Every sport, club, methodology or even gang has its buzzwords. Most often, these are annoying, out of context soundbites that indicate belonging to a clique within said organisation. The military is a prime example of such a ‘club’, where buzzwords come in and out of fashion at a rate that’s impossible to keep pace with. Kinetic and engage are just two examples I can think of, that were used to mean something so far from their meaning, I had to work hard to place what their user was actually getting at. Needless to say this is frustrating, and will irritate far more people than it will ever impress. I’ll be careful throughout this article, then, not to use virtuous, virtuosity or any other iteration incorrectly or out of context. That said, I am going to outline what the word means to me, what place it has in our gym, and how it should manifest itself in people’s training.
Simply put, virtuosity is “a fondness for, or interest in, virtu”, where virtu is “excellence or merit in objects of art, curios and the like” as stated on dictionary.com. Now, the word virtue differs somewhat in meaning from virtu, but mainly from a Christian perspective. The other characteristics defined are largely similar. What I can say with some certainty is that we are talking about a degree of excellence, be that objective or subjective.
Virtuosity can also refer to excellence or mastery as its sole definition, which would seem to fit more with its use in CrossFit, and a wider training environment. When Greg Glassman spoke of virtuosity in his 2005 article ‘Fundamentals, Virtuosity, and Mastery’ - An open letter to CrossFit trainers - he referred to its origins in the world of gymnastics. Here, virtuosity is defined as “performing the common uncommonly well”. It is here where I’ll choose to highlight how we can become virtuous in our pursuit of fitness.
We can all squat. Some of us with great form, some of us with poor form, and most of us somewhere in between. Some of us can squat very little, some impressive amounts, whilst again, the majority fall somewhere in between. The two most common metrics I see for measuring the squat are the weight on the bar, and the depth. Largely (in this country at least) the weight on the bar is simply stated in kilos, a linear measure where the greater the number, the greater the squat, and the depth a simple yes or no referring to whether the hip crease has broken the horizontal line of the knee. Whilst these are both indicative of ability to some degree, I would argue that we can much more effectively measure a person’s squat by grading them against the points of performance which CrossFit advocates. Did the person start at extension, or like is common with so many big lifters, were they already broken at the hip before starting? Is the weight in the midfoot, with the knee tracking the toe? Has the core stayed braced, and the chest high? You’ll notice I haven’t specified a type of squat here. These points could apply equally to any of the squats we use, and that is quite deliberate. You see, when we talk about virtuosity, it can’t possibly ever apply to just one movement. Even if we were just to apply it to the back squat, those points of performance we focused so hard on, would carry over to inadvertently improve all of your other squats. Not only that, virtuosity becomes a habit, and a pretty valuable one at that! Her, the example is simple enough; if we strip our squat back to basics, and try to score a perfect 10 in an air squat for each point of performance, your squat will not only look much better, but be less injurious and build a better foundation on which to get strong. Virtuosity is often misinterpreted as not trying as hard as you can for fear of losing form, but as you can see here, building that excellent form as a base is what allows us to pursue intensity and add more plates to the bar.
This all sounds very simple for the squat, but what about the myriad of other movements we are faced with on a regular basis? Well, to make it simple, here’s my checklist for employing virtuosity in the gym:
- Count correctly - Sounds simple enough, but you’d be surprised how many people cut reps. Ordinarily, this is not cheating as such, just that they’re really struggling with a movement, or even simpler, they figure they’re sweating and out of breath, so cutting a few reps won’t make any difference. The psychological aspect aside (cutting a few reps here and there quickly becomes a habit which transcends the gym), the rep schemes are there for a reason. Physiological adaptations we are after come from certain rep ranges at certain percentages. Even with an AMRAP, we always have a target number of rounds in mind for people to shoot at. Sometime the coach will advise you to cut the reps, because that is what best benefits you on that workout, but never take it upon yourself to miss a few here and there.
- Hit the intended range of motion - Often when we get tired or muscles begin to scream at you to stop, we’re tempted to cut short a rep by just a few inches. Problem is, it’s those few inches that are usually the most valuable, and the most in need of training. If we take the bench press as an example, we use touching the chest with the bar as a tangible range of motion indicator. By missing the chest by 2 inches to secure an ego-boosting PR, we are neglecting training a part of the lift that we need and will later come to rely on. Chances are the person who lifted slightly less this time, but touched their chest, will kick your ass next time when someone is checking your form!
- Focus on position - It’s all too easy to get your first pistol, handstand push-up or muscle-up and feel like it’s slipping away every day you don’t perform another. Not only have I seen this many times, I’ve done it! I was that guy for at least 5 movements. The temptation is to think that after my first muscle-up, for example, that I need to keep doing them. Every day. No matter how ragged they look, no matter how much my elbows hurt afterwards, if I keep toiling away, I’ll get better.Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of practice, but structured and appropriate. What I should have done in the weeks and months following my first muscle-up was improve my kip, run transition drills and conduct isometric holds in positions where I had a weakness. What I actually did was jump on the rings every day, perform several ugly muscle-ups in 1’s, 2’s and 3’s, and develop bursitis in my elbows. Consequently, I was stuck at 4 muscle-ups unbroken for about 3 years. Once we can perform a movement, we tend to neglect the progressions that lead us there, when in reality, these are what will continue to improve us.
- Learn to use smaller increments - So you just hit a 50kg squat snatch. That’s awesome, congratulations! What next? Unfortunately for a lot of you (and me again) this is 20+ failed attempts at 55kg. But 50 felt so easy, right? Now the first part of the solution is simple, limit your missed attempts. Missing becomes a habit, and mental blocks are formed on certain weights. These can stunt progress for YEARS! The second step is also quite simple, go and drill positions with a PVC pipe or an empty bar, and try again in a week or two. That said, at some point we do want to beat that PR again. Load the bar up to 51kg. Limit your attempts. If you miss, come back down to 45kg, and hit 3-4 reps. That small step is crucial though. Accept that progress comes 1kg at a time, 1 second at a time, or 1 inch at a time. Also, it’s worth noting that there’s far more use to being consistent at high percentages than there is to hitting a huge 1RM once in 67 attempts.
So to summarise, virtuosity isn’t laziness or avoiding intensity, but rather building the right base for that intensity whilst reducing the risk of it injuring you. Virtuosity is hitting every rep, especially the ones you don’t want to.Virtuosity is turning up when it’s pouring with rain, doing your 400m runs and working on the heel pull and foot strike you’ve been shown instead of defaulting to the way you’ve always run because it’s easier. In short, virtuosity is effort put into attention to detail. Above all, virtuosity is your way of getting the most from your gym membership.