Yesterday, I began a series of articles responding to Greg Glassman’s original CrossFit Journal. It’s 18 years later and I think we should have learned a few things by now.
CrossFit’s First Fitness Standard
This is the model of the 10 general physical skills, which Greg picked up from Dynamax. There’s a lot of controversy over that, and Dynamax severed their relationship with CrossFit many years ago. Anyhow, the 10 general physical skills are: cardiorespiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.
I like this model and find it very useful. The recognition of differences between organic and neurological adaptations is important to our understanding of how to develop them (training vs. practice). However…
The assertion in the article is that, “A regimen develops fitness to the extent that it improves each of these ten skills.” Nonsense. Developing power and speed in Grandpa at age 65 might lead to an injury and dramatically decrease his fitness. Similar to some of my comments yesterday, I say this is a case where the “one size fits all” model is incorrect. Not everyone needs the same stuff to be fit.
Another problem is around specificity. There is no blanket “endurance” that applies to all circumstances. The ability to endure a long bicycle ride is actually different from the ability to endure a long swim. The same can be said about all 10 of these general physical skills. Strength in upper body pushing is different than strength in picking things up off the ground. Coordination to shoot basketballs is not the same coordination as doing flips. Each skill has a massive range of modalities, paces, loads, and other variables. It is impossible to train for all of these at the same time.
CrossFit’s Second Fitness Standard
This is the famous “hopper” model. It’s a thought experiment with a hopper (like they use to select Bingo numbers) loaded with an infinite number of physical challenges. This model asserts that “fitness” is the ability to do better at these infinite random tasks than other individuals.
While I enjoy the idea of general preparedness that this encourages (and I personally believe in possessing great general preparedness), if you take this model to it’s logical conclusions it gets pretty stupid. “Infinity” and “Random” can bring up some pretty ridiculous possibilities that are impossible–or inadvisable–to train for. What if one of the things in the hopper is a 1-finger handstand on the top of the Space Needle? Should we all be training for that?
The conclusion Greg draws from the hopper model is that, “this encourages athletes to divest in any set notions of sets, rest periods, reps, exercises, order of exercises, routines, periodization, etc.” This is where the real problems lie.
You see, there’s this thing called “sport science” that has been going on for a really long time, is grounded in verifiable realities of physics and physiology, and is being actively tested at all times by millions of athletes and coaches in thousands of sport disciplines. This is where our ideas about effective sets, rest periods, reps, exercises, ordering, routines, and periodization principles come from. We have a massive body of experimental and anecdotal knowledge around what works and what doesn’t work. Reject that at your peril.
CrossFit’s Third Fitness Standard
This is the “three metabolic pathways”. Here Greg talks about the Phosphagen, Glycolytic, and Oxidative energy systems. Good information. A reasonably accurate description of the three systems and when they are working. Though there is much better knowledge around these now and the truth is much fuzzier than asserted here, I think it’s a good basic primer in metabolic function during sport and exercise.
It’s the conclusions that I have a problem with. Greg says that fitness requires competency and training in all three, and he advocates balancing them at all times. I have a real bone to pick with this. It is simply not healthy to train the glycolytic pathway frequently. To give the casual reader some context on this, the “phosphagen” stuff is basically strength training and short speed/power stuff. You can do this all year long for a lifetime and benefit greatly in strength and function. The “oxidative” stuff is long, aerobic efforts (cardio). This is also one you can do all year for a lifetime without problems, if you’re doing it right. The “glycolytic” stuff, on the other hand, is the miserable stuff in the middle. This is the 800m sprints and football plays, the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu matches and Thai fights. This is all the stuff that sucks and hurts and makes you want to puke. While it’s good to be ready for that when you need it, only people who are competing for points or saving lives actually NEED it. And, even they are getting hurt by it more than helped. This stuff is disrupting their endocrine systems and stressing their nervous systems. It leads to a lot of bad long-term consequences. I’ve felt it. I’ve seen it in others. I’ve looked at the bloodwork of athletes who turned themselves into very sick individuals through this practice.
He also asserts that favoring one or two at the exception of the others is a problem. Well, I disagree. Strongly. Favoring the phosphagen (strength) system and oxidative (cardio) system over the glycolytic (misery) system 90% of the time is better. Then, if your sport or career actually requires glycolytic efforts, train those briefly in time to peak for competition. That’s a healthier and “fitter” approach, if we actually look at fitness as the ability to survive, rather than the ability to impress Greg Glassman.
This is where Greg concludes his section on the three fitness standards. He justifies the three standards because they “ensure the broadest and most general fitness possible.” I just think his idea of “fitness” happens to be very different than mine. He’s actually talking about something more like “well-rounded athleticism”. My version of fitness is more about survival & thriving for the long game. Some of the things Greg is advocating for make a lot more sense when the goal is to excel at combat and varied sports. They don’t all make sense when the goal is staying healthy for a lifetime. Come back for more tomorrow.
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