1- It’s the Punk Rock of the Fitness Industry
There are two main areas in which CrossFit is like Punk Rock. The first is that it seems to be a reaction to the the mechanized, commercialized, corporate owned fitness industry in much the same way as Punk was a reaction against the Prog Rock bands of the 1970’s. Many a rock historian and article has described the stripped down composition, instrumentation, and delivery of Punk Rock as a reaction to the oft described self indulgent virtuoso guitar and drum solos of the Prog Rock era. The bare bones garage gym aspect of CrossFit tools and workouts is very similar in its juxtaposition to the rows of treadmills, elipticals, and selectorized equipment found in the corporate owned chain gyms that have become the industry standard. Punk’s roots in the garage band era make the garage gym aspect of CrossFit a poetic connection further supporting the analogy.
The second similarity between CrossFit and Punk Rock is the any-man, every-man inclusive nature of both. It’s often said that every Ramones’ show spawned a number of local musicians or music fans to start their own bands. The idea that forming one’s own band and creating one’s own music became accessible through early Punks as opposed to only virtuoso musicians getting corporate backed record contracts is a hallmark of the Punk era. This is parallel to the CrossFit affiliates opening their own garage gyms and boxes with little formal education in fitness but just an enthusiasm and love for exercise and movement.
2- A Modern Turnverein
In 1811 the roots of American Physical Culture were laid down in Germany. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn started an open air gymnasium called a turnplatz to build the spirit of his countrymen after their defeat by Napoleon. The Turnplatz (later Turnverein or Turner Hall) aimed to develop the moral and physical powers of Germans through the practice of gymnastics. The German Gymnastics System founded by Jahn was became the basis for physical education and military training in the United States. There are many similarities between this Turnverein or German Gymnastics movement and CrossFit, not the least of which is the seeming cult-like following or loyalty that Cross-fitters have for CrossFit. The Turnverein movement was largely used to build Nationalism in the German people and to train them to resist and defend against French and other invaders. Group gymnastics and training is a well utilized method for creating esprit de coure and loyalty amoung groups which countries around the globe have used to train their soldiers. The Turnvereins are the start of the modern use of this technique for building loyalty and gave birth to United States physical readiness training with military units of German Turners fighting in the Civil War and becoming some of the first to be responsible for physical training of U.S. soldiers. It’s no wonder that this type of group training would inspire loyalty among Cross-fitters or that the largest concentrations of CrossFit boxes is in the areas around Washington D.C. and San Diego where so many military families are stationed. The development of loyal members and brand ambassadors is something CrossFit has accomplished better than the corporate owned gym chains and mainstream fitness industry which sadly focuses on the individual (Personal Training) instead of on developing better citizens which was the goal of the Turnverein movement.
The similarities between the German Gymnastic System and CrossFit are also found in the tools and methods used. Crossfit uses gymnastics and German Gymnastics clearly used tumbling/gymnastics (which is what the name Turner comes from.) Turner Halls were filled with bars, horses, ropes and ladders. The Turnplatz or outdoor exercise parks originally created by Johann Christoph Friedrich Guts Muths a contemporary of Jahn before they moved indoors (Turner Hall or Turnverein) had large rig-like climbing structures the basis for children’s jungle gyms, monkey bars and now the “rigs” used in many CrossFit boxes commonly known as “CrossFit Rigs”.
Jahn and GutsMuths German Gymnastic System required complicated movements or exercises and used external resistance like dumbbells. The use of barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, complex gymnastic and Olympic Weightlifting movements in CrossFit is more in line with the German System than the Swedish Gymnastic System of Per Henrik Ling which utilized slower exercises that could be corrected more easily by an instructor than the more complex exercises of the German System. Both Systems, Swedish and German were based on creating a sense of Nationalism and training citizens to be ready for labor and defense of their countries. These Systems became the foundation for military and physical education training in the United States.
As a “modern turnverein”, CrossFit has possibly brought us back to a focus on the group and not the individual. It has brought back exercises, tools, and methods that ready the individual for labor and defense, not just decreasing disease risk, improving quality of life and personal satisfaction or the aesthetic goals that are inward and individual as opposed to focused on being a contributing member of society. The Turners often served as the firefighters in their towns and this social responsibility aspect of fitness is something CrossFit may be leading us back to.
3- Low-Tech High-Effect
The idea that people need complex computerized equipment in order to be strong, mobile, healthy and fit doesn’t make sense. Clearly it makes money, the equipment manufacturing business is going well, but it doesn’t make sense. Recently we’ve capitalized on this nonsense and managed to monetize it by creating a new term “functional fitness.” Of course, I’m not sure if you can call it fitness if it’s not functional but the point is that we did very well for 1000’s of years without treadmills, ellipticals and a separate selectorized weight machine for each movement/muscle group at each joint.
During the golden age of physical culture and education in the United States (1885-1920), the Four Horsemen of fitness were Dumbbells, Medicine Balls, Wands, and Indian Clubs. The wands eventually became barbells, the dumbbells transitioned from wood to iron and got heavier, the medicine balls morphed from their origin as an animal bladder filled with sand, to stitched leather, to rubber and synthetic materials that can bounce or not depending on your preference. Sadly, the Indian Clubs got lost in the basement storeroom of many a YMCA and schoolhouse only to be taken out occasionally and used as bowling pins until they we’re finally discarded or ended up as a curio on someone’s shelf or coffee table. The point is that these implements for external resistance and gymnastics (calisthenics, tumbling, climbing and hand balancing) are more than sufficient for development of body, mind, and spirit. CrossFit certainly has brought back this Spartan low tech equipment. Event Indian Clubs or Clubbells are making a comeback in the CrossFit boxes across the country and in some cases even the Health Wands.
Part of the effect of using these low-tech tools comes from the concentration it they require. It seems that somewhere along the way, the concentration and mental aspect of training was put into the design of the equipment so that the exerciser would not have to focus, think or be present in anyway other than in body.This certainly increased revenue for equipment manufacturers and commercial gym chains with membership fees and at least in theory decreased litigation as the machines are often designed to be “dummy proof.” However, it’s the very stimulation of the nervous system that increases the effectiveness of most types of exercise. Whether that is recruiting more motor units in a given muscle or requiring the nervous system to plan and execute complex and organized movements requiring many different muscle groups and body segments. At the very least the attention to breathing during skilled movements adds to their effectiveness.
The use of these low-tech tools has been made popular again in large part due to the popularity of CrossFit. The ubiquity and notoriety of CrossFit has attracted many to Olympic lifting and “strong man” type training. Since most people don’t know what a Black Iron Gym is and they are hard to find, a CrossFit box is where someone looking for a place where they can drop weights, do Olympic Lifts, use chalk, climb ropes, and do other things that aren’t allowed in Planet Fitness can go. United States Weightlifting (USAW) has seen a resurgence in the popularity of Olympic Lifting and many other instructors and educators of these “Old School”, “Low Tech” methods have seen an increase in the number of workshops, speaking engagements, and participants in the disciplines they teach. Where the average exerciser used to “do the elliptical”, now most advertisements for fitness related products feature kettlebells, ropes tire flipping and other images the general public now associates with CrossFit type training.
4- Do It Yourself (DIY)
I like building, making and the sense of accomplishment I get from doing something myself. Although it’s beyond the point of this post to discuss the lack of art and shop in schools, these, along with the lack of funding and emphasis for music and gym have created a deficit in problem solving skills and three dimensional thinking in our population. The skill set of citizens 100 or 200 years ago was much larger and varied than that of our current population and I think we’re poorer as a society for it. But I digress, the point is that I have not since the early days of the NSCA seen the volume and emphasis on how to build one’s own equipment and training tools that CrossFit has brought back.
The goal of the Turner Movement mentioned above was to create better citizens and develop their moral and physical power. More skills, more problem solving, more attention to learning and expanding one’s scope with respect to things outside of the actual physical exercise makes for a more robust experience and culture. Making one’s own equipment and setting up one’s own “garage gym” certainly fits this bill especially when compared to the economy of scale, compartmentalized, operating procedures of commercial fitness chains and franchises.
I fondly remember an article in the NSCA journal on how to build your own plyo boxes and one from on how to outfit your team training facility on a budget with items from the hardware store. There are many CrossFit journal articles, youtube videos, and blog posts that show how to make your own equipment. This explosion in the DIY equipment has at least in-part been fueled by CrossFit.
The other DIY aspect of CrossFit is it’s business model. The barriers to entry and cost is very low compared to franchise opportunities in fitness which can make opening a “box” very much a DIY proposition. CrossFit operates as an affiliate system with a licensing agreement.
So, Why Am I Not a CrossFit Affiliate?
Because I am a teacher and Dean at a health professions college, because I teach continuing education courses for fitness professionals, and have been in the “fitness industry” for 22 years, students and other professionals as well as clients often ask me what I think of CrossFit. Like most things about health, fitness and exercise, this is not an easily answered question for me. The easy answer is that I simply wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member. There’s more to it though, as I’m conflicted by the positive and negative aspects of CrossFit as well as by the positive and negative aspects of National Certifying Agencies for Personal Trainers, the Health and Fitness Industry, Physical Education, and Commercial Health Club Chains, our healthcare systems, etc and they are all related.
The Ramones are more popular now than when they were making records and touring. It’s better to be the first than to be the best and being part of a group or movement can have both positive and negative results. There are many interviews and articles that discuss the possibility that the nefarious behavior of the Sex Pistols made the radio stations shun the Ramones. This may have set the Ramones up for not having the commercial success they might have otherwise achieved. I don’t think that commercial success for a band or a fitness brand is a mark of “selling-out”. Regardless of the amount of financial success a business or venture achieves, it should remain true to itself and, as Simon Sinek says “Start with Why.” What that “why” is and what the actual beliefs, mission, and purpose of a brand, business or venture are versus what their marketing and advertising say they are is important and influences who I associate myself with. What is their Noble Purpose? How brands and businesses actually represent themselves in public speaks more to me than what they say they believe.
In the 1920’s we moved away from the structured physical education based on the Swedish and German Systems to a physical education system based on sports and games. Now we have a physical education system that is geared toward identifying and developing athletic talent instead of improving moral character and making better citizens. The mainstream fitness industry, national exercise organizations, and corporate fitness gym chains have not addressed this, but CrossFit a reaction against this fitness status quo, hasn’t either. The slogan “The Sport of Fitness” takes the potentially powerful similarities CrossFit has with the Turner Movement and directs them toward perpetuating the actual problem as I see it – we need to use exercise to build moral and physical power to make better citizens NOT to funnel a select few into sports or create a new sport by turning fitness into a sport. “The program prepares trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown but for the unknowable, too.” sounds good but based on what I feel the real issues are regarding Physical Culture in our country- Sports Culture not Physical Culture is contradicted by calling CrossFit “The Sport of Fitness.”
The more low-tech the tools are the more high-tech the execution progression, variation, and precision needs to be to use them safely and effectively. With great power comes great responsibility and these low tech tools are certainly powerful so the responsibility of teaching people to use them increases exponentially. The low barrier to entry for coaches and trainers is a problem with the fitness industry in general that CrossFit has not addressed though they claim to the alternative to the mainstream fitness industry. Few national certifying agencies required more than a high school diploma to qualify for exams and the few that do only require secondary education for some of their certifications. Only one organization still has a practical exam requirement for certification. The original Swedish and German Systems were taught at Universities and those physical educators and physical education majors were actually the equivalent of today’s premed students. That is, students that studied phys ed could go onto medical school and practice medicine or go on to teach physical education in schools. Exercise was medicine and still is medicine but the practitioners (today’s personal trainers and coaches) are often just acolytes following a prescribed method or technique with no real understanding of the underlying principles and natural laws. CrossFit is not very different from the fitness status quo in this respect.
“Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In any field including the fields of exercise physiology, training, coaching and exercise instruction there are certain principles or “law or facts of nature” that underlie why things work and why we organize or do things the way we do them. One of these principles is the SAID principle- Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand. Adaptation means that you will adapt or get better at what you are doing or practicing. However, if you always do the same thing, the principle of accommodation will become relevant as the system stops adapting, plateaus, or becomes more efficient and is able to use less energy to do the work. The system will settle instead of continue to change or grow. Staying in the phase of adaptation and not moving into accommodation requires that the stimulus (exercise) increase in its intensity or duration. Randomly changing the type of exercise doesn’t cause us to continue to adapt be cause of the principle of specificity. That is, you’ll specifically adapt based on the type of demand or stress you put on the system (provided it is not too great a demand to break the system.) If you run you get better at running but not swimming or cycling though they could all be considered cardiovascular or aerobic activities; if you lift lighter weights for many repetitions you get good at lifting weights for many repetitions but it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to lift a very heavy weight one time though in both cases you are using weights. Likewise if you consistently do something to exhaustion (As Many Reps As Possible) you learn to become slow and fatigued instead of fast and powerful. So, although I agree with the statement “The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind.” I cannot agree with the statements “CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.” and “Our specialty is not specializing.” because these statements go directly against the laws or facts of nature (e.g. principles.)
The website DifferenceBetween describes the differences between a system and a method as “While system is all about principles, method does not revolve around principles. This is the main difference between method and system.” and that “Method refers to a special form of procedure especially in any branch of mental activity. Method is all about orderliness. In other words it can be said that method is related to regular habits.” So, CrossFit is a method in the same way that Pilates, Feldenkrais, Alexander, and Yoga practice in the U.S. are methods. These methods can be useful at different times but they do not offer an answer or way to fully actualize all aspects of health, fitness, and social responsibility the way the older Systems did. These methods often employ powerful techniques and tools but their effectiveness is due to the principles they may in some cases by accident, luck or by intuition stumble across. This is not okay. Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said, and clearly I agree
“If you want to think the world is flat, go right ahead. But if you think the world is flat and you have influence over others, as with successful rappers, or even presidential candidates, then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth and the security of our citizenry.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson
The Germans, the Swedish, The English and The Americans had Systems in the 1800’s and there was a “Battle of the Systems” in the U.S. as physical education was introduced into the public schools in 1855. But, systems are based on principles and principles are laws or truths. Somewhere along the way we’ve become too focused on methods and have stopped seeing the forest because we’re too focused on the trees. Any “method” that causes us to move away from the principles that can actually allow us to help people is something I cannot condone.
Do it yourself is great if and when it leads to self expression, growth and self-actualization. But when downloading workouts and following along with videos takes the place of structured, precise programs, when variety for the sake of variety becomes the norm, when the systematic approach of professionals is considered to be on par with the application of methods and techniques by enthusiasts and amateurs, we need to be cautious and stand for what is most helpful for the health, the wealth and the security of our citizenry.
I will continue to use circuits, Olympic lifts, gymnastics, Pilates’s and Feldenkrais exercises as they fit the needs, goals and level of the people that I have influence over. I will continue search the past and the present to view, understand, organize and catalogue exercises, methods and technique based on the principles, laws and research in the fields anatomy, physiology, neurology, motor learning and exercise physiology that I have studied. I won’t be spending large amounts of time and money to gurus and false profits that created methods but don’t understand principles and though in some ways it is has parallels and similarities to my philosophy and system, I won’t become a CrossFit affiliate.
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