Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Sugar, Water, LIES.

My subject for today doesn't just apply to the world of fitness, it's a bit larger than that. What I want to talk to you guys about is drinking the kool-aid. If you're not familiar with the phrase it's a colloquialism that basically means ascribing to any cult-like philosophy and refusing to acknowledge the detractors and counter-arguments regardless of how well researched or educated they may be.

I was having a conversation about CrossFit last week with an old classmate of mine. She's both the manager of a commercial fitness facility and the head coach of a collegiate field hockey team. In other words, she's someone who knows a fair amount about fitness in both the general sense and strength and conditioning as it relates to high level athletes.

She read my post about CrossFit from a few weeks ago and decided to do a little investigating of her own. Now, before I get into any of this, I want to point out that I've already stated I think CrossFit is awesome as a training philosophy. I love the intensity, I love the focus on movement over exercise and frankly I just think CrossFit is a lot more fun than most of the workouts out there. I'm also a little sick in the head and enjoy things like working out until I'm nauseous and/or vomiting, so take that for whatever it's worth.

The first place she went on her educational venture was to the CrossFit website. Again, I've said that this website is a pretty great resource for tons of free information about nutrition and a database of workouts that quite literally goes back for years. This is not what she found. This is. 

This is a screen capture from the Crossfit FAQ. It can be found here. While I strongly agree with several of the claims on this list there are two that are not only disingenuous but poorly informed and poorly argued.

Number 1: Gymnasts learn new sports faster than other athletes. Oh do they now? That's interesting, because I have to tell you having grown up surrounded by gymnasts and martial artists I can tell you pretty conclusively that this claim is bullsh*t. 

Now, the organization could have taken the time to explain what exactly they mean by learning faster, but they don't. They just make an absurd claim and move right along because they know the vast majority of readers will see it and nod their heads. What I believe they are referring to is motor learning, your body's ability to form and utilize new motor patterns. If this is in fact what they mean then there is a degree of validity to it.

 Gymnastics is a sport that is subjectively and aesthetically judged. Gymnasts are required to pay extremely close attention to every facet of their movements and the positioning of their body through those movements. As a result they have a highly developed sense of proprioception (awareness of their body in space) and an accelerated ability to learn highly technical movements. I would personally argue that this extends to any sport or activity that is judged in a similar way as I've seen profound levels of motor learning from martial artists and dancers as well. Now, despite the truth that is readily apparent in this claim, there is to me at least 2 huge problems with this statement.

The first is that motor learning is a skill developed over large amounts of time and a huge part of it is innate. Gymnasts make it to the elite levels of their sport because they were born with a higher proficiency in motor learning, not simply because the practice of gymnastics has imbued them with a higher level of proprioception and muscle memory. The practice does, of course, improve these innate proficiencies but to claim that beginning the practice of gymnastics will get anyone and everyone who tries to the same level of motor learning is almost comical. That would be like saying that the study of advanced calculus will turn you into a mathematical genius, regardless of your initial level of understanding.

The second issue with this statement is that to me it demonstrates a poor understanding of "sport." Obviously becoming bigger, stronger and faster will help you perform better in most sports and athletic endeavors. That being said, any competitive athlete can tell you that there is infinitely more involved in learning and playing sports than simply memorizing the movements. Being able to squat three hundred pounds won't teach you field awareness and rowing an insanely fast 5k won't help your passing instincts. Personally, I have a very high level of motor learning. I can learn complicated and technical movements very quickly and it has been an asset to me in my professional field. Even so, I am an average athlete in most conventional sports because I never grew up playing them. To use another metaphor, saying that motor learning makes you the best at sports is equivalent to saying that hitting a heavy bag makes you the best boxer. Sure, you understand the proper mechanics of throwing a punch but to quote one of my favorite athletes and fitness icons of all time, Bruce Lee, bags don't hit back and neither does a squat rack. 

The last claim on the list is that "the world's most successful athletes and coaches rely on exercise science the way a deer hunter relies on an accordion." While I do appreciate their sense of humor this is a completely ridiculous statement but not because it's a lie. It isn't.

My educational background is in exercise science and I can tell you we are not a terribly well respected field. We are considered a soft science by most other scientific professionals and I think its mostly because compared to them, we're still fairly new. As we progress in our ability to do meaningful scientific work and implement our research in a significant way I really believe the prevalent attitude toward our field will change. The reality is maybe we'll get there, maybe we won't, but that's somewhat beside the point. CrossFit claims to be an evidence based approach to fitness. What does evidence based sound like to you? Science...that is quite literally what the scientific method is based on. Assumptions and rules based on repeatable and reproducible results. Evidence. So if your organization is claiming to be the next big thing in the world of exercise and your argument is that you are doing so in a scientific, evidence based manner, why would you go out of your way to basically sh*t on the people who are trying to do the same thing?

Simple. Because you have a financial incentive to do so. A lot of what CrossFit claims is evidence based is questionable at best and at worst, downright dishonest. I've said it over and over: fitness is a field of specificity and CrossFit is a workout that is anything but. That doesn't make it inherently bad, in  fact if you are working out just to be fit in a general sense without a specific goal in mind CrossFit may be the best method for you. As soon as you have a specific goal, however, CrossFit rapidly loses it's advantage. They can't tell you that, of course, because they need you to shut up and give them your money. A lot of it, like, at least $150 a month. And don't forget the $150 start up fee and introductory sessions. Who's going to want to pay them $300 to get through the door if they are willing to acknowledge their own weaknesses? So instead they've created an incredible brand image around their absurdly shredded athletes. I will say, as far as images go it's very enticing but so is a pitcher of kool-aid when you're thirsty. That's hardly an indication of any substance. 

The reality is that if you are billing yourself as the next big thing in science/evidence based fitness, you should be trying to contribute and improve the body of exercise science; not attempting to get everyone to disregard it completely. Would you trust an oncologist who tried to tell you that as a whole, the field of oncology is nonsense but you should take the prescription medications he's peddling? Would it encourage you to believe that he can cure you simply because he doesn't have cancer? This is one of my biggest frustrations about CrossFit. Most of the high level CrossFitters and competitors got their base of fitness in another pursuit and then turned to CrossFit which means that saying, "look at our athletes, look at how jacked they are," is once again completely disingenuous. Yea, they're all ripped, but what does that have to do with me or why I should listen to you? The truth? Absolutely nothing.

I think it also bears mentioning that despite the organizations claims, almost no professional athletes use CF as a training methodology. They all have team strength and conditioning coaches with masters degrees in, guess what? Yep. Exercise Science. They can say whatever they want on their website because it's their website. The reality, however, is that the world's most successful coaches and athletes don't much care for CrossFit either.

I'm going to stop beating up on CF now. One of the most unfortunate things about the organization is that most of the people I know who are professionally associated with CF are very humble, intelligent and highly educated people. Kelly Starrett, their staff Physical Therapist and the guy who runs MobilityWOD.com is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant and forward thinking minds in the field of human movement. There is a lot of great stuff to be said about CrossFit. That is not tantamount to saying that they are infallible because they are far, far from it. 

I think CrossFit is great. I think Paleo is great. I am not a fan of the cult of CrossFit or the cult of Paleo. You know these people, they're everywhere. As soon as you mention you're working out or trying a diet they tell you "you have to do this one. CrossFit is the best. Paleo is the best." Oh is it? And how do you know that? Do you have any idea what my goals or capabilities are? Is your recommendation actually based on attempting to accommodate my needs, or your own need to propagate the myths your cult has sold you? You can go right on drinking that kool-aid my friend but I don't want any part of it. 

Fitness is a field pervaded by snake oil salesmen. There will always be a self proclaimed guru flashing his perfect smile and chiseled abs to tell you his brand of kool-aid is the best and only. There is no "best." There is no "only." Be wary of anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. Take it all in, learn from these people what you can (if anything) and leave the garbage behind. You don't have to WOD twice a day and pay $150/month at a box to benefit from CrossFit's training principles nor do you have to eat only grass fed pasture raised beef to see improvements from Paleo's nutritional guidelines. Educate yourself. Keep what's useful. Forget the rest.

Don't get caught up in a cult. Don't drink the kool-aid.

As always, good luck and good lifting.


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