Forcing CrossFit: Lessons Learned
In April of 2011, General Robert Abrams took command of the 3rd Infantry Division (3ID) in Fort Stewart, Georgia, bringing CrossFit with him. I was fresh out of PT school 5 months prior and had just assumed responsibilities as a brigade physical therapist within the 3ID. Simply put, I was the sole physical therapist for roughly 3,500 active duty Soldiers in a combat deployable unit. In the brigade environment, a physical therapist is also responsible for injury prevention and performance optimization. Prior to this, my CrossFit experience was minimal. I had gravitated more towards endurance running but had dabbled in CrossFit some previously. However, my experience went from “dabbler” to full immergence as my brigade commander tasked me to oversee CrossFit implementation across his brigade.
Making CrossFit the physical training methodology for the 3ID was an insane process to watch. First was the buy-in. General Abrams and his staff brought Coach Glassman to speak with all the command groups about background, methodology, and implications. Next, the post’s gyms were overhauled to provide each brigade with their own indoor facility. We’re talking about space and equipment most other boxes would drool over.
The third step in this transformation was training. The division spent an incredible amount of money to bring CrossFit trainers to Fort Stewart to give official Level-1 training to selected soldiers. I was in the pilot class in November 2011. The bulk of the training occurred early 2012 where instructors came weekly for 10 straight weeks to train 60 soldiers per class. Additional classes were brought in intermittently to continue the training process.
The final piece was outfitting each company (roughly 50-100 soldiers) with their own set of equipment. The equipment package was standard for each company and consisted of a dozen Concept2 rowers, barbells, bumper plates, rings, medicine balls, and kettlebells. This was quality equipment, too. Well over 100 total packages were bought to support this transition into CrossFit.
By spring of 2012, CrossFit was fully implemented across the division. My task was to spend time with each unit to ensure they had a safe and effective program. Additionally, I provided “pre-level 1” training to those scheduled to go through upcoming level 1 training and thoroughly familiarized hundreds more to serve as assistant instructors within their units. Ultimately, I would say the transition from standard Army physical training to CrossFit was successful but not without its bumps. Below are my lessons learned from being a part of this process:
Lesson 1: Select the Right Person
It’s difficult to fit a square peg into a round hole, forcing something to work. That’s how I felt when it came to selecting individuals to attend the Level 1 training. Though the division commander was a CrossFit fanatic, the feelings were mixed within the ranks. The Level-1 exam is challenging enough for the average CrossFit enthusiast who wants to be there. Unfortunately, one’s own CrossFit enthusiasm was not a selection criterium, so many selected attendees possessed little to no interest in CrossFit. Within the first few iterations, we saw the combination of a difficult test and apathy produce less than desirable outcomes with passing rates far lower than the national average.
Being a good CrossFit coach requires much more than general knowledge of the material. It necessitates an ability to communicate, teach, and demonstrate. Many selected attendees did not possess these interpersonal skills to go along with their newfound knowledge.
My lesson learned: The importance of the “right person” for the “right job”. A friend recently shared a quote with me from “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis basically saying our plans and theories are rational and good; however, they require people who, oftentimes, are irrational and idiots. The thought of bringing CrossFit training to Fort Stewart to create a super squad of trainers was brilliant until it came down to selecting attendees. Without proper placement of the right people possessing the right skills, efficient and effective program implementation becomes choppy.
Lesson 2: Mindset and Attitude
CrossFit has historically been dubbed a “cult” due to the like-mindedness of its community. Calling it a cult is a bit extreme but it does require a certain mindset and attitude to grind through daily high-intensity workouts. Honestly, it can suck. A lot. Many soldiers I worked with failed to hold these traits. Consequently, motivation and morale suffered for these individuals resulting in decreased workout intensity and effectiveness.
Additionally, CrossFit is vastly different than other workout methodologies and can be a hard pill to swallow for some athletes / soldiers. For example, the military has a large number of people who enjoy endurance sports or power lifting outside of regular unit physical training. I noticed CrossFit’s intensity often interfered with the activities they enjoyed and forced them to decide between: 1) not do what they enjoy and be bitter towards CrossFit, 2) dedicate less effort towards CrossFit to save energy and motivation for what they enjoy, or 3) go hard at both activities but accumulate additional stress on their bodies. None of those options are ideal.
My lesson learned: Everyone can do CrossFit but CrossFit is not for everyone. Due to CrossFit’s programming and scalability, everyone can physically partake in this methodology. However, not everyone possesses the fortitude and grit to challenge its intensity. Additionally, not everyone has the same fitness interests. Forcing this methodology down the throat of a hardcore triathlete or power lifter will likely result in resistance and apathy. Unfortunately, this negativity can spread like wildfire affecting the rest of the unit.
Lesson 3: Proper Programming
In the Army, it’s common to hear “train to standard, not to time”, meaning train until you reach the desired effect and not to fill a time chunk. Unfortunately, this is more often said than done, especially with unit physical fitness. Typically, a unit has a set time every weekday (on average, 60 minutes) for mandated physical training. From what I experienced, it didn’t matter if the planned workout was five minutes or 55 minutes because we were out there for all 60 minutes regardless. This is not necessarily bad if the time is used wisely incorporating recovery, skill work, corrective exercises, etc. However, time was usually filled with an extended WOD or running. Performing 50+ minutes of moderate to high intensity exercise five straight days is brutal on almost everyone, and it often lead to injury, overtraining, and burnout.
Another programming error commonly observed was poor planning, both short and long-term. By short-term, I mean the weekly planning and the absence of active recovery. There’s a reason why the CrossFit main site and most affiliates program 1-2 active recovery days weekly. Yes, the weekend is used to recover but it’s typically not enough to overcome the cumulative stress and trauma of the previous five days. Plus, the weekend for most soldiers is not used to actively recover but as a time to either: 1) binge watch Netflix / video games, 2) party hard, or 3) knockout sport-specific training (ex: cycling, long-distance running, etc.). Ultimately, little time was spent actually recovering.
Long-term planning consists of using common strength and conditioning principles to optimize performance at the most critical times. This is equivalent to athletes basing their training around a season. In the Army, it’s tough to determine when to “peak” as the environment is always changing, especially for special operations. For most soldiers, there is some predictability with upcoming training requirements, fitness assessments, and deployments. These are the times to peak. Unfortunately, most units keep the foot on the gas pedal relentlessly, never allowing for ramping, de-loading, or recovery.
My lesson learned: Use time wisely and plan accordingly. Five straight days of long-duration, high-intensity training is not sustainable for most athletes. Active recovery days are necessary during the week, and daily programming needs to also include, at a minimum, a dynamic warmup and a recovery / cooldown. Long-term training calendars and mission requirements need to be considered so soldiers can “peak” at the most crucial times (APFT, deployment, etc.). Most importantly, truly train to standard and not to time.
Lesson 4: Benchmark Testing
CrossFit boasts GPP (general physical preparedness), and I certainly agree. In my personal experience, it made me more well-rounded and better able to tackle a variety of physical tasks compared to other fitness methodologies. However, my performance on the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) dropped. The APFT is a very specific event consisting of just push-ups, sit-ups, and a two-mile run. It’s taken twice yearly and goes into consideration for performance evaluations, promotions, awards, and training opportunities. Understandably, due to its importance, many units focus their physical training towards the APFT as their primarily (or only) benchmark test.
Every unit kept APFT data to compare their APFT scores pre and post CrossFit implementation. Overall, scores did improve on average due to the large number of lower performing soldiers improving their total fitness. The same could not be said for the APFT “studs” who specialized in those three events. However, I’m confident they (like I did) improved in most other realms of physical fitness. Even if this data was tracked, it ultimately did not matter since the only fitness benchmark test the “big Army” cares about is the APFT.
My concern is not my personal decreased APFT performance but with the high value the Army places on the APFT over other benchmarks. Physical fitness assessment is a controversial topic currently in the Army and beyond the scope of this article. I certainly have my opinions but the decision to make any vast changes is well above my pay grade.
My lesson learned: The importance of tracking several benchmarks to gauge personal performance and growth. For a specialized athlete, it is not uncommon (and sometimes necessary) to decrease performance in one area but make large gains in many others. Ideally, benchmark testing for the average athlete should incorporate multiple fitness domains: strength, power, endurance, mobility, etc. This allows for proper programming to address weak areas which, once improved, will increase overall work capacity.
In the end, I would say CrossFit implementation was successful across the 3ID, and I believe the unit overall benefitted from the transition. I, too, benefitted. Not only did I obtain my initial Level-1 training through this process, it was also my first exposure as a hybrid physical therapist and coach (“physiocoach”), blending physical therapy with strength and conditioning.
Thanks for reading.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.