Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog

Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

More on Crossfit

Steve on the Vltava river, Prague

I'm not against cross training protocols. For non-specialists, it's a good way to train; it's fun and encourages a high enthusiasm for training. I myself am a cross-trainer and promote my own variations on cross-training--so I'm not against the basic philosophy. I've developed a reputation as a critic of CrossFit, but it's not the theory behind it, only some specific practices, which I will discuss below.

In order to understand the entity that is CrossFit, you must first acquire some history on the subject of traditional fitness training. First, the objective of training for proficiency at many sport activities isn't new; the known origins hark back to 776 BC, the date of the first recorded Olympic games.

Among the most lauded of athletes was the winner of the pentathlon, a combination of five different athletic events. Significantly, the skills required for a pentathlon (javelin throw; discus throw; long jump; foot race clad in armor; wrestling) closely mirror those skills needed in waging ancient warfare.

This was a typical skill-set in sports events of antiquity, since warriors throughout the ages needed those multiple and diverse skills we now identify as "fitness" to keep them alive and victorious on the battlefield. Victory on the battlefield also often meant survival as a group, for not just the army, but all of the folks back home as well. Thus, horseback riding, archery, weapons training, empty hand-to-hand combat, skill-specific strength-training, marching with heavy loads, and running, became the classical soldiering skills.

Yet even the most war-mongering of men are rarely at the battlefield year-round/year-in and year-out, so societies devised more wholesome channels for both the specific "fitness" skills and male aggressive tendencies in general. This was the birth of sports contests--both solo events and team competitions.

With the re-emergence of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, the glorified, golden age tradition of the "all-around athlete" was transformed, and this go round the decathlete was declared the "world's best athlete". Concurrently, it was debated whether the modern pentathlete (pistol-shooting; fencing; horseback riding; swimming; cross-country running) also equally qualified.

Alongside the re-birth of the Olympics, other physical culture movements arose. Georges Hebert (a French military hero) developed a cross-training protocol he called Methode Naturelle. Methode Naturelle codified human movement into ten variations. Hebert is also credited with the invention of the modern obstacle course--now a worldwide standard for military training.

In short, all present-day physical education principles derive from military training. The standard in training soldiers has filtered down into the public school systems and this shapes conventional ideas about exercise.

These days, soldiers are trained similarly to their ancient counterparts, i.e., weapons; physical training (PT); marching with heavy gear; group runs; obstacle courses; hand-to-hand combat; swimming, and sometimes parachute jumping. It's interesting that the weight carried by a modern combat soldier hasn't changed in 2000 years: a Roman legionnaire carried about 36 kg--the same as a US Marine.

Within the last sixty years, fitness activities have shifted to recreational sports, fitness training as an end in itself and bodybuilding-style training for aesthetics. This is certainly the result of increased leisure time and the general wane of physically demanding work. Sedentary occupations have steadily become the norm and fitness has acquired an air of privilege. People no longer have a day-to-day functional purpose for able-bodied-ness, nor do their daily activities reinforce their physical fitness. And so a trim, fit body is merely one more way to differentiate from the masses, visually, if for nothing else.

As fitness and physical ability deteriorated among the populace of western Europe during the 20th century, the US saw a corresponding increase of obesity and degenerative disease. During the cold war, the US decried the degraded physical condition of its citizens--and youth especially--as a matter of national security. The global super-powers began emphasizing physical preparedness of their youth in preparation for possible war. Among several US national movements designed to increase citizen fitness, most notable was John F. Kennedy's President's Council of Physical Fitness, circa 1963. This was a resurrection of an earlier model from the Eisenhower administration, which itself was born of a report declaring US children less fit than their Russian counterparts (whose physical education in the schools reportedly included grenade throwing.) Sports competition = simulated warfare. Most people don't get it: warfare and its necessary preparation was the origin of today's fitness training; this is what it's always been about.

With modern-day compact, professional armies and push-button, automated warfare, the average person is far removed from the physical reality of wartime conflict. Lacking any brute-level survival threat (Who here is concerned about marauders coming in, taking your woman and children, and burning down your house? Or--for women--being taken into slavery to a foreign land after witnessing the murder of your husband? These were the direct experiences of material warfare back in the day, thus what we admire as "fitness" was a matter of life and death.) physical fitness is shunted aside and indulgence and pleasure seeking have come to fill the leisure time of conventional people.

Most of the attempts at stimulating the populations of the western culture to change their sedentary ways have met with failure. The 1970s ushered in the exercise machine era. Using exercise devices was supposed to simplify and therefore motivate people to train and become fit. Unfortunately, these devices build a low level fitness and are not nearly ideal for developing the ability to perform real world tasks. The modern conventional gym encourages already sedentary people to remain indoors, avoiding fresh air and sunshine. Neither does it teach people how to use their bodies efficiently. Note that modern exercise machines mimic modern day activities (or lack of same) by encouraging people to exercise while seated. Further, these gyms perpetuate the experience of physical fitness activity as a chore or assignment.

A sub-group of trainees that arose in the early 1900s from the old physical culture origins were the bodybuilders. These were men seeking to create a masculine aesthetic in an ever-increasingly sedentary culture. They sought to build large muscles and lift prodigious weights in an attempt to reestablish a sense of male physical prowess and beauty. Early bodybuilding was focused on health, strength and--not least--beauty. Pre-1950s weight lifters and bodybuilders emphasized health as a first gateway to strength. They also cross-trained with gymnastics (hand-balancing, tumbling and gymnastics apparatus) running and swimming. Of course, this original creative impulse become more complex and corrupt, and in the late 1950s with the introduction of synthetic male hormones (and their negative health impact) changed the face of physical culture forevermore.

Without a rational function to train for, the goal became hypertrophy for attracting attention. Looking freaky became the end result. Alongside this movement grew the supplement industry. The supplement vendors endorsed bodybuilders and athletes whose impressive results came from synthetic hormones. The market became lucrative and as such, was (and still is) extremely confusing for a lay trainee seeking sound advice.

Meanwhile, as result of of dissatisfaction with the mechanical exercise models, there came along a movement in the US trending back to retro fitness modalities. People were returning to free weights, outdoor running, rope skipping, open water swimming, body weight exercise, and gymnastics apparatus. Faddish spins on all the above began attracting attention and followers, first in the US and then wider. The re-emergence of group exercise appeared in the late 1980's. Group exercise was popular around the early twentieth century, but had gone dormant with the Great War. The 1980's spawned aerobic dance exercise, step aerobics, power yoga and cardio kickboxing, among others. The 1990's brought firefighter fitness, Boot Camp, Navy Seal fitness, TRX, CrossFit and kettlebells. Since 2000, it's Bulgarian bag training, sandbags, Zumba and MMA training.

CrossFit emerged in 1995. The idea of former high school gymnast, Greg Glassman.

CrossFit is basically an American reboot of Methode Naturelle. I'm *not* against all-around fitness training; like the idea of competency and breadth in fitness-related skills and have incorporated this principle into my own training since the 1960's. I was particularly influenced by the old 1980's television series, Survival of the Fittest. I loved the all-around fitness required in the multiple outdoor events; this show really fired my imagination, so much so that I actually went out and built my own ropes course in Fairmount park, near where I lived in Philadelphia. My point is, while the idea behind CrossFit may be reasonable, the execution is not.

Here are my specific reasons for not endorsing CrossFit (the entity):

The use of high-rep Olympic lifts for time

Olympic lifting is very technical. The lifts themselves are very specific and not the best way to develop many of the attributes claimed. Olympic lifting specialists are one of the most frequently injured group of athletes. If the specialists are getting hurt, what can the regular Joe hope expect? The average man or woman cannot possibly learn these lifts correctly within a couple of hours from a CrossFit instructor, many of whom are themselves marginally qualified.

The O-lifts are meant to be low-rep lifts--not endurance lifts. They're highly technical and skill-dependent lifts; they were never meant for endurance events.

For ballistic, high-rep endurance lifting, use the Kettlebell. That's what they are designed for. But even Kettlebells can be fraught with injury if used with poor form.

Making exercise into a competitive event

Exercise is for improving the health and development of the body so that physical tasks can be performed with greater ease and efficiency. One of the most important principles of proper exercise is form or technique. The moment competition comes into play, form goes out the window! The objective becomes maximum repetitions for repetition's sake. Junk repetitions are meaningless and have nothing to do with anything healthy or productive. There is a very real danger of injury when proper form isn't adhered to. Exercise is not a sports competition. Sloppy form is actually condoned in some CrossFit gyms. The idea is to set personal records with little regard to quality of movement.

The use of kipping pull-ups and other joint-harmful gymnastic-type exercises

When it comes to certain exercise movements, just because one can, doesn't mean they should. The benefit to risk ratio must be looked at. Kipping pull-ups are one of those exercises. I've talked to many people nursing injuries to the shoulder girdles and elbow joints from this drill. Women, in particular, favor kipping pull-ups as a way to get over the bar, and they are most prone to these injuries but men are no exception. The kipping pull-up movement yanks and deforms the connective tissue of the wrists, elbows and shoulders--I see no benefit in it. Any alleged benefits are better obtained by safer means. Many people enamored with the kipping variation are unable to perform strict pull-ups or chin-ups and are gratified by using the momentum the kipping pull-up provides. The constant use of the kipping style retards learning real pull ups.

Gymnasts are another group that suffer frequent injuries. They do daring stunts and engage in exercises that are extremely stressful to the joints. If high level gymnasts suffer frequent injuries, what chance does the average office worker or house wife have? You don't see any competitive gymnasts over 30 years old. Anyone doing gymnastics type stunts over 40 is extremely rare. You'll occasionally see some older guy on youtube, but they are exceptions. This is for good reason. These exercises can badly mess you up. Muscles ups on the high bar and rings are another exercise that ends with frequent ligament strains and sometimes permanent injury.

WOD (Workout of the day)

In theory it's good, but there is no rhyme or reason to it; It's arbitrary. That everyone should do the same workout is a silly notion. Intelligent trainers who like the CrossFit concept, like, Mark Twight of Gym Jones, periodize their workouts with proper cycling of intensity. He also trains different types of athletes with different protocols. He doesn't ascribe to the one size fits all approach of CrossFit. He was one of originators of CrossFit, but broke off to do his own thing.

CrossFit encourages over training

Exercising too intensely, too often, promises only diminished returns. CossFit programming employs short, intense workouts--which can be a good thing. I'm a fan of high intensity training protocols (HIT).

The problem is the CrossFit workouts are scheduled too frequently--and without employing adequate recovery. I've seen some serious burnouts among the CrossFit ranks.

Training too hard, too often, brings overreaching, decreased resistance, sickness, and injury. Continually driving yourself to the limit wastes the nerve energy--which is finite in nature and must be given every opportunity to replenish. Habitual inefficient breathing, coupled with excessive caffeine (and other stimulants) intake taxes the nerve energy, reducing resistance. Training regularly like this ends with exhaustion and impaired health. CrossFit isn't the the sole guilty party but these negative issues are rife within their ranks. It is, in fact, each trainee's responsibility to create a healthy routine for his or herself, but it's difficult to find a rational voice in the commerce-driven fitness market.

Listen up: If you train at high intensity, you can't train long--or often--a little goes a long way. The benefit of proper exercise comes during the recovery days--between the workouts and on little cat feet.

Admittedly, many of the CrossFit coaches I've worked with don't pay any attention to the main CrossFit site. They pay to use the CrossFit brand to attract customers, but create their own WODs and advocate less frequent training.

CrossFit is no way to prepare for specific sports

If you're a wrestler, BJJ fighter or MMA practitioner, for example, CrossFit isn't the best way to prepare for your sport. While there are a few top athletes that use CrossFit, the successful ones are certainly a rarity and I don't know of any. This holds true for any sport. There are no current world champions in any major sport, using CrossFit as his training protocol. That doesn't mean that CrossFit is completely useless.

The CrossFit coaches I've worked with promote their programs as a stand-alone fitness activity. Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous gyms are telling people that this is a reasonable preparation for specific sports--it's not.

CrossFit is primarily a social phenomenon

I don't enjoy group identity or belonging to organizations that control and dictate to their followers. I believe that people should be able to make their own rational decisions about exercise. Coaching and training with a competent professional is useful for people who are confused or unsure, but the goals should be specific to them as individuals as opposed to an arbitrary standard.

Crossfitters follow with a zeal akin to many religious organizations. They get a feeling of belonging and this gives them validity with their training. CrossFit has an unlovely history of encouraging harmful practices, with a corresponding high rate of injury amongst its adherents. I haven't statistics to quote, but I travel through many countries teaching in local gyms, and I meet many--too many--CrossFit enthusiasts with heinous, unnecessary injuries. While the philosophy of cross-training isn't to blame, the practical execution under the CrossFit aegis is clearly problematic.

CrossFit's Greg Glassman is obese and unfit

You think I'm overly critical? I am now an older athlete and adamant about exemplifying my workout philosophy. Glassman is several years younger than me and while charismatic and charming...he doesn't train in his own system. In one interview he claimed he doesn't train at all. The guy either can't or is unwilling to take his own prescription. I assume he is too injured to train in his own system.

What is the worth of a training system that injures its athletes? The de facto purpose of proper exercise is preventing injury.

I have sustained many catastrophic injuries during my competitive wrestling and jiu-jitsu career; I never once stopped or used them as an excuse for not training. In fact, my training system healed me and brought me back to full function. I could never sit behind a keyboard and encourage people to do what I do not do or cannot do myself. It's unconscionable.

In closing, I like the CrossFit model and I've used cross-training most of my life, going back to the early 1960s and well before the term was coined. When I trained for wrestling and BJJ competition, I used specialized training and dropped the cross-training stuff, as should any athlete prepping for an event. If the above-listed problems are eliminated, cross-training is an enjoyable, safe way to train.

Here's an example of my own recent cross-training workouts. Keep in mind that I travel full-time and prefer outdoor, minimal-equipment workouts.

This is exactly what I did during a recent stay in Vienna.

Day 1 - Absolute Strength Day
15-minute run
Joint mobility
Handstand push-ups
One-arm chin-ups with finger assistance
One-arm push-ups
Pistol squat superset with single-leg stair jumps
Standing broad jumps (three in succession, repeated until I didn't improve)
Hanging leg raises

Day 2 - steady state Systema-style run using nasal breathing
30-minutes of joint mobility and yoga for specific tensions

Day 3
walking + breathing ladders
20-minutes joint mobility

Day 4- High-Intensity Conditioning Circuit
Rope skipping 5 minute warm up
8 count burpee pull-up pyramid with rope skipping:
   1 pull up/ 1 burpee / 100 rope skips
   2 pull ups/ 2 burpees/ 100 rope skips
   3 pull ups/ 3 burpees/ 100 rope skips...etc.

Keep climbing the pyramid. When you miss a pull-up, go back down the pyramid.
Alternating elbow-to-knee
Leg raise-to-plow
Roman chair sit-ups
Y-T-W-I exercise

Day 5 - steady state Systema-style running with nasal breathing
30 minutes joint mobility and yoga poses for tension spots

Day 6 - Sprinting, jumping and crawling
Slow run to warm up
8 sprints across a soccer field, from goal-to-goal
Walk back to starting line after each completed print
2 x dragon crawls as far as possible
2 x bear crawls across the field
Climbed a light pole, then climbed a swing-set pole, twice
Standing broad jumps across the field, jumping as far as possible each jump.
Mobility training

Day 7
Breathing Ladders
30-minutes of joint mobility

Day 8 - Conditioned Strength Training
Pull-up ladders
Run / Hindu push-up (run 2-minutes, then do 1 minute of Hindu push ups for 10 rounds or 30 minutes)
Hindu squats
Roman chair sit-ups
Dynamic camel posture
Shoulder bridge-to-neck bridge
Windshield wipers (supine on floor)
Dynamic bow posture

Day 9
Breathing ladders

This is a typical nine-day cycle done outdoors requiring no equipment.

I seek out and utilize park benches, furniture in outdoor cafes (when they're closed!) playgrounds, soccer fields, rooftops, stairways, basketball courts, underpasses, parking garages (ramps and pipes), bridge underpasses, tree limbs, and walls.

The routines often change, but the basic exercises used remains constant. I make a point of hitting those areas where I'm weaker and. as a senior athlete, I emphasize fast-twitch muscle movements and mobility practice; these are the first attributes to go.

In Strength & Health!


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Ask Coach!!!

Q: I have a question about nasal breathing whilst running. Is there an optimal breathing sequence/method whilst running?

A: It differs with the effort. I usually start out with a 4:4 cadence: 4-step inhale and 4-step exhale. Then, as the effort becomes harder, I revert to 3:3. If I run a hill or stairs, I change to 2:2 or even 1:1.

Q: The run I went on today was for about 45-mins and was at a steady pace--is this something you agree with?

A: The objective is to carry out the run in an effortless, relaxed fashion.

Q: I have read so much info saying its not good raises cortisol etc...

A: Nonsense. That only when idiots smash themselves by over-stimulating themselves and their heart rates--I mean overly competitive personalities. These people don't know how to properly breathe and so puff, pant and gasp through the mouth. The body interprets this as a threatening circumstance and a straightforward run becomes a exercise in survival.

The type of running I advocate is gentle and relaxed--akin to a moving meditation. There should be no tension in your body and, in fact in this way you can run to loosen up and relax. Think of an ancient hunter: he had to run effortlessly in order to avoid fatigue. It's a skill to run in this manner. There are times when he had to sprint, but most of his efforts were relaxed. He couldn't afford to get exhausted and he hadn't any Gatorade or gel packs to suck down his maw.

Q: ...Something I sometimes do is run hill sprints--again, what's your opinion on this because if I'm doing hill sprints I resort to mouth breathing (rather than nasal)?

A: No way Jose. You should never inhale through the mouth (with the exception of swimming.) When you do strenuous exercise, simply breathe faster, in a 1:1 cadence. If you can't maintain nasal inhalations, then you know that you're training with too much effort. Falling back on mouth breathing is feedback that you've exceeded your capacity and need to back off. The breath is one's own guide for all exercise. Think of all exercise as a breathing exercise.