Addendum to the Physical Fitness Series

I’ve been training with weights for over twenty years and have passed through various phases of bodybuilding, powerlifting, “strongman”-type odd lifts, crosstraining and other forms of conditioning. I’ve seen a wide variety of training techniques, been employed as a personal trainer and met a number of professional athletes, coaches and world class amateurs in my time. I’d pretty much thought that I’d seen everything there was to see in a weight room.

My gym is quite large and it keeps a sizable number of personal trainers on a staff, including a couple of advanced specialists. Recently, I’d noticed that among them were a handful of trainers who had their clients regularly performing a rather odd combination of exercises in very short succession – they were hoisting kettlebells, then running over to a bench press followed by a set of power cleans to exhaustion. I’ve seen them pull out gymnastic rings, squat while holding an olympic bar in overhead press position and try to chin themselves into a back spasm. Today, one of the few female trainers who doesn’t look like she emigrated from the old German Democratic Republic, had a middle-aged dude trying to do some kind of deadlifting circuit, then bench then clean and jerk with a deep squat position. He was sort of fading on that exercise.

Generally, I mind my own business when I’m working out but I finally had to ask what in the sam hill they thought they were doing.

Evidently, there’s a kind of weightlifting cult out there revolving around a website called that publishes a workout of the day that is religiously followed by devotees in gyms across America. Despite some of the kookiness I’ve witnessed firsthand, the training philosophy Crossfit offers has some merit, particularly if your real passion is another sport for which you need improved conditioning. They have trainees moving weights as athletically as possible using compound movements with very little rest, which replicates how your body might apply strength with speed while in motion. The program is not going to build overwhelming strength or size but from my observations the serious Crossfit trainees get the kind of rugged, muscular endurance and short bursts of power you see in good collegiate wrestlers. They also tend to lean out a bit, an added bonus, though this is negated by the glassy-eyed look trainees get when they discuss the work-out of the day. Too reminiscent of Amway salesmen and Hari Krishna guys at airports.

I’m not going to join the cult. I like specializing in lifting very heavy weights (ok – relatively heavy weights these days) but I might sneak in their more practical routines to round out my fitness profile.

19 thoughts on “Addendum to the Physical Fitness Series”

  1. There is an absolutely stunning quantity of workout systems out there now. It can make your head spin.

    I used to be primarily a bike rider and picked up Muay Thai to supplement that – now I am primarily a MT guy and I do other exercises to help me be more rounded in MT. Things like bike riding, weights, as well as what I call my “no weight” exercises such as pushups, ab work, etc.

    The key is at least paying a trainer once to make sure you are doing whatever exercise you have chosen correctly so you aren’t wasting time, and you don’t hurt yourself.

  2. In passing, I note that you looked at the workout and wondeered “what in Sam Hill” were they doing. Whee does “sam hill” come from?

  3. Joseph Hill,

    Whee does “sam hill” come from?

    Sam Hill is a euphemism for “hell” and like most curse words serves as an intensifier. It’s origins are uncertain but it appears to have originated in early 1800’s. Most likely it began as a comparison to a real or imaginary character who moved fast or with great intensity. From there it evolved into a intensifier acceptable in polite company.

    Theory 1
    Theory 2

    My grandparents us to say, “he carried on like Carrie Nation!” I was surpised as hell when I studied the temperance movement and discovered she was a real person. It was almost like finding out that Zeus was a real guy who ran bar in downtown Athens.

  4. The Crossfit regime looks very much like the conditioning training developed for the Green Berets and other special forces tasked with the mission of operating behind enemy lines for long periods. That training focuses on developing virtually every muscle in the body without over developing any. Such training enables the trainee to carry out a wider range of task. Most sports centered training hyper-develops a minority of muscles in order to optimize performance in the limited task required by any particular sport.

    More interesting is the internet enabled social aspect of the regime. By coordinating everyone using the technique on a daily basis they create a powerful sense of community. People seem fanatical about the training because it satisfies the human emotional need to belong to a group.

  5. Actually , I think it was a fair article.

    As far as your love of lifting heavy things, there is a fair amount of ME work built into the CF cycles(DL, Squat, Press, Clean, Jerk, Snatch). There are also variations of CF which focus on more ME work than the main page( workout of the day.

  6. Hi Daniel,

    They are welcome to respond. While I was poking fun at the culture surrounding Crossfit (I’m thinking, for example, of the dude in my gym who trains with a shirt emblazoned with “CROSSFIT – your workout is our warm-up!”) I think Crossfit does have some very productive principles behind their program. If I was still coaching, I’d bring their routines into a year-long cycle interspersed with traditional specialized training, depending on what the fitness objectives were. A football lineman would benefit from Crossfit’s strengthening his core and improving his muscular endurance and flexibility but he would still need cycles of heavy training for power and limit strength that require longer rest periods between sets.

    Regarding the results. Hard to say with the trainers as they were already in good condition before becoming “Crossfit”. Many of their trainees are raw newbies but one of their clients was previously more of a bodybuilder and has adhered to the program strictly for some time. Overall he now looks much better balanced and lean and has really developed his core muscles and lagging bodyparts. Upper-body mass has declined however. A trade-off but he seems happy.


    I will take a deeper look into the program. I also sent the link to some friends who are PTs and/or run one of Chicago’s larger health clubs for some feedback.

  7. I am a Crossfitter. I am a now a certified Crossfit trainer. I appreciated your introduction article, and take no offense from it. Actually I thought it was very fair.

    Yes it is true: CF (crossfit) has become very popular among everyone, but it was originally targeted for the professional athlete. CF specializes in not specializing. It centers around training the three main metabolic pathways that drive the body. As opposed to training just one or two.

    For me, I was not a trainer of any kind when I started. I initially lost about 30lbs, but have gained some back in muscle. my body composition has changed dramatically, loosing a total of 4% body fat in the end. For me I love it!

    I appreciate that everyone has there own fitness goals and desires. I am not trying to sell anyone. Just thought I’d share some info.



  8. Daniel,

    Thanks for posting a link in the CF forum ! Good discussion


    Thanks! From my limited observation/knowledge CF is different because of it’s combination of generalization and high intensity. As I just started looking at it in the last couple of days, I’m certain there’s a lot more for me to learn about your system of training.

  9. Good article. I had never witnessed anyone doing Crossfit before I myself got a start, but I’m sure my reaction would have been much the same as yours. But CF is more than just the workouts. is a invaluable resource of (free) information on power lifting, oly lifting, bodyweight training, gymastics, nutrition, that even if you don’t adhere to the prescribed workouts there is still a wellspring of knowledge that can be applied to your chosen speciality, not to mention a supportive community that goes way beyond the lengths I’ve seen any other forum go to help newbies and veterans alike to improve their own personal fitness. Also besides being whipped into the strongest and leanest shape of my life, my nagging overuse injuries that were a constant reminder of something needing resting or rehabbing or minding have 90% disappeared. For example, my rotator cuff; once injured or weakened with almost every overhead pressing or pulling exercise, now feels stronger than it ever has. So, yeah, I drink the Crossfit Kool-Aid. And then I bust through a brick wall and say “Oh Yeah!”

  10. I agree to a point on the size/strength argument- most of us in the CrossFit community do not want overwhelming size (you tend to run slower), but I would take a closer look into the strength aspect. There are some ridiculously strong CrossFitters that don’t look the part.

    I do think the whole “Too reminiscent of Amway salesmen and Hari Krishna guys at airports” was a bit much. In Amway you get soap, in Hari Krishna you get poppies. In CrossFit you get stronger, leaner, healthier (and happier) people. Thats a bad thing? =) You remember the day you first PR’d on a bench press and had to tell the world? Well, the majority of new people get that feeling after their first CrossFit workout and need to go tell the world. It isn’t a cult, its excitement about being able to improve their life. I’d say the excitement is justified.

  11. I have done Crossfit for over a year and greatly improved overall fitness, but I lost a little base strength and my run times are slower. The Crossfit community recognized the loss of base strength, so they started added more to their workouts of the day (WOD). I’m sure there is a technical term, but by base strength I’m referring to my one rep max. What I “relearned” is cross training is critically important, but if you want to improve in a certain event whether it a disc throw, running, or benching, you must still conduct specific event training.

    Having been in Special Forces for over 20 years I can confirm that crossfit was never part of our training routine until very recently. Also we quit training to infiltrate the USSR years ago, and I doubt that Crossfit would have enabled us to carrry a rucksack for 20-40 miles a day (day after day). The only training that would condition you to the level you needed to be at for this event was rucking. However, Crossfit or Crossfit like training would have been a great addition and most of us old goats which we knew about it years ago.

  12. Fun post, Count ZP.

    For no special reason at all except for the urge to mumble something here: here’s one of my favorite weightlifting related resources. ( I dig the matrix of anatomy, exercises and illustrations.

    I’m just depressed that most of the dungeon gyms I used to frequent have been replaced by the wall-to-wall mirrored metrosexual corporate outfits. I stopped fighting the trend a while back, but I still find myself occasionally despising myself every now and then for caving in to the unbeatable accessibility offered by the franchised fitness industry.

  13. Tim & George,

    Glad you stopped by. I would say that, in fairness, most of the ppl doing crossfit at my gym, which is a very small percentage at present, are (with a few exceptions) mostly new to training in general and not just to crossfit, so their enthusiasm is understandable. Secondly, I took a look at the videos on the crossfit site which give a more impressive picture of the program, watching advanced athletes execute the routines. I liked the emphasis on using an explosive and ballistic style of movement, something too few ppl in gyms are doing these days. For those interested, go here & scroll down:

    Hi One Strike,

    Aren’t you also on The Small Wars Council discussion board, by chance ? In any case, welcome!

    You’re right – we are able to do pretty much what we train for ( though running 40 miles with a rucksack ain’t for me)and your comments are well-taken. I have no interest in loss of strength level at the point but I could stand to improve other areas of physical fitness.

    Hi M1

    I started in the same kind of gym, very hardcore, that was, in time, duly closed when the owner skipped town with the membership’s money. A pattern that seemed to repeat itself with that kind of demographic in that era. OTOH, while they lasted, a lot of progress could be made in that atmosphere which was focused on amassing gains in poundages lifted and size.

  14. I’ve changed a lot of my workout habits based upon reading at Art DeVany’s website:

    As it turns out Art is an economists whose claim to fame is his book about Hollywood economics (and he was a professor at UofC, thus he’s a Chicaog Boy). However, Art’s son and, now deceased, wife are Type 1 diabetics and over the last 30 years he followed a form of eating and exercising based upon the diet and workout patterns of our ancestors about 10,000 years ago, something he calls evolutionary fitness.
    Recently, the discussion at his blog was over whether diet or exercise had the biggest effect upon body shape, with diet winning. There was even an example of two subjects from Robb Wolf who is a CrossFit trainer:

    However, DeVany’s theory has more to do than just diet. He also advocates a style of workout based upon the Power Law. The idea is the working out and the benefits from it are dynamic and not linear. So, for instance if your are going to do three sets of ten on the bench; it is really the first set that you gain all the benefit from. That set creates the tiny tears in you muscle that encourages the release of HGH which promotes both muscle growth and repair. Thus, for the purposes of building strength, one set is enough. (NOT, however for the purposes of building size, which requires volume). The same idea for cardio; sprints over distance (short quick over long and plodding). Art’s also big on the big muscle groups, aka core muscles, but that, as the other gym rats here know is not unique to him.

    Anyhoo, it’s a great read sometimes and the CrossFit connection of the post I linked to above made me think of it.

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