Over the past 20 years we have seen a surge in a new training methodology called Mixed Modal Training, a training methodology that utilizes constantly varied functional movements executed at a high intensity across a variety of modalities which was popularized through CrossFit. This training method used strength training, aerobic conditioning, calisthenics, Olympic lifting, and more in a structured manner as a way to develop people for a variety of situations and potentially causing sufficient movement variety to increase performance gains over traditional training methods. The thought was, because we are combining strength, power, aerobic, and anaerobic training methodologies we can likely see an increase in all of them without over stressing the body.
Because of some phenomenal marketing, shifting target demographics from elite performers to everyday people, and essentially coining the phrase “functional fitness”, this training style blew up. Everyone in their grand-parents were doing CrossFit and Mixed Modal Training. Helping to spark a revolution in the fitness industry and pushing its popularity to some of the most elite tactical athlete communities.
But the question became, “Is this really the ideal method of training?”. In reality its a very difficult question because everyone is so different. If we place 100 individuals in a study to see the training effects of this we will likely see 100 different results. This is because we have variations in coordination, differences in training age, adaptation rate, movement skill, and so much more. But as we have begun to study this more we tend to see trends in training.
Overall one of the biggest benefits I see with Mixed Modal Training is simply the fact that it is fun as hell! This allows a lot of people who would not traditionally train, to come and improve their health while creating a new community for themselves to enjoy and thrive in. While at the same time there is a great competitive scene that allows both casual and competitive athletes to enjoy the same activities.
This also leads into a negative. Because of the competitive nature of the sport many people will prioritize getting a better score, rather than performing lifts properly. With technically demanding movements that are also loaded, this can lead to disaster, where many of the athletes will be injured. Sadly these aren’t the common strains of the weight room such as overloading a muscle, or tweaking something. Instead they tend to be more serious such as repetitive stress injuries, musculoskeletal injuries from improper form, tendon strains or tears, or even Rhabdomyolysis. Many of these injuries tend to have longer recovery times, and require hospital visits.
Now before It seems like i’m ripping on mixed modal training im not, Mixed Modal has a place in the fitness continuum of the tactical athlete. It just need to be highly directed in how you use it, and with who you decide to program it for. Personally I love mixed modal training for a few specific applications, particularly its ability to provide movement variation, its time efficiency, and ability to provide density based training.
Generally speaking with mixed modal training you will have a drastically different workout each day you train, this allows you to experience a wide range of movements and begin to create neural pathways to gain basic movement competency across a range of activities. You won’t necessarily become a specialist of a movement like a powerlifter or olympic lifter would, but you can function well in a range of situations. This is very valuable to non specialist athletes like tactical athletes.
Time efficiency is also basically unmatched, its hard to get as hard of a sweat as what mixed modal training provides in as little time as it requires. If your goal is weight loss this can be a great tool for time efficient training, especially if you are regularly busy, or find long workouts hard to finish without quitting half-way through.
Finally there is density training, density is a quality that allows you to complete more work in the same amount of time. As an example if in workout 1 you do 20 push ups in 40 seconds your training density is .5 push ups per second, in workout 2 you did 20 push ups in 20 seconds the density is 1 push up per second. While the volume of work is the same, the density is much higher. Because most mixed modal training has a set amount of work and is timed to represent the score, much of the primary component of fitness that is developed is the training density. For tactical athletes training density can be valuable especially for testing events but for on the job performance is not the best quality to focus on developing.
While mixed modal training has provided a revolution to how we train, it doesn’t mean that it fits the bill for how everyone should train.
Sadly tons of people use mixed modal as a way to do cardiovascular training without being stuck in boring steady state cardio or doing intensity based intervals. The issue becomes that it does not allow the heart to max out in the way that it would in more traditional cardiovascular training, infact for most individuals the most they can achieve is 70% of max heart rate. Essentially it is a very inefficient way to produce the adaptations we hope to see for the cardiovascular system, and limits the growth capacity for endurance and aerobic/anaerobic speed.
The other issue is the lack of mechanical tension. Mechanical tension is the force used to move weights through space, either allowing you to overcome the weight in the concentric phase of the muscle or control is in the eccentric and isometric phases. Mechanical tension is one of the major driving factors that allows for muscles to grow big and strong, but because much of the training within mixed modal training focuses on lower weights and higher volume in a smaller amount of time we eliminate mechanical tension as being a driving factor in adaptations, and instead the limits we normally see are around the muscle endurance capacity of the muscles. Sadly because the mechanical tension isnt high enough this still does not prime us effectively for the needs of the standard tactical athlete.
In fact in a study they found that “Moderate Intensity, High Repetition Exercise which is commonly used in body building and circuit training can convert… fast twitch muscle fibers to act like slow twitch muscle fibers, in an adaptive attempt to resist the fatigue of the repeated efforts. Thus the capacity of strength endurance seemed to increase… For those reasons it appears that high volume moderate resistance training is actually high intensity general endurance” [Verkhoshansky, Y., V., Siff, M. C., & Yessis, M. (2009). The Effects of High versus Moderate Intensity Exercise. In Supertraining (6th expanded version ed., pp. 65–68). Verkhoshansky.com.]
Essentially what this means is that while this type of training does have mechanical tension as a physical quality that it stresses, because of the volume of the training it actually will reduce your strength and power in an attempt to become more enduring. While this is not always a bad thing especially if the specific athlete lacks the ability to endure muscle volume or strength endurance or if their field requires strength endurance similar to that of a military tactical athlete, it still will hinder their maximal potential especially when compared to have structured strength/power/ strength endurance and high quality speed/cardiovascular training. Because rather than building on the system with minor reductions in performance from the other qualities, it converts and takes from other systems to adapt to the new stress. To make an analogy, mixed modal moderate intensity high repetition training, is like feeding an expanding group of people by splitting the meals up into smaller portions so everyone can eat, while many other training systems feed everyone simply by cooking more food.
Overall, mixed modal training is simply a tool to be used. It is not inherently good or bad, but we need to be highly directed in who we recommend this type of training to.
I tend to love it for people wanting fun and exciting workouts, who primarily need time efficiency in their training, or are simply looking to lose weight.
But on average I don’t think that solely using mixed modal training for performance based tactical athletes is ideal. While it does provide many benefits to the performance of the job, there are many other ways to train that will also be amazing to develop all necessary qualities.