The NSCA’s William Kraemer vs. CrossFit Part Three

In Part One of the Kraemer vs. CrossFit series, I introduced William Kraemer’s studies on CrossFit. Kraemer took a group of people with no experience in CrossFit and had them do modified “Linda” as fast as possible, at heavy loads, and without coaching. Their squat form improved throughout the workout, yet Kraemer’s opinion of CrossFit did not change, as I covered in Part Two. Here is Part Three:

Universal Load Prescription: Something CrossFit Doesn’t Do

GrandmaandGrandson

Kraemer asserts that CrossFit prescribes the same load to all athletes. In fact, CrossFit scales each workout to an individual’s capacity.

In Kraemer’s next study, Effects of High Intensity Short Rest Resistance Exercises, he commits a blatant misrepresentation. He claims that “universal load prescription (as assigned in extreme conditioning programs) creates extreme ranges in individual training intensities.”

Contrary to Kraemer’s allegation, CrossFit does not practice universal load prescription. Instead, CrossFit scales load, speed, intensity, complexity, etc. to the level of each individual.

If only Kramer had read CrossFit.com’s Start Here section, which states:

“The best results have come for those who’ve ‘gone through the motions’ of the WOD by reducing recommended loads, reps, and sets while not endeavoring towards impressive times for a month before turning up the heat. We counsel you to establish consistency with the WOD before maximizing intensity.”

It is unclear if Kraemer simply is ignorant of the most basic aspects of CrossFit methodology, or he’s aware and simply is falsely disparaging his competition. It’s also hard to tell if ignorance or malice are at play when he claims that CrossFit “differs from high intensity interval training in the modes of training that are used and rest periods or lower intensity intervals that are not incorporated in the program prescription.”

On the contrary, CrossFit does program many workouts with prescribed rest periods. Consider Fight Gone BadThe GhostTabata Something Else, or even this unnamed workout from May 21, 2014.

Despite his false claim that CrossFit practices “universal load prescription,” Kraemer did not enforce “universal load prescription” with a group of people attempting modified Linda for the first time:

“As part of a larger investigation (16,38), we chose to examine the impact of a consistent relative intensity (75% 1 repetition maximum [RM]), specific to individual ability, rather than universal load prescription due to safety, in a HI/SR protocol on markers of muscle damage, inflammation, and T response in men and women”

While Kraemer made sure that the subjects had never done anything like this workout prior to running them through it as quickly as possible, he did implement some pre-tests: “Baseline testing consisted of a fitness test (2 minutes of push-ups, 2 minutes of sit-ups, and a 2-mile run) and 1RM tests for the back squat, bench press, and deadlift.”

Why classify the calisthenics and running as a “fitness test,” but not the lifting? Apparently Kraemer does not think that strength is a component of fitness, which leads to the next question: Has the NSCA defined fitness yet? How are they testing fitness without knowing what it is?

This particular study evaluated the muscular damage induced by the workout, tracking Creatine Kinase and Myoglobin levels in the blood before and at various points after the workout. Despite the fact that Kraemer disregarded CrossFit’s scaling guidelines, none of the subjects reached Creatine Kinase levels that would suggest a dangerous case of Rhabdomyolysis:

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Finally, Kraemer concluded “exercise intensity and load should be prescribed on an individual basis to avoid injury and extreme muscle damage.” In other words, he agrees with CrossFit’s advocacy of scaling, though he doesn’t acknowledge it.

littleboyOHS

“Mechanics, then consistency, and then intensity – this is the key to effective implementation of CrossFit programming.” – Greg Glassman

Squatting Without Instruction
In Effects of resistance training fatigue on joint biomechanics, Kraemer discusses the form in two sets of 5 bodyweight squats, one before the modified Linda, and one after. The subjects squatted deeper and with a more upright torso before the workout. This is contrary to the mid-workout findings discussed above, for unknown reasons. Though it should not surprise anyone that beginners had trouble doing air squats after doing 55 reps each of back squats, bench presses, and deadlifts for time.

As with the weighted squats, “the subjects were given no instruction as to exactly how to perform the squat exercise.” How would some simple coaching have affected their squat form?

One of the most pernicious problems with flawed studies is that future research cites them as fact, spreading the misunderstanding.

For example, consider this sentence from “Adrenal cortical responses to high-intensity, short rest, resistance exercise in men and women“: “According to some reports these programs create high levels of mechanical and oxidative stress, resulting in performance decrements and nonfunctional overreaching.”

The only source that Kraemer cites to support this sentence is the CHAMP paper, which contains no data. Yet by claiming the existence of “reports” and providing a citation, he establishes the facade of evidence. Readers who haven’t read the CHAMP study may conclude that there actually are credible reports.

The NSCA disputes the idea that anything could be more effective than their programming. They claim that CrossFit’s methods “contradict conventional periodized resistance training models, which have proven to be effective in maximizing physiological gains such as muscle strength and hypertrophy, while minimizing the risk of overtraining.”

How does the NSCA know that they’ve “maximized” physiological gains? That would imply it’s impossible for humans to achieve better results than what is achieved through the NSCA’s programs. Who could possibly substantiate that?

Despite the NSCA’s claims of maximizing human potential, they don’t seem to have a logically consistent standard for squats. The study reports that “During 1RM testing, the subjects were asked to squat to parallel (90 degree knee flexion).” If an athlete’s knees move forward at all in the squat, which is necessary to maintain an upright torso as the NSCA prescribes, then squatting to parallel is deeper than a 90 degree knee bend. This is why CrossFit uses the relationship between the hip and the knee, and not knee angle, to evaluate when an athlete has passed parallel in the squat. Yet the NSCA acts as if “90 degree knee flexion” and “parallel” are synonymous.

The researchers also found higher cortisol levels immediately post-workout than what has been found from resistance training with longer rest periods. Would the higher post-workout cortisol levels in this study have anything to do with the fact that the subjects had no experience with this style of training?

Another interesting point about the cortisol levels reported is that they were lower 24-hours post workout than they were pre-workout, though Kraemer guesses that “baseline values may have reflected an anticipatory rise in cortisol concentrations.”

Despite the fact that the workout resulted in lower cortisol levels the next day, Kraemer raises concerns about CrossFit causing harmful levels of cortisol.

“Such prior findings and the results of this study raise concerns about the role of excess circulating cortisol in the body, with the saturation of so many target receptors having potential negative implications on muscle growth and repair processes and immune suppression, making the recovery time course less than optimal …

As shown in the current investigation, high-intensity, short rest protocols elevate cortisol concentrations well beyond what is typically seen in response to resistance exercise protocols using lighter intensities and longer rest intervals. This has potentially serious implications in muscle tissue growth, recovery, and immune processes because of the catabolic effects of cortisol.”

Kraemer’s idea for further research is to program CrossFit workouts “without programmed rest days” in order “to determine whether a chronic elevation of resting cortisol concentrations occur.” Again, it’s hard to see how this research is relevant to CrossFit. CrossFit includes rest days. Kraemer is imagining a straw man program, instead of testing what CrossFit actually recommends.

He also interprets the results of this study to conclude that “HI/SR protocols may be best suited to the well-trained athlete who already has a level of fitness commensurate with the demands of this protocol.”

This begs the question: how should someone go about obtaining this “fitness” other than performing similar workouts with gradually escalating levels of intensity?

And without having studied the implementation of CrossFit workouts in periodized or non-periodized programming, Kraemer asserts that

“the primary implication for future research is the need to incorporate HI/SR protocols into a periodized resistance training program… Although short rest protocols have benefit and certainly have their place within an athlete’s training arsenal, the findings of this study suggest that their greatest benefit may arise when incorporated into a periodized strength and conditioning program, which allows for adequate train-up, rest, and recovery.”

What evidence would support this assertion? The cortisol levels the day after the workout were lower than they were pre-workout. If this trend continued, CrossFit would be an effective agent for lowering cortisol, not raising it.

Kraemer’s conclusion does not follow from the data. He has not tested a periodized routine with HI/SR and compared it with a non-periodized routine, and thus cannot make any conclusions or recommendations regarding this decision.

In Part Four, I cover Kraemer’s claim to have first described CrossFit’s methodology in 1987.

13 comments

  1. Going to get flamed for this , but here goes….

    The idea of Crossfit was brilliant. On all levels it truly has changed the way lots of people exercise, and at the same time showed PTs another way of being involved in an industry run usually only by the “boys club”. under the guise of “protection ” ( extortion )

    But it does have ONE BIG PROBLEM . Its execution into mainstream training lacked all the control of Zumba, Pilates and BootCamp fads etc…

    When you decide to build something like Crossfit….. You only have two choices. Do you want an industry or a fad.

    Industry = Slow organic growth. Repercussions for those who step out of line. To develop a discipline that will stand the test of time..

    Fad = Take a good idea and run with it. Fast and loose. Letting anyone play.

    This guy has taken the cheap shot everyone knows was coming. Because despite what is preached at the top level. This is NOT what is being preached in the boxes and everyone knows it..

    His motivations are irrelevant. He is just doing what a lot of academics do. Get a pre conceived idea and design a study to try and prove that idea right.

    Here is the REAL question….

    Is there anyone at top level CrossFit management ready to turn all perception ( Academic and public around ).To do this will mean to stop the ship and change course.

    If fear is driving the ship. I see an iceberg coming. .

    • Russ Greene

      Lloyd,

      Your response confuses me. You admit that Kraemer practiced bad science, but turn it into CrossFit’s fault.

      How is CrossFit’s business model relevant to the NSCA’s knowingly publishing false information? Could Kraemer and the NSCA not do the same thing about any competing program, regardless of its business model, safety, or efficacy?

      Well, I suppose that Kraemer wouldn’t do this with a less successful program. So, in that regard only, I concede CrossFit’s business model is relevant. It allowed CrossFit to make enough people fitter that the NSCA took notice.

      As for your idea that there are no “repercussions” for CrossFit gyms that don’t pursue excellence, you’re missing the most obvious one. If a gym doesn’t provide a uniquely attractive service to its clients, another may do so in its place.

  2. John Weatherly

    Your comment about “industry or fad” is interesting and seems to parallel what has happend in the vibration area. As you know, many studies were done on vibration platforms and published in “peer-reviewed” journals (including the one Dr. Kraemer is Editor in Chief of) that did not test the platforms for reliability before doing the studies and publishing the results in “peer-reviewed” journals. With a company like Power Plate having been/being a “sponsor” of the NSCA, it really makes you wonder? How could all the esteemed PhD reviewers “miss” something like testing reliability? Would it fit under “conflict of interest” or “just making a buck” for the NSCA?
    As a side note several years ago while I was consulting on vibration, Dr. Kraemer sent me an email (used to correspond via email or he’d usually return my calls – I liked/respected Dr. Kraemer) saying there appeared to be a lot that can be done with vibration and that a student of his had validated a certain vibration platform for warmup. In parenthesis Dr. Kraemer said “I think.” So, Dr. Kraemer was not sure himself. That was well over 5 years ago and I did not save the message. Now, with social media and the NSCA being wary of lawsuits, Dr. Kraemer will not answer emails unless it is an automatic response saying he is out of the office:)

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

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

  5. Russ…..

    I have been through exactly what you are going through. In our case fake reports of brain damage, eyeball damage, spine damage and joint destruction was reported by “top’ academics . In papers and exercise mags. 10 years ago.

    ALL PROVED TO BE FABRICATED . And even the worse predictions never came true. So they faded away into obscurity.

    My points are simple….

    Cross-Fit has painted a huge target on its own back. It now has a reputation that is not the best. It has a fanatic core that was a marketers dream, but a scientists worst nightmare. And the scare. mongering bad science tactics used by Kramer etc…. get traction because of that reputation.

    You cant just have a cry and put it all down to “anti-competitiveness ” As I know you do not live in a bubble and must be fully aware of public awareness of Cross-Fit safety issues.

    Kramer is operating out of fear. So fear is his best weapon. .

    This comment concerns me greatly……

    ” As for your idea that there are no “repercussions” for CrossFit gyms that don’t pursue excellence, you’re missing the most obvious one. If a gym doesn’t provide a uniquely attractive service to its clients, another may do so in its place.

    Sorry but simply using ‘ ” the consumer will vote with their wallets” if a box is unsafe is not leadership or discipline.

    Note” The BOX’S here in NZ numbers are already dropping. And no-one has heard of Kramer or the NSCA. He is a small part of a bigger trend.

    If you do not realize this is an actual fight for CrossFits very existence. You should not be playing the game. .

    • Lloyd,

      1. Please substantiate your claim that “The BOX’S here in NZ numbers are already dropping.” Nothing we are aware of indicates anything like this.

      2. Please substantiate your claim that CrossFit (you spelled it incorrectly as Cross-Fit) has “safety issues.” Are you aware that this “reputation” that CrossFit is dangerous is based solely on the statements of our competitors like Kraemer and not fact?

      3. Please explain how out affiliate model is “unsafe and not leadership of discipline.” You seem to be implying that it is dangerous for us to allow less experienced or competent trainers to become affiliates. This makes sense considering you think CrossFit is dangerous. This, however, is just a myth perpetuated by academics with an investment in the success of the traditional fitness industry. As it turns out, the outcome of allowing people with little experience to start training others is a net positive. The risks associated with CrossFit, even with poor form, programming, or coaching, are low. Yet the chance of receiving positive health benefits are still extremely high. For a society in desperate need of improved health and fitness, our affiliate model is a no-brainer.

  6. Russell….

    You are on the defensive. And rightly so. But I have neither the time or inclination to educate you on my history and fight with the “academics”. / ” bully boys club “. to show you I am not your enemy.

    I am simply in the eye of the storm. Giving you a perspective free of ulterior motives.

    I run a busy private mortuary and design exercise equipment for morbidly obese people. I seriously doubt we have any conflicts of interests. But many shared goals.

    If you ever want to listen , and not just attack. I am the easiest person to find.

    Good luck mate.

    • David

      Lloyd, good points being made but you’re not looking at the situation from Crosfit’s point of view. You have to start with the belief that crossfit is not only a great, safe, amazing way of working out; but that it is the best, and only way to workout. If you start there then it is easy to be super defensive about anyone suggesting something different. Realize that Cross-fit doesn’t survive if it is just another decent way to get in shape. They have to be something extraordinary or they can’t charge 150 a month when La is charging 10. Unfortunately this will also lead to their destruction, if you start out toting eliteness” but then cater to everyone then everything gets diluted. If it gets diluted then you can’t convince people to pay for something unique because it no longer is. I hear you on the decline in box revenue though, if you want proof just search krossFit in google trends and see where it’s headed. It’s going to be much worse in a month now that the games are over as well. Side note my spell check just won’t help me out with the CrossFit spelling, just says it’s always wrong 😉 On a serious side note i do wish the entire fitness community could rally around the goal we’re all working towards, instead of this constant fighting over minor differences, i suppose money does change things.

      • Russ Greene

        David,

        At CrossFit gyms there are trainers who coach athletes through functional movements. At LA fitness, for $10 a month, your choices are to either do bodybuilding movements or try to learn how to do functional movements without coaching.

        At a CrossFit gym you learn how to do functional movements with coaches and a roomful of peers. You don’t need to believe that CrossFit is the only way to work out to believe that this is more valuable a service than bicep curls at LA Fitness.https://therussellsblogdotcom.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php?p=664&approved=1#comments-form

      • David

        I can’t seem to reply to your comment so i’ll reply to mine. That’s exactly the point i’m making, I would take all that CrossFit has to offer hands down. I will absolutely agree with you that Olympic lifts and functional movements are far superior than doing bicep curls. However it’s not worth it to me to pay 140 dollars extra a month and then be required to come in at a certain time and do a set workout (i don’t have my level 1). I’ve been doing CrossFit since the beginning and i’m afraid that it’s success will also be it’s destruction. Too many boxes = either higher prices for fewer customers, or some of them will go out of business. This is the best case scenario, it’s simple economics. The worst case is that people simply won’t keep paying for a product that is 1500% more expensive than the alternative, no matter how much better it is. If it was me i would stop at 10,000 boxes and focus on quality over quantity (i’m hoping the new cert setup is working towards that). Otherwise i’m afraid CrossFit will collapse in on itself. Then again i’m just some guy that likes lifting weights, i hope i’m wrong.

  7. I will add one point…..

    I have a personal passion in helping our global community fight obesity. I have witnessed multiple lost opportunities over the past 15 years through the mistake of compromising discipline for the short term gains, that end up in long term net losses.

    Creating an artificial tipping point in popularity through any means is a marketers game. And that is the operative word , GAME. Just as it is for the grant bludging academics and “industry leader” leaches. For them it is a game of egos and bank balances.

    CrossFit was meant to be a Battle to win a War. But all I see is panic and reactionary tactics.

    Not good……

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