Thor critiques CrossFit – Vol 2: The CrossFit Principles

CrossFit regularly posts in the journal contributions titled “A critiques B” where A is an expert, and B is a well regarded cross-fitter. Not that I claim to be an expert, but I thought I’d air my views anyway, hoping that they are of interest to the wider community. To put this in context – I am a big fan of the CrossFit principles, but I am not a CrossFitter in the sense that I have never done a WOD at a box – the reasons for which I will be clearer throughout this series. I have done however the odd seminar (eg on Olympic Lifting) at my local box and I have found that absolutely awesome. I also program my own WOD’s in the spirit of CrossFit. The beginning of this series is here.

As already announced in the introductionary post, I will first examine whether or not I agree with the CrossFit principles and my statement was that I (mainly) agree. (“Coach” Greg Glassman’s pioneering article is here). Firstly Coach’s on words (I added/removed some bullets and numbering, but did not alter the text)

World Class Fitness in 100 Words

  • Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.
  • Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow: (1) Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. (2) Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. (3) Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast.
  • Keep workouts short and intense.
  • Regularly learn and play new sports. Routine is the enemy.

Now to be clear: this is not the theory behind CrossFit, but this is already the “how-to” implementation. So we’ve got the What, but what is the Why? Coach answers those questions (my emphasis; text has been shortened)

CrossFit makes use of three different standards or models for evaluating and guiding fitness. Collectively, these three standards define the CrossFit view of fitness. The first is based on the ten general physical skills widely recognized by exercise physiologists. The second standard, or model, is based on the performance of athletic tasks, while the third is based on the energy systems that drive all human action.

  • [The ten general physical skills] are cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. You are as fit as you are competent in each of these ten skills.
  • Fitness is about performing well at any and every task imaginable. Fitness requires an ability to perform well at even unfamiliar tasks, combined in infinitely varying combinations. Nature frequently provides largely unforeseeable challenges; train for that.
  • The fitness that CrossFit promotes and develops, requires competency in each of [the] three [metabolic] pathways [Phosphagen, Glycolity, Oxidative].

In this principles Coach gets as close to the Why as he gets in the whole article, but he still mixes it with the What. This is no criticism by the way – this is an early and groundbreaking document, and Coach’s focus was clearly on creating a system without focusing too much about the philosophy behind it. And what a system he has created! Be that how it may, the task that I have set myself in this article is to critique the underpinnings of CrossFit (the Why) which means I have to extract it from Coach’s writings.

Looking at it in this manner, I would see a clear hierarchy in three standards. The overarching principle is #2, which – in my words – would be:

We want to be fit to be able to optimally deal with the (physical) challenges that life throws at us

The two other standards are really corollaries of this view

In order to be able to deal with those challenges, we need to be proficient

  • in the ten general physical skills, and
  • across the three major metabolical pathways

I wholeheartedly agree with this view of the world (even though I am not entirely sure that this is still 100% what Coach had in mind). There is one important dimension missing though, and this missing dimension is probably the essence of my critique at CrossFit: it is Sustainability. As far as I am concerned it is absolutely key to add a third bullet to the above which is something along the lines

  • for as many years in the future as possible

It seems (at least to me) that this latter is an obvious and natural addition to those principles, and some people might argue that this is implicit in the principles of CrossFit, and Coach just did not spell it out. And whilst I do not disagree that for many cross-fitters this is part of their training ethics (Kelly Starrett for example I would suppose is in this group) I would argue that overall this is not the case.

The reason for this is simple: I fundamentally believe that this principle is not compatible with a competitive environment and the CrossFit Games. I will examine this topic more in a forthcoming post, so suffice to say here that by the very nature of mankind there will always be people who are willing to go beyond their boundaries in order to win. So unless you are the unique person who is genetically so much more gifted than everyone else (and you have trained appropriately) to beat all those people without doing damage to your body, you will have to run with the pack and make the sacrifice that everyone else at your level is willing to make.

And for the avoidance of doubt: the Games are awesome for those who like to compete, and as a way to promote CrossFit. I just would want to point out that we probably should not kid ourselves in believing that a performance at those levels will do lasting damage to the body for all but the most exceptional athletes. Therefore in my view competing at a very high level is in my view not compatible with the last principle.



8 thoughts on “Thor critiques CrossFit – Vol 2: The CrossFit Principles

  1. Pingback: Thor critiques CrossFit – Vol 1: Introduction | Thor Falk

  2. Pingback: Thor critiques CF – Vol 3: Why I don’t WOD at a CrossFit box | Thor Falk

  3. Pingback: Thor critiques CF – Vol 4: CrossFit Competitions | Thor Falk

  4. Thor, interesting post. I love watching the games, but I agree that all of those guys are at such a high level that who wins is almost dependent on the events they choose. Inevitably, some events will favor certain athletes. That’s why you see different top 3 finishers every year (although certain athletes are very consistent, i.e. Spealler). But I’m not sure how sustainable that is for your everyday Joe. Thus, the value of the games is really more from a promotional standpoint: “fittest on earth” is probably a stretch.

  5. Yep – it must have been a bit of a bummer for Ms Thorisdottir that she never had done a muscle-up in her live, and then this is part of the final WOD…
    On the other hand – it is pretty amazing that someone who was only CrossFitted for two months can come so far

  6. I’ve never had access to crossfit so can’t comment. However sustainability does interest me. I never really worked out until 10 years ago; started with aerobics, changed my diet and lost two stone. Since then I’ve tried lots of different ways to keep fit and slim-where to go next, how to keep it motivating is always in the background. My current class and trainer sets a series of summer challenges to aim for which is fun and, at 49, I’m currently fitter than I’ve ever been. Sustainable?I don’t know….

    • have a look at their website (and maybe subscribe to their journal – it is just $25/yr and you get access to the whole archives including a lot of videos); I personally like to focus a bit more than they do and to work on some specific goals (like your “I want to snatch a 20kg KB – impressive by the way at your bodyweight….), but I like to make sure that I have enough other stuff to do so that I dont get bored, and also to avoid injury

  7. Pingback: CrossFit Games – The Fittest on Earth ?!? | Thor Falk

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