CrossFit and Golf - Part 1

Coach John Fink

This is Part 1 of a 4-part blog series exploring the parallels between CrossFit and golf. It shares the perspective of a man who’s played and followed golf for most of his life and has only recently found fitness and CrossFit. In Part 1, we’ll discuss weightlifting, the CrossFit version of the tee shot.

Cruising around fitness-celebrity Instagrams, you’d be hard pressed to find one without some sort of weightlifting on their page. Even CrossFit professionals are largely guilty of the focus on the weights. Weightlifting is hot. It’s the thing that’s easiest to show everyone “Look what I did!”, and put an actual number to your feat. Your mother will be able to look at it and see that you put 300 pounds over your head. The difficulty in this accomplishment is obvious to an outsider. The golfing allegory to weightlifting is absolutely the driver. In golf they say “Drive for show, putt for dough”, and that statement fits well with how I am characterizing weightlifting. Weightlifting is the showpiece of CrossFit. It is also only one piece of the fitness puzzle.

The function of weightlifting in everyday CrossFit is no more than the driver in a round of golf. Your goal is twofold. Get the ball of the tee with decent distance, and keep it out of trouble. During a round on an average course, you’ll take 14 drivers. 80% (or more) of your shots aren’t going to be tee shots. Because weightlifting tends to get focused on, its value is almost always overstated. In order to get the ball off the tee with some distance, one has to learn to swing a club with some proficiency. Likewise, performing weightlifting movements with efficiency will require learning how to weightlift with some proficiency. Weightlifting, in CrossFit, encompasses more than just the power lifts. If you can mash the ball 300 yards but you have no idea where it’s going to end up, that’s equivalent to being able to deadlift 500 lbs but being unable to clean your bodyweight. The missing technique piece can be just as damaging to your fitness as completely lacking strength.

It does take time to learn, build, and become proficient in the olympic lifts. In golf, even after you can consistently make contact with the driver, you still need to groove your swing to be able to make that contact count. It’s no different than practice at the gym. One of the hardest truths a new CrossFitter has to come to terms with is that the professionals like Rich Froning have snatched more times today than they have snatched in their entire life. Take his “Snatch Knockout” workout for example.  

It’s not any different in golf, where the professionals have hit more tee shots this week than most people have done in their lives. It’s important to groove your weightlifting to work for you instead of against you. It’s also important not to focus too hard on that driver or it will be the downfall of the rest of your game.

A common question/temptation that comes up from the intermediate CrossFit client is when to see a weightlifting-specific coach. If there is a DRAMATIC technique gap, this may be an option to consider. A dramatic gap would be something any CrossFit coach could easily identify. Your baseline front and overhead squats need to be obscenely strong and technical to be a strong weightlifter. Keep in mind that very little of CrossFit is about one-rep max power. No weightlifting-only coach is going to teach you how to cycle a barbell. It’s not part of their sport. If you’re putting the ball in play with decent distance, the focus of improving your golf game is not going to be on fixing the drive. One can slowly build that drive to be longer and longer without focusing entirely on it. Typically when a “weightlifting” weakness is seen, it’s really a strength issue. Strength capacity can be built quite fine with just CrossFit. Two great examples of this are Mat Fraser, who has set a PR on his snatch LONG after he was done training with an olympic coach full time, and our own Coach Ali. Coach Ali was in weightlifter-only mode when I met her, but after a solid year of building capacity with CrossFit, both of her olympic lifts improved 25+ pounds apiece.

Professional weightlifting is to CrossFit what the Long Drive Competition is to golf. Weightlifting focuses on excellence of one component of the total picture. Weightlifting, and the long drive, are both phenomenal demonstrations of strength, speed, and technique. But is a professional weightlifter capable in CrossFit? It’s probably a similar level of competence to a long driver playing a full round of golf. Both are going to have a huge advantage in one specific aspect of the game. Without well-rounded fitness to back it up, they simply won’t be able to keep up in the overall picture.

For exmaple, here’s Kendrick Farris, the strongest American male weightlifter over the past 5 years, doing “Isabel”.

 Even though he snatches far more than any CrossFitter, this workout destroys him. On the world stage, the United States is basically a nobody when it comes to weightlifting. There are FAR stronger men than Kendrick in the world, and the strength gap from Mr. Farris down to a strong CrossFit competitor is already large. No CrossFitter is going to be the strongest in the world. For comparison, Emily Abbott completed the same workout without dropping the bar.

If your fitness goals are to be the best long driver, more power to you and your coaches can help you work towards that. But if your goals are to improve every day or get fitter, don’t put all of your focus on this single modality. In CrossFit, we aim for familiarity, and at most proficiency, with any given movement, including weightlifting. Weightlifters are looking for mastery of single movements, like long drivers are looking for mastery of the single club.

If you’re looking for long-term health and fitness benefits from CrossFit, don’t limit yourself to strength movements. It’s important to work on and practice positioning and skills with a barbell, but it is equally important to work on the other aspects of your game. Limiting fitness to one side of the house is simply not as effective as exposing yourself to the rest of what CrossFit has to offer. Remember, “Specialization is for insects”.