CrossFit History Lessons, Pt. 4

Over the past 3 articles, I have alternated between praising and criticizing Greg Glassman’s CrossFit. The first one was about the definition of fitness (100 words). The second one was about the three fitness standards. The third one was about the sickness-wellness-fitness continuum. Today, I’m looking at the “Implementation” section of the October 2002 CrossFit Journal.


I love this idea of creating a new kind of athlete who is equal parts gymnast, Olympic weightlifter, and sprinter. I don’t think this ideal needs to be applied to every individual who enters a fitness program, and I guess that’s the rub. Glassman’s vision here is inspiring and motivating for people who are already athletes–or at the least, fitness enthusiasts–but it has been applied to a lot of people who really didn’t need it or have any business attempting it. Aggressive marketing and poorly-run gyms were responsible for this good idea being given some poor applications. Still an ideal I personally pursue, though, and I respect those others who do as well.

Metabolic Conditioning, or “Cardio”

I love the breadth of his vision of metabolic conditioning. He’s talking about biking, running, swimming, rowing, speed skating, and cross-country skiing. I also appreciate his simple division of anaerobic and aerobic, and comparing this to sprint distances to give people a clear picture.

He talks about the benefits of aerobic training, including improved cardiovascular function and lower body fat. But, he slags off aerobic training at the end of that paragraph by mentioning the trade-offs to muscle mass, strength, speed, power and anaerobic capacity. Of course, these trade-offs are there, but I disagree with the conclusions he draws from that. He starts to say that anaerobic training is all you need, because it also benefits cardiovascular function and lowers body fat, but without loss to muscle mass, strength, speed, and power.

The problem I have with this is that it involves and over-simplification of this aerobic vs. anaerobic argument. The truth is, sprinters must spend years developing their aerobic system (not to mention coordination, muscle, connective tissue, heart and lungs) through long aerobic efforts (distance). Then, and only then, are they able to express the ability to sprint. Also, they don’t just do sprinting. Even 400m competitors don’t spend the entire training year doing nasty anaerobic efforts. They continue to practice longer distances and lower efforts in training to maintain their aerobic base and other beneficial adaptations.

Interval Training

Greg’s answer to developing the cardiovascular system without loss of muscle & power is to use interval training. I think his logic is flawed here–I mean, people who do a lot of interval training without strength training will still lose muscle mass–but I love interval training and have used it with great success with myself and my clients.

He provides a helpful chart of sprint interval work and rest protocols targeting all three energy systems. This is quite useful. He also, briefly, describes the Tabata interval, which I have a lot to say on and should probably write an entire blog article about. But, Tabata only gets two sentences in Greg’s article, so I’ll save that for another time.

The main problem with CrossFit’s approach to interval training has been in application. The truth is, many of CrossFit’s “sprint interval” workouts are actually just long aerobic efforts with sprint distances incorporated within them. But, without a significant rest period before & after those efforts, they aren’t really sprints, they’re just short legs of a longer aerobic circuit. So, CrossFit’s so-called sprint training is usually aerobic training in disguise.

Then he goes into a lengthy diatribe on Dr. Stephen Seiler’s model of aerobic training adaptations. The first wave adaptation is increased maximal oxygen consumption. The second wave adaptation is increased lactate threshold. The third wave adaptation is increased efficiency. Greg’s whole argument here is to maximize the first two adaptations, but completely avoid the third adaptation.

I think he’s entirely wrong on this one. The aerobic system, and aerobic efforts in general are all about efficiency. Efficiency is the point of aerobic metabolism. Efficiency is good. The alternative that he proposes, “regular high intensity training in as many training modalities as possible through largely anaerobic efforts and intervals while deliberately and specifically avoiding the efficiency that accompanies mastery in a single modality,” is exactly the S#!t show that leads to sick and injured people coming out of CrossFit, that led to the multiple injuries and health problems that I suffered as a CrossFitter in my 30s, and birthed the saying, “You know what CF stands for, don’t you? Cluster F@#k.”

If you have not trained a particular modality long enough to develop efficiency in it, then you have no business using it in interval training. That is my assertion. I’m talking about movement efficiency, mitochondrial efficiency, heart & lungs, all of it. Get good at something, then you’re ready to up the challenge in terms of intensity (greater force at higher speed). Get good at a lot of things, then you’re ready to mix them up. Learn to express aerobic work, then you’re ready to attempt anaerobic work. I would say that developing skill and efficiency in multiple modalities is the precursor–or prerequisite coursework–to be able to do the kind of high-intensity interval with multiple modalities that Greg is describing here.

This last point is precisely why people like me–fitness nuts with years of sports and training background that already possessed skills and efficiencies in multiple modalities–thrived in CrossFit during the early 2000s. It is also precisely why so many “regular people”–untrained, out of shape, without pre-existing adaptations to years of training and exercise–failed in CrossFit during the 2010s. During their boom period, the theory of fitness development used in thousands of boxes throughout the world neglected to prioritize the fundamentals for their clients. I believe this is what led the CrossFit bubble to burst, and it’s why I left.

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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