“Fitness training for a given sport is not simply a matter of selecting a few popular exercises from a bodybuilding magazine or prescribing heavy squats, power cleans, leg curls, bench press, circuit training, isokinetic leg extensions or ‘cross training’. This approach may produce aesthetic results for the average non-competitive client of a health centre, but it is of very limited value to the serious athlete.”
– Dr. Mel Siff, Supertraining
With all this recent hoopla surrounding ‘functional’ or ‘cross training’, ranging from all the hype over ‘300‘ a few years ago (and the resulting attention that Mark Twight of GymJones fame received) right on up to the, shall we say ‘interesting’, antics of CrossFit, it’s something that’s really stayed off my radar.
Lately I’ve been reading through the gold in the Couch Thread over on IGx. I’m not going to link it, because you either know or you don’t, but the hilarity presented there is something truly special. CrossFit seems to be going the route that most big, popular things in fitness tend to go – that is, full of ego-driven people that are more interested in the bottom line than anything else. And just like any orthodoxy-cum-faith, CrossFit is churning out Teh Drama like Waffle House turns out hashbrowns.
But I’m not writing this to target, or laugh at, CrossFit and its antics per se. That’s funny and all, but I’m really interested in a look at the claims they make and the methods they use, in as much as they represent this ‘new fitness paradigm’. This is tricky, because there’s little quality control between the various outfits using the name.
You have what is the main force behind it, ‘HQ’ as they seem to call it, at crossfit.com. That’s where you find the WOD, Workout of the Day, and that’s where all the rest of the ideas and directives seem to come from.
That’s compounded by the numerous affiliates, which all have their own sites and can pretty much do what they want with their programming. That leads to some interesting kinks (and lulz) which I will most definitely touch on later. Since the affiliates can range in quality and are supposedly not franchised, there’s little reason to single any of them out. So I’ll simply address what’s on the main page.
From ‘What is CrossFit?‘
Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.
The CrossFit program is designed for universal scalability making it the perfect application for any committed individual regardless of experience. We’ve used our same routines for elderly individuals with heart disease and cage fighters one month out from televised bouts. We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.
The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree not kind. Our terrorist hunters, skiers, mountain bike riders and housewives have found their best fitness from the same regimen.
Thousands of athletes worldwide have followed our workouts posted daily on this site and distinguished themselves in combat, the streets, the ring, stadiums, gyms and homes.
Well that doesn’t sound so bad; hell that sounds down right enticing.
Everybody can use the same program, from Olympic athletes to dear old grandma. And it sounds like they’ve got some champions on their hands, too – Olympians, top military men, you name it. I’m wowed. With that kind of cred, surely you can’t go wrong.
I want to know more.
Definition of Fitness
With a little search, you can find Greg Glassman’s definition of fitness. In that piece Glassman defines three ‘standards of fitness’ to make up his definition: competency in ‘general physical skills’, competency across a wide range of performance tasks, and the ability to make use of the three different energy systems of the body.
That’s not a bad definition at first glance, but there are major holes with a closer look.
The first problem is that this is not so much a definition of fitness as it is a checklist of goals to achieve; or rather, a statement of intent cleverly disguised as a definition of fitness. ‘Here’s what we plan to have you do,’ is what that really says. It’s a bit naive to assume that a comprehensive definition of fitness requires ‘broad and inclusive general fitness’; simply being general does not denote superiority, which is the faulty assumption that he’s assuming without any evidence. The entire argument is circular.
Additionally, as you read on you note that he presents fitness on the same continuum as sickness and wellness; that’s just incorrect. There’s a variety of work done showing that your health has little if anything to do with your fitness.
First of all, let’s really define fitness. Most people think fitness means the ability to run long distances; but that’s just cardiovascular endurance. It’s an element of fitness, yes, but there’s more to it. In Supertraining, Siff outlines three related characteristics of athletic performance:
- Work Capacity
Work capacity is ‘the general ability of the body to produce work of different intensities and duration using the appropriate energy systems of the body’.
Fitness refers to the ability to use that work capacity to, you know, do stuff. Formally Siff says fitness may be defined as the ability to cope with the demands of a specific task efficiently and safely. Pay attention to that ‘specific’ part; it’s important.
Finally we have preparedness. This can be summed up as the ability to express your fitness at any given time. While fitness is a slow-changing thing that is determined by the ‘state of the slow changing physiological components relating to motor activity’, preparedness involves a fast-changing factor: fatigue.
So your fitness level doesn’t change very quickly, but your ability to actually do stuff can vary from moment to moment, based on your fatigue level. This means that fitness in itself is only one important quality; a very fit athlete can be in a very poor state of preparedness if he’s crippled by fatigue. That makes the short-term effects of fatigue just important to control.
Somehow, pontificating with statements like ‘work capacity over broad time and modal domains’ just doesn’t cut it. That’s just confusing jargon that really doesn’t say anything. If you wanted to translate that, to something meaningful (heh), it just says ‘train to get in shape with a lot of different activities’. Ultimately, you can only go so far towards any specific goal with that ideology.
Which isn’t necessarily bad, so long as you realize that and as long as you have no specific goals to chase.
Glassman’s definition of fitness is actually a statement that he seeks to improve general work capacity. Nothing more. That’s well and good, but it does require that we analyze the rest of their claims and their practices in that light.
Cross Training in Practice
Based on that a priori premise, which equates fitness to generalized and broad work capacity, CrossFit and its cousins have embraced a philosophy that combines strength training with high-intensity conditioning methods (‘metcons’) and incorporates very diverse ‘types’ and ‘modes’ of training. You’ll see gymnastics equipment, barbell exercises, Olympic lifting, bodyweight exercises, kettlebells, medicine balls, and just about anything else you care to name.
On the surface, I think that’s a solid idea. Exposing people to good lifting practices and foundational kinds of training is a great service. The devil is always in the details; the implementation leaves much to be desired.
It’s not unheard of (that is to say, it’s damn common) to see a WOD involve a highly technical lift, such as a clean or snatch, in a circuit designed for metabolic conditioning. This is a problem, because technique is the first thing to go with the onset of fatigue. Ideally, any ‘metcon’ circuit would rely on non-technical exercises, so form won’t go to hell once you start sucking wind.
The idea behind all of this circuit training – which would be defined as ‘complex training’ in the Russian parlance – comes directly from the logical endpoint of Glassman’s ‘definition of fitness’ [sic]: you dabble in a little bit of everything, and you become good at everything. This ideology eschews specialization, claiming that it creates inferior results.
They ignore the basics of programming with the haphazard WOD structure, which ignores the adaptations and residual fatigue effects of said workouts. That’s not just exercise-science wanking either; if you’re wiping the floor with yourself five days a week and trying to do train up everything at once, you’re going to pay for it one way or another. If you’re lucky, you’ll just get overtrained. Worst case is you get hurt, or get a case of rhabdomyolysis.
There seems to be little respect for individual needs, as they not only dismiss the idea, claiming that everyone will benefit from the same thing, but they shoehorn in this idea of scalability. That is, if a workout’s too much for you, you just cut it back to something more manageable. The only differences between individuals are the tolerance for volume and intensity, not movement.
I guess that would explain the constant string of injuries they’re producing, or the fact that, by definition, they cannot address mobility problems, or exercise contraindications. I can let haphazard programming go; at worst you’re just wasting people’s time. When you not only encourage bad form and injuries, but are proud of it, that’s when you’ve officially become a shithead.
GPP: General Means General
When we’re discussing the physical preparation for an activity, we can always break it down into both general and specific methods. General preparation (GPP) is all the stuff that improves your work capacity and general fitness level, even if it has no impact on your chosen sport or competition. Specific preparation (SPP) is the training that directly improves your activity.
This is such a simple and easy distinction that it surprises me (not really) that it’s so misunderstood. In this, CrossFit makes the same fundamental error – only they’re assuming that GPP is the end-goal in itself.
The point has been made time and again that this concurrent, complex method of training – where you train ‘everything’ in the same week and the same session with mixed workouts – is just not going to cut it when you’re talking performance at the highest levels.
In Supertraining, Siff makes the point that CrossFit style of training (which he called multi-faceted preparation) is only valuable during particular stages of training, and even then you have to combine things carefully so you don’t screw something up:
“Although it is extremely difficult to deny the value of these ostensibly logical recommendations, they are appropriate only for the iniital stages of training and it would be a serious error for highly-qualified athletes to use them casually.”
Tudor Bompa’s periodization system does basically the same thing. His early-stage Anatomical Adaptation phase is a lot of circuit training and has the athletes all over the place with different kinds of training. Importantly, this only happens at the early off-season phases of training – and most telling, it vanishes entirely once the athlete is at a certain stage of advancement.
Apparently the best in the world – that is, the real best, the people that actually compete in sports – don’t need GPP functional fitness.
What is agreed is that these GPP-focused Training ADD approaches are useful for beginners and low-level types, and that it can be a fun and productive kind of training if that’s what you’re into. Even Siff agreed:
“The concept of cross training is sound under certain circumstances, provided the tendency to overtrain is resisted. Variety usually adds interest, ensures novelty of neuromuscular stimulation and can reduce the likelihood of stagnation, but the enthusiasm it engenders can cause the recent convert to raise the intensity or volume of training to inappropriately high levels and produce overtraining.”
Siff died seven years ago this March, but it’s like he was writing from visions of a gin-soaked future full of broad modal domains.
CrossFit and similar programs fill two roles as I see it: it’s a good way to introduce newbies to well-rounded fitness, and it’s a way to have fun and get in shape if you’ve been at it awhile and have no particular goals at hand.
Of course, I make both of those statements with the caveat that there will be some logic to the programming, and that technique will not be sacrificed for spazzing out conditioning workouts. This is rarely the case, unfortunately.
But hell, as usual, if you like it, who am I to complain? Just drop the ‘elite athlete’ crap.
Doing it Right: Specificity Rules, and Having a Plan is Even Better
So what’s my alternative, you ask? How would I do it better?
There’s a few simple changes I’d make. First, like it or not, one size fits all just doesn’t cut it unless you’re playing around. You have to individualize, just for reasons of not getting hurt if nothing else.
Secondly, add some logic to the program, instead of just random WODs coming out of the stratosphere with no coherent theme behind them. This would entail having a goal and a priority to focus on in your training. If you want to emphasize different elements of skill, strength, power, and endurance, then do that – in different training cycles with different priorities. I know it’s shocking, but you can specialize, and then specialize on something else, and you’ll still be in shape.
Thirdly, use reasonable sequencing of exercises and workouts. Don’t schedule a day with 5 rounds of 400m sprints right before a day of max deadlifts or power cleans. Don’t train max deadlifts and then go into a conditioning workout that involves power cleans. In fact, don’t do a conditioning workout with power cleans unless you can do it right (that means something like interval sets, and not mixing them with 400m sprints). Just use some damn sense when putting things together, and account for fatigue after-effects.
Intensity is what drives adaptations. If you’re chasing ten different goals at once, they’re all going to suffer – you can’t put enough effort into any single goal to significantly improve it, and some of those goals are going to conflict anyway.
If you’re doing a ton of ‘metcon’ work, I have no doubt that your aerobic capacity is going up, as will your local muscular endurance. What I question is the ability to build strength and muscle mass – those things will suffer if they aren’t specifically trained for, and ultimately they have far more value to even the recreational lifter than haphazard cardio workouts.
Here’s the example I always use. If you take a strong athlete that’s done little to no conditioning, like the stereotypical example of the fat, out of shape powerlifter, how long would it take to get him in shape? In comparison, how long would it take to get a skinny, weak guy with excellent work capacity (in the ‘broad modal domains’ sense of fitness) as strong as the powerlifter?
Now you see why I stress an order of priority, and why specialization is not just important but critical to be successful. If you’re already big and strong, condition away. But conditioning will not build size and strength and speed the way that dedicated, specialized training can.
Strength is at the top of the ladder. Getting strong will help everything else; doing everything else won’t get you strong.
At best, you’ll move up to a new threshold of mediocrity; the naive newbie sees his performance improve in those areas and thinks ‘wow, this works great’. The reality is that newbie gains are an amazing thing.
Conditioning improves very rapidly and very easily. Strength and muscle mass and speed/power take years of focused work to improve to a high level. You could take someone who has focused on getting strong and never done any cardio, get that person doing intervals for six weeks, and he’d outperform 99% of the CrossFitters that spend all their time focusing on conditioning.
The remaining 1% are the people that came into CrossFit in good shape already. Yeah I made that number up, but that’s no great crime; I mean, who’s counting, right?
But here’s the fascinating part. We can take you from a 200 pound max deadlift to a 500-750 pound max deadlift in two years while only pulling max singles four or five times a year.
Now, a 750 lb deadlift is no joke. Powerlifters can devote themselves for years, even decades, and still not hit a 750 pull. So I’m interested to know who, starting at 200 lbs, and training exclusively using the main site’s WODs, has hit a 750 lb deadlift. A 500 lb pull I’d believe; that’s not so out there. But 750, and pulling just 4-5 times a year? Come the hell on.
In practice, I’m on the same page as Dan John, Jim Wendler, and Mark Rippetoe when it comes to doing this stuff right. It all boils down to keeping strength work to the basics, then adding in conditioning work in separate workouts (or at least separate from the strength work, if done in the same session). It doesn’t have to be harder than that.
A recent thread on IGx summed up some good options. From Dan John:
In the 1950’s, Percy Cerutty recommended that his runners, including marathoners, lift! Now, I’ve been a fan of Percy for years. Cerutty was an Australian track coach/guru/fitness buff/nutcase who coached some of the best middle distance runners in the world in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Some consider him a nutcase, but rarely have I found normal people to have all the answers. Again, if you strive for normal, spend an hour at a Las Vegas casino and take inventory on the what “normal” is in America today.
Why was he crazy? He told runners to:
• Run up hills.
• Lift weights.
• Eat odd foods like oatmeal, veggies, and fruit.
Arrest him, I say!
Before I was born, he insisted that all athletes do the big five lifts:
1. A deadlift.
2. A form of pressing. Cerutty liked a lift called the “bench press.” I’m not sure if it ever become popular.
3. An explosive full body move. He liked the heavy dumbbell swing.
4. A form of pulling. Cerutty liked pull-ups and cheat curls. Cheat curls are like a power clean with a curl grip (power curls) or that bouncing heavy bar curl you see every gym-rat in the world do when he gets tired from strict curls.
5. An ab exercise. If deadlifts make you go one way, the ab exercise should strengthen you in the other.
After going heavy on these lifts with two to five sets of two to five (save for swings and abs where the reps go fairly high), you hang from a pull-up bar and stretch for a few minutes.
Recognize it? I think I’ve recommended this workout for thousands of people, after I, uh, invented it.
1. Deadlift (2x Bodyweight for marathoners!)
2. Bench Press (1x Bodyweight for marathoners!))
3. Power Curl
5. Sit up
This was further reduced to something simpler:
Readers digest version:
5-3-1, big four only
program minimum with kettlequeers
Two days hill sprints (When I did it, had a set of 60 stairs, did 3 sets of 5)
Two runs a week. One easy 3-6 miles. One 5k, build up to race pace by first mile, hold it for one, cool down for last.
And hell, I’ve even got my own version here: Weight Training for Fat Loss
Yeah, I know it says ‘for fat loss’, but it’s a blend of strength and conditioning workouts that you can adapt to this same strategy.
There’s a theme emerging here, and that theme is not ‘just show up and do random shit, become elite athlete’. If you’re gonna do it, do it smart.
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