CrossFit and the "Fittest on Earth"

As the CrossFit games start tomorrow, many people will be tuning in to CBS, Facebook, and to see top athletes compete for the title of “Fittest on Earth.” With these games comes an influx of viewers who want to be like these athletes, many of which will sign up at their local CrossFit box this summer to join the action.

There is nothing wrong with this publicity nor the motivation and inspiration these athletes provoke around the country. In fact, it is a great excuse to get a gym membership and start that healthy lifestyle you’ve been putting off for years.

I do feel that, with the championship in early August, it is necessary to discuss how exactly CrossFit defines the “Fittest on Earth.”

First, let’s take a look at the four general associated areas of fitness: strength, power, power endurance, and endurance.

Strength: This is the ability to move heavy weight. These lifts are performed slowly and with the heaviest of loads. A great example is powerlifting.

Power: The ability to move heavy weight quickly. Examples are olympic lifting and plyometrics. Movements are explosive acts lasting less than 15 seconds.

Power Endurance: The ability sustain effort with little to no recovery up to 25 minutes. Examples include 400m sprints, a 5k race, or a workout completed for time expected to last under 25 minutes.

Endurance: Sustained efforts with no recovery lasting at least 30 minutes, typically longer than 90. This is a 10k run, marathon, ironman, and any long-distance event.

Like I said, the goal of the CrossFit Games is to identify the “Fittest on Earth.” However, in looking at the events, I must say that the Games may only be identifying the “Best Power Endurance Athlete” on Earth, very much neglecting the other areas of fitness. Here were the workouts which determined who received an invitation to the CrossFit games.

I will also state - overall, I am a fan of CrossFit. I believe it can be a good program when run by someone with knowledge and knows the science behind the why. However, I also believe Greg Glassman lost control of the affiliation process and does not practice sound programming. Thus, CrossFit has a high injury rate. The injuries are completely avoidable if a coach has knowledge of the science behind the program and the methods behind the madness.

With that out of the way - let's break down the 2018 regionals:

For Time:
3000 Meter Row
300 Double Unders
3- Mile Run
Time Cap: 49 Minutes

10-1 Descending Ladder: For Time
Deadlift (295/220)
Bench Press (195/135)
Squat Clean (145/105)
Time Cap: 17 Minutes

For Time:
9 Muscle Ups
Handstand Walk Obstacle
36 Pistol Squats
9 Muscle Ups
Handstand Walk Obstacle
45 Pistol Squats
9 Muscle Ups
Handstand Walk Obstacle
54 Pistol Squats
Cap: 13 Minutes

For time:
2 Rounds:
10 Snatches (175/125)
12 Burpees
2 Rounds:
10 Snatches (115/75)
12 Burpees
Cap: 9 Minutes

For Time:
50x Hand Stand Push Ups
50x Toes to Bar
50 Cal Assault Bike
50x DB Box Step Overs
50ft Right Arm DB Overhead Lunge
50ft Left Arm DB Overhead Lunge
Men- 70lb DB, 24in Box, 17min
Women – 50lb DB, 20 in Box, 22 min

For time:
4 Rope Climbs
16 Thrusters
3 Rope Climbs
12 Thrusters
2 Rope Climbs
8 Thrusters
Time Cap: 7 Minutes.

Even at a glance, you can tell that these events have something similar in common. Using the definitions above, all six events fall into the same category – power endurance. There is no test of endurance, no test of power, no test of strength. Each workout is “for time” indicating minimal (if any) rest intervals.

CrossFit claims to “forge elite fitness” and the games claim to find “the Fittest on Earth.” How can you find the fittest on Earth by only testing a single category of fitness? How can you forge elite fitness without testing across the entire spectrum? On every level of CrossFit, from the Games down to regionals and your everyday CrossFit box, power endurance is overemphasized.

Some might argue Event One was an endurance workout as the time cap is 49 minutes. This is actually fairly short for an endurance event. The time is capped at 60 minutes and most athletes at regionals finished in under 42 minutes. Second, the event uses three different modalities, thus, it is not a steady state, constant endurance effort. The 3000m row should take a maximum of 12 minutes, double unders 10 minutes and the run 24 minutes for someone competing at the regional level. It is not an endurance event.

Some might claim the second workout is a strength event as it involves classic strength lifts in a descending ladder. However, because the workout is for time, the rest intervals are completely up to the athlete and will be minimal. The weights then are not near the strength or power maximum output for the competitors at regional, therefore, the workout is deemed a power endurance workout.

Event three, four, five and six, are all power endurance workouts. I cannot find a way to reason otherwise. They are workouts to be completed for time, with an emphasis on lighter loads and little to no rest intervals.

While this year is better in than previous regionals, Dave Castro still shows little regard for general health and safety in his programming.

As someone with a degree in Kinesiology and exercise physiology, specializing in exercise research, worked with rehabilitating injuries, and programming for athletes, I feel obligated to note that CrossFit workouts, including those at the Games, show little to no regard for health and safety of athletes.

First of all, olympic lifts should never be done for time or in the volume prescribed. Olympic lifts are a test of speed, power, and skill. They were never intended to be used for conditioning as CrossFit prescribes. Olympic lifts require power to move the bar in the prescribed method - this power must be applied with the correct technique to prevent injury. Once fatigue sets in, technique and form fall apart. There are many other ways of using a powerful and explosive exercise to get someone to fatigue, testing power endurance in a safer way. These methods include box jumps, burpee box jumps, burpee pull-ups, slam balls and wall balls, just to name a few. The idea of doing a snatch or clean and jerk for conditioning is one of the less intelligent things I’ve seen in fitness.

Pistol squats are a great skill to learn, but done incorrectly they place a huge strain on the ACL. Often when the workout is done for time form goes out the window. People sacrifice form for making the exercise easier. With pistols, some people allow the knee to slide past the midline of the body and collapse, pulling on the ACL. This collapsing knee can lead to microtears in the ACL, leading to ACL tears, sprains, and ruptures. A better test of single leg bodyweight squats would be doing single leg squats off of a box. Muscularity, single leg box squats test the same muscle groups at a similar force percentage, but due to the pelvis and ankle angles, the force on the acl is considerably less.

Handstand push-ups are a great test of upper body strength and core stability, however CrossFit allows kipping handstand pushups. When people do these for time, often they come down too fast, the top of the head hits the ground hard. This repeated jackhammering on the cervical spine is a sure way to end up in an orthopedics office for disk issues. Deficit strict handstand push-ups are a great alternative as you must lower your body slowly. Another option is to use a barbell with push press or strict press.

Lastly: what do rowing, double-unders, bench press, muscle ups, handstand walks, burpees, snatch, handstand push ups, toes to bar, assault bike, overhead lunges, thruster and rope climbs all have in common?

While these movements are inherently different, they use the same muscle groups, ligaments, tendons and joints. This is a fast way to shoulder impingements, tears and other injuries. Event five and six, all exercises involve utilize the shoulder girdle in someway, while the exercises are different, the shoulder is constantly being abused.

At regionals : actually testing the full fitness spectrum.

I would like to see:

Strength: a one rep max back squat, or deadlift ladder with 2 minute rest between attempts.

Power: a 200m sprint, a long jump, one rep max clean and jerk etc.

A short bodyweight power endurance workout such as event three - but with box squats instead.

A short barbell power endurance workout such as event six

A long power endurance workout similar to five – but longer: this is a games event from a few years ago:

50 Cal Row 50x Deadlifts 50x Box Jump 50x Wall Ball 50x Ring Dip 50x Wall Ball 50x Box Jump 50x Deadlift 50 Cal Row

Rather than put a time cap on it, I would like to see the athletes go to completion. Even if it takes 40 minutes, that is ok.

A true endurance event – Rowing 15,000 meters, running 10 miles, or biking 50 miles. If CrossFit is about finding the fittest on earth – why are they not testing to find all areas of fitness?

This years games might be different however: Dave Castro has put in a true endurance event in the games. Event four is a row marathon. We still are waiting to hear about the other events, but there is a possibility the games this year, could test all four areas of fitness.

George Cullen