An Athletigen Analysis: Focus on CrossFit

Let’s imagine – prior training history aside – that you and Rich Froning are entering the exact same training program at your local box. This means that diet, training intensity, programming, sleep, supplementation, mobility, etc. would all be held equal. Would you expect to see a difference in your results? Intuitively, the answer is yes. In fact, it’s well known that athletes on similar programs often experience different performance outcomes. But why? Individual genetic variability between athletes can help explain this phenomenon.

Science has pinpointed the influence of certain genes on athletic performance. For example, variation in the AGT gene may partly determine peak power performance, translating to a potential advantage during a one-rep max test of heavy cleans. Examples like these have been found across all three CrossFit* modalities: gymnastics, metabolic conditioning, and weightlifting.

With the passing of the 2015 season, the world was presented with a series of workouts which varied with respect to each modality. We combined our scientific analysis with insight from participants in the Open, which allowed us to rank each workout for difficulty on a scale of one to ten in each of the three modalities. Results from this process illustrate the prevalent differences in modal and physiological demand for each workout (Figure 1). For example, the muscle-ups, wall-balls, and double-unders of 15.3 favoured gymnastics and met-con abilities, while the deadlifts and snatches in 15.1 required greater weightlifting capacity.

Since workouts varied by modality, this also means that the three energy systems were used to different degrees during each week of the open. Each modality can be linked to relevant physiological traits as they relate back to the different energy systems. For example: Weightlifting involves a significant influence from the phosphogen and glycolytic systems, while metabolic conditioning can rely heavily on aerobic power.

Figure 1

Figure 1. 2015 Open Workout rankings by Modality Difficulty. Relative emphasis on each modal domain was determined by insight from local Open participants and data on physiological energy system usage. 

This is important for athletes and coaches to understand, genetic variation between athletes can be what determines performance differences. The interplay between different physiological aspects such as enzyme function, cell receptor affinity, and muscle fibre types influences human ability to excel in various aspects of performance.

With the development of genetic science now allowing us to identify the genes associated with elite performance, we propose that the genetic variation among top athletes plays a role in distinguishing a first place from a second place finish.

    *CrossFit is a registered trademark ® of CrossFit, Inc.
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