A Civil Critique on Crossfit

In the last few days, I’ve had a few Twitter debates with the official Crossfit Twitter handle as well as Russell Berger.  I tried to be as civil as possible, though I did drop an f-bomb when I felt I had confuted Russell Berger.  The exchanges began when I tweeted that the winner of the Crossfit Games should not be considered the fittest man on earth, but rather, the best Crossfitter.

First let me provide some background on my athletic career.  I was a baseball player growing up.  I didn’t make the team my 8th grade year, so I decided to give the sport of rowing a shot.  I was an overweight kid who hadn’t hit his growth spurt.  Rowing was the wrong sport, but I really liked it.  Luckily I hit my growth spurt and lost my baby fat along the way.  My team got second at USRowing’s National High School Invitational.  Then I reported to the US Naval Academy where I continued to row.  Between my junior and senior year I earned a spot on the U23 National Team.  At the end of my senior year, we got 2nd at National Championships in the Lightweight 8.  During my senior year I also applied to become a Marine.  I was required to do a Marine Physical Fitness Test.  I got a perfect score on the pull ups and sit ups, and I ran a 16:40 on the 3 mile test, a full 1:20 below what’s required for a maximum score.  I did this having done zero preparation for the test.  Rowing had allowed me to attain such a high level of fitness that I didn’t need preparation.

After graduating I attended a series of schools where the Marine Corps impressed on me that “words have meanings.”  That truth hasn’t left me.  Once I got to the operating forces in 2009, some of the guys in my company introduced me to Rob Shaul’s Military Athlete.  For those of you who don’t know, this is a program similar to Crossfit but without the riskier movements (muscle ups, high rep box jumps, etc).  I liked this program, and I got a lot stronger.  After my first deployment where I mixed Military Athlete and traditional running, I was about 15 pounds heavier than I was in college, but I still maxed the Marine PFT.  Then I was introduced to Crossfit.  I bought in and committed to the program.  I added a bit of strength and learned some new movements.  My PFT running time slowed down to 18:50.  I now no longer maxed out the PFT.  During my second deployment I learned about Outlaw Crossfit Programming.  I continued to slowly add strength.  I put on a lot of weight.  Returning from my second deployment, I was 200 pounds (30 more than college), stronger, and I ran the PFT in 20:30, nearly a four minute drop from college.  I was significantly less “fit” in the eyes of the Marine Corps than when I started Crossfit, and to add insult to injury, my clothes and uniforms started to fit wrong.

Then I watched the triathlon from this year’s Crossfit Games.  It was a farce.  I imagined my college self going against the “World’s Fittest,” and I felt I could have defeated these people at what had been a training pace.  Imagine how a world class triathlete must have felt watching the “World’s Fittest” make a mockery of their sport.  I came to the realization that Crossfit makes you good at Crossfit.  It doesn’t make you fit.  How could that be?  I thought I had come up with the answer.

That led to my tweet yesterday.  What the Crossfit folks don’t realize is that they’ve incorrectly defined fitness.  Fitness is defined by the dictionary as the, “capability of the body of distributing inhaled oxygen to muscle tissue during increased physical effort.”  Greg Glassman has simply chosen to create a definition of fitness contrary to what society accepts.  I return to the idea I’ve learned that words have meanings.  I could be the best hockey player in the world if I define “hockey” completely differently than the sport we all know.  Definitions, however, matter, and nobody recognizes me as the best hockey player no matter how I choose to define it.  The winner of the Crossfit Games is the Cross-fittest person in the world.  They’re simply not the best at distributing inhaled oxygen to muscle tissue during increased physical effort.  The triathlon results as a data set prove this.  On the flip side—as @TheSharkness pointed out to me—there’s also Darwin’s definition of fitness:  the ability to survive and produce heirs that survive.  Notably, this definition ALSO makes it into the dictionary.  In Russell Berger’s strangest contention of our debate, he posited that the dictionary was not valid because it wasn’t “inspired.”  Russell Berger is a major contributor to Crossfit’s unbelievable institutional arrogance, exhibited by questioning the validity of the dictionary when it didn’t jive with HQ’s convenient groupthink definition.

This is the point where Crossfit fanatics point to the fact that many endurance athletes are extremely weak.  This phenomenon is highly overblown by the Crossfit folks.  As I pointed out on Twitter, this is the endurance straw man that Crossfit has created to scare their clients.  While these outliers exist, they’re the exception rather than the rule.  Some endurance athletes obviously are not as strong as someone who concentrates on lifting; however, the vast majority of endurance athletes recognize the need for strength even if only for injury prevention.  In addition, most can squat their own body weight, deadlift 300#, and do other basic baseline strength feats.

In the Twitter debates I had with Russell Berger and Crossfit, I pointed out that Jason Khalipa had a relatively low VO2 compared to athletes in other sports.  In fact, he’s only slightly above an average grown male.  No matter what his VO2 max actually is, his Games triathlon results speak for themselves.  Berger and Crossfit HQ asked why it is that the person with a higher VO2 Max didn’t always win endurance races.  I pointed out that there are many other factors that affect the outcome of a race including technique, diet, and mental toughness.  What this means is that the person who has the greatest ability to distribute inhaled oxygen to the muscle tissue during increased physical effort may not win because they aren’t as efficient at transferring power, didn’t fuel correctly, or don’t have the requisite mental toughness to compete at a high level.  That these factors exist doesn’t mean they constitute fitness.  It means they affect the outcome of a race.

Because Crossfit and Russell Berger so often react with insecurity and combativeness, they failed to see I was arguing about the definition of fitness and not about the efficacy of Crossfit as a whole.  They reacted in the manner in which they treat other loyal dissenters like Robb Wolf, Greg Everett, or OPT (not that I equate myself in any way with these guys).  What they failed to realize is that I think Crossfit does a lot of good things for a lot of people.   But make no mistake, Crossfit makes you healthy (provided you don’t get a SLAP tear, blow an Achilles, or get rhabdo).  Crossfit does not make you fit.  A lot of people who lose weight doing Crossfit don’t realize that it’s because they adopt a Paleo or Zone diet, not primarily because of their workout plan.

I wonder why Crossfit is so fanatical about defining fitness to fit their needs.  Powerlifters don’t strive for fitness; they want to be strong.  Weightlifters don’t strive for fitness; they want power.  Football players don’t strive for fitness; they want to be agile, quick, athletic, and strong.  None of these sports makes any attempt to redefine what they do as a measure of fitness.  They seek excellence in their sport.  Crossfit for whatever reason strives to redefine their sport as fitness itself.

Perhaps it’s because the Crossfit Games is the High Rep Worlds Strongest Man.  It’s minor league World’s Strongest Man.  It’s World’s Strongest Man with an asterisk.  Because of that, it’s not really anything.  Or, as I wrote on Twitter, Crossfit is fanatical mediocrity.  At some point, Crossfit lost its way and ceased being a dynamic catalyst for change in the fitness industry and became the ossified, internal, paranoid, politburo-like organization we see today.  People deserve more than a glorified circuit workout.  They also deserve to know what they seek when they seek fitness.

As for me, I’ve decided to take back my fitness destiny.  I’m running a lot more, losing weight, and regaining the level of fitness I once had.  I maintain my strength with traditional weight training and calisthenics.  While my Fran time may get worse, my fitness will return to its pre-Crossfit levels.  I can’t wait.