On the show today, I have Evan Peikon, an integrative physiologist and sports scientist who founded the Emergent Performance Lab, a research group that combines technological innovation, experimentation, and systems thinking to create practical interventions that drive meaningful performance outcomes.
Evan is also a performance coach for Training Think Tank, a group of handpicked coaches who provide programming, education and support to athletes all over the world, with a particular focus on training CrossFit competitors.
We dive deep into the science behind high-performing CrossFit athletes, determining what the focus should be on when looking to increase work capacity, the muscle fiber types most prevalent in elite competitors, staving off fatigue, improving your breathing, and other strategies that lead to better performance on different movements.
Evan also discusses his approach to structuring a training program for CrossFit athletes, who need to perform well in multiple areas, as compared to training athletes with narrow objectives (i.e., powerlifters, long-distance runners, etc.).
What You’ll Learn in This Episode:
- [00:59] An introduction to Evan and TTT
- [03:43] Improving your work capacity in CrossFit and what sets the 1% of competitors apart
- [14:22] Maintaining critical power and improving capacity to supply the muscle
- [26:54] Getting better on a movement
- [38:53] Organizing training for athletes who need to perform well in so many different areas
- [49:12] Consistent core variables that Evan focuses on with nearly every single one of his athletes
- [54:40] Nasal breathing versus mouth breathing
- [58:14] James and Evan’s parting advice
James Cerbie: You usually get a five or a ten. Six is way out there. So, actually, Evan, do me a favor real quick. How do you pronounce your last name? I want to make sure I get it right.
Evan Peikon: Peikon.
James Cerbie: Peikon, OK? I was not going to get it right. So, thank you for that. So, we have Evan Peikon on the podcast today. Thank you so much for chunking out some time to come here and just talk shop with me, man.
Evan Peikon: Yeah, of course. And thank you for having me on and looking forward to chatting with you today.
James Cerbie: Sure thing, brother. So, for the people listening who don’t know who you are, can you give us the quick backstory, who you are, what you do? Because I think that people involved with Training Think Tank and the CrossFit world will be familiar with who you guys are and what you’re doing. But people outside of there may not. So, if we can get the quick back story, that would be fantastic.
Who is Evan Peikon?
Evan Peikon: Yeah, for sure. So, again, like you said, I work for a company called Training Think Tank. And don’t worry, I always mess up saying it as well, it’s a lot of alliterations, so it’s a tough one. We’re best known for working with CrossFit competitors. We work with a lot of the top CrossFit Games competitors, and I think what we really specialize in is taking more of an integrated or holistic approach to CrossFit training. So, one of the reasons I got involved with the company is that the goal was really to get, I hate saying experts, but people with very specific skill sets from different disciplines, just kind of throwing everyone in the same room to talk shop and just seeing what comes out of that.
So that’s the company I’ve been coaching with and doing some research for, for a handful of years now. And then outside of that, I also do research for other organizations and just R&D work as well.
James Cerbie: Beautiful. Excellent. And so, I think a cool place to start this conversation will be generally around the realm of work capacity because we think of CrossFit as a sport, and especially the very high-level athletes you guys train. I think Noah Olsen would probably be one of the bigger names, right. Finished second in the Games, has a very long, successful career as an individual competitor. CrossFit as a sport it really this sport of work capacity; the amount of work that has to be done is incredible. The spanning of time domains, plus the different task completions required are incredibly unique. So, I would love to try to attack this from two different vantage points.
Vantage point one, if we were going to think about just generalized work capacity. So, if somebody is listening to this thinking for themselves or for their athletes, OK, what are the really big rock variables that I should be focusing on and hitting if I’m just interested in building this broad, generalized word capacity? And so, if we can paint that picture and then transition and say, OK, if we were going to talk about the differences between that outcome and then the people who are in that top one percent, what are the differentiators between what the top one percent are doing versus people who are just right, fit in shape and do have work capacity? Does that make sense?
Evan Peikon: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I get where you’re going for.
James Cerbie: Perfect. So, if you want to take it from there and let’s start with those big rock Pareto Principle type strategies, like what are the big twenty percent of inputs that are going to get people 80 percent of their outputs, when we’re broadly thinking work capacity. And feel free to redefine that as you want to, just to make it more specific potentially because it is so broad.
Evan Peikon: Yeah, for sure. So, when I’m thinking about CrossFit competitors, even though it’s not really a traditional endurance sport or traditional work capacity sport, but I think if we’re talking about top-level competitors, I always think in terms of like necessity versus efficiency. So, something that is necessary but not sufficient. If we were to say you’re not going to be a weak Cross-Fitter if you don’t have a very high VO2 max, but a VO2 max doesn’t mean you’re going to be an elite Cross-Fitter better in the same way you’re not going to be an elite Cross-Fitter if you can’t snatch at least 275 lb., but you could get any random person that snatches 275 lb., and they might be pretty garbage at CrossFit.
What Makes Somebody Elite at CrossFit?
So, we’re thinking about those big rocks. I’m actually thinking about things that are necessary but not sufficient. So, we could even go back to traditional measurements of endurance performance. So, I’m thinking of the VO2 max. I’m thinking of lactate balance point. I’m thinking of the economy. But in and of itself, none of those things are going to make you an amazing cross fitter. So, I think what makes someone really elite at the sport is actually just their ability to express their fitness and all these different movement patterns and modalities.
And I think what’s so difficult about that, to an extent, is if we look at the broader economy literature, we know that there is a nearly linear relationship between the volume of running and your economy. And it makes sense. The more you do something, the better you get at it. It’s not rocket science, but for a Cross-Fitter, you’ve got 30, 40 different movements that you need to do so, there’s only so much you could accumulate to become efficient.
So, one of the things that I see in really good Cross-Fitters is they’re just really good at handling a ton of volume and taking a mechanical beating week in and week out. And I think that’s honestly a prerequisite to being an elite competitor. You just need to be able to do a ton of work so you could develop that economy of movement before we even start thinking about what is your VO2 max and what is your lactate threshold and what are your underlying limiters?
Those things aren’t really even that important if you can’t even do enough volume to be an elite competitor. And I think that’s a really overlooked component for developing athletes in that sport.
James Cerbie: Without question, yeah, I think that’s totally spot on, because if you think about the athletes that have been the most successful with Rich Froning being the first. The dude had the capacity to train at a higher volume than everybody else. He was the first one to set the tone.
If you’re going to beat me, then you need to start being able to put in an unbelievable amount of work on a day-by-day basis. You look at the top people and the economy is so impressive, like the movement quality is so good. There’s not places where we have this, “leaky hose”, where we’re wasting a lot of potential efficiency, if you want to call it that. One area in there that I think is interesting and you have vastly more experience with this than me is, do you think when we think about these higher-level CrossFit athletes, do you think a good bit of that comes down to Aaron Davis at Evolve.
We chatted about this briefly at one point in time but thinking about fiber type distribution and these athletes to where you need this really interesting middle ground of you need just enough of those, Right. We have a very large spectrum. Let’s just “fast twitch fibers” for now. You need just enough of those to be able to clean and jerk, snatch, back squat, and move big loads, but then you also then need enough of these slower twitch fiber type distributions. So, I have greater capillary density. I have greater mitochondrial density. I have the capacity to move and flux oxygen at a much better, let’s call it, rate than somebody else. So, from your experience, do you use, and granted, we have to start popping biopsy’s to really get any meaningful data in this realm.
“Fiber Type Distribution” and What Separates a Cross-Fit Athlete in the Fitness World
But I was curious if you think that those high-level CrossFit athletes are somewhat being self-selected for that, if you want to call it, “broad type of fiber type distribution”. You can take somebody who is potentially more of a one-hundred-meter sprinter type person- super fast, twitchy. Generally, when to get them on a table, they have that super stiff muscle feel, whereas you get somebody who maybe is a little bit slower twitch. Their muscles are far softer and more pliable when you get on the table and actually start poking around. And the super high-level Cross-Fit people tend to have more of that feel on a table. Just curious where you’re at with that.
Evan Peikon: So, it’s interesting that you had mentioned that at the end. So, I have a good friend, he’s a manual therapist for a company, so he works with beginner, intermediate and a lot of elite CrossFit Games competitors. And one of the comments that he’s always made is that he says, “Elite Cross-Fitters, muscle tension feels like a bag of milk,” or he said they feel like kittens. You press into them and nothing happens. And one of the things that was funny at the time, but in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense.
We had a Games camp weekend on site back when I lived outside of Atlanta like five years ago, and we had a bunch of top male CrossFit Games competitors there. And for whatever reason, they broke out a Vertimax. They were doing max vertical jump testing.
James Cerbie: Obviously, because they’re all super competitive.
Evan Peikon: Yeah, of course. And we had a guy at the time, he was ranked top five in the world at the Games, and he went to do a max vertical jump and he squatted butt to the ground and jumped up, like you’ve never seen anyone who is as explosive. That’s not what a vertical jump looks like.
So, everyone was just giving him shit. And we had another guy who was top ten at the time and he kind of did the same thing. He squatted to parallel and tried to jump up and the guys were really good and actually knew how to jump and were able to express power in that way. They weren’t the best CrossFit Games competitors. There are guys who were eighteen, twenty fourth thirtieth at the games, and those are the ones that are more explosive.
The Correlation Between Tension and Power
And I’ve seen that play out year and year again, where the athletes who are the most powerful and can create a lot of tension, they’ve gotten selected out of sports where the best athletes right now, they might look very muscular, which a lot of that’s just due to insertions and leanness. But they don’t carry a lot of tension, which is always a really interesting phenomenon. But I think that’s something that the sport selects for because someone who is extremely explosive, they’re going to be hitting sticking points if they’re doing a workout with one hundred thrusters.
And that’s going to create an issue in and of itself. In terms of fiber type, of course, I’ve no way of doing this. I’m not pulling muscle biopsies, but I have to suspect that there’s somewhere in that middle range, because even when you’re thinking about the top CrossFit Games competitors, I know people in CrossFit get really mad when you say this, but the best Games competitors aren’t that strong in the grand scheme of things. The strongest people competing at the Games, everyone is like, oh my God, this guy put up a six-hundred-pound deadlift, probably wouldn’t place at a regional powerlifting competition.
So, it’s not like they’re putting up these freakish strength numbers that they can deal with a high percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers. And even if we’re looking at, I know there’s some speculation to accuracy here, but if we’re using NIRS breakpoints, you could use breakpoints as a proxy for fiber type distribution and even based off of that data, looking at the breakpoints on a Cross-Fitters versus people who are high level sprinters, they’re very, very different breakpoints, and they look more like middle distance runners than they do a two-hundred-meter runner, even a long-distance sprinter, a 400 meter runner, if we wanted to put it into a more traditional track and field terminology.
James Cerbie: Yeah, for sure, but from the physiological demand side of the sport, that all fits the bill of what would make a lot of sense.
So, with my background broadly dealing a lot with the oxygen cascade, looking more at VO2 kinetics, critical power, VO2 max, things along those lines. When we look at a lot of the critical power and then pair that with the kinetics to what’s taking place on the transition between metabolic rates and you look at the development of slow components as we start looking at gas exchange threshold, critical power, etc. It is interesting to see how that all plays out when you look at people that are more slow twitch versus people who are more fast twitch.
And it’s like the development of that slow component is very, very largely linked to the recruitment of these less efficient, faster fibers over time where I’m just going to start leaking. I can’t produce as much ATP aerobically, which is then going to allow me to produce force and stay underneath this critical threshold of fatigue. Not totally sure where I was actually going with that thought, it was just more of exactly what you were just saying.
But I was curious. Have you looked more at gas exchange, critical power or try to look at the transition periods in a lot of your athletes?
Evan Peikon: So, the gas exchange, not as much in my athletes. That’s something that I’ve done a lot more when I’m consulting a third party. So, when I work with teams or endurance athletes, I use gas analysis. That’s what I’ll typically crunch that data. I haven’t done too much of that in person with CrossFit athletes at least, but I have done a lot of work with critical power, though, both with the three empty versions of critical power, which are awful, and I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy, and more traditional methods of establishing critical power curves where you’re using between three and seven fixed output tests to failure and then calculating the power duration curve manually.
Why Critical Power is Great, But If You Can’t Do A Lot of Work Over That Threshold, It Really Isn’t That Useful
James Cerbie: In those higher-level CrossFit athletes, or just from your experience, do you see any trends there that are consistent in terms of their capacity to do work underneath critical power to then hold off of hitting this tipping point of fatigue?
I don’t have a ton of data on this, but one of the things that I’ve found that’s always really interesting, and this is based off of comparison since I don’t have tons of data on this, but I’ve worked with endurance athletes in more traditional endurance sports versus Cross-Fitters. I found that oftentimes CrossFitters who are relatively similar critical power levels as these endurance athletes, a CrossFitter, who has a similar critical power on the rower than one of my athletes, who is a rower, where the athletes who are more established in those sports, even if they have similar critical powers to the Cross-Fitters, their W prime values are always much, much larger.
And that’s always something that’s been really interesting to me because critical power is great, but if you can’t do a lot of work above your critical power, it’s not really that useful. Like your power is not going to be 580 watts on a rower. It’s probably going to be somewhere in the ballpark of 225 watts, which is a pretty slow output. But these athletes who are more established on those modalities, tend to have much larger W primes, and there’s a lot of research showing that W prime is probably mechanistically linked to the ability to deliver oxygen.
So, it makes me start to think along those lines knowing that by doing some test with CrossFit athletes, they typically don’t have great oxygen supply. They have really good extraction, but they’re probably using more of that type of strategy than a supply-based strategy.
So, I think it makes sense when you start taking some of that as well.
James Cerbie: In that supply versus extraction territory, which is a really good conversation. So, I think it’d be worth probably diving into that a little bit. So, when we think about doing this whole-body exercise, like in a lab, you can put somebody on a single leg dynamic knee extension exercise. And one of the nice parts about doing that is I’m going to remove central limitation because I know if I put somebody on a bike, they’re probably largely, if we’re doing VO2 max type work, you’re going to be centrally limited.
We have a pretty overwhelming amount of support to say like during big whole-body exercise and a ramp style fashion, you’re going to be essentially limited. You’re going to exceed the pumping capacity of the heart, and then you just have too many other safeguards in place to make sure that you don’t tank resistance so much that you drop pressure and then you just pass out. The CrossFit athlete, though it’s a very different one because you’re getting this transition between metabolic rates, which is where I think like that kinetics critical power world makes more sense in real life.
A VO2 max is great, but it’s probably not very applicable to anything that we would actually go do. So, when you say that, they tend to be more supply limited versus extraction limited, so, they’re really good at utilizing oxygen when it gets there, but they need to do a better job of actually getting oxygen down into the muscles, so more flow. So, when you think about that as an outcome, how do you like to approach that from an intervention standpoint to try to preferentially improve the capacity to supply to the muscle?
Evan Peikon: We’re starting to think about why their supply limited in the first place. So, when I’m trying to think of energetics, I’m always thinking about it more from less about a micro perspective. I’m always thinking about that tug of war between metabolic vasodilation and sympathetic vasoconstriction. So, one of the really interesting things we look on like single in exercise studies, there should be a linear and inverse relationship between metabolic vasodilation and oxygen utilization. So, as you desaturate a tissue, you’re going to increase flow to the tissue.
And that’s primarily going to be like a mediated mechanism. But when you’re doing full body exercise, that’s going to be threatening. And if we think about if you vasodilate all of your skeletal muscle, you would have like the best pump of your life. But it would be the last pump of your life because your cardiac output would need to increase so much. The reality is you don’t have that much blood in your body. You can’t maintain your arterial blood pressure while vasodilating all of your skeletal muscle.
And given that CrossFit is a full body form of exercise where you’re desaturating all these local tissues, sympathetic vasoconstriction is actually going to be one of the primary causes of why you have insufficient delivery. It’s not that your heart’s incapable of pumping it off. It’s the fact that you’re putting your body in a scenario that it is impossible to cope with that demand. One of the things that we need to consider is like, what are all the things that impact this sympathetic vasoconstriction response?
One of the places in my mind goes is our respiratory metabolic reflex, like if your diaphragm muscles are going to start fatiguing, you’re going to shut more blood towards those muscles. And we have some really good data where we have collected respiratory muscle, blood flow measurements and vocal muscle flow measurements. And what you see when you’re pushing people to very, very high intensities, there is a strong negative correlation between respiratory muscle blood flow and extremity muscle desaturation.
Desaturating Your Extremity Muscles and Utilizing Oxygen to Improve the Resistance of the Respiratory Muscles
So, the more you’d saturate your extremity muscles and utilize oxygen, the greater the increased inflow you get to the respiratory muscles. And if you think about it, well, that’s a protective effect. It’s like that hierarchy of critical O2. So, one of the ways to remediate that is that you improve the fatigue, resistance of the respiratory muscles, like the diaphragm, for example, say don’t fatigue and you don’t need a shunt all this blood towards those regions.
And then that in and of itself is going to allow you to improve flow to the extremity. So that’s one of the things that I’m always thinking about along those lines. They’re also just very simple, practical things that people can improve if we think about the function of the thoracic pump for improving venous return to give breathing mechanics and you can’t breathe in the bottom of a squat or with the barbell over your head or hanging from a pull up, you’re not going to be able to get blood back at your heart as efficiently because your thoracic pump isn’t going to be working properly. And if you’re not getting blood back to your heart, now, cardiac preload’s going out the window.
You’re creating a supply limitation from another standpoint as well. So those are typically the kinds of big picture items that I’m thinking about. I know you recently had Davis on. You guys have talked about muscle coordination, and that’s going to be a big one as well for thinking about the skeletal muscle pump. It’s like we always talk about the heart is the pump, but it’s almost a series of pumps between the cardiac muscle pump, skeletal muscle pump, the thoracic pump, sets of pumps that are moving the blood around.
James Cerbie: Yeah, the skeletal muscle is really your second heart in a way. Like that’s how I think about it. Like that skeletal muscle pump is so important in driving blood back to the heart so I can increase preload and then increase or at least try to maintain cardiac output. But I think that the respiratory steel is one that doesn’t get as much attention as it should. And it’s really quite important because if you think about ways in which oxygen can be limited, we think about that oxygen cascade, getting it from the atmosphere to the mitochondria.
What are places where we can have drop-offs in that cascade and the respiratory system, there’s really only probably two ways in which that’s going to impact this. One being, if you take really high-level cyclists with massive cardiac output, we know that they are red blood cell velocity through the pulmonary circulation can get to a critical velocity, to where they actually don’t have time to load and so you can watch the fact that they’re pretty much just watch desat taking place as these people are exercising because they can’t load oxygen in the lung. The people we’re talking about, cardiac output probably aren’t going to be high enough for that to be a concern.
So then next up, yeah, we go into the respiratory steal. Exactly like you explained, the body will preferentially shunt blood from the periphery to respiratory musculature because it’s going to make sure that it can still breathe. I will selectively increase sympathetic outflow and vasoconstriction to exercising muscle so that I can then get more blood flow back to my diaphragm, things responsible for helping remove the ribcage.
Evan Peikon: Yeah, one of the things that’s interesting is you’re talking about those pulmonary diffusion limitations where the RBC’s philosophy is essentially moving so quick that it can’t pick up oxygen. In some of the top across the game’s competitors, we actually do see that. They get really meaningful peripheral desaturation when they’re working at very high intensities. One of the guys that comes to mind, Travis Mayer, who’s really, really good CrossFitter. A few years ago, after we put them through testing, he would come off of testing, his lips would turn blue. He would lose feeling in his fingers and toes, and he would get to SaO2s of like eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty nine percent, which is relatively low. And that pulmonary diffusion limitation is one of the ones, it’s so interesting to me because traditionally it was believed that that didn’t actually exist, like the lungs or these perfect structures that are overbuilt for the demands of exercise. And they can’t experience fatigue, or they can’t be a stop gap in oxygen transport.
And that goes all the way back to like Archibald Hill’s work in the nineteen twenties and like that’s just been hammered and hammered. And like you look at the trail of citations. But the hilarious thing is Archibald Hill never actually took any SaO2 or SpO2 measurements, nor did he measure venous oxygen sat because the tech just didn’t exist until 50 years after he published any of his work. And meanwhile there’s tons of evidence showing that these respiratory limitations do, in fact, exist, but they’re still just not given the credence that I think they deserve.
James Cerbie: For sure, if people listening or interested in reading more on that, I’ll point you to Dr. Marcus Amon, Dr. Jerry Dempsey have really good literature on this topic. I know that Dr. Amon has like a really good review paper in terms of the respiratory system as a limiter to exercise, which is worth the read for people listening there. Like, I want to dig more into this. Another one that you mentioned that I think it’s really important that I would like to dig into is, the capacity to breathe when you’re in different positions, because CrossFit as a whole puts you in a lot of positions where it is inherently difficult to breathe.
If you watch the really high-level guys and girls do what they do, they have the capacity to breathe anywhere, any time.
It’s like I can remember, this was back in the day, when Froning released his Frantasy Land video where he does a Fran back-to-back to back three times in a row with increasing load and then increasing demand, but the pull up is going from a pull up, chest to bar, then bar muscle up and you watch his capacity to breathe. That’s the thing that blew my mind the first time I watched that video. The dude can just get these incredible inhales and exhales.
He can move a lot of oxygen and gas when he is like at the top of a thruster, or when he’s in a pull up. And then you take other normal people. And I’m like, OK, let’s put your arms over your head and try to breathe. You see nothing happening. When you think about approaching that from a training standpoint, is it as simple as let’s just put you in these positions and let’s just have you hang out here and figure out how to breathe? How do you like to approach that side of the coin?
How to Improve Your Breathing Capacity and Efficiency During Exercise by Determining If It Is Stemming from Inspiratory or Expiratory Muscle Issues
Evan Peikon: Yeah, so I usually try to attack it from the standpoint of like, is it a positional issue? Could you even get in the position to begin with? I think for a lot of competitive CrossFitters, you’d be surprised how some people can’t even get into the movement patterns they’re trying to compete in. And you’re like, oh, could you get in like a front rack position with the barbell? And you see some of them and you’re like, oh, you can’t rack a barbell without having your hands four inches off your collarbone.
Yeah, you’re probably not going to learn how to breathe during the thruster very efficiently. So, I mean, that’s step one. But like, let’s assume that people actually have good movement capabilities and they’ve hit the prerequisites. I’m typically thinking about whether someone just doesn’t know how to breathe in that position or if it’s an actual inspiratory or expiratory muscle weakness, which in that case, I’ll always go towards spirometry just because I don’t think you could look at people and discern if they have inspiratory or expiratory muscle issues.
We need to break of spirometers and actually see which of those issues it is, so measure FEC6 FEV1, then crunch the correlations between those two to see if it’s inspiratory or expiratory, assuming they’ve got the strength dialed in. I think a lot of times just teaching people where to breathe in and where to breathe out on these different movements. So, I think one of the big issues that I see a lot of CrossFitters run into, a lot of them learn how to breathe when they’re doing heavy resistance training, they’ll use the Valsalva maneuver and they learn how to time their breathing, and that’s a great strategy when you’re trying to brace your spine under a load and create a lot of intrabdominal, intrathoracic pressure, but if you’re doing it 20-pound wall ball or ninety-five-pound thruster, you don’t need to brace your spine. So, a lot of times I’ll work with athletes to break those patterns from, hey, you’re doing a ninety-five-pound thruster, breathe out on the way down and breathe in on the way up to minimize your intrathoracic pressure so you can get blood flow to the extremity easier versus breathing like you’re about to do a one rep max back squat on every rep. I know a lot of it’s just a learning thing.
One of the things that I found is I haven’t personally been involved in doing CrossFit in a few years, but if I think like six, seven years ago when I first got into CrossFit, the two solutions for getting better at a movement in a metcon where you got to get stronger in the movement and you just need to do a bunch of reps and isolation, and that’s how you get good at metcons. And I remember at the time I was just garbage strict handstand push-ups in every room. And everyone was saying I need to get stronger with strict pressing.
I could strict press my body weight for a set of 6, how much stronger do I need to get at strict pressing? That seems fine to me. I could also rip out a set of 30 unbroken strict handstand push-ups when I’m not doing the metcon. If I can’t do sets of six to eight in the metcon under fatigue, do I need to be able to do 60 unbroken to get better at that? And the reality is, I just didn’t know how to breathe while I was inverted.
So, doing a metcon, I would just hold my breath and try and knock out handstand push-ups and suffocate myself. Then you learn how to breathe in those positions. You learn how to orient your pelvis and your thoracic spine in those movements to make them a little bit more conducive with breathing. For me, I would overextend my thoracic spine. That just puts you in a bad position where your diaphragm can’t vertically expand during expiration. So, a lot of it are really simple things like that.
How do you adjust your positions? How do you actually cue it? How do you learn how to breathe in these kind of odd positions that you might not be familiar with? And athletes are very surprised how huge of an impact that could have on your performance. In an hour, you could get someone performing better on a move, but they’ve struggled with for months just because you teach them how to actually ventilate and do the thing that’s keeping them alive.
James Cerbie: Yeah, shocker. Oxygen’s a hell of a drug. It all comes back to the very first point you make, which I like, is that I think a lot of times people are so quick to not pay attention to things surrounding economy, because I think I would throw this underneath that umbrella of economy again, where we don’t need to look at these super in the weeds, very detailed physiology metrics.
Maybe you just can’t breathe. Let’s start with the really simple inputs and see if we can get all that fixed. And then as all of that gets cleaned up, then we can peel back the layers of the onion and worry about more and more complex issues to try to squeak out more performance. But I find that people don’t like that strategy. They don’t want to hear, oh, let’s just fix this and get you a big performance outcome or something simple. Well, no, I want to know, how are my mitochondria? Right.
What’s nice about this approach is, again, I think it all falls underneath that economy umbrella. And it’s great because you don’t need super fancy tech to dive into these things. Just use your eyes and watch the athlete.
Evan Peikon: Economy is the least sexy sell to athletes.
James Cerbie: No one wants to hear that.
Increasing Your Performance While Decreasing Your VO2 max and Understanding It in Terms of Efficiency
Evan Peikon: But at the end of the day, you could think about in terms of a car, like you want a bigger engine, right?
And people like, yeah, I want a bigger engine. Well, what if that engine has shit fuel efficiency? Do you still want that car? I could get you to drive around a Hummer when you’re doing this Metcon. You’re not going to like it. And to really think of how important the economy is, there’s a really great paper from Andy Jones Lab at the University of Exeter, papers from like the late 90s. But it was a five-year case study on Paula Radcliffe, greatest female marathoner of all time.
And over a five-year period, they showed her performance improved every single year. You’re like, OK, an elite marathon runner, not a big deal. Her VO2 max went down every year over that five-year period. So, you’re like, how does that work? VO2 max has gone down every year and by a meaningful degree. It dropped from, I think, seventy-four ml per kilogram per minute, down to sixty-four, sixty-five. So, a pretty big drop, but her performance is increasing. Then you look at the next figure in the study and year one, if she’s running at 16 kilometers per hour, she’s consuming, giving ballpark figures, fifty-eight ml per kg. Five years later, she’s consuming like 50 ml per kg at that pace. And then the last figure is my favorite. It’s her speed at the O2 max. So, in year one, she’s running under VO2 max speed, which is very high, and she’s moving at like 19 kilometers per hour.
And in year five, with her VO2 max being ten millimeters per kilo lower, her speed at VO2 max is one and a half kilometers per hour faster. That’s all economy. You’re running at a faster speed, consuming less energy. The engine got smaller over that five-year period, but performance increased. And I think CrossFitters, part of it is, the type A personality. You don’t get into CrossFit if you don’t like crushing yourself, throwing up in a chalk bucket.
But by virtue of that, CrossFitters also don’t like those softer skills that are a long-term investment strategy to improve your performance.
James Cerbie: Without question, I really like the analogy that you use of the car, because I think that VO2 max is often a misunderstood metric. So, VO2 max is not a performance capacity. It’s a functional capacity. It’s pretty much telling me, how much horsepower do you have in this engine? But it tells me nothing about the efficiency or the miles per gallon that that engine can kick out, because for it to be a performance capacity, I want to know the power output, which is, what can the engine kick out?
But then I need a duration component as well. So, it’s like, yeah, you can have a six hundred horsepower engine and if you last five seconds, sweet, awesome bro. That was a lot of fun. So yeah, the efficiency component there is huge. So much of that’s going to come down to technical prowess, as well as just over time exposure. The body is going to make adjustment. You get more efficient in terms of ATP cost of contraction, just in terms of the remodeling at the mitochondria and capillary level, like all of that stuff is getting fine-tuned and optimized for this output as you get more and more exposure and training to it.
Evan Peikon: Yeah, and I think some people neglect is, VO2 max isn’t a performance measurement. But there’s also a tradeoff of having a very high VO2 max. The kid with the highest VO2 max ever, untrained. This kid was at seventy-two ml per kilogram. Yeah, I think he got up to ninety-eight ml per kg and won the World Junior Championship and turned out to be a kind of cyclist, not a world beater by any means.
And I think the way that Michael Joyner explained it is you can’t hit the double jackpot. You either have the biggest engine or you’re really good at fuel efficiency. You can’t have both of those. In a different paper they were starting to speculate on why that is. You would probably understand this much better than I do because your educational background. But what they were starting to link is mitochondrial uncoupling and VO2. So, people who are very uncoupled are going to be able to churn through energy, but they’re very inefficient.
And people who are very tightly coupled, they’re on average going to have lower VO2 maxes, but they’re going to be very efficient. So, you want somewhere in the middle where you have like a relatively high VO2 max, but you’re also very efficient. And that’s why you think of Eliud Kipchoge, who ran the sub two-hour marathon. He has high VO2 max, but it’s nothing crazy. I think it was seventy-eight or 80 milliliters per kilo, which isn’t by any means out of this world value.
But the thing that set him apart is his running economy was through the roof. He just doesn’t expend that much energy at marathon pace. And I think that’s what really makes the difference for really any work capacity sports.
James Cerbie: Yeah, without question. And the coupling and uncoupling one’s a really interesting conversation, right. Because we’re trying to think about how many protons do I need to move to essentially get an ATP from an oxygen? The tighter that we can make that the less electrons, less proton flow I need to generate, the better off I’m going to be. That role gets really intriguing, really fast. And it also gets really difficult to tease apart how to use that from an application standpoint. Right? Amazing man. So, what I would like to transition to here and hit on the back end of the call is organization a training, because when we think training a power lifter or training a body builder or training an Olympic lifter, the organization of training is actually quite simple because we have a very specific outcome goal we’re trying to reach. I’m not trying to juggle all these different potential variables. So, the programing is really pretty straightforward. When we start getting into the realm of these CrossFit athletes, though, where we have to see abilities across such a wide range.
How to Organize Training for Athletes Who Have to Perform Well In So Many Different Areas
When you begin thinking about the organization of training, and again, feel free to rephrase this because I’m doing a poor job of phrasing it. But when you think about the organization of training for these athletes, maybe start with Big Bird’s eye view and then whittle your way down. How do you think about organizing training for an athlete that has to be good at so many different things compared to people that can be more of a one trick pony?
Evan Peikon: So, the first place to start with is, I always think for a CrossFit athlete, how the hell do you fit everything they need to do in a single training weekend? For me, the first way that I solve that problem is a week is not seven days a CrossFit athlete. A week is 10 to 14 days. So, they have a longer training week. And I consider their training week as a cycle. So, for me, I like to program in 14-day training weeks and it’s kind of like an A week and B week and you just kind of rotate through.
The way that I tend to think about it is there’s something that’s important for the sport. We want to be touching on in some capacity at all times of the year. And this isn’t anything new. It’s like you can call it vertical integration or there’s tons of different terms for it. So, I’m really just adjusting the total volume and frequency of each training piece based on the athlete’s needs. And where I start with the sport, I always think about CrossFit as a cyclical sport, not an isoquant sport.
But the fact of the matter is, most people cannot do CrossFit cyclically or at least they can’t do most movements. So, I like to think, why can’t you make this a Metcon a cyclical workout? So, if we were to pick a workout with two hundred twenty-five-pound deadlifts for really high reps, mixed with burpes and assault biking. The burpes and assault bike, it’s pretty straightforward. I’m sure you could do those indefinitely. And let’s say I know you have really heavy deadlifts.
So, if it’s a two hundred twenty-five-pound deadlift, let’s say you can’t do that cyclically in the Metcon. I kind of run through a decision tree, and the first place I always start with is, is it a strength issue? Of course, if the weights too heavy for you, it’s not going to be a cyclical movement, so, you just need to get stronger. For you, you don’t need to get your deadlift up. If you want to do two hundred twenty-five pound for reps, you get your deadlift up to eight hundred pounds, it’s probably not going to make a difference for you.
So, then the next step on the decision tree that I always go through for a CrossFitter is, can you do this movement for high reps and isolation, but you just can’t do it in a Metcon, or can you just never do this thing for high reps? So, for you, that would be like saying, could you rep out 225 for sets of twenty without it being an issue?
If you’re just here in a normal condition, if you’re like no, I could never do that. Then I go to the movement boxes and I’m like, OK, well do you have good hip extension. Like if you can’t physically extend your hips all the way you’re going to be keeping your spinal rectors under tension through that entire range of motion. And you’re not going to get that de-loading at the top where you could get blood back into the rectors and get oxygen moving through.
So, if you’re like, no, my movement’s great. I have good hip extension. I’ve addressed all these different pieces that I go to breathe in. Can you breathe in this movement? I could do that. I’m like, OK, well, you can’t do high rep deadlifts in isolation. You’re strong, you have good movement, quality of good breathing, then it’s probably a coordination issue. Then let’s say we addressed all of those. Now we’re on the other side of that decision tree where you’re like, I could rep out sets of twenty at 225lb deadlifts for days, but I can’t do it in a Metcon, that’s where I start to think about a different decision tree. Are you really good at short high power output workouts? But you always get blowing up on these longer workouts. It might just be a cardiac output issue for you or it might be a diaphragm muscle fatigue and strength issue, and that’s another tree that we could go down or it might even just be that you don’t have good enough volume tolerance to do one hundred deadlifts in a workout.
So, for each movement that is going to be tested in the sport. I run it through that decision tree and then we could whittle down the amount of things that we need to train. So, if you’re bad at handstand push-ups, I don’t need to say like, oh, we need to improve your pressing strength and your muscular endurance pressing and your movement quality. Instead, it’s like, what is the one thing that you need to do right now, that’s your low hanging fruit for handstand push-ups? What’s your one piece of low hanging fruit for muscle ups and all these different movements? And let’s go after that. And then once it’s good enough, then we just put those training pieces into workouts in other formats just to keep tabs and maintenance. It sounds like this would equal a ton of training volume, but it’s really not. If you could boil down those lowest hanging pieces of fruit and build the training program around to that, then there is only so much strength work that you need to do or movement work, and then you can kind of support work and everywhere else.
And then once all those movements are relatively cyclic, that’s where I start thinking about these more traditional measurements, OK, well, you can make Metcons relatively cyclic now, but your VO2 max is relatively low. We need to improve that ceiling. So, it’s always thinking about the relationships between these things. And honestly, I’ve had athletes who have made top ten at the Games as an individual and they train somewhere on the range of six to ten hours per week.
So, it’s not that much total training volume. I mean, it’s more than the average intermediate athlete, but it doesn’t need to be triples every day of the week.
James Cerbie: I love that. The decision-making tree there is perfect. It ties back nicely to a concept that’s come up on this podcast, that’s probably the fifth or sixth time, which is filling the empty bucket.
So, we had Mike Robertson on. We were talking more force velocity curve training, trying to figure out have a force bias versus velocity biased athlete.
And it’s come up in multiple other occasions where you’re using this decision tree to try to figure out what’s the empty bucket. And I want to focus on trying to fill that empty bucket. And once that empty bucket is filled, let’s then assess. OK, well, what’s the next bucket that we need to go after and fill. It’s such a ruthlessly logical approach, and it’s fantastic. And I love it. It’s really good.
And I also like the example, because everything you described is perfectly me, by the way. The dude is very twitchy, power oriented. I do really well with lower rep ranges. The second we start getting like ten plus reps, we get into danger territory really quickly.
So, on the decision-making metric, so let’s say that you have an athlete that reaches a point where, we’ll use the deadlift example, right. We can cycle deadlifts in isolation now, and this looks really good and we’re pretty confident here. So, then you bring that back into the Metcon, and your goal is essentially to surround that deadlift with fatigue, more or less. Right? Is that kind of how you’re thinking about it?
Evan Peikon: Yeah, that’s exactly I think about surrounding with ever increasing amounts of fatigue. And then once it’s relatively robust, that’s where you need to start getting into different formats, different workout combinations. Because the thing that’s interesting about CrossFit is it’s very easy to get exposed. You’re like caught with your pants down, so to speak, like you might find that you’re great with mixing deadlifts with all these movements. And then you might end up in a competition where there’s movement combos that are just ridiculous, like a workout that’s an AMRAP power snatches and deadlifts.
Why would you ever train an AMRAP like that? It doesn’t really make sense from a workout standpoint. If you’re trying to be conservative with your athletes to not blow their lower backs out, you probably aren’t going to train them for that. But the people creating these competitions, they really don’t care. They might literally have a workout that’s power snatches, deadlifts and power cleans in Metcon format. So, that’s where from my athletes, once we get their movement patterns really robust, sometimes I’ll just give them training that I’ll intentionally try and think of things that are ridiculous because they compete in the sport of literal absurdity.
That’s the component of the sport that’s both fun to work with athletes and figure out how to game plan for those kinds of events. But as someone who is very analytical, it also frustrates me to no end when you’re trying prep people and take a rigorous approach, and you’re like, God, they could just, I mean, the first week of the open this year, it was the wall walks and double unders that was most absurd.
James Cerbie: I have a good buddy here in Salt Lake, who did it. And I saw him the next day and said, Bro, I’m so wrecked. Especially since, he competed in CrossFit previously and now he doesn’t really do it as much. But he’s at a gym where you have a lot of CrossFit athletes. So, he jumped in just for the community camaraderie. But it’s a lot of fun and he actually could still probably do pretty well if he really wanted to do it. But it was funny. He’s like, it was ridiculous. It was so absurd. Like I did so many fucking wall walks.
Understanding Common Themes in Athletes Across the Board
So, when do you think about all the athletes you’ve trained over time, are there consistent core variables that you see as being, if we want to use “limiters,” almost unanimous across the board in terms of almost every athlete I get tends to have a similar problem with this thing. And when we clean up this thing, we tend to see pretty large, substantial improvements in output. What you guys do so well is you take a vastly more rigorous approach to programing for the sport of CrossFit pretty much more than anybody else I’ve seen to where most people are throwing stuff on a wall and seeing what comes out. You guys actually do take a very rigorous approach.
With everybody that you’ve trained so far, if you were to whittle it down, and you, I think potentially already got after an answer to this question a little bit, is there one or two variables that you see consistently across the board where people come in and you’re like, yeah, we just need to work on this? This is just a common theme that shows up again and again and again and again.
Evan Peikon: It’s hard to say a common theme. And it’s interesting. I do work for an organization that primarily works with CrossFit, and I think I’m more known for working with CrossFitters. But it’s actually over the more recent years, it’s become more of a minority of my demographic. I think among the high-level CrossFitters, it sounds absurd, but it’s the biggest things, right? What is the position of axial and appendicular skeleton?
Some people, they just have some weird ass postures that don’t really make sense in, you know. If you walk in and look like a human cashew and you’re forward rounded, for a lot of guys that are stuck in this stress extension posture, you’re just not going to be economical in any of the movements that CrossFit demands when that’s what your posture looks like. So, I think if I were to give a catchall for CrossFitters lacking a lot of fundamentals that you would think people would have when they’re that fit, just basic positions, basic movement quality, understanding how to breathe in different positions that are varied.
One of the big ones is coordination and not over contracting. One of the things that I find is a lot of CrossFitters. I don’t know where this really came from in the community is, a lot of CrossFitters love really dynamic effort, style training and West Side style training. And they get really good at moving fast and trying to create as much power as possible. And that’s great if you want to get strong.
But I find it’s actually a really bad adaptation for a sport where you’re trying to do a lot of reps. It would be like saying like, oh, you’re 5K runner and I want you to have as much ground force contact as possible. And every single step, you’re leaping through the roof on every step of your stride until you finally blow out all of your fuel. It’s very similar with CrossFitters. So, I think addressing very like simple things that anyone could do in their house or in their gym are probably the things that have the biggest impact on performance.
Because at the end of the day, if you get into competing in CrossFit, you’re good at slamming your head into a wall, you probably like the suffering. You like working really hard. So, I never see people lacking the ability to go there, not wanting to put themself through the rigors. It’s always more of those soft skills that are lacking in the community.
James Cerbie: For sure. I think that the focus there in the position of the axial skeleton is so huge. It kind of ties together a lot of what we’ve talked about here in terms of, if that axial positioning is off and we’re going to have a hard time breathing because now the diaphragm is not really leveraged well in order to power inhalation. If that axial skeleton is off, then you’re going have a hard time moving your arms and legs in an efficient manner so that when we’re in certain positions, as we’re trying to cycle movements, we can actually have coordinated contractions that come on and off tension so that I can then get blood flow and have better supply of oxygen to the tissues.
So much of it does come back to that central core component of what’s the position of the axial skeleton. How well do you move? Do you actually have shoulder flexion? Do you actually have hip extension? Because if we’re missing these things, you’re fighting an uphill battle that’s already an uphill battle.
Evan Peikon: Yeah, you’re fighting your own body while trying to fight the workout and perform, but it just doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
James Cerbie: Yeah, and especially in something where we already know that supply is going to be so hard. We hit on the fact that you have this massive supply limitation. If you’re not moving efficiently, all you’re going to be doing is bringing in extra accessory muscles to have to help complete this task, which require more blood flow and more oxygen delivery. And it’s going to steal blood flow from the primary movers we’re wanting to get it, too, right. It’s just this domino effect that ends up just robbing you and you get this massive leaky hose that’s costing you in terms of your ability to generate work.
Evan Peikon: Yeah. And in that way, actually, I know a lot of people, they’ll try and take models from track and field running and apply it to CrossFit. In that way, I actually think CrossFit is a lot more like cross country skiing, if you really think about it, because it’s a full body work capacity test where so much of it is going to be like fighting between vasoconstriction and preventing the flow of blood to the extremities, but also needing the flow of blood to the extremities.
It all sounds so complex, but the end of the day, the actual solutions that we’re going after here, like they’re not rocket science or these crazy, complex things that you need all this technology to do. It’s really just the slight nuances and tweaks to a program and making sure that the work that you’re doing is actually going to lead to the adaptations that you wanted to do, not just training to continually improve extraction and hammering that now because it’s already completely hammered in. You’re not going to get any further by doing that.
James Cerbie: Yeah, absolutely. Well, let’s see, we’re at fifty-five minutes here, so I’ll probably wrap this sucker up here pretty soon. But Evan, thank you so much for coming on. This is fantastic. I really enjoyed this conversation. I feel like we could probably keep going on this for a while. It’d be fantastic to just grab a coffee and sit down and just riffed on all of this material. So, for people that are listening to this and they want to find out more about you, where is the best place to go to find you, where you’re hanging out, where you’re putting out your content and information?
Where to Find Evan Peikon
Evan Peikon: Yes, so apparently, I found out recently that Instagram is a platform that’s meant to be for photographs. I’ve been kind of keeping the blog on there, putting up all my content. So that’s pretty much where all of my writing is, oddly enough. So that’s probably the easiest place to find content. I also put out content on medium occasionally, write articles, but I don’t do too much out in the interweb.
James Cerbie: And then you have your own performance business as well that you do in addition to Training Think Tank correct? Where you’re doing more of consulting work, where you can help athletes, teams, etc. with a lot of what we’ve been talking about here.
Evan Peikon: Yes, so that company is called Emergent Performance Lab, and yes, we do consulting with athletes and coaches and teams. A lot of that is also more R&D work. So, we do a lot of work for different corporations and organizations that either want to outsource research that they need for product development, that they can’t take on themselves or partnering with companies to try and create products and bring those to market.
James Cerbie: Beautiful, man. Excellent. We will throw all that in the show notes so that people can go find you on Instagram and read your Instagram blog. And throw links in there to Medium and to all the other cool stuff you have going on. But thank you again for coming on. This is fantastic. I really enjoyed it.
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