What We Can Learn From CrossFit

The 2012 CrossFit games were this weekend, and the production and publicity teams did a great job of blowing up my little corner of the interwebz. Live video streamed from the ESPN3 and the CrossFit Games websites, nearly every minute of action was posted on the CrossFitHQ YouTube channel, and I received a number of texts from trainers and fitness geeks who were checking out the action.  Both of the 2011 champions were successful in defending their title of “The Fittest on Earth”.  Congratulations to Rich Froning Jr. and Annie Thorisdottir for their repeat win.

In the fitness world outside of CrossFit, there tends to be a bit of snobbery and elitism towards the activity.  Some camps deplore the certification system, the internal politics, the programming system, and the effectiveness and safety of the training style.  Discussions about CrossFit are extremely polarized, and it’s easy to get caught up in the hooplah.  There are times when I think CrossFit is great, and there are times when it’s absurd.  Regardless, it is something that everyone can learn from, from the most lethargic couch potato to the snobbiest strength fanatics in the world.

First, let’s define CrossFit.

For the sake of brevity, here’s founder Greg Glassman’s World-Class Fitness in 100 Words:

  • Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.
  • Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast.
  • Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense.
  • Regularly learn and play new sports.

Honestly, I think that’s pretty damn awesome.  It’s a concise explanation of clean eating, fundamental movement training, necessary variety in training, and non-exercise physical activity.  Sure, we can nitpick about several elements, but for the lay person, those 100 words provide a succinct definition of what their training should focus on.  When you look at some of the CrossFit Games competitors, it’s hard to argue with this:

Rich Froning and a random girl who seems really excited to do a muscle up.

I can’t think of many people who wouldn’t want to look like that, or date someone that looks like that.  These folks carry more muscle and much less fat than normal people, develop a blend of strength and endurance that would make Shadowfax jealous, and can execute a variety of complicated exercises.

Most strength coaches and personal trainers would agree that the CrossFit exercise programing breaks all of the rules of traditional periodization.  You could try to rationalize this as a quasi-undulating model with cyberkinetic elements, or just agree that most of the WOD’s posted on the main site are chosen by throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks.  Now, I’ll admit, almost all of the local CrossFit coaches I’ve chatted with create their own programming, and use general ideas about structural balance and scheduled rest so that they don’t blow their clients shoulders off.  There are plenty of coaches who put safety and proper technique at a priority over the ‘go hard or go home mentality.’  Problem is, they’re far and few between.  Hell, even the CrossFit superstars get beat up in the process.  Brian Kotoka, from Toronto, shared some injury stats from a friend who attended the games.  The screenshots he posted included:

  • 30 arm fractures
  • 5 shoulder dislocations
  • 2 ACL tears
  • 2nd degree burns from doing handstand walks.

I doubt we’ll see much about the entire injury report in any media sources, as it’s not exactly the sexiest thing to advertise.  The competitors understand the injury risk going into the games, and accept that something can go wrong with their bodies.  What about the average person that just wants to move well, feel good, and look better naked?  As of this evening as I write this, 31,776 people have discussed Injuries, while 11,622 have discussed Health and Medical Issues.

Even as CrossFit grows in popularity, there are numerous disclaimers about safety.  In the most recent issue of Women’s Health, their body-weight “CrossFit inspired workout” includes a sidebar that emphasizes the importance of technique during fast-paced, high-intensity workouts.  As my friend Patrick would say:

I applaud CrossFit for emphasizing body weight movements, technical barbell Olympic and power lifts, and a use of a variety of body weight and gymnastics exercises.  We’ve known for years that these are some of the most effective exercises we can use for strength development and hypertrophy, and there are many CrossFitters that successfully utilize these lifts to create impressive physiques.  However, for most people that don’t have the mobility, strength, or coordination to perform these movements, there still needs to be effective ways to train.

It’s possible to recreate the same strength training and conditioning effects of these workouts with tools that are safer and more appropriate for the Average Joe.  To demonstrate this, here’s a video from Frank Nash Training Systems in Worcester, Mass.  It’s the same style of training, but with an emphasis on self-limiting exercises, that inherently limit bad technique and increase the safety of exercise.

To wrap up my part of the discussion on programming and injuries, I’ll pass things over to Robb Wolf and, who provides a critique of CrossFit programing and politics.  Turn on your ears and give your eyes a rest before we continue:

Basically, there’s an absence of concern for health and longevity in the current training model, and you need to train much safer than is demonstrated in the CrossFit games and on the main site’s daily WOD.  Yes, CrossFit is marketed as ‘the sport of fitness’, but I’m not sure exactly how fit you are if you’ve got a brace on your knee and your arm is in a sling.  That’s addressed in this video from CrossFit coach Josh Courage:

The ideas echoed by CrossFit coaches seems to be that the safest way to do CrossFit is to not actually do CrossFit.  Instead, slow things down, use safer exercises, and pay more attention to technique.  That being said:  

There is a lot we can learn from CrossFit.

In our hypokinetic, hypercaloric society, it’s all to common for people to forgo exercise and health-enhancing nutrition because of poor scheduling or motivation.  You’re not busy enough that you can ignore your health, but we’re quick to skip workouts and pick up fast food whenever possible.  Even 3 hours in the gym a week can be incredibly effective for improving health and physique. (If you’re wondering, 3 hours at the gym in a 168 hour week is only 1.78% of your week.) One of the selling points of CrossFit is the short, intense workouts.  For those that follow the Paleo diet recommendations and main-site programming without injury, there is some definite evidence for clean eating and hard training.  Eliminate processed foods and train hard for 2-3 hours a week, and you’ll see a difference.  That’s something we can agree on, right?  However, what about the high-volume, high frequency crowd?

Some of the CrossFit Games competitors report working out for more than 3 hours each day.  Yes, many of them work in gyms and/or have schedules that allow them multiple training sessions in a single day.  Yes, most trainers and coaches would advise against 3 hour long workouts.  However, few would advise against 3 hours of activity.  Where am I going with this?

Well, for some people, higher volume and higher frequency training may be a great idea.  Olympic lifters and triathletes are two populations that come to mind as high volume and high frequency training, and it’s common for athletes in both sports to have multiple training sessions in a single day.  (If you’re interested, Bret Contreras wrote a review of Olympic lifting coach John Broz training methods on T-Nation.  You can find the article HERE. Also on T-Nation, you can read about Chad Waterbury’s PLP-60 program HERE.)

The July/August issue of The Box Magazine reports Rich Froning’s training as “five workouts  a day is business as usual, over training is an urban legend, and rest days are nonexistent.”  In the article, Rich discusses pretty much unplanned programing, scaling workouts “purely by instinct”.  “None of it really makes sense,” he admits. “If I looked at this a few years ago and you told me this would work, I would have said, ‘You’re an idiot.'”

Now, before the periodization police get up in arms, remember that Froning graduated with a degree in exercise science as worked full time as a strength and conditioning coach at Tennessee Tech.  He seems to know he’s breaking the rules he learned about in class.  Hell, half of the workouts that I program for myself and clients break the rules I learned in class, and I’m sure that most other trainers reading this would agree.  Maybe, just maybe, we don’t actually know as much about the limits of the human body as we thought.  Olympic athletes periodize programs to allow for ‘peaking’ after 4 years.  They train hard with a very small window of maximum performance in mind, and it definitely works.

That being said, I’m not sure that our constructs of ‘periodization’ are all that applicable in the long run.  Sure, it’s definitely a good idea to vary training intensity, and provide for periods of active recovery.  Imagine you’re walking through the jungle thousands of years ago, and all of a sudden a tiger pops up before you and starts growling.  You’re not going to say, “Well excuse me Mr. Tiger, today isn’t a day for me to take maximum effort sprints, I was only schedule to do some tempo runs, so you’re actually going to have to slow down or chase my friend Pierre.” Instead, you’re going to haul ass across the jungle and up the highest tree you can find, in the hopes that this hypothetical tiger is way slower than you, and forgot how to climb trees.  Basically, you just became dinner.  The folks that managed to escape are the ones that are your ancestors, and they passed on a little bit more metabolic power than you think.

What’s my point? You can be far more active than you think.  It might not necessarily mean training more frequently, but there are plenty of steps you can take to take more steps.  When big media sources attempt to cover exercise, they include silly recommendations like taking the stairs over the elevators, parking at the back of the parking lot, and taking longer routes through the building.  Ya know what?  That shit works, and it works well.  Overtime, all of that non-exercise activity has potent impact on your health.  When it comes to true exercise, why not break up your ‘long’ workout into several shorter ones?  I’d prefer the dedication of an hour or hour and a half of your time to addressing strength and conditioning needs of the body, but if you don’t have that time, feel free to break up your workouts.

I’ve been searching for more information about this prior to watching the CrossFit Games, as I try to learn about the impact that that different fasting and carb cycling protocols have on maximal strength and overall performance.  The evidence on training frequency and volume tends to go both ways, but I’m thinking that you may feel better throughout the day and possibly see better results if you spend more time being active throughout the day, rather than all at once.  Maybe this is splitting your workout into training before and after work.  Perhaps you get off the subway one stop early.  You walk somewhere for lunch instead of driving. You set a 10 or 15 minute timer at your desk to remind you to get up and take a quick walk.

Just like CrossFit claims to be, physical activity throughout the day can be scaled for your current abilities and scheduling.  When we strip away the elitism and the internal politics, it really isn’t such a bad idea.  In fact, I’m glad that more people are thinking about full-body workouts, blending disciplines for efficient workouts, and are getting exposure to a variety of training styles.  In the long run, CrossFit is a good thing for physical culture and regular exercise.

It promotes physical activity on a broad level:  Exercise to move naturally, move well, enhance health, and have fun.  That’s a much better message than the one we’re bombarded with, about exercising to lose weight, justify poor nutrition, and to fit Hollywood’s image of ultra-thinness.  Rather than viewing CrossFit as something bad, I see it as an overzealous little brother; it has a ton of good ideas, but needs to grow out of seemingly intentional abrasiveness.  Eventually, I see the idea of CrossFit outgrowing the one currently perpetuated by headquarters, and that’s a good thing.  When that happens, we’ll have more people training for this body in this gym:

This was a lengthy post, and I thank you for sticking with me until the end.  If you have any comments, questions, or concerns, please leave them below and share your ideas with me!

2 Replies to “What We Can Learn From CrossFit”

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