CrossFit is Awesome. How We’re Different

CrossFit is Awesome. 

How we’re Different.

By Rob Shaul

I’ve been saddened by the beating CrossFit has taken in the media, official military, National Strength and Conditioning Association, and many other sources these past years.

Several times while being interviewed, I’ve been been asked by journalists to criticize CrossFit, and I wouldn’t.

Every strength and conditioning program has it’s faults, mine included, but as a whole, CrossFit has done far more good, especially in the military ranks, than harm.

Other coaches have brought cardio to the weight room, but no one had done it as well as Greg Glassman.

Olympic lifting? Relegated to narrow interest gyms and a few college weight rooms. CrossFit changed that for me and many others.

Women? CrossFit dynamically liberated training and fitness for women. It introduced barbell training to women – freeing them from ellipticals, yoga and aerobics classes. CrossFit made serious and hard training acceptable for women, and demonstrated that “Strong is Beautiful.” One place I read that the typical CrossFit affiliate’s clientele is 70% women. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Equipment costs? My God …. When I outfitted my first gym equipment costs at least twice as much. Bumper plates and racks suppliers were few and expensive. Now things are vastly more affordable. I credit CrossFit.

We’ve all heard and read about the injury issues, huge quality differences between coaches and affiliates, “cult” stuff. It’s too easy to focus on the negative. The fact is CrossFit has changed many lives for the better, brought exciting new ideas and performance measures to strength and conditioning, and invented the “Sport of Fitness.”

I also understand there are several different variations of CrossFit these days – CrossFit Kids, CrossFit Endurance, CrossFit Football, CrossFit Gymnastics, etc., and I don’t know enough about all these variations to comment. I also know that not all affiliates are the same. I will say the basic CrossFit programming published at, when scaled appropriately, is a great general fitness training program. There’s no denying it.

When I first started Mountain Athlete in 2007, I’d considered becoming a CrossFit affiliate. In the end I decided against it, and went my own direction – not because I had issues with CrossFit, but because I’m just too damn independent. It was the right decision for me.  As my intellectual work in strength and conditioning progressed and accelerated, my own general fitness programming had a distinct strength emphasis, and soon I moved to  more activity-focused and sport specific design.

CrossFit has really been successful in urban areas where there are lots of general athletes needing to work out and finding true fitness in the daily CrossFit WOD.

But I live in a unique community in mountainous Wyoming, and my typical athlete wasn’t interested in “working out.” (I had to learn this the hard way.) Rather, they were interested in “training” so they could be better at their outside sport, or job.

This continued when in 2008 and 2009 military athletes deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan began following along with our stuff and soon after demanding I began programming for their unique needs. This continued last year on the LE side, and this year on the Fire Rescue side.

Overall, I found the athletes who began my programming, and really appreciated it, had graduated to my stuff from CrossFit. They knew the movements, understood the work capacity efforts, but needed something more job specific.

So this is how we’re different:

– Focus in on field performance, not gym performance: CrossFit is “the sport of fitness” – and gym numbers/exercises are paramount. We understand that for Military, Mountain, LE, and Fire/Rescue Athletes, all that matters is outside performance. This focus on outside performance allows us to constantly modify/change/improve our programing as we learn and evolve.

– Programming Detail: Military Athlete training sessions are thoroughly periodized, programmed and designed. Nothing is random about our training sessions. General CrossFit programming deploys an element of randomness. We don’t.

– Fluid Periodization: Our mesocycles have a cyclic emphasis which rotates between strength, work capacity and stamina, climbing fitness, power, endurance – it depends upon what is appropriate to the programming mode (Military, Mountain, LE, etc.) To my knowledge, typcial CrossFit programming does not deploy periodization or mesocycles of any type.

– Bias toward Strength: All of our programming has a bias towards relative strength, as opposed to the work capacity emphasis of CrossFit programming. We put strength first because of it’s positive impact upon performance, confidence and durability.

– Volume and Training Session Length: Military Athlete programming pushes more volume, and its training sessions are longer than typical CrossFit WOD’s. Strength and Work Capacity sessions are designed to be 60 minutes long. Stamina Sessions can be 60-120 minutes long, and include 2-a-days. Endurance can and does go longer.

– Training Schedule: Our training schedules are typically 4 days on, 3 days off, or 5 days on, 2 days off, as opposed to the 3:1 CrossFit WOD schedule.

– Durability Included: Mobility and durability drills are included in these training sessions, sometimes worked into strength circuits, and sometimes worked into durability-only circuits.

– Sport Specificity within the mesocyle. Military athletes must always be able to ruck. Mountain athletes must always be able to hike uphill under load, and climb. LE Athletes need upper body mass and strength, and have to be able to sprint. We can never get too far from these.

– Focused Core Strength Training: Several sessions included dedicated and focused core strength training circuits. We believe a strong midsection is essential to durability and our programming reflects this.

– Not every training session or circuit is a race: Circuits or other training session parts which are “for time” or are to be sprinted through are clearly indicated in our programming. Unless the training plan calls for “for time” or “sprint effort” we want athletes to work briskly, not frantically. In general, these sprint efforts will be relegated to parts of Work Capacity training sessions.

– Focused, sport and event specific cycles. In general, I believe as you get closer to the event, mission or sport season, the more “sport specific” your training should be. My athletes never pick up a barbell during the entire 8-week Ruck Based Selection Training Plan – instead they run, ruck, do bodyweight cals, long mini events, focused non-gym work capacity events, etc. Why? Barbells aren’t a big training mode at Green Beret Selection. Our rock climbers on the mountain side spend 3-4 days/week at the climbing gym or on our system and campus boards in the 6 weeks of the Rock Climbing Pre-Season Training Plan. I’ve learned the hard way, that general fitness programming makes you best at general fitness, but doesn’t prepare you to your potential for focused events/sports/activities.

– Our programming frequently deploys multiple sport-specific assessments and progressions based on those assessments. We design, assess, fix if needed (re-design) and repeat.

– Constant improvement. Just this summer, our “base programming” has evolved in exciting new areas. The need to program for LE Athletes has broken me out of artificial old constraints and I’ve build narrow base fitness cycles based on job-related fitness demands as narrow as closing a 5-yard gap and throwing a criminal to the ground. We continue to question, and learn and push, and improve.

Finally, SSD Programming. Strong Swift Durable sessions are our general fitness program. Turns out there are plenty of athletes who have been following our programming around the world who are often general athletes, who just want to stay fit. Removing the constraints of outside performance and sport/work specificity has opened up exciting new opportunities for general fitness programming and really pushed our creativity.