I was going back through my old posts the other day, and came across this off-the-cuff post complaining about how one fitness subculture (source material). I said I could write a full-length response but chose not to. Truthfully, the response I could have written then wouldn’t hold a candle to the response I’m going to write now. Call this one a “do over”, and all of you are going to learn from this.
The Horrors of “Either-Or”
I really wish people would heed Dan John’s advice about using “either-or”. It’s a major pet peeve of mine. I hate seeing it when it comes up on this site when people try to discuss regulation as much as I hate it when it’s applied to fitness. It’s not just the exclusion of possibilities other than X or Y that bothers me as much as a lack of interest in exploring them.
The article is just another god-awful iteration of the CrossFit vs. Bodybuilding debate that long predates my involvement in fitness. What makes the debate painful to observe, beside the fact that each side makes a more asinine comment in response to an already asinine comment, is the framework of the debate itself in terms of either functional fitness or aesthetics. I found a textbook example in this older article.
The CrossFit Body is made for use, the bodybuilding body is made for show.
The problem with a comparison like this is that it’s applicable in a very limited context: competitors. I’m happy to agree that a competitive bodybuilder’s physique is made for show, especially when it’s stage-ready, because by the time the contest preparation is complete, competitors are in a depleted and weakened state. This comparison doesn’t have to be true for the rest of us. In fact, it’s not. People can train how they want to train, pull from whatever disciplines they want to pull from, incorporate a combination of functional movements, compound lifts, isolation work and conditioning to achieve a level of fitness that allows for increased work capacity as well as decent aesthetics.
Living in Glass Houses…Still Throwing Stones
I’ve dealt with my fair share of CrossFitters. Most of them are fine. It’s the mouthy, poorly-informed ones that get under my skin. These are typically the ones that had no success getting fit in a commercial gym and only found fitness after joining a CrossFit box. Because of this, they’re now self-appointed experts on the kind of success people can have in a commercial gym setting (read: none). I wouldn’t find entertainment value in this except for the fact that a lot of these people are very quick to attack critics of CrossFit for their lack of knowledge about the subject matter that they are criticizing. It’s a fair point, but they never seem to apply it to themselves. Consider:
Bodybuilders don’t hate CrossFit, they hate intensity.
Think about most bodybuilding workouts. Typically low repetition workouts, between 1-10 reps, with the occasional super-set or burnout. What is cardio for most bodybuilders? 20 minutes on the treadmill or the bike.
I think it just as ignorant to bash CrossFit programming based on what people may see in YouTube videos as it is to bash quality bodybuilding-style programming based on the sheer number of people in commercial gyms that wouldn’t know their heads from their backsides when it comes to programming.
It’s the Programming, Stupid!
The best way to demonstrate the author’s limitless level of stupidity is by discussing some programming. Before that, I should also mention that 1) “low repetition” sets are typically five reps or less; 8 to 10 is moderate; 2) the author clearly does not know that the smaller muscles (rear delts, triceps, biceps, calves) do very well with high volume training (15-25 reps or higher) with short rest periods (30-45 seconds). Typically, these are finishers; 3) the author mentions neither sets nor rest periods, important variables for intensity; 4) in addition to burnouts and supersets, there are countless other methods to jack up the intensity of a workout, but they have to be strategically programmed; 5) Different ways to perform movements produce different training effects. These are high-level programming points I’ve picked up in my travels. Rather than diving deep into the details, I’ll post this sample of a professionally designed program for a pulling day (back). It’s plenty accessible to enthusiasts and is typically done once a week for a four-week cycle:.
- Chest supported rows – 3 sets, 15 reps, 45 seconds rest
- Rack pulls – 8 sets, 4 reps, 45 seconds rest
- Single Arm Dumbbell Rows – 4 sets, 8 reps 60 seconds rest
- Pull Ups – 5 sets, 9 reps, 20 second loaded stretch at end of each set, 60 seconds rest
- Shrugs – 4 sets, 15 reps, 45 seconds rest, 2 second squeeze, constant tension, slow and controlled movement
- Loaded carries – 6 sets, 30 seconds, 60 seconds rest
There is a method to this madness.
The first exercise is the primer set and prepares the body for the heavy compound lifts. Contrary to what some people believe, people that do bodybuilding style training do heavy compound lifting, which is why rack lifts are included. What makes this particularly brutal is the volume. There’s a LOT of heavy lifting and the rest periods are short. It will keep the working weights lower than what people may do in a traditional strength workout (given that those rest periods are much longer), but the volume more than makes up for it.
You’re tired as hell after the rack pulls and then you’re doing heavy pulling movements. I love dumbbell rows for three reasons: 1) they’re great for back building; 2) the pulling movement is done in the horizontal plane, which I find better for my shoulders and 3) the heavy pulling and short rests put a lot of metabolic stress on the body. You’ll suck wind.
I like pull ups in the back end of a program because by the time I get to them, I’m fatigued to the point where the small repetition sets work perfectly for me, usually with some kind of weight assistance. In a less fatigued setting, I can easily do over 20 strict form pull ups; however, as time has gone on, I’ve become less of a fan of doing higher volumes of vertical pulling or pressing due to the stress it places on my shoulders.
With the shrugs, which are going to torch the trapezius and badly, this is where going to lighter weights and focusing on HOW the movement is performed leads to the desired training effect.
Last, loaded carries are a great finisher. Carry heavy stuff. Simple as that. You can make yourself suffer and suck wind quite easily. So much for 20 minutes on the treadmill.
This is not to say that CrossFit isn’t intense (it most certainly is), or that people would be better off if they worked out in a commercial gym with good programming in mind (that’s goal dependent). My point here is that with good programming, anyone can work out at the appropriate level of intensity based on their training goals.
People that believe that bodybuilding-style workouts amount to nothing more than people standing in front of mirrors doing bicep curls and making no gains are ignorant fools, and unfortunately, I’ve come across too many of those. The program I posted above includes functional lifts, heavy compounding lifting, short rests, and a high enough volume to trigger effect. Proper bodybuilding-style programming includes optimal amounts of mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage necessary to trigger gains (see here). Consider this free education.
My last point is about intensity in general. The author seems to place a very high value on the intensity of the exercise as being the benchmark upon which work is being measured. As I discussed here, there is a pervasive mindset in certain fitness communities about intensity because of the value placed on how hard one gets his or her ass kicked in a workout, especially in a shorter workout.
It has been almost four years since I embarked on a health and fitness journey, and I can tell you that at the time I wrote this, I was doing far more HIIT than I’m currently doing today. I think there are three reasons for it. The first is that I used to subscribe to the belief that hard work meant pushing to exhaustion. Experience and perhaps self preservation have led me away from that. The second is that my current training preferences leave very little room for additional HIIT training given the volume of work I”m currently doing. The third is that experience has taught me not to look at intensity as a goal in its own right but rather as a training tool that can be tweaked, varied and moderated in order to produce longer-term sustainability.
Two years ago, I lived in the fitness moment. Today, I tell myself that I want to keep going for as long as I possibly can. The difference in approaches is best explained as the difference between loving intensity and respecting it. It was also a telltale sign that I was ready to move up into the world of training.