The CrossFit Chronicles Part 2

Part 2: Admitting the Faults with CrossFit

The Other Side of a Reasonable Discussion

If you haven’t read Part 1: In Defense of CrossFit, please do so before tackling this one. This is meant to be reasonable, so Part 1 needs to be read in order to maintain balance here. Let’s begin…

Sometimes, when we feel the things that we are passionate about are being threatened, we can overreact, operating more on emotion than logic. It could be our profession, our job, our family, our favorite team, or God forbid, our “expertise”. I am not the most experienced guy in the world of fitness, but I have had my nose to the grindstone for over 15 years (with a few hiatuses). In that short decade and a half, I have never ever seen such an emotional response from the fitness world as that shown upon the forceful arrival of CrossFit.

On the one hand,

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life. – Winston Winston Churchill likes CrossFitChurchill

On the other hand,

If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner. – Nelson Mandela

So where am I going with this? I am not calling out CrossFit as the enemy. Quite the opposite. I am saying that CrossFit has been unduly labeled as a threat in many circles. Like it or not, the outside world views CrossFit as part of the fitness culture. It is  here for the long-haul, so we best be making nice with “the enemy”. Do you take criticisms from your enemies? Didn’t think so. Do you take constructive remarks from your friends? I sure hope so. If you don’t allow those closest to you to help with your self-audit process, then you’re losing out on the rewards of self-development. Similarly, most of us have no place to pick on CrossFit from across the room. Most of the lay-public haters have never done a single WOD. Most healthcare practitioners will have worked with less than 5 CrossFitters ever. Most trainers walk on the other side of the street to avoid the dreaded “box”, just because of what they read online. I find this rather hilarious and extremely insecure.

“As many T-Nation readers may remember, I also trained in the Crossfit style for two years.” – Dan John…again

If anyone, Dan John has the right to attack the game, yet he does not. So what gives? What gives the haters the right to criticize, when 9/10 have never set foot in a CrossFit Box?

I only ask these questions to toot my own horn (honk honk). I work with 4 different CrossFit affiliates rather closely. I have helped improve the health and performance of well over 50 CrossFitters in the last year (not all were injured, many just needed help with movement-based issues such as Olympic Lifts). My clinic even sponsors one CrossFit Athlete (currently 5th in Western Canada…Go Jeremy!). I have participated in about 8-10 WODs myself. I have sat in on 20+ WODs. I regularly communicate with many coaches and athletes who are looking to improve the sport.

Why do I point this out? To give myself a platform. I am not completely foreign to this world; neither do I drink the Kool-Aid. Quit Taking My InventoryUnderstand that “admitting the faults” is coming from an honest place, but an uniquely well-informed place. I give these “faults” in hopes that the majority of the people who read this will use it to help improve CrossFit. This is not ammo for the haters, this is taking inventory. Without further delay…

1. About 10 different injurious movements should to be removed from ALL programs.

Here are the ones that I don’t see a reason for anyone to do, as the risks outweigh the reward. These are the ones that put the body in an awkward place, are causing a lot of injuries, or are just too complex. Some people can do them, most should not.

  • Sumo-Deadlift High Pulls (external shoulder impingement waiting to happen. It is never seen anywhere outside of CF for a good reason)
  • GHD situps (repeated forced spinal flexion…I think McGill is getting nervous)
  • Box Jumps (just not necessary, and nearly all CF’ers have bloodies up their shins on these. Other plyos would be better suited to most populations)
  • High-Rep High Load Full Snatch*
  • High Rep High Load Full Clean*
  • High Rep High Load Jerks*
  • High Rep Situps
  • Kettlebell Swings to Overhead (this one really gets to me as an HKC guy, also an impingement waiting to happen)
  • Handstand pushups (I have seen 2 dislocated shoulders and many hurt backs from this one…maybe it is not the best choice for non-gymnasts)

* Any movement done to exhaustion gets dangerous. You’re asking for trouble by asking people to perform the most technical lifts in all of weight training to the point of failure…and then some. Olympic lifts: good. Exhausted Olympic lifts: very very bad. Keep the Olympic lifts once movement proficiency is shown. But please, stop doing AMRAP with 135lbs, you’re asking for issues.

A good coach would never let this snatch leave the ground, none the less be repeated 50 reps.

A good coach would never let this snatch leave the ground, none the less be repeated 50 reps.

These moves, in and of themselves are not all bad (except sumo high pulls…good God what were they thinking?). However, common muscle imbalances, 21st century jobs, rampant non-traumatic injuries and other factors make these bad ideas for 9/10 people. If each individual was being supervised by a personal trainer, then maybe there would be some leeway. But alas, I think these need to be removed and I doubt most people outside of CrossFit would disagree. As a side-note, I do know coaches who have voluntarily removed many of these from their regime prior to my suggestion, due to the aforementioned reasons. I tip my hat to you, good sirs.

*If you run a CrossFit affiliate and want clarification on why these moves don’t fit,  contact me and I would love to help you through my reasoning or help you pick some alterations/alternatives.

2. There needs to be a Screener.

I realize that this could equally apply to most personal trainers as it does CrossFit, but that is no excuse. There needs to be one of the following things in place:

  • A systematic way of assessing a potential clients fit for high intensity activity, or
  • A required (maybe optional?) analysis by a trusted musculoskeletal health professional who has a screening process in place (AT, DC, DPT, take your pick), or
  • A performance exam to find out who is a “movement moron” vs a “supple leopard”, or
  • All of the above

FMS PicturesI know that this would put up a mild barrier to entry for some people. However, I think a mild screener at the start will do so well for your affiliate reputation that it will more than make up for any client loss. Anything that kicks your butt like CrossFit does needs some barrier to entry. A reasonable coach would agree that it is not for everyone, but can be altered for most. As a great FMS instructor stated a few years back, pertaining to the injury rate in CrossFit.

“It’s not CrossFit, it’s the body you send to CrossFit”.

A lack of screening makes CrossFit look bad because some of the bodies getting sent to CrossFit are not ready for it! Learn to identify which ones they are, and decrease your injury rate drastically.

3. There needs to be levels

In no other training facility in the world aside from a CrossFit Box will you be told what weight you will use according to your gender instead of your ability, your height/weight, your experience, or better yet, your desire. I think this might just be the one part  of CrossFit that would most benefit from change. I personally weigh in at 155lbs. I am small, but I am strong for my size. I could easily do Rx weights on the vast majority of exercises. However, put me in the same competition as Neal Maddox (5’10, 210lbs) and tell me to use the same weights? Hmmm, something is wrong here. Horribly, horribly wrong. Put me beside a guy who is the same size as me, but doesn’t realize that I trained with an empty barbell for 6 months before loading the snatch and all these mind-games start happening. Having Rx weights that are applied across the board is completely counter-productive to the “check you ego at the door” posted at many boxes.

On the one side, this is very motivating for people. Some people thrive on external motivation and competitive spirit. On the other hand, many people will try to perform far beyond their movement competency or movement capacity, just to finish before that “other guy” who they don’t know has been doing this for 5 years already. I understand both sides of the Rx weight and prescribed workouts, but I think there is a better way.

Instead of throwing everyone into the same fire, one of the following should happen instead

  • Beginners class until you hit specific benchmarks. For instance, something easy, like
    • Bench 1/2 your BW
    • Deadlift your BW
    • Squat your BW
  • Separated classes according to goal (compete or not, lose weight or not)

Many coaches will  ask their athletes to “scale” the WOD. But in reality, most people in the middle of a WOD will never admit that something is too heavy or that their form is failing. Once you choose a weight, you’re not stopping to reduce the load on the bar. Most WODs are timed, so no one is going to take a break to look like a pansy in front of their friends. It’s unfortunate, but it is absolutely a flaw with the system.

4. The “No Pain, No Gain” Mentality.

don't quit crossfit

Yup, this was found on a CrossFit website. *FACEPALM*

If you are in the world of people who love to debate about CrossFit, you have undoubtedly seen this STUPID (yes, I am putting my foot down on this one stupid) article about the unique ability of CrossFit to hurt…in a good way. I will admit, I think the guy writing it is one of the idiots that haters love to talk about. His sentiment should be shared, that of having to work through discomfort to achieve greater things. However, there is part of his article that struck me as strangely accurate:

…each day I endure pain in the WOD, and occasionally get hurt or injured, but I accept it as the price for this life.[…] I get [butterflies] from the inevitable pain. Pain I choose to endure, risk I choose to take for the tremendous reward to follow. – Josh Bunch

That is not “sentiment”. He just blatantly plans to get injured. Even though this guy apparently fits the profile of a fitness anarchist, he helped this little thought grow within me: What if more CrossFit coaches said “No Pain, GOOD” rather than “No pain, no gain”? The author was hinting at the fact that you are either going to hurt for giving up, or get hurt for doing CrossFit…pure stupidity. No one has to hurt! Save the pain for competition. CrossFit is practice, not competition. Fitness is not meant to hurt. When the mentality shift to masochism, Houston, we have a problem.

I have the pleasure of working with many coaches here in the Okanagan that know when to throw in the proverbial towel for their clients. They know when to say “you’re going to hurt yourself” or when to say “you need to get someone to take a look at that”. No Pain? Good. Pain!? Refer out.

Still in spite of good coaches, people are their own worst enemies. I can’t count the number of people I have told that they will make things worse by going back too quick and their coach would echo it for me. Yet, in spite of reasonable coaching, the athlete returns to un-scaled and un-altered CrossFit and hurts themselves worse than before. It’s not CrossFit, it’s the body (and mind) you send to CrossFit. Coaches should learn how to identify clients at high risk for shakey mental practices.

5. Self-Validating Systems

This is the one that I know will piss some people off, so I will make sure I explain it well.

CrossFit is to fitness professionals what chiropractic is to the medical system. When you’re in, you’re all in.When you’re on the outside, you love to point and laugh. But there is an inherent problems with chiropractic and in CrossFit: it is a self-validating system. Chiropractors promote their own, learn from their own, and listen to their own. We grant our own degrees, go to chiropractic conferences, and become friends with other chiropractors. We love to pat ourselves on the back. As much as I love my profession, this is DANGEROUS. It soon becomes a skewed sense of reality because an altered version of reality has been created by a universe whereby the evidence supports itself.

Similarly, CrossFit has created a parallel universe to the health and fitness world wherein there are CrossFit versions of everything. Where some would foam roll, CrossFitters “smash”. Where some would mobilize, CrossFitters “VooDoo Floss”. There is a certain branding and business aspect to this, but it is dangerously close to cult-like thinking (at some places, not because_i_said_so_thats_whyothers).

Where it really needs to change is in the education that coaches choose. All hail Robb Wolf. All hail K-Star. These guys are great. Honestly, I love both of them. BUT, there are guys who have had their teeth in the game for years who are blatantly disregarded because they don’t fly the CrossFit flag.  Again, some owners are doing this, others are not. I have taught workshops to rooms filled with NSCA guys and there will be the two CrossFitters in the corner. Good on ’em. One of the owners I work with here looked at my own workout program and said “looks like a Dan John program”. I instantly formed a bit of a man-crush. He also happens to be insanely strong and move very well.

On top of (not instead of) their own educational systems, CrossFit owners should become familiar with the following names: Charlie Weingroff, Stuart McGill, Pavel Tsatsoulline, Juan Carlos Santana, Charles Poloquin, Dan John, Mark Rippetoe, Louie Simmons, Eric Cressey, Ben Bruno, Mike Boyle, Bret Contreras, Martin Rooney, Mike Robertson, Dave Tate, Jim Wendler, Brett Jones, Gray Cook…and so many more. Read their stuff. Study it. Understand it. Apply it. Doing this alone will put you head and shoulders above most trainers in the fitness industry. If nothing else, go to a Perform Better Functional Training Summit!

In Conclusion

Yes, there are a few suboptimal parts about CrossFit as a whole. But let’s not forget that CrossFit is not a franchise, it is an affiliation. Many boxes choose to alter many things, and more importantly, each box comes with its own culture. Each CrossFit has it’s strengths and weakness. Fortunately for me, I get associate with many boxes who are robust in the strength column.

To the client: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Get to know your local box and see if they are a good fit for the goals you have established for yourself. Just because it is CrossFit doesn’t mean that it comes with a big list of flaws; I simply wrote about the recurring themes that seem to come up. Just like chiropractors, there are the good, and the less than good. It has to fit you.

To the CrossFit owner: The point here was to bring up the weak spots, not point the finger. You are only as strong as your weakest link, and by ironing out the wrinkles in the CrossFit garb, you’re going to massively help your current client base a well as attract more.

In the next few days, I will release Part 3: A Recipe for the Optimal CrossFit. Stay tuned.

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