Off the Plane and Wondering What ‘It’ Is.

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Allyson clean and pressing a sandbag on Maui.

Today’s workout:

Deadlift day. Go heavy. Break a PR or two.

Then attempt ‘Fichte,’ a single bar/lot’s-o’-movement combo that ya might have fun with. See an example in the video below, thanks to Erin and Krissy kicking ass this morning.

Darby’s almost max, 255 pounds.

Charles Poliquin hates CrossFit and Robb Wolf defends it. But what is ‘it?’

Rob Wolf’s blog goes into more detail about the Poliquin/CF dissent, making it evident that CF and the rest of the world might have to open a better dialog. So here’s my reply to his post…

There’s a reason the CF community is easy to scrutinize from the outside. Consider what follows as perceptions from a different set of eyes, not a blatant attempt to piss in the punch.

A ‘thing’ cannot be debated or argued unless it is defined. Too often we try to define something by what it isn’t, which is sort of what Poliquin has attempted. Unfortunately for the non-CF affiliated world (including yours truly), there doesn’t seem to be a strong definition to what Crossfit IS. Bodytribe (a stupid little gym in Sacramento) has often been labeled as a CF gym simply because we have GPP combos, use kettlebells and have a vast collection of bumper plates.

So is it the equipment that defines CrossFit (let’s face it, there is a cookie-cutter template that most CF gyms follow. Rings? Check. Warehouse-like atmosphere? Check.)?

Is it a philosophy? During a lengthy discussion on Mel Siff’s Supertraining forum I posed the question of what the philosophy of CF was. Each response was identical, but not a single one was actually a philosophy. They were simply regurgitated (or sometimes verbatim) ideas of the protocol discussed on the main CF homepage (this type of multi-person, single-voice response also leads to the outside world’s judgment of CF as ‘cult-like,’ as Poliquin mentioned). Eventually one person wrote a very eloquent response from personal experience, but it was quickly evident that this was HIS philosophy, not necessarily a CF one.

Is CF a protocol then? I’ve encountered many a folk, trainers and trainees alike, who claim to be ‘CrossFit’ simply because they throw a bunch of exercises together. So is creating a gut-busting circuit CrossFit? If so, then anyone who has ever put a few movements together and created a substantial sweat from it would be considered ‘CrossFit.’

Is CrossFit the sport of getting better at mastering the official WODs?

As an ‘outsider’ I’m not unfamiliar with the workings of CF (I actually DO know people who were less than thrilled with the level 1 cert. but that’s neither here nor there). Having been to several locations, communicated with many CF affiliates, trained dozens of folks who have been part of the CF world, and participated in probably all of the original WOD’s, I still couldn’t tell you what CrossFit actually thinks CrossFit is. I can find great strengths and great faults in my perception of CrossFit (no, I won’t go into them here). I believe Poliquin is arguing from a common perception that is shared by many. I speak of the view from the outside when I say it is easy to write CF off as a trend or a cult since it doesn’t seem to have a cohesive response to a lot of the critique against it. Can you speak for all of CF when you defend it? I’m not even sure Glassman can do that anymore.

And here’s where it gets tricky. If you do something at NorCal (like assessment testing before Oly lifting, for instance), is it therefor CrossFit? I’ve never experienced it from ANY other CF I’ve been in contact with, unless they also practice other policies and protocols as well. If a CF affiliate also utilizes, say, Scott Sonnon’s methods, is RMAX suddenly CrossFit? I know many CF facilities are embracing AKC methods… will this be considered CrossFit? Would Olympic lifting or ‘Starting Strength’ be considered CrossFit?

CrossFit, at this point, seems like something that wants to evolve, but is having a hard time because there isn’t a solid base from which TO evolve. The kernel from which to grow isn’t strongly defined. The outside perception of the foundation of the CrossFit concept is simply a workload protocol utilizing compound movements. Is CrossFit more than this? Only through (it seems) splinter cells trying new things. I could see Poliquin arguing that CF would be a tool, not the toolbox, and that isn’t necessarily inaccurate until someone can define CF as a complete package addressing a great deal more than just workload.

Just because the tenets of fitness are listed on the CF homepage doesn’t mean that what CF puts into practice actually meets those (for instance you don’t see too many CF articles or videos dealing with ‘flexibility.’). Someone like Poliquin is pointing that out, and even through a potentially pompous pair of eyes, he is voicing what many are thinking.

Please don’t judge this post as any sort of gauntlet dropping (aw, heck, judge it however you want), but maybe I can give some insight to his critiques. Since no one from different physical culture camps ever seem to want to meet at a neutral table, ideas become attacks instead of discussions. Consider this not a defense of Poliquin’s words, just some reasoning behind it, and some possibilities for future thought.

Ask yourself how you’d define CF.


Upcoming workshops and events

Tomorrow is a new-member orientation from 11-2. This is a free workshop for anyone wanting to join Bodytribe but might not have much of an idea of what the heck we do. We run these every two weeks, and soon we’ll be adding intermediate workshops to the list for folks who need the next step. I’ll be updating the workshop calendar next week, adding the next powerlifting meet, strength camp and a bunch of other things.

Meanwhile, have a good weekend!


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Showing 13 comments
  • Zac

    I thought Crossfit was a libertarian, military-fetishizing, anti-vegetarian dietary cult.

  • Keith W.

    A bunch of Paleosexuals!? 🙂

    Interesting post, Chip. You raise some good points, I agree that defining something is a prerequisite to intelligently discussing it. I also agree there appears to be a lack of focus from the outsider perspective. However something that is hard to define is not necessarily bad or lacking focus. Crossfit is a complex community that is hard to define…but nothing we do is easy.

    Furthermore, we crossfitters do not have to be homogeneous to call ourselves crossfitters. The crossfit community is rich and varied which is part of its allure.

    Still you raise some really interesting issues. Thanks.

  • Margie

    Well articulated critique, Chip. I think the amorphous quality of CrossFit which you, and we all, struggle with is the thing itself. It is philosophically amoebic. It is meant to subsume any and every “functional” approach to physical life it encounters. In that way, it is a completely contemporary phenomenon; a sort of non-philosophy philosophy. Like hip-hop or interdisciplinary art, the material, the platform is as, or less, relevant than the manipulation itself. Yes, it is absolutely libertarian. And military-fetishizing, and anti-vegetarian. And also community-building and competitive and supportive and empowering. (It has some fascinating reverberations in terms of gender roles that I won’t get into here.) The viral nature of the culture is integral to the evolution of the program. It is a populist sport.

    It is not THE answer. But it doesn’t claim to be. Not exactly. It doesn’t claim to prepare anyone to be the best at anything specific. It does claim to prepare everyone to be better than average at most everything. The question is whether that is a compelling enough philosophy.

    For me, the value comes from both the programming itself, and the worlds it has introduced me to. I like that you can hang out in CF world, and/or follow all the different rabbit holes into fascinating subcultures of movement.

    So maybe CF itself is not a toolbox, but perhaps it doesn’t have to be. Maybe it is like the interweb, or google more specifically – a noun and a verb. A beginning and an endpoint.

  • Stephen

    “It” is when you pay an enormous fee to get into somebody’s garage for a paramilitaristic, co-ed, bootcamp. It comes with unique names for daily workouts and a”global virtual community” you can brag or whine to every day.

    In the 1960s – 70s “It” was called P.E. class (without the co-ed or laptops). It was free and mandatory. Trainers were irritable teachers and coaches who called you names instead of the workouts. Nobody wanted to hear any whining.

  • chip

    Keith: You are right, homogeneity is not necessarily a pre-requisite for CFers, BUT that doesn’t make anything and everything a component of CF simply because an affiliate or trainer somewhere is adding it to their mix. Bodytriber Brent noticed a similarity between CF and Jeet Kune Do. The original tenets welcome ideas and adaptation, but the modern application might be diluting the mix, not progressing it.

    If trainer A is adding overhead squatting in glittery high heels to his WOD’s (it could happen), then he should be proud (uh) to call it his own and not feel completely obligated to label it CrossFit (more like CrossDressingFit).

    Margie: I can appreciate a zen, or Das Ding Ein Sich, approach to defining something, but it leaves me a wanting. Here’s why:

    Trainer A throws a handful of cleans into a homemade WOD, and then some kettlebell swings and maybe those high heeled overhead squats. He cranks up the reps and times the whole thing. He calls it CrossFit. Is he wrong? He’s not an affiliate, never even stepped into a CF gym, but decides it seems ‘crossfitty.’

    Many might agree with the CF-ness of it. But then he adds lat pulldowns and bicep curls, still calling it CrossFit because the rep scheme is high and the workload is big. Oh, and by now he’s an affiliate. Still CF?

    Someone somewhere has to finally admit that timed workload actually IS the foundation of CF, but the above wouldn’t quite jive since this same someone somewhere would state that ‘compound movements’ would also be a requisite, and maybe machines don’t quite fit the bill either.

    So eventually we’d have to work backwards to find out what CF really is. Is it bodybuilding? No. Is it machine-based circuits? No. Is it one rep max lifting? Despite the attempt to add Starting Strength protocol to the mix, I’d still say no (let’s face it, Louie Simmons would kick someone’s ass for claiming that powerlifting was CF).

    CF is a great tool, for many being the sole source of education into the world of GPP training, and getting many folks handling chunks of iron who may have previously been stuck on treadmills and elliptical machines. A growing population of people are no longer frightened of working really hard, thanks to CF. And a great deal of criticism that is thrown at it is unwarranted.

    But that does not mean it is above critique. Ohhhh no. Discerning eyes do finds issues, and to me the biggest issue is trying to turn the concept into something beyond its foundation. A community has grown, to be sure, that can be (but is not always) supportive and educational. But within all communities can come an embellished sense of worth.


    CF is a worldwide community centered around an intense protocol of training based on general conditioning through intense timed workouts with the main purpose of increasing workload.

    Perhaps I could word that better, but the one thing that IS important, that Margie and Keith both bring up, is the concept of community. CF has done the noble task of transcending a mere program into building an entire community. As with any community, they don’t all get along and they don’t all agree, but nonetheless you can’t argue that CF is no longer just a ‘program.’

  • jambontoo

    I am just curious: why “Fichte”?

  • chip

    Don’t you see the German idealism within that combo? Geez, I thought it was obvious…

    Okay, maybe not.

  • Keith W.

    Coach Glassman has said that the affiliate program is based on the open-source model. Affiliates are supposed to add their own flair to the program in hopes that it will grow and move the program forward. This is in sharp contrast to the top-down model that is popular in most businesses and military-fetishizing communities.

    So affiliates take some liberties with exercises and footwear in hopes to find their way to a better “Fran” time. Coach Glassman also says that he’s a “fitness whore.” If we can add pilates, cross-dressing and elliptical machines to our programs and create world champions, then you’ll see the crossfit protocol change accordingly. Until then, you’ll see a lot of people trying weird things in order to take their training to the next level.

    So at any point in time if you take a snapshot of the crossfit world, it might look weird. However, if you take a look over a broad timeline, you’ll see most of the affiliates are pulling in the same direction. Like Margie said we’re absorbing everything and trying to move forward.

    I agree that the crossfit community is not above criticism and needs some definition, but we should not be pidgeon-holed either.

  • chip

    “If we can add pilates, cross-dressing and elliptical machines to our programs and create world champions, then you’ll see the crossfit protocol change accordingly.”

    Ah, and therein lies the question:

    world champions at what? ‘Fran?’

    Again, CF seems to be a tool ( a good one, mind you, with a solid community around it), but not the tool box. Now good tools are important, and essential in so many cases. Rallying around a tool, adding to it, being empowered by it, and helping it evolve is a testament to the power of that tool (is this starting to sound like an innuendo more than a metaphor?). Keeping the dialog alive with users of other tools (yes, this is getting ridiculous) might just give us all greater (you guessed it) tool boxes.

  • Steve C

    This has been bothered me too, at times, but I think we’re getting somewhere here. I don’t know that we’re going to get a solid definition that’s going to ring out so clearly that it’s going to become a reference point sturdy enough to inform debates across the web but we do have some markers that make CF unique as a system:

    A specific definition of fitness:
    ‘Work capacity across broad time and modal domains’. Sure, it’s GPP, but it’s a definition specific enough that you can begin to put measures around it – long to short, light to heavy. The goal isn’t unique, but the way it’s stated kinda is.

    Evidence based:
    “World champions at what? ‘Fran?’” In so much as Fran can be considered a measure of the stated (broad, general) definition of fitness, sure. But that’s why CF has so many different benchmarks (the girls and heroes workouts). By definition, no single event is going to capture the long and the short of it but here is something else unique: a set of benchmarks for measuring ‘broad, general fitness’. This is how we arrive at Glassman’s call for ‘evidence-based fitness’ – it’s the measurable in the scientific method’s call for ‘measurable, observable, repeatable’.

    Open source:
    The workouts and much of the programming is given away. An affiliate model instead of a franchise one. Openness to discussion, critique and new methods and measures – provided they contribute to the goal. Equally, it should provide the method for less effective practices to be weeded out.

    The call to coaching:
    In the vast majority of instructional media coming out of the site the focus is on teaching or coaching others. There is an emphasis in understanding the what the how and the why, and how to teach it to others. That’s an important differentiator for me – CF doesn’t just want you to do, it wants you to understand. That’s where I think it’s struggled, although I’m not sure how they could have done it better, but the cultish and faddish aspects seem to have overtaken those aspects at times and it’s sad.

    I’d love to write a little more but I’ve gotta run to catch a train. I’ll try to hop back into the conversation a little later, but I like where it’s going.

    By the way Chip, this is a great place you’ve got here.

  • panoptical


    Interesting piece – I’m glad you wrote it, because coming to agree on a definition of CrossFit is an important process.

    However, I think it bears mention that most things don’t actually start off as well-defined entities and that definitions sort of evolve organically as we examine the outlying cases and ask ourselves whether they fit the word we are trying to define.

    A question like “is a routine that uses bicep curls CrossFit?” is a perfectly reasonably question, but it’s not something that is necessarily determined from the outset – that is, people who feel that they have a good idea of what CF is probably haven’t considered whether using bicep curls disqualifies a routine from being considered for CF. That certainly doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about CF intelligently or that someone who uses the term doesn’t really know what they’re talking about unless they’ve considered the specific merits of the bicep curl. Most practitioners of CrossFit, I suspect, would rather do kettlebell cleans than bicep curls, because you end up doing more work, lifting more weight, employing more muscles and coordination, and getting the heart pumping a little more. In CF, maximizing output is held as important, as is general rather than targeted muscle work, as is metabolic conditioning, as is the integration of these concepts. People who do CF just sort of get that, without having to resort to a definition.

    As you say, that can make it difficult for those who aren’t on the inside to get an accurate idea of what CF is, but you could make the same argument about any group. Can non-Catholics really understand Catholicism? Can civilians really understand the military? We know what we’re referring to when we say “catholic” or “the US Army” but how many of us know whether bicep curls are a part of the US Army’s training routine or whether Catholics believe in transubstantiation? (I personally don’t happen to know the answer to either of those questions.)

    We CrossFitters are very open to answering specific questions about our practices, but most of us won’t be able to make you familiar with CrossFit with a single sentence, a short paragraph, or a list of things that “are” and “are not” CrossFit, and that’s not because of the nature of Crossfit, but rather because of the nature of definitions.

    This website talks about how we define things, and specifically how the problem that you’ve pointed out in discussing CrossFit actually exists in discussing almost everything that isn’t a mathematical concept. The whole thing is interesting, but I would specifically recommend checking out sections 1 and 8.

  • danny segelin

    Every day i lose more and more respect for CF. When I began it over 3 years ago it changed my world – but I had already been a retired athlete for 5 years so “work capacity” was all i really had to play for anymore anyways. Regardless, I think you really have to say that CF is about improving work capacity by using a mesh of high-rep Olympic lifting, gymnastics, powerlifting, and aerobic intervals. CF is about building the highest possible general fitness. In a phrase: Core movements with INTENSITY.

    I have had many arguments with cult CF’ers who have tried to argue about how LeBron James is not as good an athlete as someone who can do a 2:19 Fran. Ok, whatever – and that’s where I was easily able to make the distinction that CF is in and of itself is a skill. “Fran” to me is like a basketball game, and “Linda” may be a football game. I am only saying that these named workouts test different things and are mastered by different types of people. I’m great at anything that involves running (that’s what soccer will do for you), but not so hot in the heavy stuff.

    CF’s main issue is the quality control. They have affiliates all over the place teaching people how to squat or deadlift – and as often as not, it’s unsafe. Just because someone knows how to do the workouts doesn’t mean they can teach them. Many “certified” instructors don’t even have a rudimentary knowledge of anatomy. How can you be a certified trainer if you don’t understand HOW and WHY the hamstrings work in the squat?

    Anyways, i think i rambled but any time you mention CrossFit it brings out vehemence and verbosity in both directions. CrossFit is a wonderful way to increase work capacity but it would not be a good tool to train people for SPECIFIC physical challenges (i.e. sport) do to its general nature.

    did that even make any sense?

  • Zac

    The following seems a little uncharacteristic of the typical CF specimen:
    “So affiliates take some liberties with exercises and footwear in hopes to find their way to a better “Fran” time… If we can add pilates, cross-dressing and elliptical machines to our programs and create world champions, then you’ll see the crossfit protocol change accordingly. Until then, you’ll see a lot of people trying weird things in order to take their training to the next level.”

    Somehow I don’t see many affiliates attempting to incorporate non-cannon exercises and programming. Why? I see so many CF folks bad-mouthing movements such as bench pressing and bent rows because they’re “non-functional,” meanwhile ignoring the enormous training-effect that these movements can yield. If such movements that have an obvious potential contribution are rejected because of their “non-functionality” and/or because “Coach says so,” then why am I to believe an affiliate would incorporate something else that is found to yield a positive effect should they even be so bold as to attempt it? And why the hell *anyone* would do a “sumo deadlift high-pull” for any other reason than because some god-like “Coach” told them to is absolutely beyond me.

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