Be an athlete.
Greg Glassman wrote the following about fitness, and it’s become scripture in the CrossFit world.
Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.
As you read it, a few things should stand out. First, the most broken record on earth could not be more played out than this intro on nutrition. It’s beautiful, concise, and accurate. And compulsive Crossfitters everywhere have ruined it. Honestly, if I read one more blog post about a Paleo challenge or hear another question about upping someone’s fat blocks I’m going to go drown myself in a swimming pool full of mis-portioned grains and dairy. Everyone’s onboard with healthy eating… get over it.
Second, you might notice that the last line of Glassman’s paragraph is hanging on to the rest by merely more than the period that precedes it. “Regularly learn and play new sports.” Not only does this sound like an afterthought, it sounds like an afterthought with no explanation. Why should we care about learning and playing new sports if the rest of the paragraph is outlining how best to support our physical existence without them?
The answer is simple. Most of us ignore it, are too busy to look for it, or just plain don’t want to admit it. Training is practice, nothing more. It’s preparation for something bigger, better, and with higher stakes. What happens in your gym isn’t showtime…it’s not even a scrimmage. It’s fucking ridiculous to go do thrusters for the sake of doing thrusters. We deadlift, clean, squat, press, C&J, and snatch because we want to be strong, powerful, and fast. We do pullups, dips, rope climbs, pushups, situps, handstands, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds to improve accuracy, coordination, balance and flexibility. We bike, run, swim, and row to build agility, stamina, and endurance. We do these things to make ourselves better, more capable humans outside the gym. (For a more thorough explanation on this read Opportunity).
Evaluating this capability is where sports come in. Sure you can do this without them: you will notice basic tasks becoming easier, your clothing fitting better, and in general you’ll start to feel younger. But these are piecemeal measures at best. Learning and playing new sports is a foolproof way to test your physical limits across every dimension of fitness. Take any traditional game and you’ll see all ten physical skills at play in combination. Tennis, golf, football, basketball, volleyball, cricket, rugby, etc—to play and excel at any of these you need at least moderate levels of endurance, stamina, strength, speed, power, agility, coordination, accuracy, flexibility, and balance. Not only that, you need to have them in unison and on call—the randomized nature of sport demands it. Imagine Bo Jackson sprinting down the sideline as fast as he can then stopping, resetting himself, and running somebody over. Or Tiger Woods swinging as hard as he can to the point of contact, then resettling his club and precisely touching the ball with the center of the face. True fitness is fast and strong…powerful and accurate. And it has to be this way seamlessly otherwise it doesn’t work.
We fail to re-create this demand in the gym simply because it isn’t necessary to our immediate goals. We train strength apart from balance, coordination apart from power because separation of skills is the best way to improve them. With focus, intensity, and time we can build capacity in anything, but what are those capacities worth if the body can’t use them in combination? Fluidity is the secret ingredient to preventing injury and living well, but our bodies will never be fluid unless we ask them to be. We love looking down our noses at specialists—bodybuilders who can’t run a mile or yoga masters who can’t do a deadlift—but few in CrossFit are much better. Take your average box to a soccer field and you’ll have 10 people playing kickball, 5 too tired to move, 3 with sprained ankles, and 4 looking for their halftime orange wedges. So, I submit: what exactly does it prove about your fitness if you can do Fran in sub 3:00 but can’t handle the ball for 5 minutes on the pitch?
Some of you might get defensive here and argue that soccer, football, basketball, or baseball are merely specific games with specific skills and that it’s for the lack of these skills that you suck at sports. I’ll concede that every sport has skills and techniques that must be learned and mastered, but each and every one rests on the foundation of the general ten. You can’t shoot a basketball well unless you are coordinated and accurate. You can’t make a lateral cut without strength and agility. The fact that you can’t do these things well on the court has less to do with your deficiency in sport specific skills like shooting and cutting, and more to do with your inability to access your general skills in a randomized environment. That’s why the greatest athletes are passable at every sport with just a little practice. Their general foundation is integrated enough to support them while they tune up the specifics.
Ultimately, life is about reaction, timing, and creativity. WODs are planned, hyped, and strategized. The final sentence of Glassman’s paragraph is one way we can close this gap. But the fact that it’s right there in our faces begs the question why more of us don’t?
Maybe we have too many bad memories of being picked last for that 3rd grade game of dodgeball. Or maybe we simply don’t like the idea of competing against others in a game that we don’t know so well. I’d buy either answer, but I have another one in mind. The CrossFit Games.
For all its lustor and merit (and believe me, I LOVE this event), the Games have become an obstacle when it comes to CrossFitters being athletes. As the sport of fitness has grown, the concept of a what it takes to be fit has grown along with it. Being that the Games represent the proving grounds of World Class Fitness, it follows perfectly well that the definition of fitness should correlate with the skills and tasks demanded of the competitors each summer in California. The fact that the events at the Games more closely mirror training modalities than sport modalities means that fitness has become, first and foremost, about getting good at training. That is, getting good at practice. Competitors must do thrusters for the sake of doing thrusters, pullups for the sake of doing pullups. Essentially, World Class Fitness has become about developing proficiency across broad time and modal domains, but through a practice-only methodology.
I believe the Games were originally meant to be a test of fitness and training methodologies, not a reason for training. But for many this is what they have become. Without slack in our rope we can travel only one direction--this is what has happened with CrossFit and sports. People have grown so obsessed with World Class Fitness and the particulars of its ultimate test that they’ve forgotten part of the original definition included being random, off-balance, and willing to try new things. It included utilizing your general skills in sport and without preparation. It included being an athlete, not just someone who trains.
Show me that on the blogroll and I'll be happy. I might even get you your orange wedge.