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.
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.