Reconciling CrossFit, the Lifestyle and Training Methodology, with CrossFit, the Competitive Sport

Only a few weeks remain of the CrossFit Open, an event during which athletes competing all around the world seek qualification for the 2020 CrossFit Games.  Many—including myself—would characterize the Open as a global celebration of fitness and a worthy cause that promotes health and wellness through physical activity and nutritional consciousness.  Fitness is a journey that should last a lifetime, and for some CrossFit participants, the Open is an annual checkup for evaluating personal goals, assessing fitness progress, and amending training plans in order to address what is or is not working.  Elite athletes, on the other hand, are exposed to a simple but potent sample of the programming they will face months later at the CrossFit Games, should those individuals and teams earn bids to compete.  For others, the Open is a basic introduction to fitness and a welcoming into one of the most inclusive communities ever to have existed on this planet.

The Open is a daunting fitness gauntlet, cast by one of the methodology’s founders and overseen by a brilliant programmer.  Many CrossFit participants love it—for the thrill, the challenge, the sweat, the accomplishment; but, some do not.  The truth of the matter is that participation in the CrossFit Open has changed dramatically in the past five years, quantitatively and qualitatively.  Registration numbers have peaked then fallen, and the communal spirit at CrossFit Affiliates has been tainted by the grumbles of participant discontent.

To understand why, it is important to realize “CrossFit” is not just one thing.  In fact, the term “CrossFit” is a tag that identifies several things, among them: a business, a marketing trademark and brand name, a lifestyle and fitness methodology, and a competitive sport.  And, although these things are all related—and the lines blurred between some of them—there are some important differences amongst them.  In this article, I will isolate two of these “CrossFits”: 1) CrossFit, the lifestyle and training methodology; and 2) CrossFit, the competitive sport.  After defining their missions, as I understand them to be, I will elaborate on what sets them in apparent conflict, and explain how these tensions may manifest in the contemporary CrossFit Open context.

Before “CrossFit” was a recognizable brand name, licensed to Reebok for a fixed term of years to distinguish its unique line of fitness apparel and related products, it was an idea.  Over time, collaboration and experimentation resulted in the lifestyle and fitness methodology we identify with today, and the one employed by certified CrossFit Affiliates to train box members everywhere.  CrossFit, the lifestyle and fitness methodology (hereinafter, the “Methodology”), is a broad and inclusive physical training template that utilizes functional movement and exposes participants to a variety of physiological stimuli, so as to progressively improve their athletic capacities in many areas, as well as their general health and wellness.

Related to (but distinct from) the Methodology is CrossFit, the competitive sport (hereinafter, the “Sport”), a physically grueling athletic discipline and formal contest that puts participants through similarly diverse training obstacles in order to establish which individual or group of individuals is the fittest at the time of the contest, according to criteria elaborated on in the methodological literature that comprises the CrossFit Journal.  Examples of the Sport are local CrossFit competitions, CrossFit sanctioned global qualification events, and, of course, the CrossFit Games.  Generally speaking, the Methodology is a guideline for developing participants into functional beings that are competent in many areas, as opposed to being excellent in a few (or one), while the Sport is a tool for discerning which people are very competent at many things.

These two “CrossFits” can also be differentiated on a more philosophical level.  The mission of the Methodology is to improve individuals’ functions and capacities.  This is a normative ambition that looks forward into the future, with no definitive termination point.  The Methodology welcomes participants on a lengthy, life-long journey.  Moreover, that invitation is extended to anyone and everyone, regardless of anatomy, ability, experience, etc.  By contrast, the mission of the Sport is to reveal the way things are, at a very specific time: the time of the contest.  This is an unsympathetic, descriptive apparatus that clarifies the way things are in the present, and it is no more forward looking than a screenshot of the leaderboard once the final score has been submitted at the culmination of an event.  Where the Methodology makes room for everyone, the Sport expels all but the fittest, and this is the foundation of the discontent that pervades the current CrossFit Open context.

The CrossFit Open is, first and foremost, an athletic contest, and as such, it is a representation of the Sport.  No matter how we try to characterize it, the Open is designed to eliminate participants that would not be competitive at any subsequent stages of competition.  Anyone wishing to impose a value judgment on the Open structure or the Open programming must first appreciate this stricture.

Now, what makes the Open different than many other more traditional athletic contests is that its field of participation is essentially “open” to anyone in the world that wishes to register.  This means that credentials like experience cannot preclude anyone from submitting their scores for the five rigorous WODs that comprise the Open.  Consequently, CrossFit (the Sport) has grown significantly in the last decade.  It is no longer localized in a few garages west of the Rockies.

That the Methodology actually works as a training template for improving health and wellness has also played a major role in the expansion of all things CrossFit, including participation in the CrossFit Open.  Coupled with increased (global) participation, the relative athletic capacities of those participating have improved substantially.  Indeed, as we discussed above, the mission of CrossFit (the Methodology) is forward striving and capable of adaptation.  The Methodology is treading in unchartered waters, with respect to testing the limitations of human physiological capacity, and pushing those boundaries perpetually outwards.  It naturally follows that those who have utilized the Methodology for a long time have continued to develop since the first CrossFit Open.  As the fit have gotten more fit, however, the field has gotten more competitive.

Accordingly, the structure of the training template followed by the elite CrossFit athlete has wavered more than a little from the Methodology as originally envisioned.  We now see Games caliber athletes partaking in five-plus training sessions a day, six days a week, and these athletes spend much of their time engaging in short-term specialization to mitigate deficiencies (and/or get an edge), as opposed to spreading those physiological and neurological adaptations out over the long-term.  In other words, the training undertaken by elite athletes no longer takes the same form as that offered to the general public at CrossFit Affiliates.  Nor is the elite athlete’s training template realistic or sustainable for any but serious athletes, amateur and professional, who have devoted their lives almost exclusively to CrossFit (the Sport).  In fact, some CrossFit Affiliates offer varied training templates that can be used by members or purchased online.  Despite access to the advanced programming, competition-oriented templates remain beyond the reach and experience of most CrossFit participants.

So, although CrossFit (the Methodology) has improved the lives of many, there is growing disparity between the athletic capacities of elite CrossFit athletes and the rest of the population.  It falls onto those programming for the CrossFit Open (i.e. Dave Castro) to address this reality; and, because the Open is, at its core, a contest of elite athleticism, Dave Castro’s programming must challenge the elite athlete.  The result: Affiliate programming, as a general representation of the Methodology, is no longer necessarily compatible with Open programming, which is tailored to the elite athlete.

In light of the above, it is no surprise that frustration has built up in the hearts of average CrossFit participants who find themselves unable to complete Open tasks, which dilutes the communal spirit of registering for and participating in the CrossFit Open.  Notwithstanding the apparent conflict between the Methodology and the Sport, Open participation by even the most novice “CrossFitter” is important and worthwhile for many reasons.  One of the biggest is solidarity—being part of a fitness revolution and a community that endorses health and wellness, promotes positive self-imaging, and empowers individuals through physical exercise.  Doing so sets a positive example, both for posterity and for others whose biggest obstacles to beginning a fitness journey are the twin fears of failing and of being judged.  Additionally, Open registration/participation is a formal demonstration of support for local CrossFit Affiliate owners and their staffs, who spend countless hours throughout the year preparing their members for the Open and finding ways to make each Open special.

~Coach Brian
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