Stop Having Dumb Debates about CrossFit (OPINION)

October 18, 2019 by
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Let’s get your objections out of the way. Yes, the author counts among the most prolific fitness debaters of the past decade. And yes, trainers and companies need to differentiate themselves.

The problem is not with debates, though, just with dumb ones. Unfortunately, the same old arguments keep popping up. And they’re based on false dilemmas.

One example of a false dilemma would be to ask an American: “Are you a Republican or a Democrat,” as if no other options existed. We often make this type of mistake in fitness, too. Below are some examples.

Personal Training vs. Group Classes

This debate presupposes that there is an official CrossFit model that consists of coached group classes, and then juxtaposes that model with personal training. You might have heard of an affiliate that tried an exlusive group class format, then found more success with a different class structure, and people falsely concluded that the gym was no long engaging in CrossFit’s methodology.

But who said anyone had to choose between personal and group training? A gym or trainer can and should offer both formats. And members can benefit from both as well.

Nor is personal training foreign to CrossFit. In fact, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman developed his practice through personal training first. He only developed the CrossFit group class model after a couple of decades coaching, and transitioned to it gradually, while still retaining some personal training clients. I cannot better summarize Greg’s conclusions than he already did, so I won’t try:

To run group classes without compromising our hallmark laser focus and commitment to the athlete, the trainer has to learn to give each member of the group the impression that he is getting all the attention that he could get in one-on-one training, and that requires tremendous training skill. We’ve seen this skill fully and adequately developed by only one path — gradually migrating from one-on-one to group sessions.

The cost of a trainer teaching group classes too soon is high, for both trainer and affiliate:

The trainers who are running group classes without growing into them are typically not working to the professional training standards that we’ve described. They also seem to have an inordinate difficulty filling their classes.

If your affiliate needs personal training to thrive, congratulations — you are doing what CrossFit originally intended. As Greg remarked at the most recent CrossFit affiliate gathering, in Whistler, Canada: “It’s not ‘not CrossFit,’ just because you decided to do it smarter.”

This brings us to the next false dilemma, which is closely related:

Individualized vs. Group Programming

This one presumes that CrossFit affiliates either do or should provide a single WOD for all members, with no individual variation. On one side, the advocates of group programming declare that individual programming is unnecessary, or excessive, and performed at too low intensity to yield optimal results. On the other, critics of group classes will object that group programming, by aiming to fit everyone’s needs, in fact fits no one’s.

People on the former side of this debate might view themselves as the defenders of the one true faith. Ironically, the original CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz did not have a single workout of the day; each trainer programmed specifically for the class(es) he or she taught.

CrossFit’s core materials do advise individual assessment and prescription. The following quote comes from the CrossFit Level One Training Guide:

“Picture a hopper loaded with an infinite number of physical challenges, where no selective mechanism is operative, and being asked to perform feats randomly drawn from the hopper … There is more traction, more advantage, more opportunity in pursuing headlong that event or skill that you do not want to see come out of the hopper than putting more time into the ones where you already excel.”

Each member may have a different task they do not want to come out of the hopper. And therefore each member should train specifically to correct that particular weakness (in addition of course to their other, general training).

The group class structure has many advantages, among them competition, community, and affordability. But providing some individualized assessment and programming does not imply abandoning group classes. Affiliates already tend to offer open gym times, as well as areas for individual training outside of group classes. Moreover, it is always an option to customize group sessions according to individual weaknesses and goals, such as allocating time in the warm-up or towards the end of class for individuals to practice skills they are developing.

The most motivated members will pursue additional programming anyway. And if they do not get it from their coaches, they are probably going to search outside the gym. The online program or challenge these members select might not be suitable to their circumstance and goals. More likely, they will choose the type of program they least need. The strong guy will pick a weightlifting or bodybuilding program, and the endurance specialist will add more interval training.

Professional trainers assess their individual clients, and then identify and correct the upstream physiological causes of their weaknesses. That is, they will not try to metcon away a bad diet, or progress to heavy weights before mastering bodyweight and light loads first. If this concept sounds crazy to you, then you must not have paid close enough attention to the Virtuosity letter or What is Fitness? Then again, no one did, as evidenced by the fact that literally no one in CrossFit has begun to “master the basics of gymnastics.”

How is your stiff stiff press to handstand going? Yeah, me too.

One vs. Multiple Workouts a Day

The idea here is often that CrossFit means doing just one workout a day, and that if anyone who is not a competitive athlete does so, then he or she is straying from CrossFit’s path. You will also see coaches who think that doing a strength or skill component prior to a metcon violates CrossFit programming principles.

This is another false dilemma that does not survive contact with facts. I worked out at the original CrossFit gym. Greg and his trainers frequently programmed what would now be considered multiple workouts in a single session. Doubt it? Here’s a 2005 letter from Greg:

There is plenty of time within an hour session to warm up, practice a basic movement or skill or pursue a new PR or max lift, discuss and critique the athletes’ efforts, and then pound out a tight little couplet or triplet utilizing these skills or just play.

To drive the point home, here’s a quote from 2002’s What is Fitness?

One of our favorite workout patterns is to warm up and then perform 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps of a fundamental lift at a moderately comfortable pace followed by a 10-minute circuit of gymnastics elements at a blistering pace and finally finish with 2 to 10 minutes of high-intensity metabolic conditioning.

That sounds much closer to the “strength plus metcon” format than strict adherence to the “one WOD is all you need” doctrine. Of course, affiliates can and should vary their programming formats day by day.

I believe the false impression regarding one workout a day came from the previous CrossFit.com programming style. CrossFit’s main site usually programmed just one workout of the day (hence WOD). What that misses, though, is that CrossFit.com advised adding to these WODs an extensive, skill based warm-up, additional work on weak points, gymnastics skill training, as well as learning and competing in new sports. CrossFit was never intended to be: warm-up, practice a few thrusters and pull-ups, do Fran as fast as possible, and sit in a chair the rest of the day, perhaps while watching Instagram videos of other people lifting weights.

So if today you do some strength training, race through a timed circuit, and then perform some extra intervals, then sleep well tonight in the knowledge that ye have not blasphemed against CrossFit.

Slay False Dilemmas

I could address vegetarian vs. keto, pacing vs. maximal intensity, or lifting vs. cardio. But now, armed with this knowledge, you can slay false dilemmas all on your own.

Besides, what is there to lose? Why distinguish yourself by allegiance to a process, when you can distinguish yourself by your results? Here too, Greg said it well:

“Being a professional, I believe that my competency is solely determined by my efficacy.”

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