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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Transference in CrossFit

Transference is one of my favorite CrossFit topics, albeit one I’ve not touched on for a bit. Loosely defined transference is the effect of our particular type of exercise on aspects of life outside the gym that do not seem to be at all related to what we do when we train.

The most obvious examples are physical, of course. We train by performing full-body functional movements, and the more we do so the more the proper mechanics we demonstrate simply become just the way we move. You set your lower back before picking up even the smallest object, or send your hips back and load the posterior chain before you squat down to a low seat. I often smile when I catch myself doing this.

By extension, proper movement mechanics transfer to physical tasks that we do not specifically train or practice. A CrossFit Bingo athlete executed near-perfect Atlas Stone lifts at a recent competition despite the fact that CFB neither trains nor teaches classic Strongman exercises; her basic, classic CrossFit training transferred to the lifting of an “odd” object. Coach Glassman has been known to use the example of pistols (one-legged squats) in a Box making linemen who work in underground tunnels move better with fewer injuries, another clear example of physical transference of our physical training to our physical real world.

It is the non-physical effects of CrossFit training that are actually more interesting, in part because they were rather surprising in the early years of CrossFit. We willingly put ourselves into states of physical duress, activating the neuro-chemical process of the stress response system. Doing so actually trains us to handle all kinds of duress outside of the gym through a combination of a blunting of the physiological effects of stress (elevated pulse, increased breath rate, etc) and the continued psychological boost we receive by completing an arduous task. For example, in the OR a sticky situation almost never produces that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach after 10 years of CrossFit.

Each time we come out of the “dark place” we so willingly enter when we have achieved proper mechanics and consistency and then seek intensity, we reinforce the notion that we can handle stress. We come to expect that we will succeed, and this transfers to other, non-physical stressors.

This, in turn, changes how one views oneself, and that is at the same time the most profound and most unexpected element of transference in the CrossFit world. Men and women alike enter the CrossFit gym and accept the challenge of the WOD. Along with increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains they quite often find an increased understanding of just how worthy they are. Where once they would automatically defer they now add their voice. No longer do they stand silent when someone belittles them, especially when that someone does so in an attempt to maintain unearned power.

No more. The achievement of an unassisted pull-up seems trivial, but not to the woman who initially looked at a pull-up as little more than someone else’s fantasy. She’s no longer going to cower when someone gets loud, and she’s for sure not going to back down if she’s the one who is right. Uh uh…she can do a pull-up. That victory transferred out of the gym and it matters.

That guy who stood as far back as he could in gym class in high school who just did “Fran” Rx’d for the first time ever? When he looks in the mirror he sees a totally different guy. He’s up front now, thinking about his next “Fran” and getting a PR, convinced that he is not only ready for that promotion at work, but that he is going to rock that bigger gig to boot.

Constantly varied functional fitness performed at relatively high intensity produces a type of physical fitness that transfers to other physical tasks we encounter outside of the gym. Frequently applied physical stress and the mental fortitude necessary to handle it creates a strong sense of self-worth and a deeply held belief that one can succeed. That one is worthy of success.

Seeing the transference of that is perhaps the most meaningful thing I have witnessed in my 10+ years as a CrossFitter.


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