16 random thoughts on CrossFit in 2016

Posted on August 1, 2016

13


 The love / hate is going to continue

CrossFit is extreme, as is the response to it. The fitness world seems to be either wholly against it, or you own a box.

Just watch the first 35 seconds of “The Fittest on Earth” documentary trailer,

“I’ll die before I lose this workout.”

“To be an athlete at the CrossFit games you have to be among the most disciplined, committed individuals on the face of the planet.”

-> There is some irony in how these quotes were said nearly right after one another. The first quote is from Mat Fraser, the top guy in CrossFit right now. His first two years he finished second. The first year he had a full time job and the second year he was finishing up his double major in mechanical engineering and engineering management. You don’t need to be THAT committed to finish second, never mind make it to the games. CrossFit is not at that level right now. Though it does seem to be trending there.

The growth of CrossFit will only exacerbate this love / hate relationship. More people will try it. More will either be hooked, think “fuuuuck this,” or will be injured. More will watch it too, and say what’s been my personal experience asking people, “They’re idiots” or “How awesome are the things those people are doing?”

It’s like BMX / snowboarding / skateboarding in a sense.

  1. If you don’t really know what you’re doing, significant injury is guaranteed. You have to know how to fall when skateboarding. You have to know how to miss a lift in CrossFit. When to know “my body is saying stop” and it’s not just because of lactic acid.
  2. In order to keep it entertaining you have to keep pushing the limits. Last year someone was carted off with heat stroke during the games. This year one guy was competing with a torn bicep and a woman tore her achilles. Wouldn’t be surprised if someone died at some point.

Hey, people get paralyzed playing football, yet it’s a rare fall Sunday I’m not in front of a television. People also die running marathons.

What I tell clients who are interested in it

I’ve been saying this for seven years now-

“You will no doubt get in shape, however, the risk / reward is really challenged. When you’re pushing things in the weight room that much, in that fashion, injuries happen. There are some places / coaches who are good about this, but they are the exception.”

What I’ve added to this the last two years,

“Keep in mind CrossFit now has physical therapists who specialize in it. If your workout program needs a physical therapist, something is wrong. 60 minutes also did a special on the injury issues, and Washington D.C. has been trying to regulate them for the last couple years. Obviously, there is a problem.”

What I’ve added to this the last few months,

“Doing something as a workout and doing something as a sport are different. As a sport, with money on the line, doing something professionally, pushing the limits of what you can do, injuries are part of the game. Injuries shouldn’t be part of just wanting to get in shape though.”

Ben Smith, who won the games in 2015, said 2015 was the first year he’d been healthy. That was his seventh games. That’s a pattern in the wrong way! This is from working out. It’s not like you have to suddenly react to some external stimulus (would be fun if CrossFit had more (any?) reaction based workouts), or have to worry about somebody rolling up on your leg. Compared to many other sports, injuries should be less in this type of thing, if you know what you’re doing.

-\

The sport is not the training

People see the top CrossFit people and think “I want to look like them,” so then they go off and attempt to do what they do. But this would be like looking at a UFC fighter, wanting to look like that, and going “Let me go fight people in a cage for my workouts.”

A UFC fighter lifts weights, they run, they eat a certain way. They don’t beat the shit out of people, or get knocked out, as part of their training. They wear head gear, heavier gloves, etc. The sport can’t be the training because they won’t survive.

One way or another, all sports are this way. Football players don’t run into people all off-season. Marathoners don’t only run 26.2 miles at a time for training. 100m sprinters don’t only run 100 meters. You could go run 100 meter sprints as much as you want; do you think that’s all it takes to look like Usain Bolt?

How Mat Fraser did and didn’t get stronger from CrossFit

This is the top CrossFit guy right now. He has an olympic weightlifting background (a strong one), yet set a PR in the snatch in 2014, after doing CrossFit for around two years.

To emphasize how strong this olympic lifting background was (bolding mine),

“CB:  How has your training, primarily in the classic lifts, changed from strictly weightlifting to now having to incorporate so many other movements?

MF:  For the most part, I do not train my lifts at all anymore. I saw that my lifts were decent in the CrossFit world, and they would place me high enough in competition without ever training them

(That’s smart training right there. Fraser’s no dope.)

Thought process behind the PRs:

“CB:  I know you have had an all-time PR snatch since switching to CrossFit.  Have you had any other major improvements in the lifts or strength movements? What do you think the major factors were that contributed to this?

MF:  I have also hit a lifetime clean and jerk PR of 375 pounds  (I know it’s illegal to talk in pounds). I attribute it to just being a couple of years older from when I was a lifter, and also I have just developed other muscles that I never did while i was lifting. From CrossFit, I have much stronger hamstrings, back, and upper body. so i think it is those things that allowed me to put more weight on the bar.”

Eh, a national level lifter suddenly gets stronger without really training the lifts? Hmm…

What weight class did Fraser compete in for his weightlifting days? 77 kg. That’s 169 lbs. How much does he weigh now? 190 lbs.

“CB:  Do you follow any specific dietary outline, and is it different than what you were doing as a weightlifter? If so, why is it different?

MF: […] It is a lot different from what I ate as a lifter, mainly because when I was lifting, I always was conscious of staying in my weight class so I always watched my portions. Now, in CrossFit, there are no weight classes, so I can eat as much as I want all the time.”

Those 20+ pounds had something to do with his PR as well!

Looks like he did 130kg (286 lbs) back in 2011:

  • Then => 286 lbs / 169 lbs = 1.69
  • Now => 315 lbs / 190 lbs = 1.66

For his bodyweight, he was stronger before CrossFit.

That’s not a shocker. That once he added all these other intense demands -running, swimming, “metcons,” etc.- and didn’t train the lifts as much, that he’d get a tad weaker. Hopefully we’re past the point of “CrossFit is how olympic weightlifters should train.”

If you still feel that way because you hear some CrossFitter is competing in the olympics, like Tia-Clair Toomey, according to the CrossFit site her total (clean and jerk + snatch) is 111kg + 82kg = 193kg. In London in 2012, that’d be good enough for 17th place. Competing and being competitive are not the same thing when it comes to the olympics.

Mat Fraser’s total is 170kg clean and jerk + 143kg snatch = 313kg. For the 85kg weight class in London, that’d get you last place. That is, every single lifter who made their lifts had a higher total in London. To get on the podium would require Fraser to have a whopping 147 pound higher total.

The top guys were already strong?

Fraser brings up the point that it seems a lot of the top guys were already strong dudes to begin with. However, Ben Smith, who won the games in 2015, has been doing CrossFit since he was 16. So clearly he got stronger from doing it.

What is CrossFit though?

Dan Bailey, Rich Froning Jr, Mat Fraser, Ben Smith, Noah Ohlsen, none of these guys follow the workout of the day. The “WOD.” Look them up and you see they all have the commonality of “I train how I feel.” Fraser mentions one time he was feeling off for a while, so he took like nine days off.

Froning likes to train multiple times per day. Fraser tried that, didn’t like it, so went back to once a day. Froning has “non-functional Fridays” sometimes, where they do a bunch of curls, bench pressing, bodybuilding type stuff. Some like to train with others, while Bailey at one point decided to train more by himself, so he wasn’t always competing with someone.

Some of the athletes have a coach, some do their own program.

One of the biggest criticisms of CrossFit, and it’s true, is the genericness of it. The absurdity everybody should go to one web page, and follow one workout. The top people in CrossFit

  1. Don’t do this
  2. Individualize their own training!

CrossFit says on their main site,

“We scale load and intensity; we don’t change the program. The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind.”

Yet the best CrossFitters disagree. This is why some of them go to other areas. For instance, Mat Fraser and Dan Bailey went to Tennessee to train with Rich Froning Jr. They wanted to see what he -and his different program- were doing.

Mat Fraser realized he didn’t need much strength to compete, but he did need a host of cardiovascular work. That’s a different kind of need. That’s a different program.

-> Despite the intensity of the games, you see few acute injuries. At least ones severe enough the person has to stop competing. The ability of these people to listen to their body, know when they can push, know when they have to back off on a certain event, is likely why. This assuredly extends to their training. You see multiple guys who are in the games year after year. This is a skill itself. Again, Tony Hawk knows how to fall when a trick doesn’t go right. Joe Blow off the street shouldn’t try a 900 though.

On the other hand, CrossFit has a point in that many people can do many of the same exercises. Some basic things can get most where they want to go. But how you do them, how often, sets, reps, intensity, can vary widely.

-> The older people are, the more true this is. A much lesser percentage of those over 60 are going to be able to barbell backsquat compared to those in their 20s. And even then, many people can’t squat below parallel with a straight spine. They don’t have the bone structure. Just like not everyone has the hip structure to be a goalie. 

This differentiation in training will only get more pronounced as the money gets better. It’s no different than all the sports we know of. Each person starts doing their own thing, finding what works better for them, hires a certain guru, looking for an advantage others don’t know about, or acknowledging they need help in something they’re not as gifted in. (Froning using a running coach.)

It’s quite possible some of these CrossFitters say “I just train how I’m feeling that day” to throw off some other competitors. In a sport like this, where training is everything, why would you reveal exactly what you do if you’re on top? For instance, Mat Fraser has moments of letting on his training is much more than that. At the end of this video he says,

“It was last year [2015] during the open was the fittest I’ve ever been in my life, but then by the time I’m two weeks out of regionals and I’m like ‘oh my god, I’m burning out.’  This year I’m not as fit as I was, but I’m ramping back up in the right direction, and I think I’m on a good timeline.”

He got first in the Open in 2015 and second at the games. In 2016 he gets 7th in the open but has the most dominant performance ever in the games.

Sounds like someone is doing that periodization thing! Where would an olympic weightlifter get such an idea??? (Like I said, Fraser isn’t just some jock who can lift.)

Right now the training is a bit all over the place. This is how many sports start out. For shits and giggles. At some point, things turn. There is a progression too. Golf was gentlemanly, then it got competitive, then things turned when a Tiger came along. Golfers thought you shouldn’t / didn’t need to lift weight, then they saw el Tigre hitting lasers. Basketball before black people played? When Converse was considered an adequate shoe? “Steroids don’t help you hit a baseball.” People used to really say this! Then Mark, Sammy and Barry started sending balls to other planets.

You can see this with CrossFit already to some degree, as the top ones do their very best to not have a regular job. They’ve already hit a point where to be top dog in it, it needs to be all they do. Not just physically, but mentally.

-> Note in the first thought when I said you don’t need to be that committed, that was to make it to the games, not win the games. The last six years the winner has been a full time athlete. (Fraser didn’t dominate the games until going full time.) That’s a trend, but still in contrast to something like the NFL, where the top ~fifteen hundred players have to be full time.

Conversely, one of the common themes CrossFitters say they love about it is the community. There is something to be said for being around a bunch of people who are going through the same, we can call it misery, as you. This is why many sport teams bond so well. When you’re all doing the same gassers with one another, a natural “we’re in this together” feel arises. If everybody is off doing their own thing, you can lose that. Or, why everybody makes fun of kickers on the football team.

It doesn’t haven’t to be one or the other though. I train people in small groups of 2-4 typically. While each person does their own workout, many will do some of the same exercises as someone else, each person is still getting pushed while someone else is getting pushed. You can still get that “I’m not the only one doing this” feel without giving the exact same program to everybody. Can you do this when you have 10,000 gyms or however many boxes CrossFit has? Well, that’s a different story…hence, 60 minutes runs a special on you and all the injury issues.

Speaking of drugs

These are some jacked dudes.

Dan Bailey on left.

Dan Bailey on left.

Ben Smith in middle.

Ben Smith in middle.

Mat Fraser.

Mat Fraser.

Rich Froning Jr.

Rich Froning Jr.

From a quick look at the top 10 of last year, and just as I’ve looked various guys up, they seem to come in at an average of about

  • 5’9″
  • 190lbs

This isn’t really that big, actually. Just think about a NFL team.

Weights football players with lines

These guys would be below average in weight for every position. A running back has a solid 20 pounds on them!

Let’s use Casey Butt’s maximum weight calculator, and see what happens. (More info on using this here.)

CrossFit averages and drugs

They look like they’re in the clear. From just looking at them, they seem alright to me too. It’s

  1. When guys start getting well into the 200s and are still shredded
  2. When the veins are pulsing out of the body, even at rest
  3. When the backne is all over

That my radar shoots up.

-> I don’t care about drug use in sports, finding “cheaters,” other than I think it’s worth knowing if someone is on something so non-users have an idea of what’s attainable. But from a moral “you’re an awful person” blah blah, it doesn’t bother me any more than if the comedian I’m watching is on cocaine. Is it funny? Is it entertaining? Because that’s what it’s supposed to be.

As the money gets better though, CrossFit is a perfect sport for doping. You have a bunch of competing demands, injury rate is high, the main competition involves significantly challenging recovery abilities, it’s going to happen, if it’s not already. And you don’t have to be above the weight line to be using. See: Nearly all notable 100m sprinters positive tests of the last 30 years.

How big can it grow?

The history of lifting oriented sports is not a popular one. It’s always been a niche sport. All the other elements of CrossFit, the fact multiple people are competing at the same time, running, swimming, the team games, should help.

The other element here is with superlative sports -strongest, fastest, fittest- there is often only an interest in the top person. Tons of people know who Usain Bolt is. Nobody knows who got second place in the last olympic 100 meters. You know Lance Armstrong. You don’t know who got second each year he won the Tour de France. You’re interested in the strongest, but probably not even the second. Where if you’re a fan of the NBA or MLB, you can probably name 30 top players. (Around one per team.)

From a financial perspective, you want things like team sports. You want it to be more than just seeing if some person can win or set a record.

Speaking of strongest, whatever happened to the World’s Strongest Man competition? 10 years ago strongman competitions seemed to really be on the uptick. Me and some buddies would watch it a good deal. Feel like I haven’t even heard about it in at least five years now.

Doing a quick search it’s broadcast on CBS now, rather than ESPN. Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention / should reconsider getting cable.

Actually, Strongman competitions are similar to CrossFit competitions in many ways. CrossFit has more of a bodyweight element, where you won’t be able to be as heavy as in Strongman. Otherwise, even the way the competitions are conducted, are very similar. Even if it’s on CBS, Strongman still isn’t mainstream…

Training hard wins

While the training is all over the place, these people push themselves on a routine basis. That can make up for a lot.

One way or another they lift heavy weight and or get themselves really out of breath. Just doing that consistently can get many very far. It’s not mutally exclusive from also having some structure and a plan, but as the saying goes, a half assed plan done full assed is better than a full assed plan done half assed.

This tape doesn’t do much

Lot of CrossFit people have this stuff on (rock tape / kinesio tape):

In terms of improving blood blow and such, increasing recovery, this stuff does nothing. (Talked about some here too.) You may get some benefit out of this in something like patellar tracking, where you prevent the patella from say, lateral tracking. Just randomly throwing it on an area that hurts is unlikely worth whatever the cost of the tape is.

What’s a sport? What’s an athlete?

One of the big gripes non-CrossFit people had was when CrossFit called itself a sport. “Working out is not a sport” many would rebut.

Look, we’re at a point where playing video games is now esports. For 100 years we’ve called standing in place and swinging an object a sport i.e. golf. Curling is played at the olympics, as is archery. (Of course, there has been a lot of pushback in referencing these activities this way. “Golfers are not athletes.”) This dude and his stomach are getting a season long ovation:

Boston Red Sox v Toronto Blue Jays

Pick any person at the CrossFit games and they’re going to look more athletic than that.

My observation is things which require change of direction are never debated as to whether they’re a sport. It’s when you start doing things standing in place, or only moving straight ahead, or only one specific thing, that either the sport / athlete moniker gets questioned.

Hockey, basketball, soccer, football, handball, rugby, tennis, these sports don’t have debates. Great all around baseball player? You’re a great athlete. Great pitcher? Ehhh…

Michael Phelps? Athletic? Or just built for one activity?

Lebron James? He would have been able to pick up any of those sports if he wanted. (Not saying he could be world class, but he’d be able to do them at a high level e.g. he was all-state in football.)

CrossFit has very limited change of direction work in it. If they were to throw an American Gladiators esque powerball in there, that’d help their cause.

That said, is it currently a sport? I vote yes, without any inner turmoil, and haven’t see much of a rebuttal out there.

The paleo nonsense seems to be dwindling / eating clean doesn’t apply here

Over and over again you see how much these people eat non paleo stuff. Ice cream is a fan favorite. You can see Fraser with Reese’s Puffs cereal at the games in 2015. Most of them say “I eat whatever I want.” Rich Froning Jr. says “I eat whatever is convenient.”

There is a threshold of activity where to stay heavy enough, you’re going to be eating “bad.” It’s hard to be muscular and strong, training hard as hell for hours and hours every week, only eating chicken and broccoli all day. When you need calories, more calorically dense food is going to get ingested.

When you’re training in ways that use a lot of carbohydrates, eating strict paleo isn’t going to work either.

It’s entertaining

They do a very good job with their videos. Their youtube channel is solid, and the documentary was very well done.

The athletes also have some great personalities. It’s fun to see things be more unfiltered, compared to the NFL where dictator Goodell has to approve every word spoken.

At least the top people seem like good ones

I’ve met some CrossFit elitist dickheads. The top people I’ve seen profiled seem like people worth hanging out with though. I’m routinely surprised how nice they are to one another. That’ll likely change as the money gets better too. Rather than encouraging one another you’ll start to see the mental games / trash talk come out.

Unconventional reasons CrossFit has taken off

All the exercises in CrossFit were around before it, as were all the techniques. There is nothing new about the exercise portion of things. So why has it taken off then?

1) Everything is becoming a sport.

This will be its own post at some point, but I genuinely think this is just part of how the economy is going. As more and more things get automated, more and more room pops up for sports entertainment. Humans can turn anything into a job or sport.

2) The overhead is so low

Compared to other gyms, and certainly most businesses, opening a CrossFit box is dirt cheap. You could get most of the equipment off Craigslist, often times with people giving it away if you’ll come pick it up. You can be whatever size you want to start, often at least half the size of something like a 24 hour. It’s around a few grand a year for the affiliate fee.

Not including first month’s rent, I bet you could open a solid CrossFit esque gym for around $5,000, plus your few grand in affiliate fees. Anybody could do this. There are cases where people opened up at the local track, only bringing over some jump ropes!

Compared to many commercial gyms where people want to hook their iPhone into the treadmill and load their movie into a 15 inch screen. One or two of those costs what a CrossFit gym could.

There is some great branding here too in that having older, beat up looking space / equipment helps. I’m sure many areas get by with no air conditioning or heating. This is the anti-gym in some respects.

The health / fitness world needs more of this. The last thing a gym needs is another LED screen in it. The gym, working out, is supposed to be UNcomfortable.

3) Average height / short people have an activity they’re better at than tall people

CrossFit is much more sport esque than powerlifting or olympic weightlifting (also height sensitive). What other sport do average sized, if not below average, have an advantage over tall people?

In most sports, you want people at least 5’10.” In CrossFit, at least until they add more running / jumping / throwing, you’re going to want to be this height or lower. From a sport perspective, CrossFit is hitting potentially half the population that wasn’t hit before.

(Yes, Spencer Hendel is a taller CrossFitter. Yes, Muggsey Bogues played in the NBA. Doesn’t mean Muggsey wouldn’t have liked a few more inches.)

Are they really the fittest? Or the most athletic?

About seven years ago a guy who loved CrossFit was talking to me at the gym. Really trying to sell me on it. He says something like,

“Seriously. Watch the CrossFit games. They are the most athletic people in the world.”

I involuntarily let out a good laugh. The person got pissed, said a few more things, I shook my head, and they walked away.

Let’s look at the top two guys from 2015 and 2016, Ben Smith and Mat Fraser.

Some Ben Smith numbers from the CrossFit site:

  • Height- 5’11”
  • Weight- 195 lbs
  • Deadlift- 540 lbs
  • Backsquat- 480 lbs
  • 400m- 58 seconds

Mat Fraser:

  • Height- 5’7″
  • Weight- 190 lbs
  • Deadlift- 480 lbs
    • This is what it says on the CrossFit site, but he did 505 lbs in the most recent games.
  • Backsquat- 485 lbs

Let’s look at two guys I played college football with.

  • Height- 5’11”
  • Weight- 190 lbs
  • Deadlift- 600 lbs
  • Backsquat- 5 something (genuinely can’t remember)

Another-

  • Height- 5’10”
  • Weight- 190 lbs
  • Deadlift- ~550 lbs
  • Squat- ~450lbs

This is all at 20 years old. (I transferred after this and don’t know how their numbers progressed.)

Between those two guys, there is also a

  • state long jump champion
  • 51 second 400m (at 16)
  • 10.88 100m

That was done in high school. They didn’t keep doing track.

For another comparison, Dan Bailey, another CrossFitter, but who has a strong track background with running in college-

  • 100m- 11.15 (source)
  • 400m- 48.23
  • Squat- 405 lbs
  • Deadlift- 540 lbs

Those are college and current numbers.

-> Someone might want to complain “I bet his college teammates didn’t squat deep.” We squatted to / sometimes below parallel, but to be fair, possibly not as low as these CrossFit numbers are. That said, notice how much shorter and older (being an advantage in this case) most CrossFitters are than my teammates. You don’t see many 20 year olds in the CrossFit games for a reason!

The guys I played with were football players first. We were only able to train heavy a few months a year.

And you can’t say “Well CrossFit people have to worry about endurance and such too.” Football players run a lot. All year.

“The games are a five day event.” Yeah, football training camp is like three weeks. And nobody is running into you as hard as they can in CrossFit.

Both these guys got playing time all four years of college. This was at a small division I football program. One of these guys dog sniffed the NFL, while the other was only a backup on our college team.

I don’t know women’s numbers as well, but for males, there is yet another level above these guys. Those who get recruited to big time d-I schools, those who make it to the NFL, and the Adrian Peterson’s of the world (540 lb squat in college).

Guys like Leonard Fournette…squatting 405 lbs like air:

Who has a 605 best:

(And 10.68 100m in high school.)

Or Derrick Henry, squatting 500 lbs with plllllenty left:

Saquon Barkley repping 495 lbs:

Power cleaning 390 lbs, WITH ONLY A HALF SQUAT:

(And he ran 10.9 in the 100m in high school.)

These are tall dudes too, compared to CrossFit. Furthermore, those naturally good at football tend to be long limbed and short torsoed. Not a body made for lifting. Meaning, if anything, for CrossFit, the lifting is what would be these guys’ weak point. Yeah, 390 lb clean only needing to squat half way down…as your weak point.

NFL players are and have been -the above guys haven’t even played in the NFL yet!- the best all around athletes. I don’t know how you can say anybody is more fit than them.

Phrasing this another way: many NFL players could hop into a CrossFit competition and be competitive. No CrossFitter could hop on a NFL field and be competitive. If they could they almost assuredly would have already. The money is a hell of a lot better!

Fit? Absolutely. Fittest? No.

Smart marketing though.

 

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