Charles Poliquin “likes” CrossFit?

Photo Credit: Men's Fitness

Photo Credit: Men’s Fitness

 

Charles Poliquin recently wrote this post, in which he appears to soften his stance on CrossFit. Here is our response, originally posted here.

 

I was surprised recently to hear from some friends that Poliquin had published an article “softening” his stance on CrossFit. While he does seem to yield on some points, his most recent article is full of critiques of the CrossFit program. This article, longer and more complete in thought than his previous writings on the subject, gives us a valuable chance to evaluate his arguments.

“CrossFit has great intentions. It is a socially based system that encourages camaraderie and sense of belonging to a team. A major strength of CrossFit is that it helps people in the gym who are not motivated to train alone.”

Here, Poliquin shows us his perception of CrossFit by putting it in his own terms. To Poliquin, CrossFit is little more than a social phenomenon, best understood by its ability to motivate trainees. This view does not in any way acknowledge CrossFit’s revolutionary definition of fitness nor the data behind its methods. Poliquin is either intentionally refusing to engage CrossFit on these grounds, or is showing ignorance of them.

“I travel the world over and I see an increasing number of CrossFit teachers attending my classes. Upon first arrival, my staff and I can point out which CrossFitters have great results, and which have less than optimal results.”

By what standard is Poliquin evaluating these CrossFitter’s results? Certainly CrossFitters experience an array of results from following the CrossFit program, but CrossFit’s goal is to increase fitness. Is Poliquin actually measuring this? If so, how? And by who’s definition of fitness?

“Here is what I like about CrossFit enthusiasts:

1. They believe in hard work and are not afraid of doing it.”

Here, Poliquin compliments the average CrossFitter. This is a refreshing change from his previous writings on CrossFit, where he described CrossFitters as looking “…like a bunch of cachexic fitness-model wannabes searching for their souls in the weight room.”

(http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_…ngth_october_1). (Link is W/F Safe)

“2. They go for efficiency and use the most bang for your buck exercises. Why go to Tae Kwon Do when you can go to Krav Maga? I like the fact that they train women to do chin-ups, power cleans, and deadlifts.”

In this point, Poliquin grasps an essential part of CrossFit, the use of functional movements. By our definition, these movements are “categorically unique in their ability to express power.”

“3. They are very keen on proper nutrition. In all fairness, I would say that of all my students, CrossFitters are the best educated about how to eat for performance and body composition. A large proportion of my new BioSignature students own CrossFit operations.

4. They train exercises that you would normally avoid…or forget to do for some reason.

Here is what I see as potential concerns with CrossFit:

1. Technique is often horrendous. Competing to achieve personal records in number of reps or load at any cost kicks proper mechanics out the door.”

Nowhere did CrossFit advocate an “At any cost” mentality. In fact, our Seminars emphasize developing mechanics FIRST every weekend. And our practice follows suit: we teach air squats and PVC-pipe cleans, etc., before adding load. Before CrossFit, where else was the air squat even taught as a technical movement?

CrossFit has commited more resources to the advancement and availability of instruction in gymnastics, Olympic lifting, and powerlifting than any other fitness organization in existence. Even if CrossFit’s methods were based entirely around achieving personal records “at all costs”, there would be no method for achieving this as efficient as that of refining basic mechanics. Poliquin is attacking a straw-man of CrossFit- not anything resembling the real CrossFit program.

“2. Students do exercises that are completely out of their range of motor skills. For instance, novice CrossFitters doing strongman exercise such as Continental cleans with an axle puts them at very high risk of injury.”

Poliquin is referring to the Revival Strongman video from Albany CrossFit: (http://www.youtube.co
m/watch?v=BDDyxXyf6UU) (Link is W/F Safe)

In his criticism, Poliquin is making the same mistake that everyone else criticizing this video has made: thinking it was a CrossFit class, and not a strongman workshop. The footage occurred at a special Strongman workshop at CrossFit Albany. The continental clean is a standard strongman movement, and these are beginners learning how to do it. Associating it with CrossFit training makes as much sense as associating a yoga workshop with CrossFit because it occurs in a CrossFit box.

Regardless of the video he misinterpreted, Poliquin’s underlying claim seems to be that some people simply don’t need to learn (or can’t be taught) complex movements like the clean. If this really is his opinion, than we have found a point of serious disagreement between Poliquin and CrossFit.

“3. The sequencing of exercises will often impede progress.”

At first, this point is unclear. To understand what Poliquin means, we need to look back at an article he previously wrote about CrossFit:
(http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_…trength_vol_47) (Link is W/F Safe)

“In the CrossFit “Linda” workout, what’s the logic in fatiguing the lower back with deadlifts before doing power cleans? Not only does it prevent you from doing the power cleans with optimal technique, it makes it more difficult to activate high-threshold motor units. That’s why you should do all your sets of power cleans before you do deadlifts.”

It’s clear that Poliquin doesn’t understand CrossFit’s goals or methods. CrossFit’s ultimate goal is not “optimal technique” or to “activate high-threshold motor units”- it is to develop work capacity across broad time and modal domains. We do this by moving large loads, long distances, quickly, in a variety of different ways. Since life often demands it, CrossFitters train explosive movement while both fresh and fatigued, and with every possible load and rep scheme.

What happens if an athlete only trains explosive movements (power cleans) while fresh, and never after strength and/or conditioning work? How will he do this in real life if he never does it in the gym? The ability to move explosively when fatigued is necessary in both life and sport.

As a trainer with so much experience training sport specific athletes, don’t Poliquin’s fighters, football players, soccer players, etc. need to be able to make big plays late in the game or fight? The development of this capacity, to move explosively while fatigued, is something that fighters, football players, hockey players, and other sport-specific CrossFit athletes always mention as a primary benefit of CrossFit.

Also, insisting upon always maintaining optimal technique is misguided. Optimal technique is a concept, not a reality. No one does power cleans with optimal technique, not even seasoned Olympic lifters. CrossFitters, (like Olympic lifters) are willing to sacrifice some technique for output. An obsession with constantly perfect form necessarily confines athletes to lower levels of performance. While CrossFit considers technique of utmost importance for developing strength and power, it is used as a tool to reach goals, not as the goal itself.

“4. Sometimes the exercises chosen have little return on the investment. A lot of effort is put in, but the exercise in question doesn’t elicit strength, neuromuscular, or hypertrophic gains.”

While it’s not clear what exercises Poliquin is talking about, he seems to have missed an obvious flaw in his argument – CrossFit athletes train for reasons other than building strength and muscle. CrossFit isn’t forging elite bodybuilders or powerlifters. Besides strength, life demands capacity in coordination, accuracy, agility, balance, speed, power, stamina etc. These adaptations are just as important (if not more) than absolute strength, and absolute strength is aided in their development.

“Here is what I have observed in the CrossFitters who get great results:

1. The instructors know how to do the Olympic lifts and the related lifts well. Why? Because they searched for the right instruction from coaches like Pierre Roy, Mike Burgener, and John Broz, to name a few.”

Poliquin is now offering evidence that contradicts his previous claim that CrossFit ignores technique to achieve personal records at any costs. Not only does CrossFit promote a culture that respects and fosters the pursuit of knowledge and technique, but Mike Burgener (mentioned above by Poliquin) has been CrossFit’s subject matter expert on the Olympic lifts for nearly a decade. Here are Burgener’s comments on CrossFit’s effect on weightlifting:

“Crossfit has Done more for the sport of weightlifting than weightlifting’s political body has done for the sport!…As a former usaw club coach instructor as well as level 2 coach I find that the crossfit level 1 instructors follow proper protocol when teaching basic Olympic movement patterns to their future coaches! These patterns are taught safely, efficiently, and effectively!”

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you want to be the best, learn from the best.”

Agreed.

“2. They follow a periodized system, complete with variation in all loading parameters. Periodization goes against the initial dogma of CrossFit, so hardliners stay away from it.”

It’s unclear what variant of periodization Poliquin is referring here.

With regards to “variation in all loading parameters,” Poliquin seems to be in approval of CrossFit. But does he not also realize that no program does this more effectively than CrossFit? Where else are you doing light weights one day, maxing out the next, all bodyweight exercises on day three, etc?

“I agree that hard work is essential for results. However, hard smart work gets you there faster. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Flushable toilets are not Paleolithic either, and I will continue to use them too…”

The implication here is that CrossFit programming is random or unorganized. While I completely understand how someone unfamiliar with CrossFit could look at CrossFit.com programming and get this impression, Poliquin’s view couldn’t be farther from the truth and only goes to show again that Poliquin doesn’t fully understand the CrossFit methodology. This is also seen in the Paleolithic reference. We base our methods off of results, not a re-enactment of the Paleolithic lifestyle. Neither our training nor our nutrition is dictated by Paleolithic guidelines.

“4. They care about orthopedic issues and they include remedial work, not just prime work, in their program design.”

The implication here is that caring about “orthopedic issues” is not something that standard CrossFit allows for. Perhaps Poliquin has not heard of CrossFit’s subject matter expert on movement and mobility- Kelly Starrett. Again, CrossFit is giving more content and resources away for free on this subject than any other current fitness experts in the world.

“5. Exercise order and selection is optimal. I once had a workout at Erik Kilstrup’s CrossFit facility in Copenhagen. Only with National teams have I ever seen so many young women do pull-ups with perfect form. They weren’t doing the kipping one that mimics a penguin having a series of epileptic seizures. Kilstrup actually forbids kipping pull-ups in his facility.”

Poliquin does not like kipping pull-ups. I think we are all fully aware of this. Why then, can a professional trainer like Poliquin, who is so well versed in the subject of human movement, not better articulate why he dislikes the kip other than to mock athletes who use it? What distinguishes the core-to-extremity movement pattern in kipping pull-ups from that in a push-press or jerk? What is the benefit of adding hip movement to overhead lifts? Why does the same benefit not apply to pulling movements? If Poliquin can answer these questions, then we can asses his argument.

“I am utterly convinced that CrossFit is a great product with a huge potential to improve.”

In 2008, Poliquin wrote about CrossFit: “No athlete has ever gotten good training like that.”

Four years later, he states that CrossFit is a “great product”. What changed?
CrossFitters are still doing constantly varied, functional movements at high intensity.

Poliquin’s closing message, that “CrossFit is a great product with a huge potential to improve” seems to be his yielding to the unavoidable fact that CrossFit gets results, and those results have driven it to massive popularity and rapid growth.

The implied message here is that CrossFit is effective only if you apply Poliquin’s ideas to it. The vast variance of successful approaches to CrossFit clearly indicates that Poliquin’s message is untrue. The way in which Poliquin presents his message, frequently laced with insult and mockery, gives us the chance to peer into the mind of someone who clearly dislikes much of CrossFit for reasons he can’t, or won’t, fully articulate.

From his criticisms, its overwhelmingly obvious that Poliquin does not understand the CrossFit program. For him to assume that strength and muscle hypertrophy are the only desired outcomes of training for a CrossFit athlete shows this ignorance. A meaningful critique of CrossFit might include some arguments against its ability to do what it claims to do- increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Perhaps Poliquin will even provide evidence of a better method for achieving IWCABTMD.

To fully understand our differences (and our similarities), we would need Poilquin to understand this definition, and advance an argument that is relevant to what CrossFit is trying to accomplish.

As a trainer who works with many high-level sport-specific athletes, it’s very likely that Poliquin’s goals are not the same as CrossFit’s. This would also mean that many of his criticism, specifically those that rely on comparisons between our methods, are completely meaningless.

 

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