minimalist strength routine and combined with hill sprints, Prowler pushes, and sled drags for conditioning.

Gant Grimes has put out a hybrid workout that blends skill, strength, and conditioning, which can be found here (PDF). There’s also what was the Wichita Falls hybrid program (PDF) which I like for its simplicity, two strength days, two hard conditioning days (similar to a program I did myself for a lot of 2009).

These routines all develop a blend of strength and conditioning, forming a framework that will build a general foundation of athleticism. If your goal is to be competent and capable in a range of skills and exercises and broad modal domains, then building the foundation is going to have the most profound effect. Once the house is built, then you worry about putting up the curtains. Do it the other way around and you’ve just got a mess.

The ideal outcome from following one of these programs would be athletes just as comfortable entering a powerlifting meet or strongman contest as they would be going on a bike ride, for a game of soccer or rugby or football (pick the one appropriate for where you live), a swim, a hike in the mountains, or whatever else you want to name. Strong, fit, and ready for anything because they have that base of strength and conditioning.

Summarizing the take-home points from this post:

  • Don’t ignore good practices with regards to exercise selection, exercise order, and programming.
  • Strength training is not synonymous with powerlifting.
  • How you get strong is at least as important as how strong you are.
  • The training for the event is not necessarily the event.
  • Think economy. Maximize the training that has the greatest effect.
  • What the beginner needs and what the old dog needs are not the same.

Those of you readers that go for Crossfit-style training — what do you think? What have your results been? What do you expect from your training? What do you consider to be your goals?