Living, Listening, and Learning

Why I'm Leaving CrossFit

Living, Listening, and Learning

Happy Sunday,

First off, thanks for the wonderful response to my most recent article— Leaving CrossFit. It was great to hear the feedback and ideas that resonated with each of you. If you enjoyed it, click here to give it a share!

Second, as quasi-nomadic regional settlers, we’re on the move again. This time, we’re venturing back to our favorite little Seattle neighborhood: Belltown.

Moving is an experience filled with so many emotions. On the less-positive end, it induces anxiety, confusion, and stress. On the positive side of the spectrum, it offers an opportunity to change perspective, purge unnecessary clutter (ala Marie Kondo), reset your daily routines, and explore new surroundings. We’re currently sitting safely on the positive side, and plan to stay there. Wish us luck.

While we pack some boxes, take some time to unpack the ideas and inspiration in the articles below!

— Kevin K.


Leaving CrossFit — A Remarkable Story of Learning, Loving, and Leaving

I lay in a pool of sweat with my eyes closed, writhing on the floor, gasping for air while desperately attempting to keep my lunch in. In this moment, I am utterly incapable of speaking, much less signing my name and workout time to a whiteboard only two feet away. As my I notice the unsettling metallic taste filling my mouth and lungs, I mentally prepare myself for what must surely be my eventual death. “Goodbye world, it’s been short but fun.”

Minutes pass by as I slowly regain control of my limbs. Like a baby deer, I cautiously test my ability to stand and high five the other survivors. As the pain recedes, a smile crawls on to my face. Apparently, some masochistic part of me enjoyed this "workout." And guess what! I’m not alone in this experience. In fact, millions of people around the world find this self-flagellation enjoyable; this is CrossFit.

It's been 12 years since my, all-too-brutal initiation to the cultish CrossFit community. I “completed”—mostly survived—my first CrossFit workout in spring, 2007. I can no longer recall the precise workout from that fateful day, but I can remember each feeling that passed through every inch of my body. Surprisingly, the pain and suffering that occurred during and after the workout didn't push me away. Instead, it opened up an entirely new world for me. I tasted blood, and I was hooked.

The pain and suffering associated with CrossFit workouts is a feature, not a bug. It's one of the most fascinating elements of the sport. Most sports concentrate on pain reduction and optimal performance—CrossFit highlights both. Such intense training is often reserved for the upper echelon of elite athletes, meaning that the average enthusiasts can safely participate without the need to push themselves to such painful extremes. CrossFit completely flips that model. Discomfort is a major ingredient in this recipe.

What Exactly Is CrossFit?

What are the ingredients that make this cult of pain and suffering so appetizing? I've shared a bit of my experience with CrossFit, but haven't traversed much of what makes CrossFit, well, CrossFit.

(If you’re already familiar with CrossFit, feel free to skip ahead.)

At a practical level, CrossFit describes their approach as:

constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.

More plainly, CrossFit is a sport. Paradoxically, it's the sport of fitness. Like any sport, it demands sacrifice and dedication. It's highly social, competitive, and ritualistic. CrossFit workouts follow a similar pattern, making the model equally complicated yet moderately flexible for individual athletes. At the core, it's a hybrid of Olympic weight training and high-intensity interval training.

CrossFit officially formed in 2000, but didn't take off for nearly a decade. In every business, timing is everything. And for CrossFit, the age of high-intensity training needed a slightly longer gestation period before birthing the beast that is CrossFit. The introduction of Level 4, the first CrossFit affiliate, changed everything.

Trends-Crossfit.png

Level 4, originally founded by ex-Navy Seal Dave Werner, Nick Nibler, and Robb Wolf, was first named CrossFit North. The name change to Level 4 came later on, after it’s founder Dave Werner designed and implemented his robust athletic standards methodology (L1, L2, L3, L4). Since that time, CrossFit has exploded from a few small, dimly lit industrial “boxes”—what they call a gym—in select locations, to a multi-national phenomenon celebrated around the world, rivaling the omnipresence of Starbucks.

Building A (Modified) Class Framework

We’ve become accustomed to the idea of group exercise classes, but CrossFit takes this basic structure to a new level. Like most exercise classes, CrossFit starts with a warm-up, consisting of a few general mobilizing exercises combined with workout-specific movements. The warm-up is followed by a strength and/or skill session, which centers on helping athletes build muscle or improve specific skills like muscle-ups or double-unders. From there, athletes jump into the most memorable—for good or bad—part of CrossFit: the workout of the day, aka WOD. CrossFit WODs are the wicked, soul-crushing high-intensity sessions that make up the bulk of CrossFit. As the session wraps, athletes are encouraged to engage in mobilization and stretch by rolling out their muscles with a foam roller or lacrosse ball.

Many of the workouts are between 4 and 20 minutes. Though these workouts may be short, the pain they inflict can last for days. Much of what created the craze known as CrossFit was originally popularized by the training regimens of tactical and special military operations units. That, in and of itself should tell you something about what it takes to excel in CrossFit.

A Culture of Addiction or Enthusiasm

I am a recovering CrossFit addict. There, I said it. Once upon a time, I was utterly addicted to CrossFit. I watched all CrossFit videos on YouTube, went to multiple CrossFit classes a day, and programmed a lot of CrossFit workouts for myself. I talked about it, wrote about it, and loved CrossFit.

Much of what you see in the CrossFit community mimics addiction. Once you're in the system, it's easy to get hooked and can be very hard to break away. There's a physiological endorphin release that can quickly drive an addictive quality. For me, I found that my relationship with exercise became abusive. I continually needed it to validate it. I couldn't enjoy unhealthy foods without feeling guilty or as though I needed to compensate with exercise. This unhealthy addiction forced me to work out at times when my body didn't want it or need it. I'm certainly not the only one with this issue.

Studies have shown that the prevalence of exercise addiction in CrossFit is 5%. Now that might not sound like a lot, but let's look at the numbers. With nearly 13,000 affiliate gyms, each likely hosting an average of 75 members (conservatively), that's 975,000 members. Just 5% of the nearly 1 million members bring the number of members affected by exercise addiction to 48,750.

Now obviously we can't ignore the fact that 95% of CrossFit members do not suffer from this issue and are enjoying the positive aspects of what CrossFit offers. Most people aren't looking to become the fittest person on earth. They're seeking quality exercise, healthier lifestyles, and a supportive community that builds strong relationships. You start a workout on your own, but you make connections with the people around you. By the end, you've all suffered and survived. You know each other's names, and you're cheering and high-fiving.

Before we dive into the good and bad of CrossFit, let's pause for a quick break. If you're enjoying this article, then you'll probably enjoy the articles and info in my free newsletter. Each week, I share tips on decision-making, creativity & design, entrepreneurship, and work-life integration.

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Crossfit: The Good And The Bad Of The Sport Of Fitness

13 years ago if you had told me that not only would I welcome the pain and suffering of CrossFit, but also pay nearly $250 a month for it, I would've laughed in your face. I've never been considered a particularly intense person, so the appeal of CrossFit wasn't immediately apparent. Before CrossFit, I could say I enjoyed exercise, but that wouldn't be honest. I only exercised for the results. I love the mental and physical benefits of athletic pursuits but rarely experience pleasurable feelings throughout the process. What is it about CrossFit that attracts me?

When I joined, I wasn't living near a CrossFit box, which meant I had to continue doing the workouts at my big box gym. The way I first came to learn about CrossFit was during an interview with Gerard Butler, where he mentioned the CrossFit-style training regimen he used for the movie 300. I adapted standard gym equipment to make the workouts feasible. If the workout had running and cleans, I would move a barbell near a treadmill and leave the treadmill running while I did the Cleans. Little hacks like this kept me going for a few years. That is, until 2010, when I moved to Seattle Washington, the home of the first CrossFit affiliate, Level 4. The gym, the training, and the community kept me coming back for years. My time has taught me a lot, not just about myself but about fitness in general.

My experience with CrossFit is just that—my experience. Each person has their own journey and experience. After 12+ years, I've had the pleasure of watching the sport grow, change, and evolve. I still enjoy watching and participating in the annual CrossFit Games experience. I continually enjoy the individual components of CrossFit. But what I want to share is what I've learned along the way—both the good and the not-so-good. Let's start with the good stuff.

The Good

Social pressure has been shown to have a positive impact on one's ability to keep a habit. Consistently surfacing the motivation required to do such grueling workouts does not come easy. Maybe that's part of what is so powerful. Perhaps knowing that others are about to struggle and yet, here they are, ready to do their best. That's a powerful motivational force.

I've perpetually waxed and waned in my ability to self-motivate. Many times I'd find myself at the gym staring blankly at dumbells without any semblance of a gameplan or strategy. Inevitably, I'd end up doing the usual glam muscles: bench, biceps, and abs. What I lacked was not just a more advanced, holistic approach to fitness, but a framework. I needed a structure that pushed me past my strengths and forced me to work on my weaknesses. CrossFit encouraged me to intelligently evaluate my approach to health and fitness. It also can't hurt to be surrounded by deeply motivated and hardworking teammates.

CrossFit's community is what drives so many to stick with it. Not only do you get to know the people you work out with, but you get to know your trainers. The intensity of a CrossFit workout forms a unique bond, one that cannot easily be shared outside of the community. All other issues aside, CrossFit has one of the most reliable, most supportive athletic communities in the world.

The Not-So-Good

Alright, now that we have the good stuff out of the way, let's talk about the aspects that have pushed me away.

High-Risk, Low Barrier To Entry

One of the challenges that bothered me with CrossFit was the unreasonably low barrier for entry; for athletes and trainers. CrossFit includes some of the most challenging physical movements that even seasoned athletes struggle to master, including Olympic lifts like cleans and snatches. Professional athletes often spend their entire career trying to learn the fundamentals of these movements, slowly tweaking and adjusting their form to increase performance. In CrossFit, these movements are thrown at athletes on day one. Some manage to make their way through without injury, but many do not.

Furthermore, trainers often come in with little to no real experience teaching these movements. CrossFit does the bare minimum to get them prepared, but once they've achieved their level 1 certificate, they're off on their own. I can't count the number of times I've watched in horror as a new coach allowed an untrained athlete to do a heavy lift with improper form. With many coaches, the element of intensity can overtake the goal of ensuring athletes' safety. While many people may not get hurt in the moment, continuing to build on improper form creates poor movement patterns that ultimately catches up with them.

A great coach helps you find and challenge your limitations. They understand when to push you and when to hold you back. They're paid to help you balance high-intensity exercise with safe, sustainable training that improves your overall health. It means telling you not to do something, lowering your weight, or scaling back. Most CrossFit athletes are naturally competitive like I am, so they need someone to act as a protector. They need to be told it's okay to lay off for today. The reality is, you can't get fit if you get injured every other day.

Overtraining

Want to see if someone is addicted to something? Ask them to stop. If they can comfortably stop, there's a good chance they're in the clear. If not, well, there might be a slight problem. CrossFit is incredibly chemically, physically, and psychologically addictive. It is the trifecta.

It's easy to argue that all of this is in the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, so the addiction can't be all that bad. That's mostly true; until it's not. One of the biggest challenges athletes faces as they increase time in the community is overtraining. Working out 3-5 days a week is reasonably healthy and reduces the risk of injury. But what happens when you start to ratchet it up to 6+ days a week? This breaks into the overtraining category, which is a great place to increase your chances of obtaining a severe injury. Oddly enough, overtraining also can work against your fitness goals. When you're not fully recovered, your body is more likely to save some fat to ensure you're able to maintain basic functionality at all times.

Medical Risks

If you're a CrossFit-er, you're likely familiar with "Fran Lung" (above) and Rhabdo. Surviving each condition is a sort of right-of-passage. The pain and a metallic taste in my lungs during my first workout was a result of what is commonly referred to as "Fran Lung."

If you're not familiar with CrossFit's named workouts, Fran is a short, painfully intense workout used to benchmark athletic performance. The workout, consisting of the deceptively simple 21-15-9 thruster and pull-up combo, brings even the best athletes to their knees. As a result of the extreme intensity, athletes often experience a burning lung sensation that studies suggest is related to the lung blood-gas barrier (BGB). As your body creates an excess of lactic acid, it issues flash pulmonary edema, essentially drowning itself in the process. Due to the massive force created during this period, negative pressure is created, pulling fluid out of the capillaries and into your lungs, causing you to cough, choke, and taste the metallic flavors of blood. Fran Lung is just one of the common CrossFit-related physical responses.

Rhabdo became famous in the CrossFit community in the early days. As athletes, often entirely unprepared for the physical beating they were about to take, pushed past the point of their physical limitation, often found themselves in a nightmarish situation the following hours/days/weeks. Rhabdo is a severe syndrome that results in the death of muscle fibers and the release of their contents into the bloodstream. It primarily occurs when your kidneys cannot remove waste and urine. Rhabdo is caused mainly or inflamed by lousy programming, bad coaching, or lack of self-awareness.

Limited Historical Data

As someone who's been actively participating in CrossFit for twelve years, I'm considered a veteran. CrossFit seems to still be on the upward trajectory, but most people remain new to the program. Given the continued evolution, we lack sufficient data to understand what the effect of twenty years of CrossFit will be on our body. Too many athletes—myself included—suffer from a constant onslaught of challenging injuries that keep us from consistently staying in the sport. Very few people have trained long enough to act as a worthy test case on the extended effects of CrossFit. The question remains, will the injuries and risks outweigh the short term gains?

12 Years Of Physical And Mental Upgrades

If nothing else, CrossFit produces results. I've watched athletes go from being unable to do a single push up to repping out 25 in a row. Like any sport, you get out what you put in. As a college student, I assumed I'd be more than capable of keeping up with anyone at CrossFit. I mean, it's just running, jumping, and lifting. How hard can it be? Well, it turns out it was incredibly hard. I learned that I had to put a lot of time into improving every movement. And honestly, I'm pretty proud to be able to say that I can do the following:

10 Things I Learned From Crossfit

CrossFit is primarily a framework. It's a model that can be adjusted and adapted. Like any model, in order to make the right adjustments you need to understand the underlying assumptions. Here are a few takeaways from my 12 years of CrossFit.

1 — Always Be Learning

As you go deeper into the sport, it’s easier to realize how little you know. The classic Dunning-Kruger effect comes in to play, as you manage your way through. This also means you have more space to improve.

2 — Embrace Discomfort

Not everything is a sprint, but sometimes it is. Life is a mix of both. My natural inclination is to sprint, as I like to drive to results quickly. CrossFit taught me to focus on being comfortable with discomfort. Once you embrace the discomfort, you’re able to see clearly and increase focus.

3 — Understand First Principles

Along the way, I've accumulated a certain amount of knowledge, specifically as it relates to programming and movement training. CrossFit shares a lot about training philosophy, which, like any technical activity, is important to understand before you dive in. While I don't own a gym, I feel completely confident in my ability to program a workout for myself, a friend, or anyone else.

4 — Physical Confidence Builds Mental Confidence

Pushing to and beyond your limit is the only way to find where your confidence ends. But that's the beginning of a journey of discovery. It allows you to test the waters, dipping your toe into unfamiliar territory strategically.

5 — Accept Performance Peaks and Valleys

You're not always at 100%. Sometimes a long chipper workout means that you have to pull back and stay in the right zone of discomfort. That zone can be painful. But knowing your limits allows you to manage your performance peaks to ensure you don't burn out too early or go to slow. This can be applied to business and life.

6 — You Can't Outwork a Bad Diet

It's common knowledge, yet so many of us fail to pay attention to the importance of diet. The CrossFit community encourages healthy eating as opposed to dieting, which also promotes a more favorable relationship with food.

7 — Work Can Be Done Anywhere

We all make excuses for why we don't go to the gym. The truth is, it has nothing to do with the gym. Once you understand how your body works and the way that physical programming can be altered to fit any state, you gain a certain kind of flexibility and freedom. You can workout anywhere, anytime. Tabata songs is a great place to start.

8 — Rest and Recovery Are P1

Don't fool yourself into believing you're a superhero who doesn't need to rest. Everyone needs to rest. You can't perform at a high level if you don't allow your body and mind to rest. Take a break and embrace your downtime.

9 — Everyday Is Not a Competition

Ben B. believes there are three primary modes when you come to the gym: training, competing, recovering. Knowing which mode you're in is almost as important as activating them. Some days it's okay to come to the gym and take it slow, train strategically, and work on your technique. Other days, you need to turn it on and compete. Be strategic with your switching.

10 — We're All In This Together

"You will be the same person in five years as you are today, except for the people you meet and the books you read." - John Wooden.

The people you meet at CrossFit are some of the best. They can be a bit intense, but there's a reason they've built such an infamous community—the people. When a new member is struggling with a lift, teammates are always willing to help. No one is left behind. We're all in this together.

The Next CrossFit

I won't pretend to know what will be the next wave in physical fitness. The interesting thing about the fitness industry is that it evolves and adapts alongside science (as it should). I doubt we'll see any return to the likes of Jazzercise or Zumba, but who knows. A few areas of interest for me include:

  • Olympic Lifting — CrossFit has provided a strong foundation for me to increase strength through Olympic lifts. More importantly, by removing the time and speed constraints of a CrossFit WOD, you’re able to focus on refining technique and improving skill.
  • Kettlebell Training — People like Eric Leija are reinvigorating the kettlebell training movement. What I like is the fact that it’s scalable, flexible, and customizable.
  • Gymnastics — Gymnastic work is slow, methodical, and highly-technical. It requires deep concentration and incredible body awareness, each of which I’d like to deepen my relationship with in the future.

For me, I want to continue to focus on a more holistic, sustainable, approach to high-intensity training, with a greater emphasis on stabilization. Maybe CrossFit will do more to support this viewpoint in the future, but for now, I'm exploring a new path.


Worth Reading

1. California Tests a Digital ‘Fire Alarm’ for Mental Distress

What if digital tracking could save your life? A new collaboration between the state of California and venture-backed app Mindstrong aims to use your “digital phenotype” to monitor mental health. The app leverages existing data collections to build a baseline profile that correlates to positive and negative mental health behaviors. In doing so, it provides a glimpse into the psyche and a way to deliver help to those who need it most. #tech

2. The Power of One Push-Up

On the heels of my recent Leaving CrossFit article, this article takes a swing at the false narratives around fitness measurements like BMI and body weight. While the push-up is not the be-all-end-all for to healthy measurement, it acts as a proxy for other risks factors that correlate to a person’s overall health and mortality. #culture

3. A People Leader’s Guide to Active Listening

This title is a bit too narrow. Listening skills are valuable in every relationship and help build trust and respect. Whether you’re a team leader, a manager, or simply interested in bolstering your communication strategy repertoire, this article is worth a read. #futureofwork


Weekly Inspiration

IKEA + Sonos

The days of the massive, expensive, hard-wired sound system are numbered. As an audiophile, this is deeply troubling. As a designer, this presents an incredibly opportunity. Sonos and IKEA have teamed up to tackle this opportunity head-on. Their new line of Symfonisk speakers brings the best hi-fi experience to a smaller, more natural profile. You no longer have to choose between good sound and beautiful, unobtrusive design.

Weekly Challenge

SUN, JUL 28

Weekly Challenge #8

Enjoy a short nap.


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Thanks for reading, and see you next week,

— Kevin K.

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