Why we don’t WOD part 1: Case Study

Fair Warning

This is an article written to articulate my experience as a health professional, trainer, Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and Corrective Exercise Specialist. More than my experience, I am putting forth the experience of other (highly sought after) Industry professionals. Moreover, I am also providing a recent study concerning the subject. If you are close-minded, and cannot handle the science, statistics, and critiques that counter your world-view, this is not the article for you. If you allow others to think for you, so you don’t have to, this article is not for you. If you are a horse led to a watering hole, but refuse to drink, this article is not for you. And, if you are unwilling to empty your cup so that you can drink from mine, you will be better of stopping here.

Because…

“It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in an argument”-W.G. McAdoo

Introduction

I have yet to find an in-depth analysis of the sensation called WOD’ing or Crossfitting. I’ve seen critiques of one area, but consider this article a compilation of various topics regarding the subject. Part 1 brings forward a case study, my own experience, and the perspectives of various (mostly ex Crossfit) coaches.

‘Why we don’t WOD’ is an investigative multi-part exploration of the phenomenon of WOD’ing/Crossfitting or anything of the like in a training environment. I’ve spent my entire professional career as a trainer studying this subject (despite limited scientific data in the early years). At first, like most, I was enthralled by the allure of such high intense activities, pushing limits and boundaries well outside the standard at the time. Suddenly, slow twitch norms were being threatened by fast moving warriors. Elitism segregated the strong from the mediocre. My true obsession with this new school of training arose from working with ex-crossfitters, who seemed to support current articles written on the dangers of such self destructive activities. Now, we are onto something. This drove me to seek deeper into the subject like an archeologist that just discovered the signs of a lost civilization. The reason was because there was more to the story. We can market and put on a pretty face, but under the rug, you find some dirt. That dirt came in the form of neglect, and injuries. Studying it became an obsession. I hadn’t owned my own business yet, and I was still (and currently) developing my own training style, pulling from various sources that I felt best suited for the most in human capability, fitness, function, performance, and health. I’ve referred to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do in the past. A mixing of martial arts, long before, mixed martial arts was developed. Within my development of styles and the extrapolation process, Crossfit was a huge influence. Quiet often I saw the good, but not without the (often less talked about ) bad. Having first hand experience working with the injuries coming from an environment began to really change my perspective. Upon creation of my business, I went into a deep (Einsteinian) mental exploration to better solidify the direction I wanted to take my style(this is what introverts do). I’ve had years of training experience, have seen what works well, and what doesn’t. I’m still learning. But, when I put myself in the style which is Crossfit, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed with the rigidity, arrogance, and neglect that had been adopted by its model. This wasn’t me. It was an enlightening moment of human introspection that lead to the verifying of what I had was very unique.

 ‘You’ve never done it’

You might ask, how can you study and critique Crossfit if you’ve never done it? Must I take LSD to study its effects? Or can I investigate others experiences, studies, and the science, without having to take such risks? Remember, science is not about contracting the disease to study it on a personal level, its about observations. These are real observations, real science, and actual statistics. For some swallowing that pill is impossible and potentially disastrous to ones reality.

‘Training for Fitness’

Crossfit has done a wonderful job at fleshing out definitions in Fitness and in Health. Within Fitness we have 10 different physical skills. I promote this as well in my business model. Sessions are constructed to reflect that aspect of fitness. But, that is only 1/3 of what we do to complete the picture of fitness, health, and performance. But within Crossfit you find a deviation from how fitness is defined and how it is trained. I’ve experienced this numerous times when working with (ex)Crossfitters. You find, they have become off balance (in more ways than one). Usually you find a handful of physical skills maxed out (typically strength, power, stamina, and sometimes speed). While other skills, are underdeveloped. By Crossfits own terms, this is not well-rounded, not as ‘fit’ as possible. Like any athlete, they become highly trained in the skills required, but not in others that deviate from their sport. Crossfiters are good at Crossfit, but in terms of overall developed fitness, are often overdeveloped in some areas while underdeveloped in others. While Crossfit and the Crossfit Games may market themselves as the ‘fittest’ people in the world, it is better stated as the best ‘crossfittest’ people in the world. They focus on a a particular set of physical skills, over train them, and then reassure their superior level of fitness by testing those same physical skills. Logically, it wouldn’t make sense if you had a swimmer test his overall fitness and to claim himself as the fittest person in the world, by swimming. I don’t want to undermine the athleticism of those athletes at the Crossfit Games, they are all beasts. It is the reason they can do what they do. But, what would be more entertaining and a true test of their physicality, mental strength, and adaptability would be testing physical skills that they don’t use. Instead, we are only verifying our perceptions of ourselves by staying within our own self constructed boxes (realities). This is the same reason why when I do work with Crossfitters, there is a bit of a shock to the system. Suddenly, we are training muscles that don’t get used, movements that are foreign, and entire physical skills that are underdeveloped. You can see why our definition of Fitness may be very similar, but in training we are very different. Because we focus on the entire set of skills, you have Crossfitters having a difficult time keeping up. Strange to have the ‘elite in fitness’ having a hard time keeping up with a program by definition is the same. To some its a humbling experience, a realization of the self, and of the world that has been constructed for you to believe in. For others, they cower at the change. Change is hard. It is much easier to not think, to be apart of a hive instead of an individual, to disconnect from the body. In deeper definitions of Fitness, this is where Crossfit and what we do are very different.

‘Training for Health’

Health is my number one goal before all other things. I take many things in moderation, because moderation tends to be a healthier route, on (just about) all aspects of life. I am a Corrective Exercise Specialist, I consult others on Injury Prevention and Biomechanics. This is a passion of mine. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the mechanics of the human body, within the realm of fitness and movement. I have worked with a lot of different injuries, and have helped many people not only recover from an injury, but also reduce their likelihood of re-injury by correcting broken movement patterns and muscular/structural imbalances. When people consult me on their injuries, you find a trend with childhood/early adulthood overuse, to long term wear and tear, and inevitably joint pain from athritis or others disabling causes. Long term joint pain does not fit into the equation of ‘healthy’. Joint health aside, studyies show that chronic inflammation can lead to cancer [1]. It’s funny to hear a Crossfitter discourage long distance running, while promoting chronic inflammation in the form of over training and high injury rates. I’ve even heard of Crossfit coaches claiming that having an active lifestyle is bullshit, and that training high intense with Crossfit is better for you(don’t be fooled by self promotion). It’s not. Moderation and an active lifestyle is far greater for you than one hour a day of high intense exercise while the rest of the day is sat down on your ass[2]. This is what we call the ‘Active Coach Potato’ [3]. If you are looking at exercise and fitness for durability and longevity, then think of the body as a car. You only have one car, you can beat on it, skip oil changes, and drive it into the ground. If you do so, you’ll need replacement parts, and those parts are never as good as the original, and don’t come without the headaches (pain, disappointment, etc). [4]

 

 The ‘WOD’

For some of you the very first question you may be asking is ‘what the hell is a WOD?’ The WOD stands for the ‘Workout of the Day’. If you’ve heard of Crossfit, then you know what the WOD is. “Today, this is what we are doing.” With Crossfit’s popularity rising, its only natural for other to adopt similar modes of exercise prescription. Obstacle Course race, the Spartan Race, posts a daily WOD. We aren’t just critiquing the WOD method, but we are looking at this one size fits all style all together. This will be a multi-step process in which we cite studies, experiences, and the ‘behind the scenes’ dirty laundry that often gets swept under the rug. Note that, the one size fits all approach does not work for health, for fitness, for performance, and for reaching goals. Everyone is different, we need to cater our workouts, our nutrition, and our habits to that realization.

At Spartan Fitness, technically, you could strictly just do WOD’s(just attending our classes, although our classes are still easily adaptable for the individual). But it’s not fully taking advantage of the services that we provide (Corrective Exercise is a rare commodity currently.) So, if you wanted, you could just come in and do classes, and some do. There is nothing wrong with this. As I stated earlier, this could be considered our WOD’s. The question then arises; what do the WOD’s provide me with? WOD’s are a one size fits all exercise prescription. “Today, this is what we are doing.” Which works fine for some, but, should the football player, the 50yr old man with bad shoulders, and the Lower Crossed Syndrome 30 year old being doing the same workout? To some degree, the answer is yes. We create a program (WOD) that focuses on various skills, and general guideline to how we define fitness. It is cookie-cutter programming which forces the participant to adapt to the program(Crossfit), rather than the program adapting to the participant (Spartan Fitness, Gym Jones, Seal Fit). There is a problem with forcing members to adapt to your programming, it doesn’t work very well. It is successful occasionally. By adapting the program to the individual, you strengthen their individual weaknesses and expand their limitations. It is this reason why some of the biggest names in Crossfit, have left. Seems odd to leave such a booming and successful community. But, the Ex-Crossfit Coaches always say the same thing, too many people getting hurt, performance plateaus and drops. They claim, its due to a lack of customization (adapting the program for the person). Long before opening Spartan Fitness, I saw these signs and unlike many, I have the ability to learn from others.

” Learn what not to do from the experience of others. It’s cheaper than your own.” -J Winter Smith

Why waste 5-10 years with a community that some of the best in the industry have already been there done that and have moved on with lessons learned. So, the lesson was learned. Crossfit was not as elite as they claimed. I’ll be honest, I’ve been training in this industry for 7 years, I’ve met and have worked with many trainers, talked much about methodologies, and I’ve worked with over 400 clients. I’ve done countless hours of research, planning, writing, and building up my knowledge of this industry; my passion for this industry, training, and acquiring higher levels of fitness, health, and performance, is pretty clear. But, with all of that, if I truly believe Crossfit was the holy grail, or the best thing in the world, then Spartan Fitness would be a Crossfit, but we are not, and proud of it.

Are you a lion or a sheep?

Understand this information is coming from my first hand experience, trial and error, studies, and the experience of some of the most well known, and highly respected (some ex-crossfit) coaches out there. You see, if you continue to only get your information from Fox News, then that is all that you will know. Crossfit does a wonderful job cherry-picking studies that fit their ideals. So if all you do is listen to and read Crossfit jargon you are greatly limiting your capability, and allowing a person or idealogy to form your thoughts and actions. Cults do that. It shapes you into either a sheep or a lion. A physical training version of the digital age zombie[5]. Like Plato’s Cave, all you will know is the shadows on the wall. If you look in depth on some of these subject we are addressing you will either allow it to enter your psyche or you will not (cognitive dissonance). So, you will either free yourself from the cave, or you will enjoy the shadow play and meager existance. It is the first lesson, I’ve stated this before to others, before we start talking paleo, and what paleolithic man ate, we should look at ourselves even deeper. What truly makes man? Our brains. Our capability to examine, question, and deep think. We have the ability to explore these concepts, as opposed to just accepting them. If we want to explore paleolithic lifestyle, start with the ability to think freely. When we just accept what we have been told on the internet(a free and uncontrolled podium) or books(usually only promoting one idea and selling you something), we are just solidifying our world views as opposed to adapting our perspective based on the data, which inevitably creates our world view(which will continue to evolve). It’s a sheep mentality vs a lion’s. If you feel your self worth is nothing more than that, then you can’t even help yourself, let alone me trying to change your unchanging world view.

The Study

The proof is in the pudding, right? Agreed. With 54 healthy participants starting Crossfit and eating the paleo diet, changes in adaptations were observed after a 10 week period.  9 participants (16%) dropped out due to injury. From those that completed the study, improvements in VO2Max and Bodyfat percentage were observed[6].

VO2Max Comparisons

Lets compare the figures to some other methods to improving VO2Max, so we can put this into perspective. Males started with an average of 43.1 ml/kg/min (average to above average depending upon age) and finished with an average of 48.9 ml/kg/min(above average to good also based on age). Showing an improvement of 5.8 ml/kg/min or 13.4% improvement over the course of 10 weeks. Now, a study on Intensity of Aerobic Training showed improvements of 20.6% of VO2Max (35.7ml/kg/min to 42.9ml/kg/min) during 6 weeks of near max stationary bike training[8]. No Injuries we reported in that study. Another study on Intermittent Training showed 13% improvements of VO2Max after a 6 week period[7]. Interestingly enough, the participants in this study started off with a higher VO2Max (53ml/kg/min to 58ml/kg/min)then the Crossfit group. Note, the more deconditioned a participant is, the great improvements will be shown. Thus, highly trained athletes show little improvements, while very deconditioned individuals show dramatic changes. Thus, equal improvements over a shorter period of time in higher trained participants shows greater significance in the Intermittent Training group then the Crossfit group. No injuries we noted in the Intermittent Training group.

 

What do Ex-Crossfit Coaches have to say?

 

“The vast majority of programs don’t make use of the novice effect to its full potential. CrossFit is an example of a training method that neglects to make full use of the fact that strength will increase rapidly if you ask it to, and that a strength increase makes all other fitness parameters increase along with it in an untrained person, male or female. It works very well since it is most people’s first exposure to an exercise protocol that’s supposed to be hard, and the impression of most inexperienced people who have tried it is very positive. P90X works well for the same reason, as does HIT, Turbo-Jam, the first week of football practice, and all participation in the first phases of any reasonably challenging sport. A strenuous physical effort – no matter what it is – acts as a stimulus for adaptation, up until the point that the adaptation occurs and the program fails to further progressively load.
This failure may be inherent in the program, like HIT-type Nautilus or Hammer Strength training, which rapidly exhausts the potential of one or two sets of about 10 reps to failure on singlejoint/single “bodypart” or “muscle group” machines to continue to produce enough systemic stress to drive an adaptation. Or it may be a function of the inability of the programmers to utilize the tools properly, since CrossFit certainly embraces the concepts of training useful movements that affect the body systemically.”-Mark Rippetoe

This is the reason why if you go on a swimming program, or cycling program and you are deconditioned, improvements in bench press will be observed, despite ever pressing any weight. Crossfit gets people to an 8, but usually injuries occur and performance decreases. To get to a 10 takes much more customization and program adaptation in order to work. But, that requires more work and greater knowledge base for the trainer. Customizing fitness programs is what I do for a living. If I have 10 clients today, I’m customizing 10 workouts. I’m not doing a WOD for everyone. Because the WOD will work for some but not all. Based on experience, what works better is customization, which is more work for me, and greater results per client.

More from Mark Rippetoe

“I tried CrossFit for 2 years. It exacerbated my injuries, produced some significant health problems, forced me to rationalize the illogical of the program in public, and set my strength back about 5 years. I’m just now recovering. So I’ll be more careful in the future about trying things that actually make no ****ing sense.”-Mark Rippetoe

Here is Robb Wolf on Crossfit

Mike Boyle and Gray Cook on Crossfit (start at 19min)

Gillian Mounsey’s Post Crossfit Perspective

The always updated Crossfit Injury Board

Mark Twight and Mark Divine on Crossfit

Good Article on training based on our evolution

I could go on…but I would listen closely to these podcasts, and read these articles thoroughly. There is a lot more information out there if you are willing to look for it.

Body Fat Comparisons

Back on our recent Crossfit study. After 10 weeks the average male bodyfat percentage lost was 4.2%. Not too bad, but this is hugely based on diet. Remember, a super challenging workout that burns 1000 calories(an hour of intense exercise), can easily be reversed by eating garbage(minutes of food consumption). Although, Ive seen a diet alone (with no exericse routine)after 5 weeks result in an 8% bodyfat loss. So, 4.2% is not significant(just average) in the world of fat loss. In fact I’ve recently experimented with myself and changed only my diet, my exercise routine stayed the same. After 8 weeks I dropped 3.5% bodyfat. Based on that rate of fat loss, I’d be down 4.3% in a 10 week period (an additional two weeks). Thus verifying that the diet truly makes the bodyfat drop significantly more then the exercise. Infact if the average 200lb male loses 1lb of fat per week (average loss) with diet and exercise, after 10 weeks he will have dropped 10lbs of fat (5%).

The Injury Rates

The most troubling part of this Crossfit study was the 16% injury rate. Which is extremely high. It doesn’t come to a surprise as I personally have seen this side of Crossfit and have worked with many ex-Crossfitters that have had injuries that have left them crippled for months. Now, with my experience working with over 400 clients, I would have to say the percentage of my clients that were injured and unable to continue is strikingly low relatively( less than 1%). Also, keep in mind, 16% couldn’t bear to finish the study, but how many were dredging through inflammation? How many have minor injuries, and kept going? While 16% dropped out, I’m sure more had negative responses to the over training, and poor form, but continued the study.

Where does 16% injury rate match up when compared to other sports/recreations?

  • Tennis .14% Injury Rate(within a one year period)
  • Golf .18% Injury Rate (within a one year period)
  • Ice Hockey .57% Injury Rate (within a one year period)
  • Softball 1.11% Injury Rate (within a one year period)
  • Baseball 1.31% Injury Rate (within a one year period)
  • Skateboarding 1.86% Injury Rate (within a one year period)
  • Cycling 1.29% Injury Rate (within a one year period)
  • Basketball 1.85% Injury Rate (within a one year period)
  • Football 4.85% Injury Rate (within a one year period)

Once again over a 10 week period, Crossfitting had a 16% injury rate. Maybe the weightlifting is the problem, well-

  • Weight Training: 1 Injury per 85,733 hours
  • Power Lifting: 1 Injury per 121,208 hours
  • Olympic Lifting: 1 Injury per 165,551 hours

If you Crossfitted everyday for a 10 week program, that would give you 70 total hours, multiply that by 54 participants gives you a total of 3780 total hours. Given the amount of hours, even having one injury occur during a weightlifitng/powerlifting/Oly Lifting program would be rare. So, to have 9 injuries (16%) is staggering.

  • Crossftting: 1 Injury per 420 hours (only if the hours we calculated as 1 hour a day, everyday. If the training program was less than that. Our Injury/Hours ratio would be worse)

Extreme Sport?

This is why Crossfit should be viewed less as an exercise routine (promoting good health), and more of an Extreme Sport (high injury rate)[9].  It is almost as high as MMA’s injury rate of 26%-which makes sense given these are two grown men trying to hurt one another. But it should be understood and well communicated(amongst Crossfit HQ, coaches, participants, and those considering Crossfit) that Crossfit is an extreme sport. While MMA is an extreme sport because two fighters are looking to hurt and disable one another, in Crossfit, your WOD is aimed to maim you. It does a much better job at being risky, then it is healthy. Given the data, working out, and even exploring all facets of ‘fitness’ can be done (and should be) safely. Similar progressions in VO2Max and bodyfat can be achieved without the risk. From my first hand experience, and the experience of many of the ex Crossfit coaches, fitness and performance will improve far beyond what Crossfit could produce, again, without the risk. Its the difference between being an 8 and being a 10.

High Risk, but whats the reward?

What I have heard Crossfit described as a High Risk-High Reward program. And while I agree the risks are high (16% of the participants over 10 weeks become injured), I would not describe the reward as high given the relative figures. If the reward was high we would see this in our results but we don’t. It is like going out for a run during a thunderstorm. It is high risk. Sure, there is some benefit to the exercise that you would be doing. But you would be much better off, exercising indoors during the lightning storm. In Crossfit’s case, is the risk worth the reward? And the answer is no.

My Personal Experience

As far as my personal experience goes. I’ve worked with ex-crossfitters, and current crossfitters. What I have found is crossfitters typically becomes ex-crossfitters due to an injury. I’ve seen overuse injuries(common), I’ve seen wrist injuries(common), shoulder injuries that have required over a year of extensive rehabilitation, severe neck injuries due to accidents, a handful of lower back pain, strains in the upper legs, and knee injuries. I’ve even heard of mass chronic fungal infections due to open wounds and a lack of cleanliness. It amazes me because, I’ve met around 100+ Crossfitters. I’ve met and seen many that have fallen off the wagon, not to be helped back on, but left for dead. Typical of a program that does not adapt to its participants. Like a dentist that sees the after effects of years of not flossing, I’ve seen that after effects of a neglectful exercise program. There isn’t a single person I’d recommend it to.

As we stated before, all for what? Moderate results. This is something I have also witnessed first hand. Take one of my clients that did 3 years worth of Crossfit. She came to me with minor injuries, that didn’t take long to recover from under my watch. But due to the lack of program adaptability, she kept reinjuring herself (responsibility falling both on Crossfit, the coaching, and the participant). We teach you here to listen to your body as opposed to ignoring it. Her strength was decent. She could manage about 3 consecutive pullups. What surprised me the most, was the amount of pullups she was forced into doing (assisted, kipping, etc), yet, the gains were minimal. A year training with me, and she became stronger, leaner, and overall fitter and healthier then her previous self. Her pullups increased to 10 consecutive, and that came from smart programming, and not drilling pullups every other day(or more). Its what all of the ex-coaches mention as to why they left Crossfit. Performance improvements stop, and worsen. Injuries sky rocket. Moderate reward=moderate results=moderate performance. I’ve worked with and competed against uninjured Crossfitters as well. In our classes, our Spartans typically outperform them. Not surprising given the Crossfit programming compared to ours. I’ve yet to meet an actual Crossfitter that has truly impressed me with well rounded performance. Some do a little better than others, and a lot suck wind. It is interesting to experience this, given that we both essentially promote the same thing aka well rounded fitness (by definition). Yet in execution we are very different. That difference has kept our injury rates very low, and our performance on the higher end. Low Risk-High Reward. The main difference is health. While we both promote optimal health, again, in execution it is very different. If long term health is your goal, Crossfit is not your tool to get you there. It is an extreme sport, and extreme sports have high injury rates, high degrees of inflammation, and are not healthy. What will 20+ years of Crossfit do to a body? We will find out. If long term health is the goal, then customizing the routine for the individual is the way to go. Respecting yourself, is a critical lesson to learn. Despite injuries, the dumb ones never learn, repeating the cycle. The smart ones learn, and make appropriate changes. But the smartest of them all are the ones that have learned from others mistakes. Why put your body and long term health at risk, if the evidence is there. We need to understand each individuals mechanics and address any red flags before they create greater problems (often ignored in Crossfit venues).

In Conclusion

When comparing the data we have to conclude that Crossfit is not the best programming around. It is an extreme sport. The risks are high, the benefits and rewards are moderate. It is the reason some of the best in the industry have since left. These leaders in fitness and health promote a more customized approach, and see the proof with greater performance and lower injury rates. So now you have a choice. You can continue your behavior as you once did (predictable and expected, read some good John Boyd military strategy), or you can break the cycle, step out of the norm and do yourself a favor. You will look back at your weaker, unhealthier self and wonder what the hell you were doing in the first place. They all do.

 

References:

1. A new study shows how inflammation can help cause cancer. Chronic inflammation due to infection or to conditions such as chronic inflammatory bowel disease is associated with up to 25 percent of all cancers. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110419091159.htm

2. The Benefits of Physical Activity http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/staying-active-full-story/

3. Meet the Active Coach Potato http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/04/meet-the-active-couch-potato/

4. Michael Boyle Only One Body http://strengthcoachblog.com/2009/12/11/only-one-body/

5. You Cant Argue with a Zombie http://www.jaronlanier.com/zombie.html

6. Crossfit-based high intensity power training improves maximal aerobic fitness and body composition http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Crossfit-based+high+intensity+power+training+improves+maximal+aerobic+fitness+and+body+composition

7. Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and VO2max. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8897392

8. Effect of Intensity of Aerobic Training on VO2Max http://biologiemartinbolduc.mbolduc1.ep.profweb.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/GORMLEY_etal_2008.pdf

9. What Crossfit Is and Isnt http://impact-pt.com/fitness/what-crossfit-is-and-isnt/