by Max El-Hag, 2/7/2013
I recently came across an article (http://breakingmuscle.com/crossfit/it-s-crossfit-and-it-s-going-hurt) that caused me an enormous amount of frustration. I decided that there were a couple things I could do to remediate the feeling. I could ignore it and continue to focus instead on making myself a better coach and educator, but the thought of staying silent over an issue that I feel strikes at the heart of a sport I love was upsetting. I could attack the article specifically, but I felt this would only create more friction in the community and wouldn’t help create change. Then I thought I could pose a challenge to the governing body to help create change from the top down.
Unfortunately, the history of our young sport indicates that the last option holds the most risk. Many people in our community will quest to aggressively defend Crossfit against any criticism, including the constructive variety. I know I will be setting myself up for ridicule, counter arguments, challenging opinions, and potentially public slander. However, I firmly believe that for the sake of the fitness community I need to express an alternate view. First, I want to explain that the primary source of my income in the past two years has been derived from the system of Crossfit and its growth. I work for a corporation that is founded by the winner of the first Crossfit games, I coach a large number of regional caliber athletes, have competed in the regionals as an athlete in the sport, help with a blog designed to improve Crossfit athletes without the resources to pay for individual coaching, and help to educate many Crossfit gym owners. Therefore, I am grateful for the growth of the Crossfit movement and this is not written to set myself above them. I do not hate Crossfit. As a strength and conditioning coach, I think it is one of the most intellectually challenging sports for which to design programs. To attempt to create an enormous amount of concurrent adaptations, while taking the time to teach technical skills is much more fulfilling than training specificity. I want to challenge the system of which I am a part, not from a place of hatred, but hopefully to inspire some of the leaders in the industry to help create change.
I want to caution those of you who love this sport not to confuse my criticism with hatred. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once reminded us, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” I love this sport just as much as many of you do, and it is with that spirit that I write this now. As history has proven, when systems grow, it becomes dangerous if people aren’t willing to lovingly and thoughtfully challenge them. If this environment of no challenge does develop, the system loses its forward momentum and becomes mired in its own propaganda creating a cult-like atmosphere that seeks to control rather than dialogue. My article is a plea to think critically to ensure that our community is always progressing and continues to be the best it can be. I do worry that much of what I propose will be ignored due to the fact that I work for a company that Crossfit claims is not “in line” with their philosophies and methodologies. I suppose I write to you as an “outside agitator.” But I cannot allow that to stop me. There can be no “outside agitators” in a sport that is so young and progressive. We need each other. No one should be silenced. Different opinions can only make us stronger, and careful consideration of all ideas should make us better. For those reasons, I decided that being labeled or maligned is a risk I must take to try to stimulate a positive discussion in the compartmentalized world of fitness.
The above referenced article contains a variety of ideas and attitudes I worry will become pervasive in the fitness culture. I encourage readers of this article to take the time to read that first because I will respond specifically to quotes from the article and I want to ensure they aren’t taken out of context. The article contains four specific points I feel moved to comment upon and one point I agree with. While this may seem an attack on one specific person or one specific article or on Crossfit as a whole, the only thing I actually want to attack is our society’s pervasive and destructive mentality regarding our bodies and our egos. It seems many trainers believe they have all the answers when it comes to creating “the best” athletes, bodies, behavior modifications, etc. So often our society and it’s media assumes for us that if a person doesn’t look or perform a certain way, they have less understanding of the body or even sometimes less value as a human being.
I encourage people to review Greg Glassman’s original idea for Crossfit as an open source model of knowledge, and accept that the human body and the human experience is far more complex than any single person can comprehend. In this matter, there can be no such thing as “universal truths”. We are not dealing with universal human emotions here, but individual human bodies. Each is unique, like fingerprints or snowflakes. And yet, it seems that people are increasingly being encouraged to conform to some sort of physical “standard”. Cookie cutter images that to attain, for most people, would require them to risk injury in the gym so they can look like they “belong” to the Crossfit culture.
The author of the article wrote, “…like a bad ex-girlfriend, Crossfit hurt me.” This statement bothers me for a couple reasons. The operative prefix in the statement is the “ex” before girlfriend. We have to assume that the girlfriend is an “ex” because she was “bad”. If you are hurt by something, and that entity does not support your growth, you should leave it in the past. Why then in this simile is he leaving the bad girl-friend when he ISN’T leaving his fitness program? The logic is faulty, but something even more upsetting about this statement is, when he writes that he “does Crossfit,” I have no idea what that means. Because the system is all-inclusive, anything and everything that an affiliate decides to do can be classified as Crossfit. It would be nice to get a more targeted definition of training methodologies from Crossfit. While I believe the ambiguous definition of Crossfit was a beautiful theory in the beginning, now the system is large enough to warrant an understanding of what HQ supports as a methodology for improving fitness. Without this, only a small number of people would be capable of understanding that it was not “Crossfit” that hurt him, but rather a poor application of strength and conditioning principles, which was how HE decided Crossfit "should be done.
I’ve read hundreds of blog websites with ‘Crossfit’ in their URL and there are almost zero direct correlations in the designs other than the inclusion of a stopwatch. Some gyms prescribe “strength bias,” which when studied closely doesn’t look much different than a strength-training program you’d see in a high school football team. Some gyms prescribe only “met-cons” which is what people on the outside view as ‘Crossfit.’ Some gyms follow “Wendler 5-3-1,” which seems like a basic powerlifting program, and indeed was developed by a power-lifter. And many gyms are nothing but experiments because it is obvious the beliefs of their owners are embedded in their program design theory. I support this type of environment, because I think everyone should be encouraged to learn and individually create their own theories of athletic development. However, it paradoxically is both a huge physical and moral liability and a great financial asset to Crossfit HQ. They have the choice to include the most knowledgeable program designing coaches in their inner circle and claim their athletes are “…doing Crossfit”, but also don’t have to take credit for poor coaches, poor philosophies, injuries, and the negativity associated with people who “don’t get it.” There is no accountability. Both everything and nothing can be classified as Crossfit, but they should be equally liable for taking credit for a poor coach as they are a great coach.
The educational/certification system is good for the sport in that it attracts a large pool of people. This allows the cream to rise, but it also allows the junk to filter in and take advantage of the marketing and the growth of the superior coaching within. Having no functional definition for the training creates a system where HQ can avoid responsibility, while unfairly accepting positive recognition. This, in my opinion, is dangerous for the brand. They shouldn’t have people like this (who I assume ‘they’ would disagree with) writing on behalf of the brand, but they are allowed because of the current corporate structure and lack of any clear definitions.
The author went on to write, “…now, I think CrossFit's ability to hurt is also its most commendable quality.” That statement made me cringe. I am interpreting the term “hurt” here as a mechanical injury, due to the introductory paragraph explaining his past injuries and the injuries of his clients. However, if he meant hurt in the sense of pain from the intensity of exercise, an argument could still be made that this is poor training. I believe anybody who coaches or trains for a living will tell you that they do it to try to help people improve their quality of life. Helping people can mean you are trying to help an athlete achieve their dreams, a general population client take pride in their body so they can be more effective in their every day life, or a fitness enthusiast taking part in the growth of the sport of fitness. I believe the inspiration for learning in this field should always be helping people, regardless of the specific make-up of your clients. If you lose sight of this, I would argue you will never be a good coach. Even if you are gaining recognition, fame, money, adoration, or praise for your skills, if the people you work with aren’t your focus, then what is the point? If the goal is to help people become healthier and functional, I would pose this question to this author: Why would you put your client at risk for injury? Or more frighteningly, why would clients trust that kind of behavior and encouragement in a coach? There are plenty of dangerous activities in which to participate, but a training program should not be one. The point of strength and conditioning, even in risky sports, is to both improve performance and decrease injury risk during competition. If the sport is inherently risky, like football for trauma or Crossfit for the mechanical/endocrine system, then the training should allow for as big of a buffer as possible to prevent injury during competition. The idea that you should always be risking your body to injury is silly and makes me question why we would even do this if we are ‘helping people’ by hurting them. If the term hurt, as used in the above quote, was regarding the pain of training and not injury, it segues nicely into another quote from the article and an attack on our society’s abuse of the physical body.
“…on one side is result; one is risk. You can’t have one without the other.” I agree with this to some degree. The world is an environment of opposites; for everything given something is taken, yen and yang, masculine/feminine, good and evil, risk/reward, etc. And in training, there must be some sacrifice to achieve high levels of performance. However, I believe a good coach understands that the goal is to attain the maximal possible result with the minimal possible disruption to homeostasis. I always wonder why coaches waste advanced training methodologies for beginner athletes. This will do two things; one, create the potential for mal-adaptation because the stress is too high to cope, and two, create fast adaptations that are not maintainable. If training tools become exhausted in the beginner/intermediate stages of development, a coach will be hard pressed to create a stress to the system enough to induce further adaptation.
In general, our society has created a fitness culture that centers not on education, science and general health, but instead on the abuse and pain of the physical body. I recently watched an episode of "The Biggest Loser" and was shocked and disgusted to see that these people were encouraged to basically starve themselves (a radical and dramatic metabolic change for someone who clearly is in metabolic duress) and over exert themselves to the point of throwing up and passing out. I believe a good training program for these people specifically would be both encouraging and long term to allow them to continually change their bodies AND simultaneously encourage them to seek help to address the underlying pain in their life that caused them to turn to food for comfort to such a degree that they became non-functional. If we forget to address that, then we become no different from much of the medical community that is “treating the symptom” instead of addressing the cause.
Additionally marketing in many Crossfit sub-communities is centered on the “alpha”-ness of training to the point of vomiting and exhaustion. P-90x, insanity, and many other high intensity programs are also encouraged for many people to create metabolic change. This is both unnecessary and unhealthy for many people long term. Even if it creates a positive change in body composition in the short term, it often creates some very poor hormonal profiles and doesn’t stand the test of time. That being said, I am not insinuating that high levels of performance are pain free in the training environment. There are plenty of times when my athletes (Crossfit athletes specifically) are put into the pain zone if the dose response of that exercise session is intended to improve an aspect of the sport or tolerance of pain in a safe environment. The question then becomes, why are so many people willing to continually punish their bodies with no mercy? Many aspiring Crossfit athletes have no possible shot at the fame and adoration of the top level Crossfit athletes who risk themselves for potential money and career opportunities. I would think that it comes down to the promise insinuated by the article of, “…rewards that look like chiseled abs and massive shoulders on the outside.” This bothers me for a variety of reasons, only one of which has to do with the fact that it is written from a member of the Crossfit community.
Weight training protocols (or bodybuilding protocols), not Crossfit, if applied correctly with correct nutritional implementation, create the best physiques. People who don’t have experience in the community will point at the synthetically enhanced (anabolics, thyroid, IGF-1, etc) physiques and say they are grotesquely lean/freaky looking and that the females display masculine qualities. This is true, however, the natural bodybuilding community, figure community, and other physique oriented ‘sports’ boast the most proportionate and lean bodies. As well, the proper application of these principles, with good nutritional and lifestyle choices, can develop someone with very good health markers, even in the absence of good work capacity. Generally people who make fun of the sport, pointing fingers at the spray tans, speedos, bicep curls and benching, are uneducated and hateful about something they don’t understand. The bodybuilding community is not the community of “meat-heads” at the gym making fun of people and only benching. Many of the greatest nutritional/hormonal strategies, foundations of some of the diets many “low carb paleo”-ers follow, and common workouts in our communities were derived from the foundations of that sport. Many of the principles of hypertrophy in different physiological types was adapted from research and implemented by some of the top strength/bodybuilding coaches to improve the size and appearance of people’s muscles. Additionally people without a real training background that get into Crossfit assume that these protocols are easy because they were incorrectly performing them in their past and then saw results with their new training program.
This is a faulty assumption. The assumption being their current program is the best because it is “better” than the poor protocols they were applying previously. What we must realize is that many athletes in the sport of Crossfit, who are elite, have a background as “gym rats” where they were applying many of those principles and established a base of tendon strength, muscle size and strength, and joint strength to allow them a better chance at handling the metabolic and mechanical volume necessary to be good at the sport. Additionally, it is assumed that bodybuilding is “easy” by people that haven’t done it correctly. The peripheral sensation of burning and metabolic stress you can elicit if you appropriately apply bodybuilding principles is vastly different from the metabolic stress of Crossfit, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has ever properly done them to say that it is “easy.” Additionally, if you evaluate the average physique of a Crossfit athlete, it is not that impressive in comparison to other professional physique athletes. While there is a sub-group of elite who are commonly marketed (see: Rich Froning, Matt Chan, Dan Bailey, Annie Thorisdottir, Julie Foucher, etc) and have great bodies, I believe an objective comparison between an intermediate to advanced level Crossfitter and an athlete from an equivalent percentile in natural bodybuilding, will show that the bodybuilding athletes far exceed overall leanness, lean body mass, symmetry and distribution of muscle mass. That being said, I like to believe that our community is above only measuring the worth of a human body by the way they look. This brings me to the next thing that bothered me about the above statement.
The operable definitions of fitness, by Crossfit and Greg Glassman, have nothing to do with body composition. Although it is not likely, if someone were obese and was proficient in the ten general skills, had a high work capacity with every possible task imaginable, and were proficient in all three metabolic pathways, then they would be “fit.” In the “What is fitness” article by Greg Glassman, there is mention of a sickness à health à fitness continuum where some of the variables of health are on the continuum. However, the defined variables of fitness don’t guarantee that you are traveling in the right direction on that continuum. If you search articles on the internet that are “Crossfit hating,” you are likely to find numbers of articles about elevated liver enzymes, poor adrenal health, poor anabolics, but maintenance of a high level of “fitness” as defined by Crossfit’s operable definition. Equally you will find a number of people that have improved both health AND fitness as defined by Crossfit.
For that reason, I’m not stating that Crossfit is dangerous, just that the variables are independent of one another and you can be fit AND healthy, un-fit AND healthy, fit AND un-healthy, and un-fit AND un-healthy according to the operable definitions. This is because the three standards of fitness do not take into account generally accepted markers of health, which is fine. So, if you choose to take part in the community, you should be in line with those definitions and should be training people to improve their “fitness” as defined by the above. If your definition of fitness includes “chiseled abs and massive shoulders,” (also from the article) then technically you are not pursuing fitness according to the dictates of the community you are supporting. In fact, I have heard Pat Sherwood, one of Crossfit’s longest standing trainers and nutritional experts comment that according to his empirical knowledge, the highest levels of performance are NOT attained at the lowest levels of bodyfat or taking physique into account. As he was speaking, this seemed to me as if it should be common knowledge due to the fueling requirements of the sport. If you are taking part in a glycogen dependent sport, you would be hard pressed to find many people who were successful long term on calorie and carbohydrate restricted diets. Watching videos online you can see many of the top athletes with large carbohydrate consumptions including Neal Maddox with donuts, Rich Froning with peanut butter, jelly, and skim milk, and Dan Bailey with cookies. Carb and calorie restriction, even in the absence of ANY training, can be the best equation to create blood sugar regulation and hormonal changes in order to create leanness. I anticipate people are going to reference leanness in the top level athletes with their genetic superiority and say things like, “…he must be wrong, look at them,” however, using the genetically elite as a model for the aggregate average’s response to training and nutritional plan is NOT a good idea.
Because I know that much of what I’ve said will generate criticism, I wanted to point out a portion of the article with which I agree. In the author’s conclusion, he explained his underlying passion for his fitness program. Stating, “…any exercise program that can motivate people to work that hard - to give their all - is exceptional and worth defending.” I do agree with this. Our society as a whole does need “work hardening.” With the continual preaching of equality and political correctness we have lost touch with our honesty. Growing up in youth sports, I was always frustrated by the fact that everyone was given trophies for “completion.” Looking back on my childhood, I still wonder if some of those children were still treated positively for their efforts, but told honestly that it wasn’t their talent. What MAY they have accomplished in other fields of interest? Children should be encouraged to participate in activities in which they excel or for which they show intense passion, instead of being told they can “be anything they want to be”. They often times are trapped into thinking that by chasing what it is they “don’t have” they will attain the things that they see others having, but they don’t understand the depth and complexity of someone else’s struggle. As I went on to college, the same thing was taking place with grading scales. I always wondered why the bell curve was shifted toward a higher average grade. Why were people who were failing tests scoring C’s? I assume there is some sort of financial decision being made in that one instance that drives teachers to require passing most of the student body to ensure there is always an influx of new students.
I think that there is some inherent value to specialization. I met many people at University who I felt could make a serious and beneficial impact in this world if they were to do something outside of academia and not have wasted four years of their life trying to “fit in” because they were allowed to believe that they were ‘good enough’ in that field. Crossfit, to some degree, reminds me of this phenomenon, but with the physical body. If you are not genetically superior in any one physical discipline, you have the opportunity to perform at the highest average of physical qualities. I think for a certain subset of people, this is great. Crossfit athletes are impressive with their capacities to handle work. Military, fire, defense, etc should all be encouraged to have a very high fitness level as Crossfit defines it because the nature of their functional environment demands it. However, people should also be encouraged to specialize if they have an operative definition of fitness or athleticism that is different than Crossfit. I believe that Crossfit actually hit the nail on the head with their operative definition of fitness. Where I feel there is a problem is that too many people have adopted it and the attitude that they HAVE to improve their fitness even if their goals or beliefs or skill sets are not in line with that definition. Many people also do not seem to understand that the games are not the only method of testing that operable definition.
This brings me to why I directed this article to Crossfit HQ. To be honest, it is the largest growing and most powerful body in the fitness world. I have had some discussions with people in the community and I think many of the best minds in fitness are either part of the movement or moving toward investigating it further. My current financial well-being and many of my intellectual passions are dependent upon the system having long term and sustainable growth. What can Crossfit do to create positive change? Well first, I think that HQ needs to define, what is NOT Crossfit. I know there are a ton of inspirational videos and ambiguous definitions, but there is nothing to define what is NOT Crossfit and what exact training methodologies are Crossfit. People outside of the community who are investigating it should know that videos of poor form and egregious movements are NOT Crossfit. I know many of the HQ staff follow well designed and periodized modified west-side barbell programs in the off season and then get back into more conditioning work closer to the games. Is that Crossfit? Are Olympic lifting programs Crossfit? Is planning and periodization a bad thing? Are periods of technical development and low intensity smart? Are they part of Crossfit, even if not included in the operable definition of fitness?
I would like the staff at HQ (who might be reading this) to be able to see it for what it is, genuine love and concern, and not for what some may interpret it to be, a negative attack. I would love it if four other major things were to happen as well. First, to create some sort of a public explanation that doesn’t include slander to explain why so many experts in their respective fields have been ousted from the community. What sort of views were not in line with each specifically who is no longer “in the community?” People need to be able to make informed decisions for themselves concerning who has ideas more in line with what they need or believe. I’ve found from my conversations with many of those exiled people that they continue to use much of the training, and also train many of the athletes in the sport. So, why is there animosity and what was the cause? Second, I think an explanation as to why it is not publicly encouraged of the affiliates to pursue outside sources of continuing education. I know many of the HQ staff search outside the community for reading and education, but new affiliate owners are not required to do so. My personal belief is that the 2-day certification should not be the only prerequisite to open a gym in order to capitalize on the brand name’s growth. As well, perhaps, some sort of requirement of continued learning to maintain the certification. I am very supportive of the continuing education courses offered by Crossfit, but I feel there are some gaps for people who want to become master coaches. Some topics could include nutritional biochemistry, basic endocrinology, principles of exercise physiology, alternative strength and conditioning models, long-term athletic development, biomechanics of lifting (and movement), anatomy, etc. I believe that if Crossfit is going to continue to support their rapid growth rate, they either need to re-invest in their coaches through a system of advanced education for people wanting it, or demand that if you open a NEW affiliate you have some further higher-level understanding beyond just the weekend certification. This would still allow for a high level of attendance in the courses, because the level 1 certification could be used for coaches of classes but the owners of the affiliates and the program designers of the gym should have understanding of why they are doing what they are doing. Third, I would like them to encourage the public to have their own definitions of fitness. I’m not sure where this pervasive mentality of hate came from that leads some affiliates to post negative comments about other sports, other beliefs, etc, but it is damaging and makes the institution lose credibility. I feel that our community can still grow and learn if we are supportive of the aesthetics of other sports, the dedication and beauty of specific elite performances, and not be derogatory towards people who choose to abide by a different definition of fitness and different training methodologies. Even if we as a community stand by our definition, it is not a sin to support other people to find their own. And lastly, I would love to have some sort of open dialogue or explanation of the Crossfit Games workout designs. I coach many athletes in the sport and love the growth and the publicity of the sport, but find that the design of the workouts is not directly in line with finding the “fittest” according to their own definition. I understand that there is a component of pleasing the crowd and creating buzz, but think that keeping that task in the hands of a few will create problems. My belief is that there should be an overall sport governing body to ensure that the purity of the original definition of fitness is maintained through the quality of the tests.
So, I pose these questions and requests to Crossfit HQ. Again, my intention is not to elicit a negative reaction, but hopefully to be the catalyst for a more open communication model. A model where critics of the system, who still love the community, can help create positive change and create a healthier population. I hope to help create a more united system that encourages positive advancement, constructive debates and experts playing devil’s advocates to decision makers. Science, including exercise science as a field, is one of the most susceptible places for groupthink behavior. The past has shown this over and again as new theories were ridiculed and people became outcasts only to have their ideas transcend popular beliefs of the time. In order to ensure that our community stays in existence as a forward moving body and not a trend, I believe we must continually evolve. To that end, the inclusion and acceptance of all ideas as possibilities will help us head down that path. I hope that this is received in positivity, but I am always open to discussion of my beliefs and disagreements.