By Shauna Marshall, DPT

I am reminded of the importance of motor control as I return to performing the skills of CrossFit after a break and a baby. CrossFit’s pillars include strength and endurance, along with agility, coordination, balance, and accuracy. These skills go beyond the realm of adding weight to the bar.

Motor control is the cornerstone to perfecting skills, whether it be a backhanded tennis swing or a 40-yard soccer shot. You can have the biggest numbers and best PRs in the gym, but if you lack the variety of skills needed to challenge you in every environment, you will never be able to apply your strength to your goals outside of the gym.

I grew up doing competitive gymnastics from a young age. Every afternoon would be spent practicing skills, doing routines over and over again, introducing more challenge as I grew more comfortable with my skill set. I remember learning a back handspring (the original “backflip”) on beam for the first time. I mastered the skill on floor around the age of 6, then I had to learn how to convert the skill to a 4” width a couple of years later.

I started off slowly, performing the handspring on a straight line on the floor. I began unconsciously moving my hands closer together and landing my feet in a stance position, rather than side-by-side. Next, I moved to a beam with mats piled up on either side where I practiced on my new “line:” the beam. As my comfort level rose, the mats on either side of the beam grew less and less. Soon, I was performing handspring after handspring on the beam comfortably every day.

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My coaches never taught me how to create just enough extension in my spine to land hands behind feet. They never taught me the perfect amount of squat necessary to propel my body backward or when to concentrically fire my quads to extend my knees to begin the skill. I learned by doing the skill over and over again, on as many different surfaces as I could. I learned from the single cues my coaches would direct my way: to spot the beam with my eyes, to point my toes mid-skill, to finish the skill confidently.

The memories of gymnastics come flooding back into my life in CrossFit. I remember the basics of learning a pull-up: the importance of the kip, the pulling down of the arms on the end of the backswing, the preparation for the next kip at the completion of the skill. Strength is important for the skill but coordination is more important. Over time as the skill comes back, my brain shuts off and I just do the pull-up. This is the point at which my motor control for pull-ups is on auto-pilot.

In the physical therapy/rehabilitation community, motor control training is a major philosophy used to treat patients with strokes and amputated limbs. With one-sided weakness or a limb missing, a person must learn how to walk again. It isn’t learned in the gym, pumping out back squat 1RM’s. The skill of walking must be re-established in the person’s brain by doing just that: walking. Unconsciously, patients pick up the new learned skill by incorporating as many different environments as possible. Once they have mastered walking on a hard, even surface, they progress to grass or walking up stairs.

In CrossFit, the variation of skill progression is never-ending. The individual functionality of CrossFit allows folks to progress to whatever their end-goal is. If they want to hike Mt Kilimanjaro, they must have the strength and endurance to carry a decent-sized pack for an extended period of time. They also must have the balance to walk along narrow paths and the agility and coordination to handle unstable footing.

All of these skills are trainable but can be overlooked, even in the CrossFit community. In the way that function relates to your life, you must practice skills necessary to live your best life.

Lift weights on one-leg, do pull-ups on tree branches, and constantly find that variety to test your motor control.