The Beauty of Chaos Theory (and my thoughts on Crossfit).
Posted Sep 22 2008 10:59am
Over the weekend my friend Andrius asked me about Crossfit, given its popularity among BJJers and mixed martial artists. What I told him (or rather, what I hope I conveyed) amounted to the following:
1. Crossfit has a lot of good things going for it: It promotes athleticism, community, benchmarking, and it’s undeniably fun. They place a huge emphasis on technical mastery and on understanding exercise, nutrition, and physical performance on a deeper level than your average “one more rep” trainer, which is excellent. Certainly has a lot to give for the guy or gal who’s been strength training for a long time and may be getting a little sick and tired of the old “squat-deadlift-bench” thing. And you can’t fault a community that promotes low-carb eating.
2. Crossfit can be dangerous as it incorporates Olympic lifts, ballistic movements, and repeated maximal efforts. Unless you took the time to learn the fundamentals and scaled the workouts properly, you could be in for it. Even experienced Crossfitters, in their zeal for better performances, injure themselves (just check out the Injuries subforum on the Crossfit site).
Their offical mascot is “Pukie the Clown”, for heavens’ sake. This is not an exercise protocol for the faint-hearted.
Admittedly, for a guy who studies BJJ, this is almost akin to talking out of both sides of my mouth. And yes, you can get hurt doing just about anything if you don’t scale properly (like slow-lifting 500 lbs on your first try). Just like the stock market - higher gain, higher risk. And while I don’t think Crossfit is geared towards your average 55 year old overweight, pre-diabetic, sedentary individual, some of them will gravitate towards it - so I think it’s a point worth making.
3. The third - and biggest - misgiving I had about Crossfit is its random programming. Yes, I know Coach Glassman is running microcycles within his macrocycles; yes, I know that the overall framework has an emphasis on improving the glycolytic system; and yes, I can appreciate the metabolic, strength, and strength endurance combinations - but what’s readily apparent to even a casual visitor of the Crossfit site is that the workouts are random, and that’s not good for adaptation (a classic law of exercise science dictates that if training demands are switched around too often, the body resists adaptation - IOW it gets “confused” as to what to adapt to, so it doesn’t).
This is not to imply that Crossfit isn’t useful or doesn’t do anything; obviously it does or it wouldn’t be as widespread as it is. What it does imply is:
It’s best if you’re an already accomplished athlete with a strong base in strength and sport skill.
Random programming is less than optimal (in terms of adaptation) than trying to specifically increase a particular aspect of training (strength, endurance, etc.).
Training to be a jack of all trades makes you a master of none. Which is totally fine if that’s your goal, but lots of folks would be better off specializing, especially beginners.
So brings us to the point of our post - chaos theory. After this discussion with Andrius I thought about Crossfit and how its (seemingly) random workouts reminded me of chaos theory. Most people are familiar with the term chaos theory (systems that look random, but are deterministic). Well, Crossfit is the Mandelbrot set of exercise - seemingly random, but with an overall goal: To train the glycolytic (read: short, intense bursts of energy) system.
Chaos theory is neat to observe, fun to think about, but for the best results in your exercise program, approach attribute improvement with focus. You want to get stronger? Focus on training for strength. Want to get leaner? Eat properly and lift weights. Want to win the Pan Ams? Get yer duff on the mats and lift weights.
Edit (9/3/08): On an unrelated note, someone just sent this article to me. I side with Gray Cook - Crossfit is not necessarily dangerous unless you try to do too much too soon, just the same as any other intense activity.