To harm, or not to harm…

A few months ago Matt Wichlinski wrote an article (“Slaying The Dragon“) that criticized how CrossFit coaches allow bad technique in the pursuit of a faster time. Often when someone makes this argument, they are on the outside of CF and looking in. Matt, like me, has the CrossFit Level II certification. It’s earned through a quasi-difficult testing process where the candidates lead a group of trainees through the CF teaching progressions. It’s the only identifier in the CrossFit world that a coach can adequately see movement problems, have enough personality to lead a group, and communicate decently. I assume Matt and I are similar in that we don’t rely solely on CF for training methodology, but we know enough about it to give fair, objective critiques. Matt’s revolves around the following idea:

Everyone has the right to train and compete in any fashion that they want. But as a coach, I hate to see other coaches doing things that might harm the athletes.

I agree. Poor, inefficient mechanics is something that bothers me. In the short-term, it’s something that reduces the effectiveness of the exercise and opens the trainee up to potential injury. In the long-term, crappy mechanics always results in some sort of mobility limitation or injury. If a trainee’s knees chronically jut forward at the bottom of their squat, the proximal (upper) rectus femoris (a hip flexor) tendon will become irritated and inflamed. If their knees crank in at the bottom, the glute medius and TFL become irritated. A collapsed thoracic spine on thrusters, squats of any kind, or overhead movements will jack up the proximal biceps, the external rotators, rhomboid and middle trap area, and can create a chain of tension that puts strain on the spinal erectors that can increase pain the lower back and hips. We’re not even getting into the ballistic movements on untrained achilles tendons or the severely internally rotated shoulders in overhead work.

However, I have a problem with how Matt is wording this message:

If you want to be good at what you do, you have to understand what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to do it safely and effectively. The first rule of training is “Do no harm.”


I get what Matt is trying to say here. He’s saying, “As a coach/trainer, you shouldn’t be hurting your trainees. That’s the friggin’ opposite of what you’re supposed to do, so don’t set them up for failure with incompetence or ignorance.” Matt made a video that makes fun of some guys doing some really shitty power snatch reps in one of the open “WODs” that leads into Regionals competitive events. His emphasis of not doing harm is in response to routinely seeing harmful movement patterns and sloppy technique; I get it.

Yet, preaching the idea of “do no harm” is misleading. An adaptive stress, by definition, is something that does harm. If you apply three sets of five of work with the squat on someone with appropriate weight, that’s something their system and structures aren’t adapted to; they literally get damaged. Muscles are primarily receiving the brunt of the stress, yet ligaments, bones, and tendons do as well. The application of force disrupts homeostasis and forces the body to begin recovery processes in order to not only heal, but to adapt so it can handle that same stress easier or more of it in the future. This is Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome. Said in another way:

Seyle proposed that all organisms mount an acute response, then a chronic adaptation after
surviving exposure to stress. The final adaptation enables the organism to tolerate a subsequent
and more intensely stressful exposure to the same type of stress.
From FIT, by Kilgore, Lascek, and Hartman

I know Matt knows this, or at least understands the underlying principle, yet I don’t think it’s a good mantra for other lesser coaches. In my seminars, Selye’s theory is the foundation for programming and I derive everything from it. The body will try to adapt to any sub-lethal stress, but that doesn’t mean we should apply a stress that is directly under the “lethality level”. There is a correct dose of stress that will garner desired results, and the job of the coach/programmer is to know this. The “Dose/Response Relationship” can be described mathematically. If there is a hypothetical level of stress, x, that will make the trainee stronger or fitter, then why apply x+5, 2x, or x^2? Progressive overload in stress application is paramount in programming, and it’s something that CrossFit often abandons.

On one hand, I may just be arguing semantics with something Matt wrote, but on the other hand it can effect how thousands of trainees or coaches go about their training (especially given that his article has been circulated well). Long-time followers of CrossFit will remember Greg Glassman saying that an effective training program will have some percentage of injuries. That percentage may be low, but is acceptable in a program that generates productive results. This concept may be true, depending on what percentage we’re talking about, but an injury in a training program is an indication of a problem.

Squatting/pulling like a pooping dog is harmful. Picture from Jeremy at CF Annandale

In CrossFit we see plenty of shoulder issues that are no doubt related to kipping pull-ups. We see tons of calcaneal (achilles) tendon tears and ruptures as a result of superfluous box jumps and other jumping activity. We see lumbar and sacral dysfunction.. These are indications of deficient movement and movement capabilities in the trainees. No, a coach or program should not hurt his trainees. Yes, it sometimes happens in even good programs with good coaches. Matt observes that this is common in CrossFit, and it is. Here, harm means injury.

Yet harm to an organism and their structures is the basis by which that organism adapts. We place organized, purposeful stress on a trainee and their structures. It causes harm, and that harm is the stress that makes them adapt to be stronger and fitter. Let’s not confuse the distinction, but let’s use this opportunity to teach trainees and coaches about proper progression and development — vital aspects in a good program.

In the “Mixed Elemental Fitness” chapter I wrote in FIT, I go in detail about how to progress each component of fitness — strength, endurance, and mobility. It’s based on the foundation of understanding the stress/adaptation process as well as the preceding chapters in the book that focus on physiology and strength and endurance training. A CrossFitter could benefit because it shows how to structure the varying levels of high intensity conditioning throughout the week, and how to do so with respect to strength training. This often results in the mantra of, “Stop doing so much shit and focus your goals.”

Overall, Matt and I have the same sentiment:

If you’re an athlete, please don’t hurt yourself in the name of elite fitness, focus on getting stronger and doing things better. Paying someone money to have them kick you in the dick never made much sense to me.

Regardless of your training method, ensure that you are moving efficiently, training productively, and not doing harm…in the injury sense.

20 thoughts on “To harm, or not to harm…

  1. “WTF is up with the kipping pull up anyway…” this line is annoying. Not saying a kipping pull up is better than a strict or vice versa, but the arguing over it is annoying.

    “Paying someone money to have them kick you in the dick never made much sense to me.” I do like this though.

    I dig CF, think it is a pretty decent conditioning program. But the drones that advocate it’s benefits because “it makes your lungs want to puke fire out of your ass because it is so tough” turn me off of it.

    Having a fast Fran time just shows that you have a fast Fran time.

  2. I used to be a CrossFitter. My first 2-3 months were spent getting to know the movements and performing them as efficiently as possible. Once I felt that I had them down, I started speeding up, or upping my ‘intensity’, but never to the point where I felt like I was making some fundamental errors in movement. The trainers were all great people, but I felt like they all wanted me to sacrifice my mechanics for a better time on the white board. I’ve had too many people at the gym with horrible movement patterns compliment me as ‘textbook’ with a bit of awe in their voices. It makes me sad that I was the only one there that seemed to give a shit. Yeah man, keep doing those nasty front squats and snaking your pushups, you’ll just magically get better at them if you go hard enough…

    I relate the kipping pull-up to a half squat: changing the mechanics and making the move easier lets you do more reps, but at the sacrifice of full ROM strength development. Unless I’m trying to be the best at excercising, I’ll just go strict.

    Needless to say, my transition to strength training has been such a welcome change.

  3. personally if something can be kipped, i’m going to kip it. my push ups look like i’m doing the worm, and my barbell rows look like i’m humping a hand rail. my only exception is the pull up. i will NEVER kip a pull up. that’s just silly.

  4. GNC is sponsoring “The Games” this year. I find I don’t have to explain crossfit any more really. How long until it reaches a critical mass I wonder?

  5. lol the video in the “Slaying the Dragon” article is priceless.

    This isn’t limited to crossfit, there’s no crossfit gym within 120 miles of my small town. But at the local gym I go to they have a brag board where dbags post their “Max Wall Sit Time,” “Deadlift BW” or “Max Pull Ups” all of the monthly challenges that are attempted are ‘overseen’ by either a 21 year old girl who is an idiot or a trainer that has a online certificate who’s also an idiot.

    It’s awful to watch the shitty form and b.s. these people do to get the glory of being on a brag board with a 6:32 min wall sit time…ugh it’s pathetic.

  6. To clarify, this isn’t a CrossFit beat down session, but more of a chance to emphasize proper programming. I’d like to think I can post about CrossFit without everyone jumping on the boring “CrossFit sucks” bandwagon.

  7. The biggest coaching failures I see in many of these situations is the coach just simply does not have the balls to say, “you’re done.” In my small group, our major role in “spotting” is just watching and telling the squatter/DL’er when they start to round or knee-in, so that at some point if rep #3 and 4 turn to absolute crap, they lose the priviledge of doing #5. The terms, “horse-squeeze” and “absolute dogshit” get tossed around a lot as necessary. We basically keep each other from hurting ourselves.

    If a coach cannot even perform the basic function of overcoming his “client’s” ego enough to put a period on a horrible set, he needs to grow a bigger pair.

  8. Justin, have you run into many instances whre an athlete has such high flexibility/mobility that they are able to bottom out on front squats or squat cleans and can’t generate tension to get out of the bottom? Was trying to help a friend who’s basically able to touch his tainbone to the grount while maintaining a flat back and upright torso. Played around with his foot positioning a little and trying to get him to stop higher in the descent, but nothing seems to be helping. Thanks in advance.

  9. It wasn’t my intention to rag on CrossFit. I was trying establish why I am so much happier training on my own now, as compared to when I used to CrossFit. If I ever live near a CrossFit gym that caters to my strength training goals, I’d probably sign up in a heartbeat. From my experience, the relationships I’ve established in my CF gym were the best part of being in that community.

  10. Very good critique of the article. “Doing harm” in manageable doses is kind of the point of training. And if I may, @ Jack Burton, I coach this stuff too, and there might be either a lack of posterior chain development causing this, or the person may need to consciously flex their hamstrings at the bottom of the squat and “bounce” off of them. There are some key indicators for which it could be…

  11. 5 year old gymnasts world-wide are laughing at everyone that thinks the kipping pull-up is unnecessary/inherently harmful OR the notion that Crossfit invented it.

    Kipping pull-ups are a legit exercise for a specific purpose that have been around for a VERY long time.

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