Does CrossFit Success Indicate True Fitness?

This post has long been a-brewing but my impetus to post it today was CrossFit’s Facebook status which shared a quote from Greg Glassman:

image

Here is my response to that.

Does CrossFit Success Indicate True Fitness?

The “Fittest Man on Earth” is not competing in Sochi right now, nor did he compete in the London 2012 Summer Olympics. You won’t ever see him play in a Superbowl, or any other championship sports game for that matter. The only “games” he preforms in are theCrossFit Games, held annually in California, which bestows the title “Fittest Man on Earth” upon the winner. As I approach my one year anniversary as a “CrossFitter,” I have found my experience with the various movements to be either very successful or very unsuccessful (with the unsuccessful far outnumbering the successful). Running, rowing, and deadlifts come naturally, yet heavy squats, pull-ups, handstand pushups, and presses are about as unnatural as imaginable for me. After watching the Crossfit Games and noticing the short stature of successful athletes, I questioned if my height and long limbs were holding me back. With so many athletic fields dominated by tall athletes, does Crossfit success indicate true fitness or success within a narrow field of human fitness?

Rich Froning, who reportedly stands at 5’9 according to some sources and 5’10 by others, is the winner of the 2011, 2012, and 2013 CrossFit Games. Froning is a remarkable athlete with great strength and mental toughness, but is by no means the fittest on earth. Our survival and “fitness” as a species has long been determined by our ability to run, with long limbs and height providing an advantage for efficient running. A sport where running ability is almost completely ignored and the top athletes are mediocre (at best) cannot be considered a true measure of human fitness. While Froning may be the “Fittest CrossFit Athlete on Earth,” Ashton Eaton, World Record holder and gold medalist at the 2012 Summer Olympics games in the decathlon, truly deserves the title “Fittest Man on Earth.”

For those unaware of CrossFit’s meteoric rise to popularity, the fitness company was founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman. There are now 8, 285 CrossFit gyms or “boxes” worldwide, where members go to complete the “WOD” (workout of the day) in a class setting led by a coach. CrossFit emphasizes bodyweight movements such as pushups and squats, Olympic weight lifting movements such cleans and snatches, as well as “distance movements” such as running and rowing. Workouts are constantly varied and are usually done at high intensity.

CrossFit claims that Glassman was, “the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way (increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains).” However, this same definition albeit slightly different wording can be found in a 1977 publication by Brian Sharkey of the Forest Service entitled “Fitness and Work Capacity.” Despite the agreement of the Forest Service and CrossFit about what constitutes fitness, I believe that its narrow definition as work capacity betrays what has made us “fit” as a species. A 2002 article released in the CrossFit Journal further expands this concept of fitness into three main standards. The first standard includes physical skills such as cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. The second skill is the ability to succeed at a randomly drawn physical task, and the third is ability to succeed at activities with different durations/intensity levels (phosphagenic, glycolytic, and oxidative pathways).

David Epstein’s book, “The Sports Gene” extended my thinking about CrossFit success and what exactly it indicates. According to Epstein, while practice can boost athletic performance, in order to reach an elite level in any given sport, success ultimately boils down to genetics and having the right body type. Since CrossFit is ultimately a synthesis of weightlifting and gymnastics, people with shorter limbs and a longer torso will tend to be more successful. Even though WODs offer a sprinkling of running and other endurance activities in some workouts, elite CrossFit athletes could not be considered remotely competitive in mid-distance/endurance events. Therefore, my original question can be further clarified as, “is weightlifting/gymnastic success indicative of overall human fitness?”

CrossFit claims that its movements “are the core movements of life, found everywhere, and built naturally into our DNA.” However, according to research and evolutionary history, the core movement of human life most directly built into our DNA is running. From a common sense perspective, one knows that young children will begin running shortly after learning to walk, whereas most young children could not be found spontaneously performing an Olympic weightlifting movement. This common sense perspective is strongly supported by evidence provided in several articles including, “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo” by Dennis M. Bramble of the University of Utah and Daniel E. Liebman of Harvard University (2004), “The evolution of human running: Effects of Changes in Lower-limb length on locomotor economy” by Steudel-Numbers, Weaver, et al. (2007), among many others.

Humans have unique endurance running capability when compared with other mammals and evolved key structural specializations to enable this, hence embedding running into our DNA. In a sprint, a horse or dog would easily beat a human; however, humans can ultimately maintain a higher speed over longer distances. Remarkably, elite runners can outrun horses at marathon distance. Musculoskeletal specializations that have evolved to enable humans to become such superior endurance runners include the long Achilles tendon, longitudinal arch of the foot, long leg length, nuchal ligament, and a tall narrow body forms. Additionally, humans evolved methods of thermoregulation and respiration such as mouth breathing (unlike apes who breathe through their noses and panting as used by horses and dogs), supporting higher levels of airflow with less muscular effort while also letting off excess heat. Decreased body hair, multiplication of eccrine sweat glands, and an elongated body form are all favorable adaptions for thermoregulation in humans. Most of these adaptions for endurance running were present in early Homo Erectus (approximately 1.8 million years ago).

The evolutionary theory put forth by Bramble and Liebman based on fossil record of the musculoskeletal, thermoregulatory, and respiratory adaptations was that endurance running helped humans engaged in persistence hunting and gain protein found in meat. Contrary to common perception, early tools were not developed until the Upper Paleolithic period (about 40,000 years ago) by homo sapiens; there is no evidence that Stone Age humans had weapons more advanced than sharp sticks. Engaging in close combat with other animals was dangerous and may have proved deadly, which was why endurance running helped hominids compete for food. Thermoregulatory adaptations would have even enabled early Homo to run some animals to exhaustion in the heat.

While other hominids, such as Australopithecus evolved short limbs to help with stability when fighting, the origin of homo marked a dramatic evolutionary shift in body form towards one that would support running as a primary means of survival. Allen’s Rule, a biological theory posited by Joel Allen in 1877, has received renewed interest and posits that endothermic animals from cold climates develop shorter appendages as protection from the cold. This would explain why many European, Asian, and Eskimo populations exhibit a lateral body form. Shorter limbs provide certain physical benefits in fields such as weightlifting and gymnastics, but there is no evidence that indicates these fitness activities were imperative for survival, or that they steered the evolution of our body form, quite unlike the link between longer limbs and running. According to Bramble and Liebman, “Today, [endurance running] is primarily a form of exercise and recreation, but its roots may be as ancient as the origin of the human genus, and its demands a major contributing factor to the human body form.”

Given the evidence, running is the fitness activity that can be most accurately termed “the core [movement] of life, found everywhere, and built naturally into our DNA.” When the “Fittest Man on Earth” is unable to achieve a remotely competitive time at a distance longer than a sprint, one must question if the standard of fitness being measured is truly in line with our evolutionary fitness as humans. Rich Froning is able to squat 445lbs, walk on his hands with remarkable ease, and complete 75 pullups consecutively. These are incredible feats of strength and coordination. However, Rich Froning’s fastest 400m time might not even land him a spot on a high school varsity track team, coming in at 60 seconds according to scores2010.crossfit.com and a whopping 1:05 according to roguefitness.com. At the high school where I teach, there are female runners who can handily beat his time. Froning’s 5K time is reported as 20:00 by roguefitness.com and 21:20 by scores2010.crossfit.com. Again, these are not remotely competitive times for these races.

Ashton Eaton, World Record holder and Olympic Gold Medalist in the London 2012 summer games decathlon, is far more deserving of this title, not only for his running ability but because he demonstrates each of CrossFit’s standards of fitness to a higher extent than Rich Froning. The decathlon originated in ancient Greece and consists of ten track and field events including: 100m, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400m, 110m hurdles, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw, and 1500m run. In these events, Ashton Eaton demonstrated elite ability in each of the physical skills included in CrossFit’s first standard of fitness, as well as success in all three duration/intensity levels. Eaton’s 1500m run time of 4:14 demonstrates oxidative capability and elite running ability, which is a truly incredible achievement after performing the preceding nine events of the decathlon. Furthermore, Eaton would leave Froning in the dust with his 46.7 second 400m compared with Froning’s 60 seconds.

My initial curiosity surrounding this topic came about through my informal observations of CrossFit competitor height. If long limbs and a tall, elongated stature are favorable adaptations for human survival and fitness, it seems counterintuitive that the competition for “Fittest Man on Earth” is biased towards people of shorter stature with shorter limbs through its emphasis on weightlifting and gymnastics movements.The average height of male competitors in the 2010 CrossFit games was 5’8. The average height of an elite decathlete male is slightly over 6’3. Within the fields of gymnastics and weightlifting there is a clear advantage to having shorter stature and/or shorter limbs, with the average male Olympic gymnast being around 5’6. Crossfit ultimately depends on weightlifting and gymnastics success, therefore making it representative of a particular skill set rather than overall fitness.

As a member of CrossFit, I would like to clarify that this is not intended as an attack but merely a disagreement about what winning the CrossFit Games signifies. As a tall, long-limbed CrossFitter I recognize that my struggles with certain movements do not stem from a lack of fitness, but from my ability to succeed at a broader definition of fitness not so closely tied to gymnastics and weightlifting. However, this does not hinder me from trying to improve at movements that seem unnatural me. Despite the controversy surrounding CrossFit, the workouts are beneficial and I even credit the strength I’ve gained from CrossFit for my injury-free running season. The sense of community fostered by CrossFit has helped many people across the world become healthier, stronger, and more motivated to increase and maintain fitness gains. I disagree with CrossFit’s limited view on what constitutes fitness and I believe Rich Froning’s physical achievements have earned him the title of “Fittest CrossFit Athlete on Earth.” Given Ashton Eaton’s super-human strength, agility, speed, power, endurance, coordination and stamina I am proud to name him “Fittest Man on Earth” in my book.

Don’t worry Greg Glassman, when I need any type of assurance regarding the fittest human beings on earth I’ll just turn on the Olympics.

Here I am with my Fittest man on Earth, looking like a lunatic because I was so happy to see him:

image