If you were involved in youth sports at any level, you’ve probably heard a coach talk about the importance of “fundamentals”. Every sport has their own set of fundamentals, these are elements like hollow position, bar hanging, and simple front-rolls in gymnastics or streamline, bodyline, and breathing in swimming. Regardless of the sport one thing is always true - the best athletes are always the ones with the most sound fundamentals. Simone Biles didn’t become the greatest gymnast of her generation by advancing past the most basic elements of her sport, rather she became the best by developing those basic elements and building from them. Performing complex skills, like executing a tumbling pass on the gymnastics floor, or swimming an Olympic record 100m freestyle is built by connecting a series of simpler tasks (the fundamentals) in succession. Elite athletes have drilled these fundamentals to the point where they are automatic and appear to the naked eye as effortless. However, anyone at the top levels of their sport will tell you, countless hours have gone into perfecting these to ensure that athletes have a solid foundation for the next skill in the progression.
In most sports the development of pedagogy for fundamental skill progressions has occurred through years of trial and error. As a sport develops, coaches discover skill progressions that work with higher success rates than what they were doing before, and adopt those as part of their coaching systems. CrossFit™ as a sport is extremely young compared to something like gymnastics which has been competed for well over 100 years. While CrossFit™ as a sport draws elements from many other disciplines like weightlifting and gymnastics, it also incorporates variations of those elements that may require the development of a different set of fundamental skills. For example, while snatching is an element of weightlifting, high-repetition / lightweight touch-and-go Snatches are a unique element to CrossFit™ - and efficient execution of light snatches is quite different than the execution of a 1RM Snatch. Beyond that, the fact that there are so many skills required to compete in the sport of CrossFit™ means that developing basic foundational movements allow athletes to perform novel skills to a high degree of efficiency.
The problem is that fundamental skill progressions for many of the movements used in this sport don’t exist. This is partially due to the fact that the sport is so young that coaches are still in the process of figuring out what works long-term and what doesn't. The other major issue that I see is our community's reliance on variance. Few coaches are willing to implement systematic progressions of basic movement patterns for fear of losing athletes who are constantly seeking variance and novel stimuli. It turns out that training the fundamentals isn’t really fun or exciting in the way that turning over your first muscle up or hitting a PR back squat is. However proper progression of fundamental movements is what allows you to achieve those things.
Identifying the fundamentals
The first obstacle for any coach whose focus is on long-term athlete development is to identify what they believe are the critical movement requirements of the sport. I don’t believe that this list will be the same for every coach, and there likely isn’t a “right or wrong” list of fundamentals. Movement is something that is unique to every individual, and our understanding of movement is shaped by our own perception. With that said, good coaches should be able to identify common elements in their sport and use those common elements to create a framework of fundamentals to implement in their athlete’s training programs. For the purposes of this article, I’ve created a list of the fundamental patterns that I try to include in my athlete’s training programs on a weekly basis. This list is far from exhaustive, and is only meant to illustrate how I view the common movement elements in the sport and some of the tools I use to address them.
Examples of fundamental movements in CrossFit™
As we discussed before, none of these elements are inherently difficult for an athlete with the requisite strength to perform them. In my experience, most athletes believe that once they are able to perform one of these fundamental movements that they don’t have to touch on them again. This makes sense intuitively because a hollow hold is not itself tested in competition. However in actuality, neglecting these elements will hinder an athlete’s long-term progress. I believe that this is why so many athletes see a deterioration in their movement quality over time. When athletes are constantly tested (asked to perform movements faster or with greater load), over time there is a very clear deterioration in movement quality. Reinforcing the fundamental patterns of the sport (like those I laid out above) can help to prevent some this deterioration and keep athletes moving more efficiently.
This deterioration of movement quality is something that I have experienced myself and observed in nearly all of my athletes - long training cycles that push athletes to the limits of their capacity force them into compensation patterns. These patterns are repeated and ingrained forming less-efficient movement patterns and habits. Eventually if left unchecked they can manifest as injury. By incorporating these fundamental movements as a part of daily training athletes may be able to push harder for longer without seeing deterioration in their movement quality.
Complementing a training session
Typically when incorporating these fundamental movements into an athlete’s training program I try to structure them so that they are complementary to the training priorities for the day. For example, if the training priority is overhead pressing strength, I may complement that by incorporating a wall-facing handstand hold focusing on an open shoulder position and hollow bodyline. By forcing the athlete to focus on their movement patterns to close out the session we can reset some of the compensation patterns that have been repeated during the heavy elements of the training session. I’ve provided an example template below of some common priority training + fundamental movement complements that I have used to help preserve athletes’ movement quality.
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Note: Complementary fundamentals are in italics, goal of the fundamental training is in (parentheses). This template only shows the priority strength + fundamental complements and does not include any energy-system or sport specific training.
Training the fundamentals may not be the the most exciting part of an athletic development program, however experience has consistently shown that the athletes who spend the most time mindfully developing the basics are the ones who consistently end up at the top of the podium. This holds true regardless of the sport. As coaches it is our responsibility to provide our athletes with programs that we believe will lead them toward their goals. Often this means holding them accountable for doing the little things right that most other athletes aren’t willing to do either because they are physically or psychologically challenging. Being diligent with the development of the fundamentals on a daily basis is quite psychologically challenging, but the payoff for the coaches and athletes willing to make it happen is well worth the sacrifice.