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Box 101

CrossFit on Its Own

Explaining CrossFit to the uninitiated can be complicated, but it helps to understand the specificity principle.


Your friends have begun to notice the changes. Your physique is leaner, your diet cleaner. Naturally, you’re fielding questions about this CrossFit thing. Chief among those is likely this one: “What exactly is CrossFit?” How have you been answering that one? It’s not easy to describe exactly what a newbie will experience in a WOD, is it?

People naturally want to compare CrossFit to something they’re familiar with. And of course, CrossFit is unlike any training regimen most people are familiar with. Often, the more you describe it, the more confused they look.

Still, the questions about the operational framework of CrossFit are good questions, and the idea behind them is rooted in a valid principle in exercise science — specificity.

Without boring you, the practical application of the specificity principle is this: If you want to be a great runner, then run. If you want to be a great weightlifter, then lift weights. For the most efficient results, you should ask your body to adapt — through specific and targeted training — only in the manner that would enhance performance in your sport of choice. If you ask it to adapt to conflicting stimuli or stresses (like a long-distance runner training to lift heavy weights), you will not reach your potential in either endeavor.

It is the lack of specificity in the overall programming of CrossFit that confuses many people. The real question underlying the confusion about CrossFit is, “What are you using CrossFit for?” The assumption here is that CrossFit is a means to an end, and nonpractitioners would understand it better if they could just see what that end is. Consider, however, a completely different orientation to these questions. What if CrossFit is not a means used to achieve a specific end but is rather an end in itself?

Point to the development of functional fitness that CrossFit promotes and there is still some confusion evidenced by a common follow-up question: “So what does CrossFit make you good at?” Our answer is this: “CrossFit makes you good at doing CrossFit.”

Now, while that is most likely not the answer they were expecting, is there anything wrong with that? I mean, just look at the great CrossFitters. Evaluate them on muscular endurance, low-speed strength, high-speed strength (power), body composition, anaerobic capacity, aerobic capacity. Compare them comprehensively to other athletes. Fact is, CrossFitters not only are very impressive in their individual performances (1RM snatch, mile time, etc.), but they also are highly functional in complex movements and skills.

To be fair, we should be clear what CrossFit can and cannot do. Can you be elite at CrossFit and at the same time elite at powerlifting or the marathon? Maybe not. But the point is: Why are we comparing CrossFit to other activities? Why not evaluate CrossFit on its own merit? Why not let CrossFit just be CrossFit — a sport unto itself? Is there anything wrong with just being elite at CrossFit?

If that’s still not enough to help some people understand the physiological adaptations that come from CrossFit, there is one more thing you can do: Show the women photos of Annie Thorisdottir and Julie Foucher. Is there a woman in any gym in the country who would not want to look like they look or perform like they perform? Then show the guys photos of Rich Froning and Matt Chan. Athletic freaks.

There you go. There’s the end in itself. There’s the adaptation. And that’s what happens when you take CrossFit on its own.