ACSM and NSCA: Do Push-ups Like a Girl

Remember “girl push-ups?” Survivors of American public school physical education may remember that “girl push-ups” are performed on the knees while the more challenging “boy push-ups” are performed on the feet.

Even a generation ago, “girl push-ups” were artifacts of an older, more openly sexist era. I recall girls doing more pull-ups than all the boys in our elementary school’s presidential physical fitness tests. Sure, the girls were gymnasts, but the boys were athletes, too. If girls can do strict pull-ups, they can do “boy” push-ups, too.

So coming across this female push-up standard in a NSCA textbook’s “Selected Tests” section in 2014 is a bit jarring:

“For the ACSM standards, standards, women start similarly except that the knees rather than the feet contact the ground”

– Page 261 of the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning”

Page 261 from the NSCA's Essentials of Strength and Conditioning textbook.

Page 261 from the NSCA’s Essentials of Strength and Conditioning textbook.

CrossFit.com does not usually publish female workout prescriptions. Some misinterpret this as a sign that CrossFit ignores women. In reality, CrossFit women can frequently handle the same prescription better than men. Therefore, an effective scaling should focus on individual capacity, not assumptions or generalizations. Gender is one of many factors that impact fitness, including training history, nutrition, mental outlook, age, etc. Even at the highest levels of CrossFit Games competition, women have beaten men at the same events.

The 2012 CrossFit Games Mid Atlantic Regional.

Women do push-ups at the 2012 CrossFit Games Mid Atlantic Regional.

Take Camille Leblanc Bazinet, the fittest woman on earth. Last week she performed “Amanda” in 5:32 at 135 pounds, the same weight men used at the CrossFit Games in 2010.

This time would have placed her 21st out of 45 in the male division at the 2010 CrossFit Games. Her time was faster than two previous male CrossFit Games champions (Jason Khalipa and James Fitzgerald) as well as the previous year’s runner-up (Tommy Hackenbruck).

At Sunday’s CrossFit Invitational, Kara Webb snatched 195 pounds. Let’s compare that to what the world’s fittest men snatched just 5 years ago. In the 2009 CrossFit Games, Webb’s snatch would have landed her in 10th, out of 16, ahead of that year’s champion, Mikko Salo.

But we don’t need to use a time machine to show that the fittest women can outperform the fittest men at the same workouts. The CrossFit Games season has often prescribed the same workouts for individual men and women.

In 2011, Julie Foucher completed the Beach event in 39:04: 210 meter Ocean swim, 1,500 meter Soft-sand run, 50 Chest-to-bar pull-ups, 100 Hand-release push-ups, 200 Squats, 1,500 meter Soft-sand run. All athletes did the exact same workout, and Julie finished faster than all but 9 of the men. She bested that year’s champ, Rich Froning, by over 2 minutes.

2013 CrossFit Games champ Sam Briggs on her way to rowing 21,097 meters in 1:27:49.

2013 CrossFit Games champ Sam Briggs on her way to rowing 21,097 meters in 1:27:49.

At the 2013 CrossFit Games, Sam Briggs rowed 21,097 meters in 1 hour, 27 minutes, and 47 seconds – faster than Dan Bailey and Lucas Parker. Consider that rowing favors larger athletes, and Briggs’ feat is even more impressive.

Nearly half of the events at the 2014 CrossFit Games Regionals prescribed exactly the same work for men and women – 3 out of 7. Elisabeth Akinwale handstand walked 315 feet – further than every man in the Central East Region save Rich Froning. Sam Briggs completed Event 5’s legless rope climbs and running in 4:31. This would’ve placed her in 18th among the North East Regional’s men, ahead of Games veteran Austin Malleolo.

This is what happens when athletes train for real fitness and scale their training according to fitness level, not preconceived limitations. As Greg Glassman wrote in 2005,

 “Skilless physical training exaggerates the genetic differences between men and women while delivering less fitness for both men and women.”

Indeed, it was a staple of the old school CrossFit L1 seminar to challenge the burliest male to take on Nicole Carroll in overhead squats. In 2007, Nicole took on Glover Teixera, an MMA fighter who is currently #4 in the UFC’s light-heavyweight division. She got him both on overhead squats and muscle-ups.

Now, these examples don’t show that women are fitter than men in general. Men on average are stronger and fitter than women and a competition needs to recognize that reality. Competition programming needs to generalize in order to create a level playing field. Generalizations always have exceptions, but they’re necessary for competition. And so, the CrossFit Games workouts sometimes do contain gender-based scaling, normally on the heaviest lifts. Training, in contrast, should be individually, not generally, scaled.

Bottom Line:
If you follow the ACSM and NSCA’s example, women will not reach their true physical potential. On the other hand, if you scale training based on fitness, not gender, then women (and men) will exceed expectations.

Though the achievements of women in CrossFit are impressive, we’re only in the beginning of a massive experiment in gender equality. CrossFit women clean and jerk and snatch, but female weightlifting only entered the Olympics in 2000. CrossFit women use gymnastics rings, but competitive female gymnasts still do not compete on the rings or pommel horse.

Will women eventually surpass Rich Froning’s current level of fitness? We’ll see.

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