CrossFit is an enjoyable activity for many athletes that gives them a reason to train, and can help to make the individual a good mover. There are crossovers between Special Operations training and CrossFit, for example, where candidates benefit from CrossFit grip strength techniques, such as using pull-up bars or barbells in their training. However, candidates training for Special Operations selection should be advised that CrossFit training may not be the best overall fit, for reasons such as those listed below.
Top on the list of desirable attributes for Special Operations athletes, is aerobic fitness. Where CrossFit focuses more on anaerobic training, Special Operations training should concentrate on longer duration, sub-maximal intensity training for extended periods, combined with short bursts of high intensity activity. Athletes training for Special Operations selection should mainly focus on aerobic and strength training, as opposed to predominantly anaerobic training.
Special operations athletes must be strong. They are required to lift heavy, often oddly-shaped objects, which requires a consistent, slow exertion of force over a stretch of time. This differs from CrossFit, where athletes focus more on training to become powerful. Though the terms ‘strength’ and ‘power’ are often used interchangeably, the difference is that power is about speed and exerting an explosive force. Power is a lower priority for Special Operations athletes, and candidates need to be aware that they should focus on building up strength in their training. While initial Special Operations fitness tests may be passed without having to participate in strength-based activities, Special Operations candidates often do not train adequately for the selection process and fail when it comes to lifting heavy objects.
Special Operations activities incorporate three movements that are not often used in Crossfit training: running, swimming, and rucking. However, where CrossFit activities use these movements, for example in regionals, or CrossFit games, they are not consistently dosed in training or competition. Preferably athletes training for Special Operations selection will consistently use these movements, building them up steadily and gradually over time.
Touch-and-Go Training Style
When training, Special Operations candidates use ‘grinder’ style activities which are exercised over a long duration, such as rope climbs, farmers carries, or dragging objects with an odd form and heavy load. This differs from CrossFit, where the main focus of activities are using either quick, repetitive ‘touch and go’ types of exercises, generally with lower loads, or near maximal olympic lifts. The ‘grinder’ style of training allows Special Operations athletes to adapt to their surroundings, and to use improvised tools that may be located nearby. It also allows for endurance-building, such as when carrying awkward objects and heavy loads for long periods of time.
Single Leg Movements
Single leg exercises are highly beneficial for Special Operations candidates as they are used in a great deal of events that athletes will be required to participate in. For example, step ups, forward lunges, split squats, and rear foot elevated split squats, are all single leg exercises that are frequently used. CrossFit on the other hand significantly focuses on double leg movements, such as front and back squats, deadlifts, squat cleans and squat snatches, which are not as beneficial for candidates, although they still have their place. It is better to train one leg at a time, building up strength in each leg and proprioception (balance). Single as opposed to bilateral movements can also help to prevent muscular imbalances and left-right asymmetries that can drain muscular efficiency.
Trunk Extension and Flexion
Combat athletes often need to perform asymmetric exercises, with the obliques (which hug the side of your trunk) working to keep their torso upright and controlled. In CrossFit however, exercises focus heavily on trunk extension and trunk flexion. From deadlifts to GHD sit ups, these exercises are good for Crossfit, however they will not prepare the athlete for asymmetric movements that are required for special operations selection. Candidates should work on exercises such as a unilateral front rack KB, or suitcase deadlift, to help with working on trunk stabilization rather than, for example, using perfectly balanced bar exercises.
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Where CrossFit athletes usually train to improve fitness, or to build up skills in order to compete in CrossFit competitions, Special Operations athletes must think beyond simply training for sport. For example, in the course of the job, special operations athletes would not be required to perform a power snatch on demand. Special Operations candidates should carefully plan their training schedules and consider which modalities are best for them. For example, timed runs and rucks are important for improving fitness, however more of the technical or gymnastic CrossFit movements would not be so important. Special Operations candidates need to be mindful that they are not simply preparing for sport, but training for a role that requires a high level of fitness.
Short Duration Events
During Special Operations training, it is common for candidates to complete cyclical, sustained exercise, every day for 1-3 weeks. This is in stark comparison to CrossFit competitions that last as little as one day for most, although up to several days for top level athletes. It is better for athletes training for special operations selection to use sustained methods of exercise, in order to build up their endurance levels.
CrossFit uses prescribed sets of activities with specified durations and tasks, ensuring that athletes are often aware of the challenges that they are due to face, and can then measure their progress in the prescribed activity using a ‘rep or no rep’ method. Special Operations selection differs in that candidates are unable to predict what exercises they will face and the timescale of these activities. Candidates need to remain motivated throughout the duration of the tasks, performing consistently and responding well to the variety of challenges imposed. Therefore, it is best for candidates to focus on grinder exercises when training, repeating activities over a sustained period of time.
CrossFit has many benefits for the athlete, however when it comes to Special Operations training, candidates should carefully plan their training routine to take account of CrossFit’s limitations, from event duration, to differences in the nature of CrossFit movements. Where specific exercises such as touch-and-go or anaerobic activities are ideal for CrossFit athletes, combat athletes should focus on grinder-style activities, and sustained levels of exercise.
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