By Rob Shaul
First Published in 2012, this Article was Updated April 2017
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 first outfitted my gym over a decade ago, 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 crossfit.com, 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 for Law Enforcement athletes and most recently, Fire/Rescue athletes.
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.
At Mountain Tactical Institute, we are in the business of specializing our training to meet the demands of our military, mountain, law enforcement, and fire/rescue athletes. 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.
MTI training sessions are thoroughly periodized, programmed and designed. Nothing is random about our programming. General CrossFit programming deploys an element of randomness. We don’t.
Our mesocycles have subtle cyclic emphasis which rotates between strength, work capacity and stamina, climbing fitness (for mountain), endurance – it depends upon what is appropriate to the programming mode (Military, Mountain, LE, etc.) To my knowledge, typical CrossFit programming does not deploy periodization or mesocycles of any type.
Balanced programming across all of the fitness attributes.
Individual MTI mesocycles have subtle emphasis, but overall, there is a programming balance across the fitness attributes we deem key for the specific type of athlete. Crossfit has a distinct emphasis on work capacity.
Greater Volume and Training Session Length.
MTI 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. Endurance Sessions can be 60-120 minutes long, some sport-specific cycles include “mini-events” which push to 10 hours and multiple include 2-a-days. We believe athletes have to train long to perform long.
Our training schedules include 4 days on, 3 days off, 5 days on, 2 days off, and 6 days on, 1 day off as opposed to the 3:1 CrossFit WOD schedule.
Beginning in 2015, MTI programming made a hard pivot to include endurance programming which continues today. Endurance is a huge component of our military and mountain base programming. Military endurance programming includes unloaded running and rucking. Mountain endurance includes unloaded running and uphill movment under load (hiking uphill with a pack). Both, along with Fire/Rescue base programming include our new gym-based endurance programming. We continue to develop, assess, test and “churn” our endurance programming and are unique in the level to which we’ve incorporated it in concurrent programming.
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. First Responders need upper body mass and strength, and have to be able to sprint. We can never get too far from these.
Several sessions included dedicated and focused Chassis Integrity training circuits. Chassis Integrity is our functional, transferable mid-section strength training methodology – we believe a strong midsection is essential to performance and 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. In general, these sprint efforts will be relegated to parts of Work Capacity training sessions. Often we’ll program “grinds” for chassis integrity or gym-based endurance work. We instruct athletes to work “briskly not frantically.”
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 (SFAS). 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/missions.
Meso-Cycle Assessment and Progression.
Our programming frequently deploys multiple sport-specific assessments and progressions based on those assessments. We design, assess, fix if needed (re-design) and repeat.
Continuous evolution and hopefully, improvement.
This past year, our “base programming” has evolved in exciting new areas. We significantly changed the way we deployed Fluid Periodization, increased base fitness cycles to 6 weeks long, developed and introduced Chassis Integrity, TAC SEPA (Tactical Speed, Explosive Power and Agility) and Gym-Based endurance programming, introduced endurance assessments for mountain, military and wildland firefighter athletes. We continue to question, and learn and push, and hopefully improve.