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Graham Pound's Personal Training Blog

Talking all things health and fitness

As part of my continued personal development I am studying a degree in Sports, Fitness and Coaching. This means I spend a lot of time at my laptop reading all about health, fitness and sport. This blog is a place for me to share snippets of material I have studied with you and talk about how I think it can be applied to the everyday athlete.

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The Sport of Fitness - My Take on CrossFit


If you're expecting a CrossFit bashing article I'm afraid you're going to be sorely disappointed. I've got a pretty mixed view of the sport. On one hand I have CrossFit to thank for sparking my interest in strength and conditioning and on the other, now I've started to learn more about fitness and programming, I can see some major flaws. This blog entry will be solely my opinion based my experiences and current knowledge. In time it might change and as always, I welcome anyone who want to discuss it further.


There are going to be people reading this who have no idea what CrossFit is, some who live and breath it and others who take any opportunity to say how awful it is (normally these people have never tried it). For those who don't know what it is, it's not a cross trainer that you find in the gym! CrossFit describes itself as the sport of fitness. It takes standardised functional movements, straps them together into a workout (WOD - Workout of the Day) then sets people the challenge of completing it either as quickly as possible or as many times as possible within a timeframe. Gyms, called Boxes, will open these workouts to its members every day as part of a class. The rest of the class normally involves some learning about an Olympic lift or a gymnastics movement. Every year, CrossFit athletes can compete against everyone in the world involved in the sport via a series of open workouts. Through various stages of competition and entries through winning sanctioned events this culminates in a CrossFit world championships known as The CrossFit Games. There is a video on YouTube called 'The test of fitness' that gives a better description and is a pretty good watch. Bear in mind the video is 9 years old so the competition format has changed a bit but, it does give a good overview of the sport.


My history with CrossFit. It's important I get this across early so you can see where my opinion was formed and you can also see I have no vested interests. I was introduce to CrossFit around 10 years ago. A friend of mine had started it and was telling me all about it at work. I thought it sounded like good fun so went along to my local Box and had a go. I was instantly hooked. My competitive nature meant all I wanted to do was be the best; much like most other young males I met. I trained hard, really hard. I left that Box searching for more, I did some online programming at home for a bit until I saw a new Box was opening nearby, this one was different. It was the pinnacle of CrossFit gyms. Everything was brand new, the coaches were massively experienced following military careers and they had all the Gucci gear. Things I'd only ever seen on YouTube. Whist my first CrossFit gym was good, this was another level. Once it opened I pretty much moved in. One thing led to another and I did my Level One course, this was an in house CrossFit qualification that meant you could now run classes or open a

gym of your own if you wished. So now I was taking classes as well as trying to be the best I could be. I don't remember exactly how long it was before the bubble started to burst but it did. I left the Box and lost the love for it. I was pretty ok at the sport, I gained a lot of size (that's my before and after on the left), I had an Olympic total of 250kg and I could hold my own in workouts. I wasn't exceptional by any means but I did enough I feel, to have a valid opinion.




So now we know what it is and my history with it I'm going to list off what I think the pros and cons of the sport are. I'll give a bit of rationale and you can make your own mind up from there as to whether it's for you.


The Cult


You'll hear this a lot. People who aren't involved in a Box will describe it as a cult. On one hand I can sort of see why. The word cult can be described as a group of people who practice excessive devotion to a belief system, typically following a charismatic leader. CrossFit athletes to tend to be devoted to their sport and their leaders are charismatic. If you consider it a belief system then CrossFit does sort of fit the description. But, the term cult is commonly connected to religious sects that take part in sinister practices. There is no question there is nothing sinister going on, unless you consider discussions around how to make protein ball snacks particularly evil. The welcoming feeling and sense of inclusion at most CrossFit boxes I've been to has been overwhelming. They are typically full of like minded people trying to make themselves fitter and healthier and, 99 times out of 100, will encourage you to join them in doing the same. They don't want to indoctrinate you into some sort of sect, they just want to share something they think is brilliant with you. I see no harm in that.


Giving You Direction


One thing I love about CrossFit is the mix of people you never expect to be there. People who wandered in probably completely unaware of what it was and are now 4 years deep into a fitness journey in their late forties. These are the same people who, if they walked into a regular gym, would have no idea what to do. I see it all the time where I work. People walk in with no plan, no idea how to train, just a bit of optimism and an induction only to lose interest and disappear. A CrossFit gym gives these people constant tuition, encouragement and a team of people around them; no headphones required at CrossFit! Every session is a coach led booked class. Normally with a cap on numbers. No need to look for machines that are free that you sort of remember how to use or guess how long to stay on the treadmill for.


PB's


It's rare you'll meet many people in a commercial gym who know what they can lift. That might not seem important but it is, hugely. As a PT you need that information to programme effectively and your client needs to know so they can see if they are actually getting stronger. Because of the nature of CrossFit classes it's rare you meet someone who doesn't know at least their snatch, clean & jerk, back squat, deadlift, bench press and military press. Often they'll know more than that. I see that as a person who knows what they are capable of and is driven to search for more; a rare trait in people who are not from a sporting background.


Form


It was always going to come, the dreaded discussion around form. I will say, this is very dependant on your coach and your ego. If I'm coaching, form trumps weight/speed every time. Unfortunately that's not always the case. Social media is full of CrossFit fail videos which give the sport a bad name. Terrible lifting form, dangerous movements and people trying things way above their ability level. I blame the clock. As soon as you tell people it's a race, form goes out the window. Even at competitions it's possible to meet the movement standards with a terrible lift or rounded back. I challenge you to find a competition video that doesn't contain knee valgus on the way up from a squat or someone jarring their bodyweight through relaxed shoulders while hanging onto a pull up bar. This is a huge downside to the sport and it's so frustrating for the people who do lift and move well. I distinctly remember a conversation with a coach about how I moved too strictly and it slowed me down, that's exactly what needs to be removed from the sport. I saw written recently that the term AMRAP (as many reps as possible) should be AMGRAP (as many good reps as possible); that comment hits the nail on the head for me.


Coaching


This one is, in my opinion, the biggest problem in CrossFit. The dangerously low standard required to call yourself a CrossFit coach and open a Box. I don't begrudge these coaches, in fact, I was one. You start the sport and get so engrossed in it you forget that there is so much to strength and conditioning that you just don't know. You wholeheartedly believe that the level one Crossfit course is all you need. In a sense, it is! You can take that course, pay an affiliates fee and you're all done, your gym is open and you can programme for your members. Here's the problem though. you don't get taught even close to enough about programming to be safe. I've done all my PT qualifications and a HNC in coaching and I'm still learning about effective programming. A 2 day course is not enough. CrossFit do encourage you to continue to learn but in all honesty, encouragement isn't going to cut it. I would say, most places I've been to do have coaches with other external qualifications; I would hypothesise that the fail videos come from Boxes whose coaches don't.


This isn't just a CrossFit issue, it's a sport wide issue. Martial arts is a huge one. Get your black belt (not easy, obviosly), do a safeguarding course and there you go. Here's your own martial arts school. No understanding of the human body, just knowledge of your sport. As a minimum I think anyone teaching sport should have a L2 fitness instructor qualification, at least that way you know they can risk stratify, effectively warm you up and program a safe session.


RX


This sort of leads on from the last 2 points. Rx means as prescribed. So you complete the workout with the weight set out by the programmer. This doesn't take into account your training age, medical history, technique or current ability. All things a PT would consider when writing your workout.


An example I think illustrates the downfall of RX is a workout called Grace. 30 Clean and Jerks at 60kg for men and 40kg for women completed as quickly as possible. For a games athlete with a max clean and jerk of 150kg that's relatively safe. Its 40% of their one rep max and 30 reps puts it in an endurance range. The issue is when Dave from accounting tries it and his max clean and jerk is 80kg. Even worse when his mate films it and puts it on Instagram. That workout is a massive 75% of his max lift. That's well into hypertrophy range and depending which studies you read, accumulating 30 reps should be done over around 3 sets with at least minutes rest between sets. Trying to do it as fast as possible isn't safe for Dave, even if he has a belt and knee sleeves on.


A good coach will know that and not let him do it. I'd recommend Dave did it at a maximum of 50kg which is 62% of his one rep max; even then I'd be monitoring him very closely and dropping the weight at the first sign of poor form. That's still high for an endurance movement. To put Dave on par with the games athlete in the example he would have to do the workout at 32kg. When you consider that the female RX is 40kg you can see why he would be reluctant to scale that heavily and probably wouldn't without being told to.


RX weights are needed for competition. There's no questioning that, there has to be a standard. As coaches you just can't expect those taking part at grassroots level to know how to scale safely. I think workouts at class level would be far better and safer if they were set as percentages of 1rm rather than specified weights. That's just my opinion though.


The Curse of The Games

I don't remember who said it but the statement that comes to mind is 'you don't shoot a couple of hoops and expect the be in the NBA next year '. Clearly whoever it was is American. For some reason CrossFit seems to fill people with this unwavering optimism that they can be the next Matt Fraser or Tia Toomey. On one hand it's fantastic, it gives people immense drive to succeed and it can be contagious. On the other, without the right coach, it sets people up for injury. A lot of people forget that these athletes have an extensive training history before CrossFit, a strength and conditioning coach and a nutritionist behind them as a minimum. Attempting their workouts is a bad idea. What games athletes put on social media will not be exactly what they're doing, they aren't going to give away their coaches programming secrets to the competition. The reality is, they probably aren't working at their limit multiple times a day, every day. They are going to be doing the fluffy accessory work and zone 2 workouts, it's just that's boring to watch so won't get posted. Don't get drawn into the curse of the Games, you need to focus on you and where you're at now, keep to your path and don't try to follow anyone else's.


To wrap it up


Yay or neigh. I'm going for yay with conditions. CrossFit is a brilliant sport full of brilliant people. It has an unrivalled community feel and gives direction and a sense of belonging to anyone who walks through the door. The condition is, walk through the right door. Get a coach who understands programming. A coach who cares about you and isn't afraid to tell you to take weight off the bar or scale a gymnastic movement. CrossFit would have a far better name if the level of coaching was higher at the grassroots level and those with terrible form stopped hash tagging CrossFit in everything they do.








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