Push, Pull, Lift, Press

By Jon Gilson

A look into the potential of Adaptive CrossFit competition

My first exposure to amputees was at a CrossFit Level I Seminar in Alamo, Texas. These boys, on crutches and in wheelchairs, some with prosthesis, some without, went through the standard two-day course.

Our job was to give them CrossFit. Teach them to squat, to deadlift, to press, to WOD, to suffer toward physical and mental improvement. The task was challenging rather than difficult. If we kept in mind the central tenet of scaling, preservation of the stimulus, the path forward was clear.

If a guy with no legs had to deadlift from a wheelchair, we found him a load that could be lifted suitcase-style. We strapped him in for leverage, and let him have at it. If a guy with one arm needed to do pullups, we let him jump or get a band. If the guy with no arms and no legs wanted to do “Fran”, we standardized his range of motion and judged him like you’d judge any competitor.

Training amputees was easy. Keeping competition among them fair is another story.

When we hand out medals, when glory and honor are at hand, our innate justice system kicks in. We all need to start with the same chance at winning, or the competition is a non-starter. At the beginning, all men must be equal. This is no different in the adaptive population.

In what follows, we will attempt to answer the central question: How do we make adaptive competition fair, embodying CrossFit philosophy and methodology? This article serves to begin a conversation rather than provide a prescription. Your feedback, theoretical or practical, will be essential to making adaptive competition a reality.


The value of standardizing CrossFit competition for adaptive athletes is self-evident. Our community has embraced competition, amateur and professional, as a way to bring people together, showcasing the physical benefit of our training methodology while providing the excitement of sport. Adaptive competition would provide the same public good, perhaps more so, given the inherent inspiration found in athletes overcoming physical tasks from a deficit. The benefit to the individual competitor is equally obvious—pursuing CrossFit grants physical abilities that extend beyond the bounds of the gym. Confidence in the face of adversity, refusal to accept failure, and immediate recognition of the relationship between sacrifice and reward are all borne via CrossFit training.


In nearly every other adaptive sport outside of CrossFit, the athlete is pursuing a single task of a homogeneous nature: run 800m, play a baseball game, row 2k, ski down the mountain. As such, the rules are relatively easy to elucidate and prosthetic equipment can be standardized to the task, but many divisions are necessary to accommodate all potential disabilities. For instance, the Paralympic Games has no fewer than six athlete divisions, which can be further split into sport-specific classifications.

The rationale for numerous divisions and classifications is sound, based on inherent differences in “energy expenditure” between athletes. Depending on the location and nature of the disability, especially in regards to amputation, athletes will use significantly different amounts of energy to accomplish a given task. An athlete with a transtibial (lower leg) amputation will use more energy than an athlete with a functioning leg to move their center of mass a given distance, due to a less efficient stride, caused by reduced muscle mass and the loss of the mechanical advantage provided by the ankle joint. Similarly, an athlete with a transfemoral (upper leg) amputation will use more energy than their transtibial counterpart, given the loss of the knee joint. Ostensibly, it would be unfair for one to compete against the other, given the inborn disparity in energy use.

Despite this, it is impractical to conduct a CrossFit competition with six or more adaptive divisions in the name of fairness. Simply finding the requisite number of athletes to “make it a competition” would be nearly impossible, and we have no desire to create something where everyone goes home a winner.

Still, some divisions are necessary to ensure that no unfair advantage accrues to one class of competitor over another.

We settle on three: wheelchair, non-wheelchair, and able-bodied with brain/spinal cord injury. No division competes with the others; each stands alone for the purposes of scoring and reward.

Dividing by allowable locomotive equipment rather than impairment allows competitors to select a division with full knowledge of the tools they’ll have at their disposal, and their relative advantage or disadvantage within any class. Once an athlete selects a division, it becomes their division for the duration of the competition.

Both the wheelchair and non-wheelchair divisions will be allowed prosthesis, provided that those prosthesis cannot aid in work accomplishment and must be used daily in non-athletic competition. The only exception to the “daily rule” is a prosthesis that allows the competitor to hold a weight implement in the place of a hand.

While we are aware of the existence of specialized prostheses for running, racing, and more, the “daily rule” prevents a gear-based advantage for any one athlete based on his or her financial resources. The ability to afford or procure a carbon fiber sprint “foot” should not be a factor in separating winners and losers in competition.

The “daily rule” also reinforces the idea that CrossFit training is meant to enable functional activity in everyday life, leaving the athlete in a ready state when physical demands spontaneously arise. During this eventuality, he may be without his specialized gear, therefore training with it makes little sense.

Our equipment-based divisions create a place for the full spectrum of adaptive athletes without the parsing-by-deficiency typically found in adaptive sports. We will solve the “energy expenditure” problem not through divisions, but by paying careful attention to programming individual workouts and the overall event.


Within each workout, we need to modify our scheme of movements to suit the inherent limitations of adaptive athletics. Wide disparities in limb lengths (and existence) make it nearly impossible to call a rep a rep. As such, we cannot create individual workouts that specify classic CrossFit movements, such as thrusters, kettlebell swings, and wall ball shots. The potential differences in range of motion between athletes would lead to huge gulfs in the amount of work performed, and by extension, would compromise the fairness of the competition.

Therefore, proper adaptive workout programming demands we dig to the core of the CrossFit methodology, understanding why a rep is a rep in non-adaptive competition. The answer, in short, is work. Measured by classical mechanics, work is the product of force and distance. When a workout specifies the load to be moved, the movement pattern, and the number of times to complete the movement pattern (repetitions), distance is implied, the assumption being that every able-bodied athlete is moving the load within a distance range of acceptable tolerance.

In adaptive competition, specifying the movement pattern to the level of the thruster or kettlebell swing would result in wildly non-standardized movement across the board, with no assurance that all athletes were operating within an acceptable range.

Therefore, while we can specify load and distance within adaptive competition, we cannot specify the manner of accomplishing the task beyond rudimentary kinesthesiology. Instead of “classic” movements, we must specify things like push, pull, lift, and press.

In practice, we must have some manner of confirming the required work was accomplished. Here, it becomes obvious why CrossFit relies on movement standards and the exact counting of reps—it leads to verifiable outcomes. We must do the same, but what constitutes a repetition may be different between different athletes.

Let’s look at a potential workout to clarify. Assume the task is move 75 pounds 100 vertical feet, with each repetition starting from the ground. We have a force and a distance. The winner is the athlete who accomplishes this in the shortest time. We have two athletes competing, one missing both legs below the hip, the other missing a single arm.

Our no-legged athlete is capable of moving a barbell from the ground to overhead, covering 4 vertical feet if his arms are totally locked out and the hip is partially extended. This is classified as a single repetition, and any partial expression of this movement is a “no rep”. This athlete is assigned a judge who knows the required range of motion, specific to the athlete. With a requirement of 100 vertical feet, this athlete must complete 25 repetitions.

Our one-armed athlete cannot easily use a barbell to move the required load, and must therefore use a dumbbell. He has the advantage of being able to cover a long distance with each repetition. He can cover 7 vertical feet by lifting and pressing. Again, his judge verifies the range of motion at 7 feet and will “no rep” any partial expression of that movement. With a requirement of 100 vertical feet, this athlete must complete 15 repetitions.

Who ever finishes fastest wins.

There is another scaling opportunity here. Given a total work requirement of 7500 lb./ft. of vertical movement, the load can be lowered to meet the physiological tolerance of the individual athlete. Let’s assume our one-armed athlete can handle no more than 40 pounds per repetition. The work requirement doesn’t change. Instead, we see that he can move 40 pounds 7 feet, accomplishing 280 lb./ft. with every rep. He must do 27 repetitions to meet the work requirement.

By merely specifying total load and end state task accomplishment, we’re able to construct a competition the enables nearly anyone to participate. The judging pre-qualification of what constitutes a repetition, while onerous, is not game-stopping.


CrossFit competition does not need to be fair within individual events; it merely needs to be fair across all events in a competition. Consider non-adaptive competition. Often, an event will arise that favors one body type over another. One hundred pullups for time invariably favors the smaller athlete over the larger. The implicit expectation is the following event will not exhibit the same bias, but will favor another body type, usually that most disadvantaged by the previous event. To continue the example, 30 snatches at 155 pounds might be appropriate, favoring the larger athlete at the expense of the smaller.

The duty on the programmer is to ensure favoritism and bias die a slow death as the contest progresses. This principle holds true in adaptive competition. We must ensure no single type of athlete holds a sustained advantage over another type within any division.

While we’ve proposed a workout schema that minimizes unfairness between competitors in a single WOD, it cannot entirely eliminate differences in work output ascribable to mechanical advantage: leverage and limb length. We must equalize this disparity through event programming, varying loads, time domains, distances, and movement types throughout the event.

The principle advantage of having legs comes in locomotion and vertical distance per repetition, as well as hip-mediated pushing. The principle disadvantage is cycle time per repetition. The opposite is true for a legless individual; locomotion, vertical distance, and pushing power are sacrificed, but cycle time is greatly enhanced. The individual competitor can choose to get around some of their respective disadvantages by choosing the wheelchair or non-wheelchair division.

We must temper the discussion of mechanical advantage and cycle time with the knowledge that everything goes out the window when a supremely conditioned athlete, seemingly at a deficit, is put up against a better-equipped but less fit foe. We cannot equalize the competition for fitness level—it is the thing we’re attempting to test.

Let’s examine a hypothetical competition through the lens of event fairness:

Figure 1: A Hypothetical Event Schedule

Event 1, created to measure horizontal speed under load, clearly benefits athletes with both arms in the wheelchair division, and athletes with legs in the non-wheelchair division. Some natural deficits in locomotion can be overcome with prosthesis, whether arm or leg. There is no significant benefit/loss within the Brain and Spinal division.

Event 2, created to measure muscular stamina under vertical work, is a mixed bag. Athletes with both legs and a single arm have a distance advantage, but must complete their repetitions with a higher loading to exercise that advantage, given the single arm, and have a comparatively large cycle time. Athletes with a single arm and a single leg have a distance advantage, moderated by their relative lack of muscle mass to use a higher loading, but still burdened with a large cycle time. Athletes with both arms but no legs have a low distance at their disposal, but can spread the load across both arms and proceed with a rapid cycle time.

Figure 2: Advantages and Disadvantages in Event 2

Clearly, the advantage accrues to the athlete with the most muscle mass and natural mechanical advantage. Some of this can be ameliorated with the use of appropriate prostheses, but the prudent programmer should attempt to equalize the playing field, within reason, in the third event. This is done through the inclusion of bodyweight-only movement.

Event 3 is meant to test full-body muscular stamina and cardio respiratory endurance over a longer time domain across multiple planes of action. Advantages follow the trajectory we’ve traced thus far until we get to the up/downs, the bodyweight movement. While we keep the overall work requirement constant for all competitors, the decreased cycle time and lack of overall body mass accrues as a distinct advantage to the athlete with fewer “moving parts”.

Figure 3: Advantages and Disadvantages Specific to Vertical Bodyweight Movement

Comparing Figures 2 and 3, we see that our athletes with no arms/legs or two arms and no legs have garnered advantages that were not evident in moving a load vertically or horizontal displacement.


While the framework laid out in this article takes the major issues into consideration, including divisions, judging, workout programming, and event programming, it is only useful insofar as it inspires action. The lessons of adaptive competition will be learned through practice rather than theory or discussion.

While ease of execution must be kept in mind, the paramount factor in determining the quality of an adaptive competition is its relative fairness. No competition will end with the advantage accruing to the most disabled rather than the least, but using prostheses and a wide variety of test conditions should serve to create a tolerable baseline of equity.

Our next step is to put these theories to the test, always with an eye to where our framework break down and why.

We welcome intellectually rigorous questioning of the ideas presented here; such a discussion would be a gift to the CrossFit Community. Please post comments and questions below.

Jon Gilson is the founder of Again Faster and former member of CrossFit’s Level I Seminar staff. He once got choked out by Kyle Maynard, a man with no elbows, wrists, knees, or ankles. He believes that “disability” is a relative term.

This article was written with the help of Ben Davis, head coach at No Excuses CrossFit.

Photography from the 2011 Again Faster Adaptive Summit courtesy of David Foster.