This article focuses on addressing two fundamental questions…
What? | What is the ideal body type for CrossFit®?
Why? | Why are there ideal qualities and where did they come from?
Body Size & Shape
- Male: 5’10” [+/- 3 inches]
- Female: 5’5” [+/- 2 inches]
- Male: 195 [+/- 20 pounds]
- Female: 145 [+/- 15 pounds]
Body Fat Percentage
- Male: 8% [+/- 3%]
- Female: 15% [+/- 4%]
Wingspan: Near Equal to Height [+/- 3 inches]
Torso to Limb Length Ratio: Slightly above Average [Longer Torso]
Upper Leg shorter than Lower Leg [Femur to Tibia], Compared to Average
Upper Arm shorter than Lower Arm [Humerus to Ulna], Compared to Average
What makes someone ideal for the Sport of Fitness?
CrossFit® is about not specializing. Athletes in single discipline sports are often far above or below the bell curve in certain qualities. For example, Michael Phelps has a freakishly long wingspan and torso length relative to his height. His hands and feet are bigger than normal, so much so that he basically has flippers. A person like Phelps – an anatomical outlier – will never be successful in the Sport of Fitness.
An athlete that is too extreme in any number of ways (e.g. height, weight, limb length, powerful, enduring, upper body dominant) will never find success in Functional Fitness. They are better served finding a sport that gives them an advantage BECAUSE they are an outlier.
As you continue reading, understand that the differences in body shape and size that we are talking about are the minutia; they are not big differences. After all, if you walk up to a Rich Froning, Mat Fraser, Tia Toomey or Katrin Davidsdottir on the street, they appear surprisingly ordinary, when compared to elites in other sports like football or basketball. When examining a Games athlete, it’s not until you look under the hood that you realize the massive differences.
Why is there an ideal height & weight? Where did these values come from?
The ideal height and weight (overall body size) comes from an athlete’s ability to do everything well. If an athlete is too small, they won’t be able to move weights well enough to compete with bigger, stronger athletes. Likewise, if an athlete is too big or tall, they will lack the ability to move their body weight well.
Small Athlete Struggles
Often small athletes, even those who are semi-elite in gymnastics (Muscle-Ups, Pull-Ups, Handstand Push-Ups, etc.) and other body weight movements where their shorter height puts them at an advantage (Burpees, Double Unders, Running, Air Squats, Pistols, Push-Ups), will not make it through online qualifiers because they will place poorly on workouts where they are required to move external load (i.e. weightlifting).
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Issues for Big & Tall Athletes
This same principle applies to Big & Tall competitors. These athletes often have maxes on lifts are much higher than their competition, which also allows them to move moderate loads more efficiently in workouts because they are lighter relative to their max. It’s easier to move 50% of your max for reps than it is to move 70% of your max. However, in very lightly loaded workouts and in workouts that emphasize body weight movements, the greater height and weight of the big and tall athlete results their failure to keep up with the little guys.
The answer this dilemma is to be bad at nothing, which can only happen for an athlete who is strong enough to hang with the best, yet light and lean enough to move their body weight with ease. This combination is extremely rare, and producing an athlete with no real weaknesses must be a combination of the right body type and rigorously training one’s weaknesses.
Why is there an ideal body shape?
Where did these values come from?
Now that we have identified the optimal overall body size (height and weight), let’s talk about how the size of bone structure – body segments – affects performance in the Sport of Fitness. Think of CrossFit® athletes as weightlifters who are also able to do a host of other skills proficiently. This is simply a result of the demands of the sport.
Are you strong enough?
Without the prerequisite strength numbers (C&J 335/225lbs)(Snatch 265/175lbs), you can’t punch a ticket to the Games. Once you have the strength, it becomes about fitness, but most Games hopefuls will never have enough strength to make it to the next level. The history of the Games has been very weightlifting biased, and therefore so is the optimal body type to tackle its challenges.
Don’t believe me? Think about this… There have been several fitness athletes who have competed in both the Games and weightlifting at the highest level. Tia Toomey won the Games and competed in the Rio Olympics in the same year. Most Games athletes would win a local weightlifting competition if they entered it. However, if they tried to compete in a local 5k they would barely hold their own if the local middle school Cross Country team showed up. This article proves my point. And none of these athletes would ever dare step foot in a gymnastics competition. After all, a Muscle-Up isn’t even registered as a skill. It’s just that thing you do so you can start your routine.
CrossFit ® is Weightlifting Biased
My point is the best body shape for CrossFit® is a less extreme version of the ideal weightlifter. Weightlifting – the Snatch and the Clean & Jerk – favors athletes who can squat with an upright torso. These athletes have shorter femurs and longer torsos.
The ideal Functional Fitness athlete has a degree of this makeup, but to a less extreme version because they still have to be able to lunge, run, bike, etc. The femur (upper leg) is the longest bone in the body, so I’m not saying it is shorter than the tibia (lower leg), but person’s upper to lower leg ratio is lower than the average person’s. It’s the same deal with the upper arm (humerus) to lower arm (ulna): it’s about the ratio. The basic idea is that the closer the length is of the upper limb to the lower limb, the easier it is to squat or press. In other words, long femurs are a recipe for weaker squats, especially for variations that demand an upright torso (e.g. front & overhead squat).
Case in point, skip around this video to watch the comfort of position of Lu Xiaojun and his teammates on the Chinese weightlifting team.
The same idea of upper limb to lower limb ratio applies to the arms, which is why the push-up or bench press is sometimes deemed the squat of the upper body. A shorter humerus often means a stronger press. Also, this make up (combined with solid mobility) allows easier access to a full grip on the bar while in the front rack, which is an essential skill for thrusters, which is an Open staple.
The only time this attribute proved to be a disadvantage was the 2018 Open’s Handstand Push-Up standard. Those with a low humerus to ulna ratio had a hard time meeting the standard. Those well to the right of the bell curve got screwed. Sorry Jacob Heppner.
Next, the wingspan relative to height is one more way to crosscheck limb length. There is wiggle room, depending on how other limb length factors stack up, but overall you don’t want to be an outlier. If your total arm length is too long, your cycle time on movements increases because your range of motion is greater. Too short and you won’t be able to produce the wattage needed on erg and horizontal movements: bike, row, ski, run, sleds, lunges, etc.
Lastly, while a torso length slightly above the bell curve of the average population is helpful, too long poses a different problem. The longer the torso, the greater the demand for midline integrity. In other words, they struggle to deadlift. It’s the reason why great weightlifters, like Mat Fraser, won’t win an event like the CrossFit® total. A long-armed Pat Vellner will deadlift 100lbs more and take the event win.[Start at 122:07 to see Fraser back squat & 1:41:10 to see Vellner’s deadlift.]
It’s important to note that the Sport of Fitness is a game and you never know the outcome until things play out. Sometimes it makes no sense – anatomically speaking – how an athlete is exceptional other than years of hard work minimizing weaknesses.
I am continually impressed by Travis Mayer’s ability to have strong finishes in events with heavy squat cleans (like the Rogue Invitational finale, start at 37:07) despite having a body type that is far from ideal for that movement. It’s probably the reason why Mayer is headed back to the Games, where his long-limbs will get to see more movements that play to his strengths. On the women’s side, Annie Thorisdottir has a similar build. She is strong enough in the Olympic lifts that make it through the Open, and can allow her other talents to shine at the Games level.
The point is: name a rule, and there is an athlete that succeeds in spite of it. If you want it bad enough and you work long and hard enough, you often can make it work.
It goes back to that growth versus fixed mindset Ben Bergeron always talks about.
It is easy to read an article like this and fixate upon factors that you can’t control. Things like, how tall you are compared to other athletes, how you have relatively long arms, your age, gender or any number of other aspects about your body that make your definition of success in the sport more challenging. Yet, we know these factors of our biology are out of our control.
No one is making you do this sport.
Remember, you signed up for this. No one is making you come in each day and forcing you into the pain cave. Let’s be honest, you are the only one who really cares if you are successful in the sport. Sure, others are invested in you, and they are happy to share in the joy of your work coming to fruition, but if you choose not to put in the work they will be just fine with it. The point is, you chose Functional Fitness because it is hard. Hard things are worth doing. You want to prove to yourself that you have what it takes. Therefore, let go of the baggage – all those excuses. No one cares about your long legs, so you can either allow them to be an asset or an excuse. It’s about working with the cards you were dealt to produce something you are proud of.
Mass Matters: Optimize Size for your Frame
This work starts with controlling – optimizing – the things that you can. One of only stats from above that can be controlled is body weight and body fat percentage. The reality is body fat serves a vital role in the body, up until a threshold has been met. This minimal acceptable value is around 6-8% for males and 12-14% for females. Anything below that is unhealthy and negatively impacts hormones that improve recovery.
The only thing a body fat percentage lower than those values helps is your Instagram following. See Lauren Fisher’s post for more on that.
More than a few percentage points above these values will negatively impact performance because, frankly, fat isn’t contractile tissue. Extra body fat is essentially like a weight vest: dead weight.
Health – Performance – Aesthetics
The reality is if you wish to compete in Functional Fitness at a high level you must optimize your body to the task at hand. Shorter, leaner athletes must be okay with eating and training to put on size and strength. Taller, heavier athletes must be okay with sacrificing some strength and power to improve weak areas. The answer to better gymnastics is not always “build a bigger engine.” Sometimes it needs to be about dropping the trailer you are towing behind you. You know if this is you, and it isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s simply another angle to attack your goals.
It’s important to understand where the circles of health, performance and aesthetics overlap and where they do not. Don’t pretend that there is no overlap or that they are the same. Both are immature viewpoints.
The Best Body Type is Context Dependent
It extremely important to realize their ideals are context dependent. The ideal CrossFit® body type is NOT the same for the Open as it is for the Games. The best body type for the 2015 Games is not the same as the 2019 Games. Each event has new programming, different movements and novel experiences.
The Ideal Body Type is Different Depending on the Programming
For example, the ideal Games athlete would have slightly longer femurs than the ideal Open athlete. This is because, historically speaking, the Open has never had running or biking, while the Games usually has one – if not both – disciplines. Running, biking and other horizontal movements (like sled pushes or yoke carries) favor athletes with longer and thinner limbs, relative to torso length. However, these movements are difficult to film and standardize for online qualifiers, so they have never been in the Open.
Programming Limitations for Online Qualifiers
Instead, variations of weightlifting are used (often squatting) to elicit a cardiovascular response. These vertical lifts make filming handy for online qualifier and cater to athletes with shorter femurs, longer torsos and thicker limbs. The result is athletes like Brent Fikowski, struggling to make it through the Open and excelling at the Games level. The opposite is also common, when athletes who are excellent weightlifters (e.g. Nick Urankar & Jared Enderton) do great in the Open, but struggle when the movement landscape shifts at the Games level.
Who programs the Games sets the norm. Will the Status Quo continue?
It’s also important to understand up until 2019, Director of the CrossFit® Games, Dave Castro, had exclusivity to the programming that determined whether athletes qualified for the Games. The only way to get to the Games was to make it through both the Open and the Regionals, which Castro programmed the workouts for. Now, there are a slew of CrossFit® sanctioned events that, if won, allows athletes to punch a ticket to the Games. These Sanctionals are not programmed by Castro, and are apparently highly unregulated in their requirements for programming.
Sanctionals: In Need of Regulation
In fact, Wodapalooza (a Sanctioned event) had several popular coaches program workouts in the beginning of 2019. These same coaches had athlete’s attempting to make it to the Games in the competition. Talk about a conflict of interest. Ben Smith called them out on his Instagram. It is completely possible for the Sanctional coordinators to program workouts for their athlete’s individual strengths. For example, more workouts being light weights, longer time domains and high-skill gymnastics movements to cater to a lighter, more enduring athlete. There is no reason why the status quo for the “ideal Games athlete body type” to perpetuate in these Sanctional events, besides the expectations in the community to continue to be fed what they have always been given.
If this is the case, it’s plausible that the ideal body type described in this article is vastly different in a few years. Although, I highly doubt it will shift more than a 5-10% in any given direction due to widely held beliefs about Functional Fitness within the community.
Time will tell.
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