Thor critiques CrossFit – Vol 4: CrossFit Competitions

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.

In my personal view, competition and CrossFit does not particularly well together for the majority of people who could be profiting for the program. To be clear: CrossFit Games are awesome and inspirational for everyone, but they should be the realm of a few gifted and dedicated individuals.
There are two fundamental reasons why I believe that CrossFit and competition does not go well together. In a nutshell they are

  • the “ready for anything that life might throw at you” approach underlying the CrossFit philosophy does not lend itself to elite competition, as any given selection of tasks will favor one athlete over another, which introduces a level of unfairness in the process
  • to reap maximum fitness and health benefits, athletes should be working at the level that iss optimal for them, and not one determined by the competition. the only competition a CrossFit athlete should face is yesterdays self

So what are those reasons in detail?

The inherent “unfairness” in CrossFit competitions

In most (all) sports the competitors know the rules and can prepare accordingly. Even more to the point: elite athletes will usually be genetically advantaged for the specific challenges of their chosen sport – so elite lifters are types that are strong and big, and distance runners those that are lean and just strong enough. Clearly, some of it is training, but I’d argue that even if you put a below-two-hours-marathon-runner through a powerlifting program, he won’t look like Dave Tate.

CrossFit emphasises the non-specific approach to fitness, which – in my personal view – is a good thing. However, there is no such thing as a non-specific competition: at one point the challenges are fixed, and then everyone has to compete across this fixed set of challenges. Something very close to the CrossFit ideal has been classically pursued by decathletes, or – even more to the point – competitors in “Jahn-Kampf” which is a combination of gymnastics and athletics that is popular in Germany. The difference to CrossFit is that whilst the athletes compete in a wide range of skills, those skills are known and fixed.

The contrast with CrossFit is that there the challenge is only announced after the athletes have finished their preparation, so statistically they need to prepare under the weakest-link assumption, meaning they will only be as good as their weakest discipline. However, statistics is not relevant, as the athletes do not compete in hundreds of games – they will seriously start maybe five times, and even this is a stretch. Therefore, winning at the CrossFit Games is really the luck-of-the-draw.

To be clear: I am not saying that they are just lucky. The point is that in the Games, the athletes compete against other athletes who are as talented (and have put as much effort into it) as they themselves. Out of this elite group, many are equally deserving of the title. It is at this point where the luck-factor comes in: if for example the exercises chosen are heavy on bodyweight, leaner and less strong athletes have an edge, whilst if it is all about carrying heavy stuff around, it is the day of the big guys and gals.

And as a final thought: as they stand, the Games are to a large extent about fun and camaraderie. In a more mainstream world, where the winner might expect to score a big advertising deal (or where one of the key sponsors favors a certain athlete) there might be a lot of pressure to tilt the playing field in a certain way.

Be that how it may – as a spectator I believe that the CrossFit Games are just awesome, and quite frankly, it simply is an impossible task to judge who the fittest person on the planet is. Everyone competing at this level is just extraordinary – FULL STOP. So as long as the athletes are happy with the way the Games are operated I clearly have no reason or justification to complain.

Competing against one-self vs competing against others

In my view, competition is about facing an opponent – be it in the ring, or on the football pitch – and I am not a big fan of my-number-is-bigger-than-yours style competitions because they lack the crucial element of human interaction.

I have in my research for this series come across the following quote from Heidi Fish (brentscrossfitpaleolife)

“The majority of CrossFitters are just trying to be as fit as possible in the good company of other like-minded people -( and here I can add in the company of my best friends!!!!!)- and have some fun while they’re at it. A very small percentage competes at the CrossFit Games, and I’d venture to say the benefit of CrossFit for the masses has nothing to do with a killer Fran time. Personal records are just that: personal.”

and I personally felt that this is absolutely the right approach. Reading the whole article however I am not sure that what she says here is entirely true: most boxes have leader boards where Fran times are noted, and I am pretty certain that a lot of people are felling better because they are on the top (or worse if they aren’t as Heide so succinctly describes) so whilst people might say (and even believe) that they are just in for the fun, they are still in fact highly competitive with each other.

I believe that this is the wrong approach for a program that is designed to improve health and fitness. The reason is that – statistically speaking – it is unlikely for any given athletes to be in say the top decile from a genetic potential point of view (by definition, the odds of not being there are 9:1 after all). Moreover, it is a fact that there are always people who are willing to sacrifice future health for current “success”. Putting those two things together means that intense competition results in overtraining for most participants, with all the negative implications for health and fitness down the line.

One could of course argue caveat emptor in the sense that it is the responsibility of the athletes (and not the trainers / affiliate owners) not to succumb to the collective pressure, and only do what is good for themselves. In reality this does not work of course – just like 99% of drivers think their driving skills are above-average, many athletes will think they are genetically gifted when they are not.

So in conclusion I would argue that competition vis-a-vis other athletes should be strongly discouraged in a box – which as a first step would mean that all leader boards should go – whilst the focus should be on competing against one’s yesterday’s self. It is really just like Mehdi or Rip say when they suggest how to optimally train for powerlifting: just increase the weight by 2.5 pounds each session, don’t get greedy, and in particular don’t even look at what your neighbour is lifting. I dont know whether it is true, but powerlifter lore has it that in every gym there is only one good athlete, because everyone else tries to match his weights and overtrains. I believe in CrossFit we want everyone to perform at his maximum potential, and we should train accordingly.

And if you ask why I care given that I don’t go to a box – firstly, I might at one point. More importantly however I would love to send my daughter to CrossFit because I believe it would be awesome for her development, but I can only do this if I know that she won’t be encouraged to go beyond her potential. But this is the topic of a forthcoming post…


4 thoughts on “Thor critiques CrossFit – Vol 4: CrossFit Competitions

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

  2. I think every box is a little different. I think just from browsing through CrossFit blogs and the main site, that you probably have some valid points here.

    However, my experience at my box has been different. We don’t have a leader board, but we do post times on the white board every day. Here’s a link to an example:

    As you can see, PRs are noted because this gives everyone in the community a sense of how well everyone else is doing. I really do have a sense that my fellow “class-mates” are my fans during the workout: they want to kill the workout, but they want me to kill it, too. I don’t really sense competition as much as camaraderie.

    Seriously, even today on our box’s site, someone posted this comment:
    “My heroes are all of you- because for the first time in a long time, I LOVE working out. I seriously feel like if I dont go I will miss something fun or miss a chance to get better at something or see someone else get a great PR that day. I aspire to be like all of you!” (It was in answer to the discussion question, “Who is your hero and why?)

  3. this sounds great – and this is exactly how it should be: get encouragement from your peers to compete against yourself!

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

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