Sunday, September 29, 2013

Twenty Thousand Reps Under the Bar: A Journey into CrossFit

The adventurers in Jules Verne’s science fiction classic hunted a giant narwhal across the sea and after a battle of ship and sea beast three men survive after being taken into the belly of the Nautilus. There they discover that it is actually a leviathan submarine piloted by an eccentric genius, Captain Nemo. The narrator, Professor Aronnax, an expert French marine biologist embraces his capture and learns to enjoy the odd Captain, along with his submarine. However, Ned Land, a Canadian harpoonist who was also captured with Aronnax is consumed by a desire to escape. 

Our current fitness community, especially the strength and conditioning population, are much like the master harpoonist Ned Land.  They see the beast that is CrossFit and hunt it, to unknown lengths, until the creature’s demise; ideally drowning in a sea of its own sweat, blood, chalk, and bound by leagues of Rock Tape. They hunt the beast because they fear it. They fear it because they do not understand it, and they do not understand it because it is different.

This is not about the story of Ned Land. That story is well known across the seven seas. Most recently, Land’s horrific encounters with rhabdomyolysis (1) has caused turmoil across all things fitness related. However, therein lays the problem- on the surface everything is a leviathan to a master harpoonist. This story is about Professor Aronnax, and much like him my understanding of CrossFit was known from a perspective above the surface- in fact, much like Ned Land; I hunted that leviathan for leagues and years. But now, once aboard the Nautilus and after befriending its captain, I have become like Aronnax.

My perspective has changed. I have embraced the beast known as CrossFit. Not because it is less of a monster…

But because I understand it better.

A few years ago I started lifting, and then I started learning about it. Once I started learning about training, I started to apply what I learned to my own efforts. Since that day I now have a number of certifications, a small amount of competition experience, a few records, and daily emails asking for training advice.

That’s how my journey began as a marine biologist, or rather, a “coach.” After wrapping up the last of a certificate package in March I knew it was time to apply this knowledge in the field. It was time to venture out into the sea and test the skills I have studied and experimented on myself, and a few others, against the masses. Unbeknownst to me the Nautilus had room aboard and like any great scientist I saw the danger and taboo culture it permeates as oddly appealing and exciting.

And after some consideration, I decided that I should not fear the beast, instead I should learn it. Initially my mindset was that with luck the mantra “know your enemy” would prevail. Whether it is Stockholm syndrome or genuine appreciation, my mindset has changed.

From day one I was brought aboard warmly. The community immediately saw value in my past efforts and knowledge as a powerlifter. They asked questions and were intrigued as to why I did not CrossFit. I explained my focus as an athlete and the community by and large accepted it. Already the stigma of being populated entirely by vain and narcissistic know-nothings was dispelled. I saw that they accepted foreigners and yearned for their knowledge; if not to only understand it, but to also apply it to their own lives.

Days turned into weeks and weeks into months.

Unlike Professor Aronnax I could surface at any time. Once there I could look upon the Nautilus beneath the rippling tides and again be reminded of the horrifying nature which exists in any beast. Also on the surface I could stand perched atop the Nautilus and see land, and those walking upon it, for what it, and they, really are.

Different kinds of beasts. Still carrying with them an instinctual horrifying nature.

Since April I have been “coaching” at a CrossFit gym. I put coach in quotations because I still feel tied to my old life and revere the word with honor and respect. Yet I am beginning to realize the silliness in those feelings as there is a litany of people unassociated with CrossFit, or even athletics, who rightly use the word as a title. Fundamentally coaches are individuals who teach and train others how to do something and whether or not someone agrees with CrossFit, that’s exactly what they are doing. Fighting against the title “Coach” is a battle my old self is losing. As the members aboard the Nautilus get stronger and faster through my instruction it is apparent that I am coaching them towards improved abilities.

This does not mean I liken myself to Dan John or Chad Wesley Smith.

Judith Sheindlin is the rightful owner of her title, Judge. She is not claiming to be Antonin Scalia.

As I continued my journey, escorted by my own Captain Nemo, I learned the ways and whys of CrossFit. There were workouts where I questioned the reasoning. Why squat, box jump, and run against the clock? Why do you move this like that? Why reps, time, weight, etcetera? Often the answer could be summed up as, “because we can.”

Ah ha! At last, an unscientific justification for a scientific process.

But wait… I too have used the excuse “because I can” when defending my actions against others. Why high rep squats? Why sumo and conventional deadlifts? Why zerchers? Why reverse grip bench? Why thumbless? And many more.

Because I can.

I began to realize that sometimes we do things for no other reason than because we can, or want to, regardless of what it is we are doing. There should not always be a scientific necessity behind everything inside or outside of the gym. Why do I behind the neck press many times per month, with variable loads and volumes, when most “scientific” research says that it is unsafe? Why does Konstantin Konstantinovs deadlift with a rounded back? Why did Bob Peoples deadlift with a form most modern day experts would cringe at? (2) Why do strongmen competitors carry sandbags through knee deep water before many other events? (3)

Because they can.

To me, there is a bit of beauty in that mentality.

Still to this day the argument “but that isn’t proper” comes to mind. Not proper form, reps, load, exercise pairings, or periodization. Not proper for what? Weightlifting? Powerlifting? Criticize a man’s deadlift form on YouTube and if he were to respond, “I’m training for strongman.” Then, according to the athletic gurus, all would be forgiven. Save the sake for a few individuals.

Of course there is an optimal and suboptimal way of doing something. But in moving things from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ all that matters is that they are moved. That’s what CrossFit is- moving things from here to there. And isn’t it odd that strongman is that very similar beast; often populated by actual leviathans.

See, the Nautilus has shown me that CrossFit, much to its moniker, is everything I already know- only slightly different. In strongman the winner is determined by time, distance, or load moved. And that’s a measure CrossFit has taken and turned on its head. Captain Nemo measures the performance of his crew by those very same measures. Except their times are often longer, the distance is greater, and the load is significantly lighter. Moreover, in powerlifting and weightlifting the chosen lifts must be completed within a defined set of rules, within an acute margin of technical error. CrossFit dumps this and largely has “complete the lift” policy; like strongman. There are things as no-reps, but outside of a competition that sort of judiciousness is rarely seen.

When the first weightlifters began to move away from the split snatch in favor of the squat snatch there was dissent. (4) Yet now it would seem that the squat snatch is king, as it is the most commonly accepted form of the movement. I’m not saying Captain Nemo and his ilk are superior to weightlifters, powerlifters or strongmen.

I’m saying they’re different.

And in that difference they shine. Captain Nemo sought refuge in the depths of the ocean, away from imperialist governments and oppression. It was his brilliance, and unarguable madness, which led him to build the Nautilus and recruit faithful followers; once built they took to the sea to hide away from governments and fight against enemies. CrossFit is fighting against the monotony of the treadmill, the lackluster of Planet Fitness, and the social backwardness that tells both men and women barbells are bad. CrossFitters are excited about this. Many of them tell everyone about it. Many of them want everyone to try it.

Which some would say is likening to a cult.

Well, from the surface it would appear that way. But as a powerlifter who coaches CrossFitters multiple times per week and has flatly told many of them, “I do not do WODs.” I can say with absolute certainty, they could not care less. All that matters to them is that I’m healthy, improving myself, and helping others, safely. Contrasted against that are my very own people, powerlifters, who shun away different training methods, styles, and programs. Westside vs Smolov vs 5/3/1 vs Cube… the list goes on and on. With the infighting between powerlifters it is clear why CrossFit may appear cultish- there is no harmony between the former as there is the latter.

There is absolutely a surface appearance of cult like behavior among CrossFitters. They are excited about their new strength, stamina, appearance, and simply want to tell everyone about it. Some will shun away outsiders, but that behavior is not unique to CrossFit.  

The fears and contempt I had for CrossFit before I came aboard the Nautilus were justified by many things and still to this day I walk within it’s hull and see things I have never seen before. The difference is now, subsurface and after many days at sea, I am beginning to understand the ways and whys. The genius of ‘Fran’ and the stupidity of ‘Murph.’ (5, 6, 7.) Yes there are better ways to get stronger. Yes there are better ways to get more conditioned. 

But there is no better way to keep things interesting. 

And that is what keeps people coming back to CrossFit- curiosity. I can do one hundred pull ups, I can run one mile, I can do two hundred push ups and three hundred air squats. But can I do them altogether, and then add a mile at the end? That curiosity leads some men to the Mariana Trench and some to the top of Everest… and some to their death.

That’s the curiosity, which is the heartbeat of CrossFit.

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but the inherent challenge within the wondrous question “can it be done?” is what brought climbers to the top of Everest, runners across the desert floor of Death Valley, and mushers and their dogs across thousands of miles of frozen emptiness. CrossFit aims to push the limits of the human ability in their own direction. The direction is the only difference. The reasoning is the same.

All things can be scaled down to the novice. Everest to a nearby hill and Badwater to a lap around the block. Which leads me to the single greatest lesson I have learned since coming aboard the Nautilus.

The most important thing I have learned at sea is this, piloted by a dim and malevolent captain the Nautilus quickly becomes a machine of destruction and will ultimately lead itself into maelstrom. The good and the bad, they are all CrossFit; because CrossFit is an idea- it is not a thing. What it is has been around for a long time. The name is the thing that gives it publicity. Ideas can be corrupted, good intentions can have bad results, and great theory without practice can easily become dangerous. It is entirely dependent upon the Captain and his crew. I am lucky in that I was brought aboard a vessel that so responsibly cruises the sea.

That responsibility of captain and crew is my single guidance to anyone considering setting off aboard a submarine. Go on skeptical and withhold your trust, keep close your life vest and breath deep, because it is not until your captain begins to dive will you be able to determine whether he is a cruel rogue who measures progress by pain- or a benevolent steward who understands progress means nothing if stolen by perilous action.

Aronnax embraced his capture by Captain Nemo aboard the Nautilus because as a marine biologist he saw value in it. Like him I have embraced CrossFit because as a powerlifter, I see value in it.