The NSCA’s William Kraemer vs. CrossFit Part One

Kraemer and CrossFit: the History

William Kraemer is a former member of the ACSM’s Board of Trustees, and current Editor-in-Chief of the NSCA’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The history between Kraemer and CrossFit starts at the very beginning of CrossFit.com. The original CrossFit Journal Article “Foundations” cites his research on the neuroendocrine response:

“Current research, much of it done by Dr. William Kraemer, Penn State University, has shown which exercise protocols maximize neuroendocrine responses … Heavy load weight training, short rest between sets, high heart rates, high intensity training, and short rest intervals, though not entirely distinct components, are all associated with a high neuroendocrine response”

At the time, this provided an intriguing hypothesis into why CrossFit workouts yield better results than traditional programming. But Kraemer and his exercise science colleagues had never studied CrossFit directly.

That ignorance of CrossFit continued into 2011, when Kraemer and others published the “Consortium for Health and Military Performance and American College of Sports Medicine Consensus Paper on Extreme Conditioning Programs in Military Personnel,” also known as the CHAMP paper for short.

The CHAMP paper invented a new term to describe CrossFit and programs that they believe were similar: Extreme Conditioning Programs. This term was based in a fundamental ignorance of the CrossFit methodology – an ignorance admitted by the authors themselves:

“Unfortunately, to date, the short-and long-term physiological, functional, and readiness outcomes or safety of ECPs has not been carefully studied. “

As of 2011, Kraemer and his fellow researchers had never studied CrossFit, or anything like it. That didn’t stop them from warning military personnel of a “potential emerging problem” of CrossFit-related injuries, though. These weasel words allowed the authors to spread fear of CrossFit through the DOD, but didn’t require evidence.

As Editor-in-chief of the NSCA’s journal, Kraemer was involved in publishing the controversial study, “Crossfit-based high intensity power training improves maximal aerobic fitness and body composition” (sic). This is the same study that CrossFit and its affiliate have sued the researchers and the NSCA over. A detailed essay on all the flaws of this study is available here, but the basic idea is that the researchers’ claim about 9 subjects citing injury lacked evidence.

According to an Outside Magazine article that interviewed the study’s author, Dr. Steven Devor, the original draft didn’t include the assertion of injury, but “the editor at the journal publishing the study asked for the information.” If true, that means Dr. Kraemer or his employee asked Devor to add a section about CrossFit causing injuries to his study.

But Kraemer’s involvement didn’t end there. Russell Berger emailed the NSCA and spoke to Kraemer directly, warning him of the problems with the study. Berger even mentioned that Dr. Steven Devor was first unable, and then refused, to answer his questions. Then Berger asked Kraemer to look into the issue, but Kraemer “said he would not, because he didn’t have the time or resources to look into every study that anyone has a problem with. He said this is what the peer-review process is for, and since the paper was peer-reviewed, that was good enough. He also said that ‘these types of programs’ have a higher injury rate in general, so it’s not surprising that the data suggested such.”

Berger spoke to Kraemer in October 2013. The next month, Kraemer’s Journal published Devor’s study, with the injury claim intact. 

In May 2014, CrossFit Inc. sued the NSCA for knowingly publishing Devor’s flawed study.

Kraemer’s Four Faulty Studies

Kraemer is the corresponding author for 4 studies on CrossFit published in 2013 and 2014 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. While Kraemer’s studies don’t contain fraudulent injury data, they reach some illogical conclusions and make false claims about CrossFit’s methods. Here they are:

Effects of fatigue from resistance training on barbell back squat biomechanics
The effects of high intensity short rest resistance exercise on muscle damage markers in men and women
Effects of resistance training fatigue on joint biomechanics
Adrenal cortical responses to high-intensity, short rest, resistance exercise in men and women.

Linda As Fast As Possible On Day 1
What happens if you take a group of people with no CrossFit experience and have them do Linda as fast as possible? And what if they use 75% of their max on each exercise, and do back squats instead of cleans?

This is the question Kraemer posed in these 4 studies. Let’s start with “Effects of fatigue from resistance training on barbell back squat biomechanics.”

To be fair, the subjects did have “6 months of resistance training experience involving barbell bench press, barbell deadlift, and barbell back squat.”

As people who’ve come into CrossFit with a strength background know, however, lifting heavy weights with long rest periods does not adequately prepare you to tackle most CrossFit workouts at full intensity, let alone “Linda,” AKA “Three Bars of Death.”

Of course, a CrossFit trainer can scale a workout up or down to any fitness level. So “Linda,” at a certain load and intensity, can be an appropriate intro WOD. CrossFit Flowmaster Todd Widman has written:

“Your first workouts should be done at a relatively low intensity. This is essential for you to both learn the proper mechanics of the movements and to let your body acclimate to the workload.”

CrossFit achieves an appropriate level of relative intensity through scaling. It scales multiple components of performance, not just load. For example, a beginner may not just use less weight but also go at a measured, controlled pace. Widman elaborates:

“You should always measure the time of your workouts, but for now you should not worry too much about minimizing your time. In the beginning, just completing the workouts will be accomplishment enough. Over time, though, you will use those times as benchmarks that you will want to beat.”

Kraemer had his team do the exact opposite: “The subjects were instructed to perform all the prescribed repetitions as quickly as possible.” Further, Kraemer had all the subjects use 75% of 1RM on each exercise. This is not how CrossFit teaches scaling. A workout like this modified Linda involves more than just absolute strength – it requires stamina, cardiovascular endurance, mental toughness, and a whole lot more. Appropriate loads will vary from individual to individual, and cannot be adequately assessed using a flat percentage of 1RM. Unsurprisingly, “no participant maintained 75% 1RM for every exercise.”

If Kraemer’s intention was to measure the mechanical and physiological impact of CrossFit, why did he do the opposite of what CrossFit recommends?

Check out Part Two of the Kraemer vs. CrossFit series here.

4 comments

  1. Linda as RX for me:
    Deadlift: about 315#
    Bench Press: about 215#
    Clean: about 160#

    Hard but very doable after doing CF for 10 years.

    Pseudo-Linda as described in the article:

    Deadlift: about 400#
    Bench Press: about 202#
    Squat: about 315#

    Who in their right mind who knows the first thing about workout selection would tell me to do 55 400# deads and 55 315# squats??? As fast as possible??? Are we talking days here? This shows a shocking lack of familiarity with the subject being studied.

    “Other than steroid use I cannot think of a single contribution to athletic performance coming from the sport science community.”

    – Greg Glassman

  2. Pingback: The NSCA’s William Kraemer vs. CrossFit Part Two | THE RUSSELLS

  3. Pingback: The NSCA’s William Kraemer vs. CrossFit Part Three | THE RUSSELLS

  4. Pingback: The NSCA’s William Kraemer vs. CrossFit Part Four | THE RUSSELLS

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