Modality Comparison for Strength Geeks 1: Tribe and Integrity

SECTION  4 Tribe and Integrity

This is part one of a collection of reviews about a handful of the groovy programs offered within our physical culture these days. Even though it is part one, it is still broken into 4 separate posts, so feel free to click below to shoot over to any of the other pages.

Intro
Physical
Metaphysical
Tribe and Integrity (you are currently here)

The pictures throughout this massive virtual tome are mostly random, featuring either shots from the dustbins of physical culture, or the good folks and toys here at Bodytribe.

TRIBE

How is the community around your program?  Is it a selfish pursuit, or are there factors in place to promote and enrich the community? There are a few of these programs on the big list we’re slowly working through here that offer a true sense of community, but the rest are just programs or ideologies, and a couple have strong exclusionary elements… to be part of their tribe, you have to prove yourself.

Is the community nothing but hippie happy smiles and tree-hugging support, or, on the other end of the spectrum, guys in Affliction shirts and the girls who love them?

Is there playfulness in the intensity, or is any playfulness reserved for sophomoric posturing and off color humor?

CROSSFIT

CF is unsurpassed in community building and should be commended for creating one of the largest and tightest networks in the fitness industry. But with any network of such magnitude, there will be blind followers, not just people who appreciate and practice the concept, but coaches and members who, like any community, take on the community’s ideals as an identity, sans objectivism or critical discernment. Therefore there are a lot of accusations about CrossFit  being cult-like, and many boxes even joke about ‘drinking the Koolaid” (at least one box I know of has an actual mural of the Koolaid character on their wall, celebrating their unwavering loyalty).

You can like metal, or punk or Goth music, or you can BE a metalhead, punk or Goth. There are people that practice CF, and there are CrossFitters. There are tribe members who create dialog within the community, and there are the fanatics who lack the discerning eye to see anything else.  Every fitness community has that, from jazzercise to RKC… In fact, every modality within this comparison suffers a chunk of their population as cult followers. CF just has the loudest audience at the moment, and within that audience, there is very little questioning, very little boat rocking.

This is always what happens when an underground movement surfaces to the mainstream.  It dilutes itself to the masses, but the masses are convinced that, being once underground, it must be cool.  It happens in music and art all the time… heck, it’s why mediocre nonsense like Blink 182 can call themselves a ‘punk’ band and co-opt a tradition of rebellion and attitude without actually being rebellious or hardcore in any way.

There are cults and there are tribes, and on a box-by-box basis, there are varying levels of devotion… sometimes perfectly reasonable, sometimes a bit over the top.  There is something to be said for having a group of folks supporting you when the physical limits are being pushed.  If misery loves company, so do success, perseverance and triumph, and knowing your fellow box members have your back is nothing an outsider should sneer at. Sure, there are cases of mindless adherence to the CrossFit dogma, but then there are many stories of simple tribal appreciation and respect, and that is truly the strength of the CF program. If you show up and put in your best effort, you’ve got an instant group of fans, friends and family. There really isn’t another network quite like it.

But the big news (well, in 2012) is that Reebok is now the spearheading sponsor for CrossFit, and I’m a little surprised that this doesn’t have more folks within the community worried or outright opposed. The company that brought you step aerobics and pump shoes is now trumpeting CF games and gyms. This adds an unhealthy validity to a program that could actually use scrutiny. Plus, letting big business into your tribe very rarely (if ever) results in a greater cohesion or solidarity.  Expect to see CF replacing Bodypump classes at any corporate gym near you. There are a bunch of folks already thinking this is a good thing.

Corporations have a piss poor track record for increasing the quality of an already existing strength program. Hold onto hope if ya gotta, but don’t ignore history.

 

TRAINING FOR WARRIORS

More internet than physical, there aren’t a ton of TFW gyms or gathering places. Although, like CrossFit, you can become an affiliate once you complete the certification and hand over about 2 grand. You’ll find TFW more in MMA training halls probably most of all. It seems mostly a boy’s club, but there is nothing indicating exclusionary attitudes. Seems like an open door policy… anyone is invited who is willing to put in the effort.

 

RMAX

There aren’t many RMAX gyms, so this Tribe doesn’t have too many places to congregate beyond the internet or at workshops. But there is indeed an RMAX culture, with a mostly male demographic and strong intelligence factor. In fact, a great deal of the RMAX clan get an excited shiver if you mention the Illuminati. In other words, and this is by no means an insult, there is a fair level of geekdom in the RMAX tribe. These would’ve been my people in high school, at least before I was kicked out of the nerd clique for not being smart enough.  I just wish they’d pick up a heavy barbell once in a while.

Since RMAX was born in the martial arts world, it seems to thrive there the most. You’ll find bits of it here and there amongst certain MMA and BJJ centers, and perhaps as much at many traditional martial arts dojos. But RMAX does owe its life to the internet, and that is where a great deal of the information can be found.

 

WESTSIDE BARBELL CLUB

About a decade ago, before the modern physical culture explosion, when WSB videos were coveted VHS tapes and the only place to read about true strength sports was MILO journal, Westside was not a walk-in gym. There weren’t day passes or weekend coupons. You had to earn the right to lift there. You had to have either an impressive powerlifting resume or some mad skills in another sporting arena that required serious show-stopping strength. It truly was the ultimate mecca for powerlifting information, and there was quite a sheen of exclusivity around the gym itself. Keep in mind, the education and knowledge was dispensed openly to anyone who wanted it via emails, phone calls or videos, often for free, but to walk into their hallowed (and, frankly, grungy) halls required permission. You had to earn the right to be part of that Tribe.

Since then it seems everyone has become a powerlifting coach. From the deserved alumni of Westside who have decided to open their own strength dens, to the nouveau-coaching culture who read some books or watched a bit of YouTube, it seems finding folks teaching squatting and deadlifting is almost as easy as finding a yoga studio. Buyer beware on the latter accounts.

But Westside, and its immediate offspring, still have a tribe of their own. It is still exclusive in the sense that it is geared to elite, or elite-striving, lifters, and it is geared towards big numbers on the barbell.  That’s about it. Specific and streamlined. As mentioned earlier, the word ‘health’ is not in their promotional literature.

But as an informational hub, Westside has an extended tribe, an entire culture of powerlifting education, that is only as exclusive as your desire to learn. Even the old VHS tapes are still worthwhile, although you can find them on DVD now.

 

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INTEGRITY

If these programs are so keen on promoting physical integrity – being your physical best – do they also encourage metaphysical integrity? Free thought, problem solving, creativity, self-esteem, sagacity… are these coveted or ignored? Or maybe even mocked, by spoon feeding you propaganda and hyperbole?

This can make or break a program in my eyes.  Even if I don’t agree with all the techniques, a program created from a place of integrity deserves at least a nod of consideration. Do the ideals and philosophy of the program remain unshaken against marketing double-speak or corporate sponsorship? Does the program (and its founders) evolve and grow? If so, then this program needs more attention than one that exists more as a marketing tool or trendy community or faux science based in opinion.

Integrity could be seen, or dismissed, by a discerning eye in the promotion. No matter how good the actual program might be, the way it is sold and marketed is a direct extension of the seller, and in this world of physical culture, the seller is almost always the creator, or an extension of the creator, of the program itself.

If we’re judging on a scale, then somewhere slightly above complete bullshit is the grey zone of questionable phrases and ideas.  Here lie catch phrases and words that become trendy without actually saying much.  This is what Mel Siff used to call the Guru Terminology Kit. Words and phrases that the discerning eye can read as catchy rather than substantial, hyperbolic rather than informative. “Hardcore” has been a go-to for certain marketers of the physical culture for a while now, but recently “primal” and “paleo” have been added to the mix. Use caution and more than a tad of scrutiny when encountering these words.

Most of these programs offer some sort of affiliate program, where you can dish out some ducats, after spending more ducats to be certified by them, to open a gym under their name. This alone can shake the integrity right out of a program, since many affiliate programs obliterate free thought or creativity. Using CrossFit as an example, being an affiliate takes any exploration or personal development out of the gym opening process. Got a warehouse space, some bumper plates and a pullup station? Check. It’s reminiscent of the strip mall dojo, a cliché template with no individual thought. Maybe some boxes might have a touch of flare here and there, but stocking a modern box is one stop shopping, both philosophically and physically. If you haven’t built some of your own gear, if you haven’t designed your own space, if you haven’t had the tactile experience of creating a gym from your own philosophy, not just stockpiling a warehouse with some iron, then you’re missing out on the connection with your sanctuary.

If you haven’t spent years creating your own program design philosophy after being under the bar in every conceivable way, you haven’t actually learned anything yet. Emerson said an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. Maybe we should all strive to be institutions, not somebody’s shadow.

A trainer has the potential to be a movement chef. Do you open a restaurant with your own menu, your own flavors, your own design, or do you open a franchise? How does the programs under review address this? Are you handed keys to a kingdom of free thought and creativity, or simply a big castle with built-in servants, laws and traditions.

How does each program promote itself and share itself? Does the program treat you like a commodity or a person? Are you learning to be a follower or an individual? Notice I didn’t write ‘leader,’ because in fitness, as in politics, our leaders are often nothing more than loud followers.

 

CROSSFIT

CF has an amazing potential to head towards either end of the spectrum… diluted ideas with poor training and education on one hand (which is where the corporate fitness industry, which includes Reebok, has thrived for decades now), or bold innovation of embracing the roots of physical culture and embellishing them on the other end (some of the other folks on this list are still working magic towards this end, and it isn’t far from CF’s roots). As an organization, it’s been tipping towards the more dangerous, unregulated but formulaic end for a while, with no real quality control system in place to change that momentum. Like any fabric stretched too far, the integrity weakens, and there can be no denying the dilution of the CF model. Combining forces with Reebok (not known for their wise fitness knowledge or ethical business decisions) will simply lead to greater validation of a vitiated program that no one is willing to be critical of. Corporate vindication rarely indicates the actual quality of a program, but it sure can indicate the integrity of it (or lack thereof).

Now on an individual basis, I’ve met affiliate owners and entire boxes that reek of integrity and are paragons of respect, fellowship and compassion, so full of rectitude as to be true inspirations. A handful of the boxes I’ve encountered are, in terms of community and integrity, shining examples of what a tribe can achieve.

But as an overall organization, the integrity has slipped from CF almost entirely. Of all the possibilities to increase its quality, of all the doors that could be opened, or all the potential that sits waiting to be taught to the most impressive network the physical culture has even seen, CrossFit has been dropping the ball for a while. And now it partners with a pathetic, embarrassing corporation. Reebok and the ‘sport’ of fitness? C’mon.

It seems that the integrity of the program is then left up to the individual boxes, and I do hope they realize and embrace the amazing and intense world beyond the organization that they’ve affiliated with. Many of the boxes I’ve dealt with are better than the organization they’ve chosen as their namesake. And a few of them are beginning to cast their own shadows. I hope more will, eventually.

 

TRAINING FOR WARRIORS

TFW’s creator and main spokesperson, Martin Rooney, has enough energy to power a military compound and the enthusiasm of an honest salesperson… in other words, there is unrelenting passion in his words and some serious gym time in his ability, and it seems that therein might lay this program’s foundation. As I’ve mentioned, motivation, more than programming, seems to be the dividing line here.  The workouts have some creativity to them, but the concepts of goal setting and follow-through, perseverance and self-assuredness seem to be more of the bread and butter of the program, and that, more than the exercises, is what folks I’ve talked to take away from his workshops.

His energy is contagious. I sometimes recoil from such high levels of enthusiasm as it can remind me of the insincere fitness figureheads who scream at you from infomercials, television shows and fitness convention platforms.  But Rooney is the real deal when it comes to sincerity, unlike the usual fitness icons. He’s not bullshitting you (and he has a sense of humor… this is important).  Even when his delivery just isn’t my cup of tea, his integrity is never in question.

 

RMAX

Tough call for me on this one. It gets a bit personal. I’ve got many stories, of my own and of many friends in the physical culture, about interactions with RMAX and Sonnon. This isn’t the forum to delve into that. Perhaps I can sum it up this way.  The community has expanded quite a few brain cells because the vast amount of information has merit. But discerning if the motive for being so prolific stems from ego or for tribal benefit is tough. There is a great deal of evidence for both

 

WESTSIDE BARBELL CLUB

Unwavering devotion to a singular purpose seems to be a trademark of both sides of the integrity spectrum, those with an extreme sense of integrity giving their heart and soul to a single drive, and those who are devoid of it and use their focus to hide from their emptiness. I’ve seen both in the powerlifting world, but there is a big lean towards the good side.

There are some faces that I look forward to seeing at local meets or national strength events who are either directly involved with, or descendants of, Westside. Funny, imaginative and cultured folks, despite looking like they might eat you. Folks with incredible integrity, folks who’d answer the phone calls or emails personally and dish out free advice to any newbie lifter who took the chance to contact them. Ya might not want to get between them and their barbell (or the buffet), but out from under the bar, they are cut from the highest caliber cloth.

Of course, there are the others, the insecure pricks who don’t amount to much as humans. But their numbers are actually pretty small.  I got into powerlifting because of its inclusiveness, because of the good folks mentioned above not judging me for being half their size, and supporting me for just showing up and putting in the work. Thankfully, they seem to dominate the sport in terms of numbers. On the whole, despite my critique of the anti-holisticness of the Westside Model (and its ilk), there’s not a lot of bullshit in their approach. As a concept, as a gym and as a movement, there is no arguing the integrity of the program.

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This is part one of a collection of reviews about a handful of the groovy programs offered within our physical culture these days. Even though it is part one, it is still broken into 4 separate posts, so feel free to click below to shoot over to any of the other pages.

Return to first post: Intro
Physical
Metaphysical
Tribe and Integrity (you are currently here)

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22 Comments

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22 Responses to Modality Comparison for Strength Geeks 1: Tribe and Integrity

  1. Steve

    Awesome buddy……..a very well thought our piece…….there are tools…and to use them there are apprentices….then journeymen……and then mastercraftsmen….

    For me, this vocation I follow, is a journey….in our training centre, we ‘Train Hard to Live Easy’ and we will use a whole host of methodologies, tools, concepts to help our friends Live Easy.

    I wish you and your tribe well on your journeys……Train Hard, Live Easy Brother

  2. Excellent article, thanks. I would hope people consider these things before becoming a zealot for a particular group.

    • Wow, Steve, you’re one of the, oh, 3 people who will actually read this whole thing. Congrats, and thanks. I thought I’d have a buttload of angry CFers not quite getting what I was saying, but then I realized I simply wrote too much for anyone to want to read.

      • Rachel

        Not so, not so – I’m a Crossfitter but have been keeping up with Bodytribe longer than I’ve been Crossfitting. Crossfit is turning out to be a gateway for more and more folks (the “Preboks”), but there aren’t that many structured options on the other side of the gate. I’ve grown to like the group dynamic, the Oly lifts, & kettlebells especially; YMCA and Gold’s don’t want us and garage gyms are lonely. We have more and more folks following Outlaw programming but at our Crossfit box – so there’s clearly a desire for these types of training, but where are the agnostic coaches and gyms?

        Bring Brutal Recess east! Come to NC and I’ll treat you to some great barbecue! 🙂

        • I’ve been dying to come to NC. My mom lives (Asheville) there and I want to visit, so as soon as a gym feels like hosting a workshop, I’m there!

          • Rachel

            Not a comment for the website – I pinged the owner of CrossFit Durham (my gym) about it. (We’ve hosted MovNat, ZHealth, Whole9, and other non-CrossFit dogma classes.) He’s interested in finding out more – can you give me the basics of cost, time, when some possibilities are for scheduling, and contact info, and I’ll put you in touch with him? He’s Dave Rubin at CrossFit Durham, I’m Rachel Franke.

            And well, if you’re going to be visiting Asheville, 12 Bones will set you up for barbecue…my in-laws are there, and it’s become a required stop when we visit. 🙂

            Thanks!

  3. Steve Cork

    Chip, thanks for the article! Always enjoy your thoughts – they help stimulate mine! Looking forward to more.

    All the best,

    Steve

  4. Steve Gonzalez

    Hi Chip,

    First off, well said! I can appreciate your ability to maintain a refined attitude in reviewing the preceding modalities. I was concerned for you, as I am aware that the zeal of the CF community can yield a spitfire hatred for those who question its integrity. It was also refreshing to read a well thought out perspective on the cookie cutter mindsets of most of our modern day “coaches.”
    I am an instructor at the Coast Guard Helicopter Rescue Swimmer school in NC, and as such I train individuals in the skills necessary to save lives in precarious environments. Our purpose in training is not only to ensure physical ability, but to teach the students appropriate techniques for maintaining longevity and personal safety throughout their lives and careers. However, maintaining a rank of merely E-5 means simply carrying out orders placed by the number crunchers and higher ups who without education or philosophy decree methodology. I am very interested in your thoughts as well as methods that you would impose upon this body of trainees; if you have the time and inclination could you please share (or point me in the right direction) some of movements you think we should be incorporating and why? If not I understand knowledge is not free and time is just as important.

    Keep it up!
    Steve G.

  5. Mike

    Just wanted to let you know at least one other CrossFitter read all of this awesome article.

  6. Chip,

    Another excellent post. Thanks for taking the time and effort. This should be required reading for anyone in the health and fitness community.

    Having arrived at the tail end of the better days of CF, I’ve been continually disappointed in the decision making and the direction that CF “HQ” has taken for the past several years. For a time I was holding my breath that they would eventually come around to being better stewards within the health and fitness community, yet it just ain’t happening. With their massive explosion in popularity and achieving “mainstream” status (along with the whole Reebok thing), the potential for a change in direction is pretty much zero .

    I agree that there are a handful of people within the CF community who are doing a fine job, its certainly the exception rather than the rule. Unfortunately, the masses are going to be presented with this current brand of fitness that CF is pushing and rather than guiding their followers to a Higher place of Wholeness. Its just gonna be another trend that only reinforces and delivers more of what people already have enough of in life – stress, intensity, imbalance, separation, fragmentation, and compartmentalization versus Wholeness. You would be hard pressed to find people within the CF community that would agree with this perception, and that is because they have convinced themselves and their community that what they are doing is both functional and well rounded. Yet, as you so clearly point out in your article, CF is anything but well rounded.

    While it would be super cool to see CF become a truly holistic program, we all know that will never happen for a multitude of reasons. So, like you, we will continue to do what we do in our little corner of the world and continue to be who we are. All the while praying that more “box” owners will awaken and pursue a truly balanced approach. If not, we will welcome those who become broken, burned out and board and show them the way of Wholeness.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, however, one assumes that such a lengthy blog post begs for lengthy comments 🙂

    Peace,
    Chris

  7. Hi Chip,
    All these ideas and ideals came as a big and good surprise. It’s not usual for me to see (read) these kind of “out of the mainstream” thoughts written in such a clear and direct way. I will keep follow your work (your writings at least).
    Nuno

  8. Blair Lowe

    Nice article, Chip. While I appreciated all four chapters, I think the mind-body connection made me think of a few friends who just abandoned their globo for their new garage gym. I think they might appreciate some of the modalties that you cover at your workshops as they are already familiar with your gym from 2nd saturday

  9. Brendan

    “Movement chef”! I’m going to steal that phrase.

  10. Chip,

    Kudos to you for such a well thought out, organized, factual, lengthy piece. Several times while reading it, I nearly quit because it was so freaking long, but the information you presented was so balanced, I just couldn’t stop.

    I’ve quietly referred to many of the diehard CF adherents as being quite cult-like, and to my surprise, I find you’ve done the same.

    You should know your article was presented as evidence from someone else, to help back me up, after being attacked on a facebook discussion over the very subject matter your piece breaks down.

    I will now spend more time digging into your training philosophy and concepts (not now, spent all my time reading the article). As an old school physical culture guy, I embrace those standing against the strong tide of the fitness industrial complex.

    • Thanks for the kind words. For the record, I do refer to others calling CF a cult, but I gave a bit of a shout out to their tribal concept. There are cult-like followers, but all movements with that level of momentum will have such.

      I do apologize for the length. In this day and age, anything over a few paragraphs is usually quickly dismissed, so a 4-part, multiple-page pastiche takes some discipline to stick with. I’m glad ya did.

  11. Stefan G

    One of the best pieces on pro/con of training programs I´ve come across!
    Standing ovations from overseas.

    /Stefan, Sweden

  12. Rick V.

    Chip,

    I’ve been reading your stuff since a friend of mine starting posting pics from Body Tribe on facebook. This article is one of my favorites. As a new trainer I spend a lot of time trying to learn about different modalities and working on developing my personal fitness philosophy. I really appreciate your posts and links to other sources I may never have come across on my own.

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