Julien Pineau: Strength, Muscular Imbalance & Intensity in Crossfit

Julien Pineau, coach at CrossFit Invictus and Strongfit discusses muscular and strength imbalances, embracing pain, the role of intensity within CrossFit and the difference between the US and the European Crossfit scenes.

Can you give us a brief bio on your athletic background?

My first sport was soccer. That’s the one I really started to excel at. It was the 13th arrondissement team that my Father got me into and I was about 9 years old I think. It was a great team. I played in it for two years to a pretty high level. We ended up going to the National Championships and even the European Championships. That’s actually where I broke my foot. Then at about 12 and a half I switched to swimming and did that for a bit amongst various other sports. We were travelling around quite a lot and I was exposed to a lot of soccer, tennis, bodyweight movements, Jiu Jitsu. Then I came back to Paris and lifted weights for a while, before eventually finding MMA. And that’s when it really took off for me. But before that, there was a lot of state championship in various sports, but I could never stick with anything.

julien pineau leading seminar crossfit nurnberg
Julien’s seminar at CrossFit Nurnberg

Why?

I rode everything on talent. And then there’s that moment when you have to start working at it. I didn’t really find my vocation. It was all fun…but there was always something missing. Sometimes you just do something that sticks with you and sometimes it doesn’t. Until I found MMA, I just kept trying lots of things in the pursuit of that missing thing. MMA…that was the one that stuck with me. That got inside my head.

How did you find your way into CrossFit?

A friend of mine from MMA said he was going to try it. He showed me some examples and although I found it interesting, I didn’t try it. Then I went to live in Brazil for a while. When I came back, CrossFit had blown up and everyone was following main site. So I tried the first workout, which was ‘Grace’ and from that point I thought it was awesome.

I remember it was 2005, the year I opened the gym and I did it at the local Golds Gym. I loved the intensity and how long after the workout I felt the effects. The entire day I was floored. I couldn’t believe that three minutes of work could have such a huge effect. After that I watched Greg Amundson do Fran and was so impressed that a guy could be so jacked and move like that. I tried the workout myself and whilst the weight was easy, I couldn’t do the pullups. I remember thinking “That guy makes the pull-ups look so easy. How is he generating that much intensity and I can’t? I must be doing something wrong!”…so that hooked me to learn more.

I realised that it was not about volume, but intensity and that’s what has always been really important to me…and also just the understanding of you being tough and knowing how to switch that on.

You have to train that ability. I’d always thought that intensity was about mental toughness. Like in Jiu Jitsu, if you can’t last a minute, you’re just mentally weak. Just suck it up. But no! You can’t reach that intensity without training for it. CrossFit taught me that.

Do you have any go-to exercises or movement drills that you use to identify muscular imbalances in your athletes?

No, nothing is that simple. I have a set of principles that allow me to see where the imbalances are hidden. I have a list of exercises that I have put up over years of experience in coaching normal and high level athletes; that allows me to see the imbalances. The point is not the exercises themselves, but the fact they allow me to put the athlete in certain positions where their imbalances will show. They just help to show me where the problem starts. Each exercise is carried out in a specific order so that they pre-fatigue certain muscles groups, allowing me to see if others are working or not.

Julien Pineau crossfit coach works with athletes
Julien working to correct muscular imbalances and movement patterns

Are there any common areas that athletes tend to be deficient in?

If we’re talking about CrossFit, then yes there are certain patterns that they are avoiding, but that’s because of the programming. If we’re talking about athletes in general (and this is a problem in common to all athletes), it’s that everybody is so preoccupied with performance. There are two biological phenomenon that matter, hormesis and homeostasis.

Hormesis is favourable response to stress and homeostasis is the body seeking to gain balance. All the programs out there are based on hormesis; how am I going to create the right amount of stress to elicit the response that I want.

That’s great. But that always leads us to concentrate on the activity that the athlete is doing. Because of this, you focus on one particular area and so lose balance. The second you lose balance, the body will push back and sometimes it will push excessively hard. So by only looking at programs that make you better at that one sport; that one activity only, you put the body in a position where it is going to be unbalanced.

julien pineau coaching female athlete
Correcting movement

Most athletes develop problems because they focus on programmes that give them results in a specific areas, but longer term it will always lead to injuries, or at least getting stuck because they don’t take into account evolution and how the body actually works. So the problem is more the way that the athlete looks at training, rather than the training itself. Secondary to this, for CrossFit specifically, the main problem I see is lats and hammies. The certain planes of movement that CrossFit tends to work within, lead athletes toward imbalances in theses areas.

What Strongman exercises would you recommend for Crossfitters?

I wouldn’t. First of all I’m not a Strongman coach. I do Strongman myself because I like competing in it, but I am not a coach of it. I have just taken Strongman movements and have adapted them to fit what I do. For example I use the rope pull with Crossfitters, but it’s not a seated pull like in Strongman. I have the athlete standing up, with their body parallel to the ground and pulling a weighted object with the arms (and not using their hips too much), so that I can activate the lats. So, the rope pull is my favourite one and after that would be the overhead yoke carry, which is not something you’ll ever see at ‘The Worlds Strongest Man’. It’s a modification of a yoke carry because going overhead like that helps me to target the lats and see imbalances in one shoulder versus the other.

What three words do you think your athletes would use to describe you?

Crazy…mean…and smart. I think that’s what they would call me. I’d rather people see me as a humanist though. But my athletes definitely think I’m crazy.

Julien Pineau teaching crossfit guys
Crazy…mean…and smart

If you could programme one event for next years CrossFit Games, what would it be?

I would like a test of pure grit, so I think I’d make them do overhead carry and a run; which is a modification of a previous CrossFit Games workout. I just think breathing after the overhead carry would be so much harder and make that workout way better. I would love to see something like a sandbag carry for max distance, because you would see people struggle so bad. Or a workout with the sandbag where you’re not allowed to drop it. That would destroy everybody. I’d make them do ‘Helen’ with a sandbag for example, but the run would be with a sandbag that you cannot drop. If you drop it, you have to right back to the start. Something like that. That would kill everyone!

What is it that makes Invictus so unique?

CJ Martin is what makes that box unique. That’s all. He is the reason why Invictus is Invictus. He created a training environment that’s second to none and the reason for that, is that the mental aspect of the game is so important to him. There are plenty of gyms where they kill you and their athletes train really hard, but with Invictus, you see the same mental toughness skills being taught to the regular people, right through to their elite athletes. None of the regular people in his classes are allowed to say “I suck”, to give up, to close their eyes or act defeated. They promote positivity and postures of success in everything they do.

You’re not allowed to give up or run away from the pain. You have to embrace it. You should be proud of what you’re achieving.

He promotes this in every single person that trains there. That’s the Invictus mindset; from the top athletes, to the coaches and the everyday people. It’s a culture of success and that comes directly from CJ. I’ve always believed in the power of the mind and mental intensity; but to see someone apply it, consistently in an entire gym of 600 people…that’s super impressive.

You’re on your European tour right now. How do you see the US and Europe CrossFit scenes differing?

What’s really great to see is that there is such a desire to learn in Europe. Smart people. All the coaches are dedicated and overall, well-educated people. And there is an energy toward CrossFit, almost like a juvenile energy because people haven’t been jaded by CrossFit here. It still feels young in Europe and the enthusiasm for it is awesome. That makes it super enjoyable to work with this crowd. The downside is that they don’t understand CrossFit. They got into it at that phase when the Hero workouts were most popular, so there is a culture of volume over intensity.

julien pineau coaches athletes seminar
Julien coaching

This is something I am going to change as much as I can. They need to understand the intensity required in the training, so that instead of blasting up the volume, they need to reduce that and go harder. As Tommy Hackenbruck said

“Don’t make your workouts harder. Go harder in your workouts.”

The original workouts…most were under ten minutes and were all about intensity. If you can do Helen and be able to walk away at the end of it, you’re not doing it right. And the problem isn’t the workout, it’s you. So, I don’t think it’s that the athletes here are soft, it’s that they misunderstand what CrossFit is. They look at the Games, rather than the original training methodology and that’s because they entered into CrossFit when it was much further down the timeline.

For example, if you play chess, don’t study the hyper modern school of chess, because that is not chess. Study the 18th and 19th century masters, when they started with the gambits and sacrifices. Be a student of the game. Look at the history of the sport from its inception. Look at its evolution. You need to understand the culture of the thing. So I feel like in Europe, they need to go back to the beginning and learn what intensity is first.

If there is one piece of advice you would offer to someone who is starting their journey into CrossFit, what would it be?

It’s the Ralph Emerson quote…

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble”.

First you must understand the principles that everything is based upon. Then you can make up your own methods. So don’t buy into or follow blindly a programme that you do not understand. Don’t accept spoon-feeding. Go learn how to fish instead of asking for a fish. And understand what bullshit is. It doesn’t take a PHD to realise what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Study the principles that things are made from and then define your own methods. The only person who really knows what is happening with your own body is you. You’re the one receiving the feedback from it. A coach should just be giving you guidelines. So, the overall message is own your training.


julien pineau leading seminar crossfit nurnberg © Charlotte Miles

Julien Pineau crossfit coach works with athletes ©

julien pineau coaching female athlete ©

Julien Pineau teaching crossfit guys ©

julien pineau coaches athletes seminar ©

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About The Author

Editor-In-Chief at BOXROX. I come from a background of rugby and weightlifting. Growing up in the English Lake District, I spent a great deal of time swimming in its stunning lakes and rivers. In 2015 my brothers and I became the first people to swim the 145km length of the River Eden, from source to mouth, in 9 days. We also swam the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the third largest in the world, and Crossfit is a huge part of my training for these events.

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