Ever beaten yourself up in CrossFit when you’ve put max effort into a WOD only to find yourself with a comparatively low rep count? Or had to do a double take when you’re halfway through a set of burpees and one of your friends has already finished and dusted off the rubber flakes? Yeah, you’re definitely not alone my friends, and I’m going to tell you why.
You see, in all sports there is a certain “ideal” athlete. Swimmers tend to be tall, with long limbs that can create massive power output when cutting through the water, sprinters tend to be of a fairly short, stocky build with legs that can get up to speed much more quickly. And CrossFit is no different when you break it down to individual exercises. But when you look at CrossFit as a whole, any body shape can end up on the top of the board. And that’s one of the wonderful things about CrossFit.
Look at the past female winners of the CrossFit Games. You probably couldn’t get a much more different spread of athletes.
Work = Force x Distance
Here’s a little lesson on physics… and we’re going to talk about work, specifically.
Remember the above formula. Put simply, if you were to do a clean from the floor, the work would be equal to the force applied to the object (which is mass x acceleration) multiplied by the distance travelled. So work would be doubled by either lifting twice the weight the same distance, or by lifting the same weight twice the distance.
Apply this to power lifts and squat lifts; a power clean requires more work because the object has to be moved a greater distance. This also explains why you can lift a heavier weight with a squat clean because, if the work is the same but the distance is lesser, then what must be greater? The force (or mass x acceleration).
Taller athletes have an increased work capacity, due to the forces they can put out on the right hand side of that formula, e.g. let’s take rowing – a tall athlete can apply a great force over a longer distance due to their long limbs. This will result in a higher work output per stroke, and a potentially much quicker distance for time.
But, you can also look at this formula from the other side and take into account the benefit of decreased work.
Increased Speed/Reduced Work
Smaller athletes typically have shorter limbs, which means shorter lever lengths. The distance for a smaller athlete to travel from the top of a push up to the bottom is less than it would be for a taller athlete. So it takes less work for a shorter athlete to perform these movements, especially when you take into account body weight as well.
The work would only be the same for this reduced distance when force is increased (remember that force is mass x acceleration), which means smaller athletes can do these movements much more quickly, and with much less effort. The same applies to pull ups, squats, burpees, etc.
Types of Athlete
Athletes like Sam Briggs and Annie Thorisdottir, who at 5’6” and 5’7” are above average height, are likely to have a greater overall strength, an increased work capacity and greater speed, power and reach due to mechanical advantages (longer limbs). This relates to movements such as weightlifting and the Olympic lifts, rowing and middle distance running, and perhaps also box jumps and wall balls.
Heavy, or heavier, athletes also benefit from some of these same advantages (though obviously perhaps not the mechanical advantages if they’re average height or below). Typically, the heavier you are the more muscle you have, this helps with overall strength, but pound for pound, a lighter/shorter athlete will almost always have the edge. This was never more obvious to me than in my first weightlifting competition, where I lifted relatively heavy weights, but placed bottom out of the girls.
Athletes like Camille Le-Blanc Bazinet, at 5’2”, have advantages for gymnastic movements such as muscle ups, handstand pushups, etc. (even more so for those who already come from that background), bodyweight exercises like pull ups, push ups and squats, and also when it comes to their strength to weight ratio. They tend to have faster limb acceleration (great for sprinting), greater agility and endurance, and also a greater power to weight ratio.
Light athletes will largely reap the same benefits as short ones. A tall but light athlete may be slower at certain movements than similar weight athletes who are shorter, but they will still likely be faster at bodyweight movements than the heavier athletes (taking into consideration the effect mass has on force).
Redressing the Balance
One way athletes can be tested on a level playing field is by calculating power. Power = work / time. So a smaller athlete can generate a lot of power by completing the movements more quickly, and a taller athlete can generate a lot of power by outputting more work. If WOD scores were posted in watts, there could well be a much more even leader board.
This comes back to my original point about why CrossFit is so great, there is no “ideal” athlete size or shape. A WOD that has a heavy weight clean mixed with burpees would be fairly level playing (depending on the number of reps, and the weight being at a certain tipping-point) – the taller athletes would likely speed through the heavy lifts because their work capacity is so high, but the shorter athletes would blast through the burpees with their reduced distance and mass.
One Final Point
Yes, there may be advantages and disadvantages in relation to height and weight, but remember there are other factors involved. Tendon attachment points, muscle fibre ratios, athletic background and even geographical area can all have an impact on what an individual’s athletic advantage is over another.
With swimming and sprinting, just as there will be with CrossFit, there are outliers, your Kosuke Haginos and your Usain Bolts. Try telling them they can’t be at the top of the board!