CrossFit History Lessons, Pt. 7

This is the final article in my series responding to the October 2002 CrossFit Journal, now 17 years since I read it for the first time in the fall of 2003. You can read all the other articles here:

A Theoretical Hierarchy of Development

That little picture up there is the CrossFit “theoretical hierarchy of development”. I hope Greg doesn’t sue me for re-posting it here. He’s done that kind of thing in the past (just ask Mark Twight).

I support this model. If it wasn’t his idea first, I’d say it was my idea. I’ve practiced this model for 17 years, essentially, testing it against reality with myself and with clients. It works. It makes sense. Nourishment must come first, as nutrients are both the fuel sources for your activity, and the building blocks of your physical adaptation to training. Conditioning–more specifically, the building of an aerobic base–must come next. Body control and neurological development are layered on top of that. True strength development and heavy lifting comes next. Then you are ready to express your physical capabilities in the form of sport.

What I’ve done in my own work is re-conceptualize the hierarchy of development into what I call the “health house”. This brings the framework more into the realm of general population, rather than the ‘elite athletes’ that Greg was often talking about. I don’t train elite athletes. Often, I don’t even train athletes. I train regular people. Regular people need to think about their lifestyle first, then add nutritional practice, then a consistent exercise habit. One problem I saw in CrossFit was people starting at the top with this pyramid, but neglecting the basics of their lifestyle, such as good sleep, digestion, hydration, and having a purpose. When you do it that way, it doesn’t work.


Greg’s quote at the top of this section is, “strive to blur distinctions between ‘cardio’ and strength training. Nature has no regard for this distinction.” Well… that statement has a lot of problems with it. If–let’s start with if–IF you are a highly-trained athlete, you can safely and effectively blur this line. If you are competing at the CrossFit Games, you have successfully blurred this distinction and learned how to turn strength contractions into an aerobic effort. On the other hand, if you just signed up for the first week of your gym membership, you have no business attempting to blur this distinction. Trying to do strength exercises in a conditioning format when you lack the neurological development ( = years of reps & practice) to perform those exercises properly will only lead to injury. Melding cardio and strength also requires pacing abilities, which can only be developed over the long-term. You can’t just throw people into the blender (or the chipper, or the grinder) and hope they survive.

Next comes the most insightful and prophetic statement in this entire CrossFit Journal issue. “Every regimen, every routine contains within its structure a blueprint for its deficiency.” I think this is a very apt statement that applies to the 100 words, the 3 fitness standards, and the other frameworks of CrossFit described in this document. I’ve written quite a bit over the past week about some of the deficiencies that played-out over the past two decades. These were all contained within the structure of the regimen proposed here.

The obsession with variance as a way to “broaden the stimulus” of training is a perfect example. It is true that there are advantages and disadvantages to every type of training, but we must wield these tools like a knowledgable mechanic with a shiny professional toolbox. The “constantly varied” mindset often looks more like a kid with a bunch of rusty garage-sale tools that he isn’t sure how to use properly, or when.

“There are an infinite number of regimens,” on that Greg and I agree, but they’re not all going to deliver the goods for everyone. Each individual actually needs their own individual training plan, tailored to their particular abilities and goals at the time, and changing with them as their priorities change. This is where assessment and goal-setting skills matter. This is where program design skills matter. It isn’t just giving people a bunch of random stuff and hoping they come out better. You have to tailor the work to them, meet them where they are, and help them get where they’re going.

Then he goes into a few general layouts of workout prescriptions. These are fun and interesting, but betray a general laziness in Greg’s approach. “We can create routines like this forever”, he says. Yeah, but do they ever fit together well from day to day, week to week, month to month, or year to year? Do they ever build to anything? The answer is no. No one follows programming for very long.

There’s this thing called the “CrossFit Plateau”, a phenomenon in which people do CrossFit for 18 months and get better the whole time, then suddenly stop making gains and have to become more intentional with their training program. This happens to coincide with another well-known phenomenon with beginner trainees: anything will make them better for the first 18 months, but then they’re going to need more intentional stimuli in order to adapt. The truth is, long-term CrossFitters or actual CrossFit athletes all learn to follow more thoughtfully structured programs one way or the other.

Scalability and Applicability

This is one of the most controversial of the many controversial ideas that Greg Glassman ever proposed: scaling workouts. He makes the famous statement here that, “The needs of an Olympic athlete and our grandparents differ by degree not kind.” Boy, did I used to repeat that line a lot, and boy was I wrong. The more you learn about the needs of Olympic athletes, or about the needs of our grandparents, the more you learn that this statement is incorrect. Olympic athletes need various kinds of metabolic abilities that our grandparents will never need. Olympic athletes need various kinds of movement skill and neurological abilities (to express power, for example), that our grandparents will never need. Our grandparents need to move well and feel good and function well under the hood. Olympic athletes need to score points and win medals, even if it beats up their joints and ruins their endocrine system to do so.

“We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.” More laziness. If you have an Olympic athlete client and a grandparent client and you can’t write each of them their own program that suits their lifestyle, goals, and current state, then you’re just being straight-up lazy.

So, the last part of this article is really where the arguments fall apart in the worst way. He says that the need for sport-specificity, “is nearly completely met by regular practice and training within the sport and not in the strength and conditioning environment.” Well, that is neglecting the fact that Volleyball players need a different type of strength & conditioning than boxers do. They jump! They don’t punch! Those are different movement patterns, using different joints and muscle groups, and they require different strength & conditioning programs as a base to be able to express themselves effectively in sport.

At this point, it’s just a sales pitch, and I am no longer buying what he’s selling. I’ve seen too much and learned to much over the years to buy it anymore.

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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