Variety Is Specificity: Fitness Sport and the Nature of Emergent Properties
A long time ago, in a galaxy before the CrossFit Games, my first coach and training partner, the now infamous Russ Greene, told me about one of the tactics he used to keep his pace up during hard running workouts: “I just keep telling myself that at least I’m not doing high rep squat cleans.”
Russ had made two important observations about his training. First, that high rep squat cleans are truly miserable. Second, that high rep squat cleans had a bigger impact on Russ’ ability to maintain his running speed than virtually any amount of running did. More interesting was that even as Russ increased his squat clean maximum, and got better at high rep squat cleans, and became a faster runner, his ability to run when coupled with squat cleans improved only marginally, nowhere near the rate of the components themselves.
At the time, we didn’t give it much thought – or at least I didn’t. It was CrossFit, that was just how CrossFit was. But with a decade of experience and learning, I have finally come to see what it was that Russ had identified with that comment. He was identifying the emergent properties of fitness sport.
Emergent properties are properties which can be observed in a complex system, but not within the individual components of that system. A classic example can be drawn from chemistry: although table salt is made up of sodium and chlorine, those two elements do not necessarily taste “salty”. The flavor profile of table salt is an emergent property of the compound NaCl.
Emergence is the reason that the NFL combine isn’t strongly predictive of success in the league. It’s the reason that leg pressing and deadlifting isn’t sufficient to maximize your squatting strength. And it’s the reason that improvements in running, max squat cleans, and high rep squat cleans in isolation were insufficient to create the same rate of improvement in Russ’ ability to perform workouts which coupled the two movements.
In better understanding emergent properties, there are at least three major implications for training.
First, the need for variety is made more clear than ever. If the events the athlete will face in competition will require the athlete be able to exhibit and withstand hard-to-predict emergent properties, then the athlete’s training should expose them to a wide variety of formats and combinations of movements, so that the odds of the athlete being prepared for any particular event are improved.
Second, we must learn to be selective in our repetition. Consistency is required for improvement in any given skill or capacity, but in order to get the most out of that consistency – and to avoid making our training so repetitive that we fail to include sufficient variety – it’s important to determine which elements (be they specific movements, formats, or combinations of movements) are likely to produce the best carryover to the most things.
Third, and perhaps most important, our training must be sport specific. It is easy to fall into a trap of reductionism – breaking down the sport into its constitutive components, and training each of those components for maximal development in isolation. To some extent, this type of training is necessary. Depending on the athlete and the time of year, it may even take primacy. However, we must always keep our focus on the long game of developing the highest level of sport specific fitness – and that requires regular and year round exposure to sport specific training elements.
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