CrossFit History Lessons, Pt. 1

CrossFit hasn’t changed their core message in 18 years, but we who’ve been through it know better now. Here is the first in a series of blogs about it.

This is a photo of a care package I sent to my brother in Iraq in the autumn of 2003. I had recently discovered this website called that posted “workouts of the day”, which had totally transformed the way I worked out and prioritized my fitness goals. This was their entry-point article, the first place to start anyone on their CrossFit education, and I was trying to evangelize this to my brother serving in the US Army National Guard. Sadly, he died over there before he was able to open the package, but I made this CrossFit stuff a big part of my life.

This issue of the CrossFit Journal from October 2002 laid the framework for the entire philosophy and ideology of CrossFit. It was inspiring and transformative for many fitness practitioners at the time. But, then we lived it for close to 20 years. We tested Greg Glassman’s hypotheses against the real world and we discovered that some of these propositions weren’t true. Sadly, CrossFit never veered from this core message, they didn’t learn the lessons of experience, and they’re still teaching this material the same exact way today that they did 18 years ago when this was written.

I’m gonna go through it section by section:

What Is Fitness and Who Is Fit?

This part I still agree with. This was Glassman’s defiance against the title of “fittest man on Earth” being given to a triathlete, with no consideration of attributes such as strength, power, speed, and coordination. He challenged the currently accepted definitions of fitness, and I believe he was right to say they were insufficient.

CrossFit’s Fitness

This is the part where he proposed an alternative definition of fitness. While it was great at the time, and I practiced it enthusiastically for many years, several elements of this did not turn out to be true in the long run.

World Class Fitness in 100 Words

Glassman’s fitness prescription was these 100 words, beginning with nutrition recommendations, then a list of exercises to train, then a model for programming (basically randomness), and a model for expression.

Taking these one at a time, the nutrition prescription was to, “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.” Excellent advice here, but–and this is a big but–human beings cannot all follow a one-size-fits-all diet.

Through my own nutrition practice, my work with clients, and my nutrition training certifications, I have learned about the far-superior concept of Personalized Nutrition. While Glassman’s advice was good in general, what room does it make for a religious or ethical vegetarian? How about someone with nut allergies? There’s also the question of where the person is starting from.

If the standard American diet is: avoid meat because of health scares, avoid vegetables because of aversive habits, avoid nuts and seeds because they’re expensive and weird, eat way too much fruit (especially bananas, apples, and oranges), FAR too much starch (in every form of bread and baked good and processed food imaginable), and be chemically addicted to sugar; then, that means that getting to Glassman’s nutrition prescription requires a 180-degree turn. Well, guess what, as good as that advice is, it is next to impossible for most people, requiring years of effort and will-power.

So, while I still work to guide people to the eventual goal of EMVNSSFLSNS (Eat Meat and Vegetables, Nuts and Seeds, Some Fruit, Little Starch, and No Sugar), I recognize that it is much easier said than done, it won’t work for some people, and everyone is going to get there in their own way.

Glassman’s exercise prescription was to, “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.”

I love all of these things and still practice them to this day. But, it begs the question, why? There’s just something in my personality that enjoys these activities and is motivated by them and the abilities they produce. However, I recognize that not everyone is like me.

Many regular folks will never possess the ability to perform a snatch safely (or a flip for that matter), and THEY DON’T NEED TO. The truth is that these exercises are only “functional” for someone whose function includes those activities. So, for a fitness coach like myself, or a fitness athlete, those activities are all a part of our function. But, for a wide swath of the population, pirouettes are not related to their function at all.

The other beef I have is with the “hard and fast” part. No. That is not how aerobic exercise progression works. First, go slow and easy, then build up volume (endurance), then learn to go harder and faster using sustainable methods (not killing yourself, but being able to repeat it). Hard and fast is reserved for people who need those abilities for some legitimate reason (to earn points, make money, save lives) and are willing to make the sacrifices in injury potential and hormone disruption.

Next, Greg made his most erroneous recommendation. This is something that people will literally fight each over to this day. He said, “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.”

There is so much wrong with this statement that I don’t even know where to start. First of all, let me clarify that I am NOT an exercise-establishment reactionary. I am not rejecting his methods out of hand. I TRIED IT. I did this for most of my 15 years of CrossFit. I GOT HURT. I DEVELOPED IMBALANCES. I MESSED UP MY ENDOCRINE AND NERVOUS SYSTEMS. You see that all-caps stuff? I’m shouting about it because it was real and I suffered. I ran the science experiment with an N of 1, and with an N of hundreds when I was teaching group classes, and it turns out that Greg’s proposal here is totally bogus.

First of all, a healthy lifestyle out to include some form of movement 7 days per week. Every day of your life deserves a walk or a ride, a hike, or some stretching, a weights session, something. In fact, you could probably walk everyday until you’re 120 years old and it would have benefitted your actual “fitness” and longevity much greater than the person who did pukey HIIT workouts 5 times a week in his 20s and burned out.

Next, the idea of simply mixing elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow totally rejects all knowledge of anatomy and physiology and the body’s adaptive response. For example, we know that it will take muscles 48-72 hours to recover from an appropriate adaptive stimulus. If you WOD was too hard, or too easy, that changes the math. So “creativity will allow” you to do dumb stuff like 3 days in a row of upper body pulling, and that’s not going to allow for what physiology requires to make you actually benefit from that exercise. Another problem with this idea is that some combinations and patterns make sense when others don’t. We know this because we have over a century of sport science practiced in universities all over the world that has verified certain methods and nullified others. If you depend on creativity and randomness, you’re going to do a lot of dumb stuff that doesn’t work. Also–and I’ve tested this proposition–you might run out of good ideas and be left with only foolish ones (5k backwards run, anyone?).

He also said, “Routine is the enemy.” Well, that basically ignores everything that is known about long-term skill development and learning in human beings, let alone what we know about physiological adaptation to exercise. Just think about teaching your kid math if routine was the enemy. Would that mean single-digit addition one day, but multi-digit multiplication the next, then maybe some algebra on Wednesday and geometry on Thursday? Learning doesn’t work like that. You have to develop skills from the fundamentals (simple) to the more complex. You have to practice things frequently and repeatedly in order to layer new learning atop the old. Even on a basic, under-the-hood, biological level of human beings, routine is THE FRIEND. Routine is a friend to learning, a friend to recovery, a friend to healthy biorhythms and biological function.

Then he said, “Keep workouts short and intense.” Well, that only makes sense for 1) someone who has earned it, and 2) Someone who needs it.

How do you earn the right to intensity? You have to practice the basic fundamental skills for a really long time. Learn to be strong, to express strength through lifting weights (or your own bodyweight). Learn to be enduring, to express work capacity through long, sustainable efforts. Then, you’ll have the nervous system patterns, as well as musculoskeletal adaptations, changes in the cardiorespiratory system, and mitochondrial development to be able to go hard and fast effectively without hurting yourself.

Second question, who needs to do intensity? Not that many people actually. Unless you’re an athlete whose sport requires intensity (not all sports do), or a military operative/first responder/uniformed services officer that needs to be able to call upon these abilities in extreme circumstances, then YOU DON’T NEED INTENSITY. In fact, that intensity is probably going to hurt you more than it helps you (injury potential, endocrine system disturbances, addictive potential).

The final recommendation Greg made in his 100 Words was to, “Regularly learn and play new sports.” That one’s great, I love it. I wish more CrossFitters stuck to this one. Learning is fun, sports are fun. They’re a great way to test yourself, to make new friends, stay active healthily, and expand your horizons.

Stay Tuned…

That’s all for part 1. Greg’s words were very important to me when I first read them 17 years ago, and I still profoundly agree with some of them. However, I am vehemently opposed to some of them today. Return here tomorrow as I will continue my response to this foundational CrossFit Journal issue.

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

6 thoughts on “CrossFit History Lessons, Pt. 1

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: