Fitness as a Martial Art – History of the Athletic Skill Levels

This is a story about a super-obscure style of fitness that I practice in my personal workouts.  The concept started with David Werner at CrossFit North.  Dave had the idea of treating fitness like a martial art, with belts that you had to earn as your abilities progressed.  This idea led to his development of the Skill Level system.

CrossFit North

The first thing you have to understand is what CrossFit North was.  Back in 2000, Greg Glassman started the original CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz, CA.  To promote his business, he began posting a Workout of the Day (WOD) on his website,  Some of the earliest followers of his blog were David Werner, Nick Nibler, and Robb Wolf.  In 2002, this trio approached Greg with the idea of starting their own CrossFit “affiliate” gym and paying him an annual fee to use his name and intellectual property.  Greg told them they could use the name for free, but Dave insisted on paying $500/year and told Greg this could be a huge business opportunity for him.  Robb predicted that there would be a CrossFit on every corner in America, like 7-11 or Starbucks.  And that’s how the CrossFit Affiliate system was born.

I discovered CrossFit North in 2004 and I tell you it was awesome.  Dave was a retired Navy Seal and Nick was a cop (by this time Robb had moved on to open CrossFit Norcal in California).  They were both guys who’d used fitness and combatives in their professional lives when survival was on the line, so they had the inner drive and mental faculties needed to push the boundaries of physical fitness training. Dave had collected a bunch of surplus gymnastics equipment from the University of Washington, Nick ran an Olympic Weightlifting Club (The Hanger Lifting Club), and they were running kettlebell training sessions for the UW hockey team.  Let’s just say this stuff was all extremely rare at the time.  In the corner of an old airplane hanger in the abandoned Navy base at Magnuson park in Seattle, these guys built an epic fitness playground.  I started mopping the floors a few times a week to pay for the right to play there.

Suffer on Saturday

CrossFit North was also the birthplace of the sport of fitness.  On the first Saturday of every month, Dave would host a WOD competition called Suffer on Saturday.  At first, the WODs were mostly named “Girl” WODs from  We’d try to complete them in under 10-minutes and win a t-shirt with a submarine on it that said, “Sub 10”.  That meant you were in the Sub 10 Club.  Sometimes these workouts got pretty intense and I remember puking all over the ground outside the gym after smashing Helen in 6 and a half minutes.

The original Sub 10 Club

After awhile, the Suffer on Saturday format expanded.  We would do Dragon Boat races with the local canoe club.  We ran obstacle courses that Dave created around the Magnuson Park grounds.  We even took a field trip to the International District to face off against the local Hooverball league.  These events were awesome and they attracted all the CrossFitters from around Washington state (about 30 people at the time!).

Me on Dragon Boat day

The Athletic Skill Levels

At the time, CrossFit wasn’t very well-defined yet.  Most of the early practitioners were already functional fitness people who used cross-training principles, and we were all experimenting with high-intensity interval training.  So, you had people combining various forms of bodyweight exercise, weight training, and metabolic conditioning.  I summed it up to a friend in this way, “We combine powerlifting, olympic weightlifting, kettlebells, gymnastics, calisthenics, plyometrics, track & field, triathlon, and rowing, not to be the best at any one thing, but to be the most well-rounded”  (Something like that.). You saw a lot of weird stuff in CrossFit in those days that didn’t really stick, like clubbells and rope ladders.

To define CrossFit, we relied on Greg Glassman’s articles in the CrossFit Journal, his daily WOD postings on, and any area of the site called the, “Trophy Case”.  The Trophy Case was a collection of tests or accomplishments, such as the muscle-up, fastest rowing times, and the CrossFit Challenges (a topic for another blog).  Up here in Seattle at CrossFit North, we had white boards up on the wall listing various skill achievements, like max reps unbroken muscle-ups, fastest WOD times, or heaviest lifting totals.  This system of personal achievements laid the groundwork for the Skill Levels.

At one of the Suffer on Saturday events in 2006, Dave introduced the Athletic Skill Level concept to us.  This was basically a chart with four “levels”, color-coded like a belt in martial arts.  The levels were:

  • Level 1, “well rounded beginner” = white belt
  • Level 2, “intermediate athlete” = green belt
  • Level 3, “advanced athlete” = blue belt
  • Level 4, “elite athlete” = black belt

Under each column was a list of skill tests or assessments that you would need to accomplish to achieve that belt.  Each test was categorized as one of six types: Hips, Push, Pull, Core, Work, or Speed.

That day, Dave and his trainers tested us on as many of the skills as we had the stamina for.  I still have my original chart kicking around somewhere, but I couldn’t find it today.  I remember I was really good at the rope climbs and bench press, but I sucked at kettlebells.

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The 2008 version of the Athletic Skill Levels

Level 4 CrossFit Seattle

This system was distributed widely through the internet and it became very popular within the CrossFit community at the time, forming the basis for a lot of work by CrossFit coaches, box owners, and athletes who were quantifying and defining this new fitness methodology and trying to understand how better to train for it.  When CrossFit North’s membership grew too large for the original space at Magnuson Park, Nick and Dave parted ways, each to start their own gyms.  Dave updated the Skill Level system in 2008 and renamed his gym “Level 4”.

Level 4 CrossFit Seattle, as it was officially known, was a pretty incredible place.  It was 10,000 square feet of open gym floor, with pull-up bars along the walls and a huge assortment of kettlebells, barbells, plyo boxes, and other varied strength & conditioning equipment.  It was often called a playground for adults.  This is where Dave further developed his Skill Level system as he became the man with the honor of being the longest-running CrossFit Affiliate gym owner in the world (in operation from 2002-2017, a 15-year record that I’m not aware of anyone else breaking, but I could be wrong).

There were posters of the skill tests along the walls, and every client at Level 4 was given a spreadsheet in a binder where they could officially check off their skill level accomplishments whenever a coach was present to verify the results.  This was when I really started to care about the system and the gradual, well-rounded progress it represented.  I resolved to accomplish every skill in there one at a time, and to finish all the tests at every level before attempting the tests from the higher levels.

Athletic Skill Levels V2

In 2013, Dave and his staff re-did the skill levels, drastically expanding them with 3 sub-levels (A, B, C) under each belt level.  The skills got harder, they made more sense (that original vertical jump was wacky), and there were a heck of a lot more of them.  The original system contained 102 total tests.  There were 351 tests on the new system, not including the new yellow-belt “Pre-Level 1” category they’d created in 2013.

This new system became the basis for an online training company called MoveSkill that Dave and several of his trainers ran for awhile.  They built an excellent video exercise library, sold programming to gyms and individuals, and wrote training articles. I used to edit their podcast.

The testing system also changed in 2013.  Rather than checking off each individual accomplishment in a binder after proving it in the eyes of a coach, they would hold quarterly Skill Level Tests where they’d put us all through a series of difficult assessments to determine our level.  There were Level 1 tests that included some lifts as a percentage of bodyweight, a few gymnastics skills, and a metabolic test.  If you passed that, you were eligible to attend the Level 2 classes at the gym.  A couple dozen people passed that one and the Level 2 classes were packed with people who needed a greater challenge.  Then there was the Level 2 test, which only four people ever passed (3 of them were named “Nick” or “Nic”, and I was one of them).  They didn’t have a Level 3 class, but if they had, we would have been in it.  Honestly, I think at that level of ability you have no business being in a group class anyway because you need individual training plans in order to progress past Level 2.   They never came up with a test for Level 3 or Level 4.

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End of an Era

I went to work at Level 4 CrossFit Seattle for a couple of months in 2016.  It was a dream of mine, as I loved the place and everyone involved with it.  But, it wasn’t a good time to be there and I didn’t last.  Relationships were strained, old friendships and collaborations were breaking apart.  They lost some of their longest-tenured and best-regarded trainers during that time and experienced an uprecedented churn in new trainers, who came and went within weeks, including myself. There were struggles over changing the business model now that the “CrossFit Bubble” was said to have burst (the plunging reputation of CrossFit affiliates was hurting business and new sign-ups were declining to unsustainable levels, not just here, but at affiliates all around the world).  On top of all this, the City of Seattle was making some new permitting demands that owners of Level 4 just couldn’t keep up with.

Within the year, Level 4 was out of business, the “CrossFit Seattle” name was hung up forever, and the MoveSkill website, though still online, was no longer creating new content. For all intents and purposes, this was the end of the Athletic Skill Levels system.  Except… I kept using it!  And I’m not alone in that.  In my travels and interactions with other old-school CrossFitters around the world, I’ve learned that there are pockets of people still using these systems scattered all over the place.  There are a lot of gym owners, coaches, and athletes who have been influenced by this system and reflected that influence in their work.

How I Use the Skill Levels

I basically use each skill on the chart as an assessment, periodically testing myself to see which ones I can or can’t do.  This then influences my training.  I prioritize training based on my lowest achievements on the chart.  I don’t want to be able to do a bunch of Level 4 “Pull” stuff if I can’t do the Level 2 “Work”.  With that in mind, I create a list of my top 10 priorities (bottom 10 skills), and design my training program to emphasize those along with training that will benefit them or the larger systematic weaknesses my inability to do them represents.

What I like about this system is that my personal improvement will never end.  I will never be good enough to do all this stuff at the same time.  That might discourage some people, but that’s exactly the kind of thing that motivates me: Fighting against impossible odds, but never giving up the fight.  I also like that it balances various physical capacities, such as basic strength patterns, neuromuscular skills, and energy systems.  I am routinely challenged to try something I’ve never done before and become very good at it.  My training never feels easy or boring.  I just keep plugging away at it and checking things off one by one.  When I fall back on something, it reminds me to keep that skill sharp.

I’ve created a spreadsheet that organizes all my current skill accomplishments  and current goals.  I even have a BW calculator that will immediately update the weight goals for each skill on the chart that is tied to bodyweight.  This gets me up in the morning and keeps me pushing my own limits every day.  I hope it inspires you to train harder and have some goals in mind!

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Published by nicnakis

Nicholas |nik-uh-luhs| n. a male given name: from Greek words meaning "victory of the people" John |jon| n. a male given name: from Hebrew Yohanan, derivative of Yehohanan "God has been gracious" Nakis |nah-kis| n. a Greek family name derived from the patronymic ending -akis (from Crete) Amha |am-hah| n. an Ethiopian given name meaning "gift", from Geez Selassie |suh-la-see| n. Ethiopian name meaning "trinity", from Geez

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