In Defense of Specialization: How CrossFit Gets it Wrong (again)

I. Am. Fired. Up. CrossFit has – yet again – got my blood boiling with their utter nonsense.

CrossFit Meme

As you probably know, I don’t think CrossFit is smart training (for anybody, not just runners). It’s simply hard exercise for the sake of hard exercise.

Check out my previous rants:

The other day one of my coaching clients sent me an email titled GRRRRR…. And predictably, it was about a CrossFit article that she stumbled on. She wrote:

Hey Jason- I just read something in a CrossFit article that has irritated me intensely, so thought I would share the irritation! Out of interest, how would you respond to a comment like this?

I do get asked quite a lot about whether endurance exercise is ‘bad’ for the body (from Crossfitters), and I’d like to have a fair, balanced answer!

The funny thing is my client actually owns a CrossFit box!

Below is a screenshot of the section in question:

CrossFit Craziness

What makes this so irritating is that this is from the official CrossFit Training Guide. These views are endorsed and promoted by the CrossFit organization – thereby proving the organization itself has no basis in science or sound training theory.

There are so many misconceptions and distortions of reality present in just this small excerpt that I thought it would be helpful to dissect each one.

Running is a fantastic sport so let’s be aware of all the BS that exists out there – and fight against it!

“Runners are not the fittest athletes on Earth”

Well, this one is true! Runners aren’t the fittest athletes on the planet because there’s no such thing.

What is the definition of “fit?” The answer is that there are MANY definitions.

The gold medalist in any Olympic event is the fittest athlete on Earth in that specific sport. Specialization is mandatory to reach the highest level of any sport.

You can’t even ask who’s the fastest runner because it depends on the event. As you can imagine, the fastest sprinter is a very different athlete than the fastest marathoner.

And this trend continues:

  • Is the NBA’s MVP “more fit” than the World Cup’s MVP?
  • Is the winner of the Boston Marathon “more fit” than the Olympic 5k gold medalist?
  • Is your conference’s wrestling champion “more fit” than the conference champion in tennis?

Who the hell knows!? There’s simply no way to test these things.

Comparing one type of athlete to another is comparing apples to oranges.

The author may be asking a different question, like “Who is the most well-rounded athlete on Earth?” If that’s the case, then perhaps a decathlete?

But ultimately, this line of thinking gets bogged down in mediocrity:

If you want to be good at many things, then that’s possible. But it comes at the expense of being excellent at one thing.

“Endurance athletes train beyond cardiovascular health”

This is another true statement! But CrossFit athletes train beyond cardiovascular health too with AMRAP and intense WOD’s that go well beyond general health.

And this statement confuses two very different goals: health and performance.

If your goal is to maximize health, then 3-4 runs per week of 30-40 minutes are all that’s needed for optimal cardiovascular health.

To optimize health, you don’t need:

  • CrossFit workouts (Uncle Rhabdo is terrible for your health)
  • Long runs
  • Tempo runs
  • Racing (the effort of racing is too high – just like CrossFit AMRAP workouts)

For most runners, health is simply a byproduct of their training. It’s secondary to running faster.

Because if your goal is to run a certain time in a race, improve on any race performance, or attain a new distance record then you’re not running for health.

In fact, you’re not really exercising at all – you’re training (for more on this critical distinction, read Bill’s case study).

When Eliud Kipchoge set the course record at the London Marathon recently (running 2:03:05) he’s certainly not training to be that fast for health. His goal is to win races.

And do you really think he’s “lost ground in speed” (his 25th mile was 4:38!)?

Besides, let’s not get lost in the “running is bad for you” argument. I’ve addressed that here. And the research is inconclusive about the negative effects of endurance training on general health and mortality anyway.

Endurance athletes have no other skills

This particular claim really grinds my gears:

[The endurance athlete] has lost ground in strength, speed, and power, typically does nothing for coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy, and possesses little more than average flexibility. This is hardly the stuff of elite athleticism.

The CrossFit athlete, remember, has trained and practiced for optimal physical competence in all 10 physical skills (cardiovascular/ respiratory endurance, stamina, flexibility, strength, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy).

Once again, CrossFit is making the claim that to be the “fittest” athlete, you should be mediocre at everything rather than excelling at one discipline.

While it’s absolutely true that distance runners – especially those training for long races of half marathon or beyond – are sacrificing absolute speed and strength for endurance, does that mean they are less competent athletes?

In my view, a great athlete is GREAT at something. A CrossFit athlete isn’t great because they’re just “good” at a lot of things.

Even though they might train for “optimal cardiovascular endurance,” I don’t see many CF athletes winning races. That’s because they don’t have GREAT cardiovascular endurance – it’s just mediocre.

Moreover, CrossFit claims that runners “typically do nothing” for a host of other skills. But that’s rubbish – runners practice many skills:

  • Speed: ever heard of strides and hill sprints?
  • Agility: form drills and plyometrics all of a sudden don’t count?
  • Coordination: drills, hill sprints, plyometrics, and dynamic flexibility exercises all build coordination
  • Flexibility: average flexibility is good! If you’re too flexible or too inflexible, you’re at a higher risk of injury (see here). Plus, runners need a certain amount of “stiffness” for efficiency (our legs are like springs, after all, and flexible springs don’t work)

And I really love the line that “this is hardly the stuff of elite athleticism.” Funny how Olympic athletes are almost always specialists and they are, by very definition, elite!

Here’s a good analogy: if you’re the world’s best theoretical physicist, specializing in categorical quantum mechanics then you are a specialist. Are you less “intelligent” than a generalist who’s moderately knowledgeable about many academic disciplines?

Nobody would ever make that argument. And I don’t think it should be made for athletics, either.

The Bottom Line (and disclaimer)

CrossFit Injuries

First, let me post another quote from this same training guide:

None of this suggests that being a marathoner, triathlete or other endurance athlete is a bad thing; just do not believe that training as a long distance athlete gives you the fitness that is prerequisite to many sports.

CrossFit considers the sumo wrestler, triathlete, marathoner, and power lifter to be “fringe athletes” in that their fitness demands are so specialized as to be inconsistent with the adaptations that give maximum competency at all physical challenges.

It seems that CrossFit agrees with me! There’s nothing wrong with being a specialized athlete.

But there remains a discrepancy that makes CrossFit hypocritical: while they admit specializing isn’t “bad” they also claim that specialized athletes do not have “elite athleticism.” I’ve already covered why that’s untrue so I won’t repeat myself.

Just remember that being average at everything doesn’t make you an elite athlete. Competing at an elite level – in whatever sport you love – is what makes you an elite athlete.

If you want to reach your potential in any sport, specialization is mandatory.

Now, my disclaimer: if you love CrossFit, then enjoy it! There’s nothing inherently wrong with CrossFit if you just want to get in general shape or lose weight.

… but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to get stronger, you’re wrong (instead, train like a powerlifter).

… but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to run fast, you’re wrong (instead, train like a runner).

… but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to improve agility and coordination, you’re wrong (instead, train like a football, soccer or perhaps a basketball player).

Ultimately, train for the thing you want to do. This is not a novel concept but it consistently gets lost on CrossFitters who just want to be the best at exercising.

My client said it best:

I get annoyed at the criticism of specializing, as if it makes you a weaker athlete because you can’t do everything.

As a musician I was able to play as a concert pianist because I specialized in playing the piano endlessly from the years of 4-22. I didn’t want to play a bit of violin, cello, or flute and end up average at everything and good at nothing.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that I own a CrossFit gym! However if I can bring a bit of balance to that mindset then I’ll try.

By using vague terms, ignoring the role specialization plays in the training that allows for elite status, and confusing “generally competent” with “elite,” CrossFit has once again steered us wrong.

Further reading:

Follow-up

My client also sent me this fun anecdote of what it’s like to get a CrossFit certification. Prepare to witness the pseudo-science of CrossFit:

I have no problem with people who love Crossfit. My husband does, and I’m happy for him that his dream of owning a box has happened, and I’m happy to support him in it and work with him there.

So why can Crossfit HQ not just let that be enough – an option for people who want to work out in a group setting? Why all the propaganda and cult-speak, implying that all other sports or exercise regimes are inferior, and Crossfit is the ONE AND ONLY? I loathe that kind of thing. Why the need to brainwash and badmouth all other disciplines? It infuriates me beyond belief.

Last weekend I had to attend a Crossfit seminar in order to get my Level 1 coaching certificate. If I had been given a dollar every time runners or running was mocked during the course of the weekend, I would be enjoying a lavish spending spree at the mall as we speak.

One of the lectures on the first day was called “What is Fitness” and this is almost word for word an example that was used. I KID YOU NOT.

“When we are trying to define fitness, a model that Crossfit uses is called the ‘Hopper’. We imagine a container with a large crank handle, filled with every conceivable physical task. We turn the handle, see what comes out, gather up a selection, and whoever performs the best across these tasks is the fittest. Let’s use an example:

Let’s take three athletes:

  • Dennis Kimetto, the current world marathon record holder. (Cue snorts of derision from the audience at the mention of ‘marathon’)
  • Zydrunas Savickas, Famous Strongman
  • Emily Abbott, top Canadian female Crossfitter.

Let’s give them three tasks and see which one is the fittest! Lowest score wins!

1) Task #1 – max lift deadlift. Winner – Zydrunas Savickas (1 point), 2nd place – Emily Abbott (2 points), 3rd place – Dennis Kimetto (3 points) (’cause, you know, he’s a weak runner)

2) Task #2 – run a half marathon – Winner – Dennis Kimetto (1 point), 2nd place – Emily Abbott (2 points), 3rd place – Zydrunas Savickas (3 points)

3) Task #3 – move 10lb sand bags from one side of a field to another for 5 hours – Winner – Emily Abbott, 2nd place (1 point) – Zydrunas Savickas (2 points – he has the strength but not the endurance), 3rd place – Dennis Kimetto (3 points – he has the endurance but no strength).

Let’s tally up the points and see who is the fittest out of the three athletes!

Emily Abbott – 5 points
Zydrunas Savickas – 6 points
Dennis Kimetto – 7 points

Therefore, we have proved that out of the three athletes that Emily Abbott is the most fit, and Dennis Kimetto the least fit!”

Needless to say, my brain almost went to mush at the stupidity of this argument. This was honestly used as a teaching example for future Crossfit coaches at a training seminar. And everyone just sat and nodded and took it all in. And will likely leave feeling somewhat superior to a lowly athlete like Dennis Kimetto.

Nobody in that room (60-ish people) had the first clue about the incredible dedication, discipline, levels of intense physical & mental training, physical gifting & talent that goes into running a marathon at that pace. Of or any kind of specialisation.

The idea that the average crossfitter is ‘better’ than these world class elite athletes would be laughable, but for the fact that people seemed to be drinking it all in!

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