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How We Train and Why

Sandra Hamilton CrossFit Bolton DSC_0005

By: Sandra Hamilton

Why do we train the way we do here at CrossFit Bolton? Most of us just know we are getting faster, better and stronger. But why? There is a real metabolic reasoning behind the program that is implemented into your everyday programming. Our primary focus is anaerobic training to create the best results for our participants.

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Pathways
There are three energy systems within the body that works in cadence with your intensity output. Intensity will determine the energy pathway needed to create the desired result. Figure 1 breaks these three systems down into two categories aerobic, use of oxygen to produce energy or anaerobic without the use of oxygen to create energy. In CrossFit we use the term Metabolic Conditioning, to describe the physiology of these energy systems.

Aerobic Anaerobic
Oxidative Pathway Glycolytic Pathway Phosphagen Pathway

Figure 1 Aerobic and Anaerobic Pathways

With aerobic training, we use the oxidative pathway for durations over two minutes in length but focused on staying underneath approximately 80% of our heart rate max. Everyday tasks in life require the use of our oxidative pathway.  The oxidative pathway is highly dependent on the use of oxygen to regenerate energy from glucose for the body to use. Though one would say “majority of our workouts are over 2 minutes in length”. True, however you must take into account the rest you take between work efforts and output/intensity one places towards the workout will change the energy pathways used. Figure 2 demonstrates the overlap of the energy systems we see as we continue in the duration of work. Though we see benefits from aerobic training we see greater benefits within the anaerobic pathways.

Figure 2Figure 2: Energy Pathways Duration and Energy Output
(CrossFit Journal)

Two pathways make anaerobic training. The glycolytic pathway (also know as anaerobic lactic) focuses on moderate-intensity activities lasting up to several minutes. The glycolytic pathway has the ability to create some energy but is limited in its abilities. Within this pathway we see the development of lactic acid. Lactic acid is produced when the rate of demand of energy is high; glucose is broken down and oxidized by pyruvate however the body cannot process the pyruvate fast enough so it is turned into the lactic acid. When you feel the burn in your muscles and you cannot continue on, you have hit your lactic acid threshold, where lactic acid sets in the muscles.

The second pathway we focus on in anaerobic training is the phosphagen pathway (also known as anaerobic alactic). It’s the shortest in duration of all three systems, lasting 10 seconds or less. Energy cannot be produced, however we see the greatest results in power output within this pathway. For example a 1RM clean and jerk produces a great amount of power output but cannot be repeated over and over again without the mandatory rest period.

Results from Anaerobic vs. Aerobic Training
Both systems have positive outcomes in personal fitness however we see greater results through anaerobic training. Figure 3 outlines the outcomes from aerobic and anaerobic training.

The benefits from aerobic training includes improved cardiovascular capacity, decreases body fat but has potential to burn muscle which is a negative aspect in training. Anaerobic training helps increase power, speed and strength, also improves cardiovascular capacity, burns body fat, builds muscle, and develops aerobic and anaerobic capacity. We see greater results from training within the anaerobic system. Just to summarize aerobic training will increase aerobic ability but anaerobic training will increase both aerobic and anaerobic ability.

Figure 3Figure 3 Comparisons between Anaerobic and Aerobics

Training Anaerobic
It is easy to come to the conclusion to train anaerobic for performance outcome. However there is different ways to train anaerobically and how to get the best results. Figure 4 demonstrates the abilities of the phosphagen (lactic) and glycolytic (alactic) systems in their training output.

Glycolytic pathway only sees increased training outcomes in both power and capacity through maximum strength training and power. In CrossFit these efforts are close to our 1RM efforts, or EMOM’s allowing for recovery between short sets of power or strength efforts. Strength training entails, 6 reps or less of effort.

The phosphagen pathway can get a little bit more complicated depending on the areas you are trying to improve. Power is the amount of energy produced in a given amount of time. Capacity is the maximum amount of physical exertion that one can sustain. To see improvement in power output (8-20seconds in duration) we are training using maximum strength, power and some power endurance. Here we are working for hypertrophy within our muscles. For greater capacity output (duration 20-60 seconds) we must train using maximum strength, power, power endurance and muscle endurance. This output is very common within the workout we see in CrossFit, the ability to lift heavy things over and over again. Most of us know the longer you can hold on to that bar to complete the reps the faster you will be, this is why we train this energy system to work for power endurance (repeated heavy repetitions).

Figure 4

Figure 4 Type of Strength Training Needed for Anaerobic Pathway Increase
(Bompa, T. & Buzzichelli, C)

When programming is created or you are trying to work on weaknesses within your workout output we must train smart. Knowing the energy systems and the needs of an individual we can hone in on the exact type of programming needed.

Weights or Cardio for Anaerobic Training
A recent study out of the University of Saskatchewan looks at HIIT training in active females and the outcomes from this type of training. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a time-efficient method of improving aerobic and anaerobic power and capacity through anaerobic training. What is so interesting about this study is the comparison of Row-HIIT training and Multiple Modalities HIIT-training (strength exercises and etc.) on individuals. In most individuals, HIIT using modalities such as cycling, running, and rowing does not typically result in increased muscle strength, power, or endurance.

Twenty-eight recreationally active women (age 24.7 ± 5.4 years) completed 6 weeks of either Row-HIIT or MM-HIIT. . MM-HIIT and Row-HIIT resulted in similar improvements in maximal aerobic power (7% vs. 5%), anaerobic threshold (13% vs. 12%), respiratory compensation threshold (7% vs. 5%), anaerobic power (15% vs. 12%), and anaerobic capacity (18% vs. 14%).

The MM-HIIT group had increases in squat (39%), press (27%), and deadlift (18%) strength, broad jump distance (6%), and squat endurance (280%), whereas the Row-HIIT group had no change in any muscle performance
variable. MM-HIIT resulted in similar aerobic and anaerobic adaptations but greater muscle performance increases than Row-HIIT in recreationally active women. (Buckley et al)

Programming is an art of creating the best possible workouts that will see improvement within our members. We use the knowledge of the human body to accurately create and train. When we use the knowledge that is out there we see greater results. Anaerobic training and more prominently the training CrossFit implements in its programming demonstrates this depth in how the body works and improves. Be the best person you can be, train the best way possible to get there!


Sandra Hamilton
B.A. Honors Specialization Kinesiology Western University
B.Ed. Intermediate/Senior Health and Physical Education and Geography
CrossFit Level 1


Bompa, T. & Buzzichelli, C. Periodization Training for Sports, Third Edition. Understanding Energy Systems Training. Human Kinetics.

Buckley S(1), Knapp K(1), Lackie A(1), Lewry C(1), Horvey K(1), Benko C(2,)(3),Trinh J(2), Butcher S(1,)(3). Multimodal high-intensity interval training increases muscle function and metabolic performance in females. School of Physical Therapy, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon,Saskatchewan, Canada PMID: 26513008

Greg Glassman. Metabolic Conditioning. CrossFit Journal. Published CrossFit Journal Issue 10-June 2003.