Dr. Loren Bertocci

by Loren Bertocci, Ph.D

I had the pleasure of attending the 2017 Masters Crossfit Games in Madison WI. To the extent the schedule allowed, I watched every heat of every masters event. When masters heats were concurrent at two different venues, I always chose to watch the older age-groups. Having spent all this time watching these athletes, and having had a few chats with some of the athletes, I have three sets of observations on all of this.

The first, and most obvious, observation is that these athletes exhibit an almost superhuman work capacity. They can do movements, over and over again, minute after minute, in a way that looks like they have found a way to defy fatigue. Yes, at the end of each workout, they were very fatigued, but managed, during each of these workouts, to keep lifting and keep moving. I know that the kinds of things CF athletes do is not exactly the same as what I do as a weightlifter. Today, for example, my training starts with 3×3 followed immediately by 10×2 high hang snatches on 90s. They will be heavy enough (65-85% of my 1RM) that I will probably sustain a heart rate of at least 140 for that roughly 20-minute period of time. To attach some numbers, I will move roughly 1,400kgs (3,000 lbs) of barbell during that 20-minute period of time. If you include the weight of my body (from the knees up) I must move, it comes out to roughly 7,000 lbs moved. As a bit of comparison, compare that to the bar fight workout. It was, as follows: (1) 12xCJ; (2) 2 rounds of 15xT2B + 12 xC2B pullups; then (3) 12xCJ. In my age group, that would require 3,720 lbs of barbell plus roughly 4,000 body (from the knees up) moved in the CJs plus (depending on body weight) roughly 6,000 more lbs moved in the T2B and C2B. That means that these athletes moved close to 14,000 lbs in roughly the same time that I will (later today) move 7,000 lbs. That is a LOT of work being done in a short period of time. It was truly inspiring to watch it happen and even more impressive when attached to actual numbers. I can only imagine how I would feel, coming home, after such a workload. Actually, I can imagine… I have done it in the past and I arrive home looking very much like the old aphorism about horses: “ridden hard and put away wet.”

My second, and much less obvious, observation is one connected to movement patterns. At the risk of gross over-simplification, most Crossfit movements can be put into two groups: (1) movements that apply force to the ground and (2) movements that are largely independent of force application to the ground. Examples of group 1 are SNs, CJs, DLs, WBs, HSPUs, thrusters, etc… Examples of group 2 are all the gymnastic-like movements, DUs, running, etc… As a weightlifter, it was easy for me to see that many athletes doing group 1 movements did not do them with very much mechanical efficiency. Sure, it is “easy” to clean and jerk a weight that is only 60% of your best front squat. In fact, it is so easy that many such CJs can be done, rapidly, with some significant deviations from what would be considered to be good weightlifting technique. But if good technique were applied, I can only imagine that these athletes could do the same thing with less energy expended or do the reps even more rapidly than they were being done. Additionally, the same clean movement patterns, applied to WBs, thrusters, etc… would have the same benefits. Somewhere along the line, attention to clean and efficient movement patterns may have been sacrificed in the interests of doing more robust metcons in training. I wonder how these final results might have been different if those with the poorest mechanical patterns had, instead, clean and efficient movement patterns, honed by specific work on weightlifting with a real weightlifting coach.

My third observation is the least obvious of the three, but is somewhat related to both previous observations. This observation is that far more than half of the competitors I watched were simply not strong enough to do what they needed to do. I will offer two (of many possible) examples, these two (again) pulled from the bar fight workout.

In this workout, the older athletes had to do 2 sets of 12xC2B pullups (the younger age-groups had to do 50xC2B). In normal training, these are usually practiced as part of a metcon, using some gymnastic (kipping or butterfly) movement pattern. These movement patterns translate some form of swinging movement to relieve the upward pulling force that must be applied to the bar, functionally making it possible to do these pullups without applying as much force to the bar as would be required if the pullups were done strictly. So, at the Sprint-O-Course with its monkey bars and rope swings, some of the athletes were simply not strong enough to manage these. I wonder how many of the athletes who struggled on those components of that workout would have benefited had they done a lot of heavy, weighted, strict pullups in training?

These athletes also had to do 2×12 CJs (the younger age-groups had to do 1×30). For those in the oldest age-group, these were done with 155 lbs. Only 9 of the M60+ athletes could do a double front squat of more than 225 lbs. Thus, they were required to do 2×12 CJ at roughly 70% of their best front squat. In contrast, the top four athletes were doing those CJs at only about 50% of their best front squat. I do not care how many metcons you do, if you are trying to do 2×12 CJ at only 50% of your best front squat, you are doing to do them faster than someone who has to do them at 70% of the best front squat. Using the same logic as above, how much easier are thrusters and WBs for someone who has a 300 lbs vs a 225 lbs front squat?

Taken together, what I observed, over and over again, was that the stronger the athlete, the more likely they were to place well in all the workouts. Sure, metcon type conditioning is essential. But no amount of metcon conditioning can overcome simply not being strong enough to move something heavy as if it is not heavy.

So, from a practical perspective, what does this all mean to the athlete or coach? If I were an athlete seriously training for the 2018 season, or the coach of an athlete seriously training for the 2018 season, between now and the end of this calendar year, I would place great emphasis on cleaning up Olympic lifting type movement patterns and on simply getting stronger on the major lifts. There is no way this would not be of great competitive value.

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Dr. Loren Bertocci
Following his undergraduate career at Stanford University, Dr. Loren Bertocci earned his PhD in Biochemistry/Biophysics with a specialization in skeletal muscle mitochondria and has dedicated his career to studying the role of mitochondria in secondary metabolism (skeletal muscle). The outcome of his 20+ years of research at UT Southwestern Medical School is the creation of a product that triggers mitochondrial biogenesis to reduce the effects of the aging process.
Dr. Bertocci’s publication record is world-class, including 26 papers in peer-reviewed journals. He has been awarded (as Principal Investigator, Co-Principal Investigator, or Collaborating Investigator) more than $3 million in grants from the American Heart Association, the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health. With athletic backgrounds swimming, water polo, triathlon and track, Dr. Bertocci is also an accomplished Crossfit athlete and recently earned a Bronze Medal in Olympic Weightlifting at the 2015 Pan Am Masters Championships. He is currently training to qualify for the World Weightlifting Championships in the 65+ category.
Dr. Bertocci is Director of Science at Pangea Biomedical, which produces supplements designed for the specific needs of athletes over 40.