A Four-Year Degree vs. a Two-Day Seminar, by David Barnett

Editor’s Note: Dr. Lon Kilgore has published a new article in the CrossFit Journal that discusses “the biased belief that university degrees are the gold standard for personal trainers.” CrossFit Lubbock owner David Barnett responded that he “learned more in 2 days at my CrossFit L1 about human movement than I did in 4 years at a tier 1 university getting a BS in Exercise and Sport Sciences.” We asked David to tell his story on the blog:

My name is David Barnett. I graduated from Ruidoso High School in Ruidoso, New Mexico and entered Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas. I felt extremely honored to be attending an out-of-state University.

With the absence of multiple sports, I literally gained over 50 pounds my freshmen year. I spent my first summer doing two things: waiting tables and working out. I lost all 50 pounds and more doing interval runs, isolation movements, and calisthenics while following diets from Muscle and Fitness magazine.

I changed my major to Exercise and Sport Sciences for my Sophomore year and was excited to really start learning the intricate details about how the body works and how to help change people’s lives the way my life was changed. I was disappointed. After three semesters, and a few summer courses of almost entirely unrelated prerequisites, I got into the actual Exercise Science courses.

Here’s what I learned: Despite having many labs that were described as “hands on”, I took very little away from many of my major-specific classes. For example, in Anatomy and Physiology, I learned how to identify and name all the muscles of the face using a real, preserved, cat cadaver, but I don’t remember any of these today.

In Resistance Training and Conditioning our teacher showed us some of the programs the football team and other D1 athletes used. We even had the opportunity to go down to the Recreational Center and try the routines out during class time on several different occasions. There was no coaching, contrary to what they’d promised us in the beginning of the semester. For example, the program read “incline dumbbell press, 3 sets of 12.” They pointed me in the direction of the incline bench and I just went for it based on what I had seen guys do in the past. 3 sets of pull-ups to failure? Why not? Our teacher, an assistant strength coach and masters student simply pointed, “there’s the pull-up bar.” None of the ladies even attempted a pull-up or were taught how they could progress toward doing a pull-up.

Unlike Barnett's university education, CrossFit teaches women how to do pull-ups.

Unlike Barnett’s university education, CrossFit teaches women how to do pull-ups.

In Exercise Physiology, I learned how to take a VO2 max, resting heart rate, and blood pressure. This was my first exposure to CrossFit. A student in my lab, Steven Willis, had the lowest resting heart rate and best blood pressure. He did CrossFit. We ended up having more classes together and I always enjoyed hearing his more practical input in courses. He invited me to his gym that he coached at. I was less than a year away from graduating.

I walked into an affiliate with 3 semesters of formal exercise and sport science education. The WOD was 7 rounds for time of:

– 7 deadlifts (275/185)
-7 bar facing burpees

I looked at the bar resting on the ground and I had absolutely no idea how to pick it up correctly.

At that moment I could name every amino acid and identify every major nerve in the body. I could explain in detail, how a muscle contracts and how carbohydrates are metabolized. I stood there in my $65 under armor shorts and I had no clue how to correctly pick shit up. It was embarrassing. I clearly lacked a ton of practical skills. I was taught, like everyone else. I had zero advantage over anyone else in the room. In fact, I was way behind. Everyone in the room had more background and understanding about spinal positioning and hamstring activation than I did.

A few years later, I went to my CrossFit Level 1 seminar at CrossFit FX TX. I was taught, via moving my own body and seeing others move, the nine foundational movements. I still apply these lessons in my life outside of the gym every single day. Lindsey Smith placed her hands on my rib cage and forcefully pressed it down as I held a PVC overhead. “This is a neutral spine David. Don’t let this move when I remove my hands,” she said.

In between sessions, a drawing of vertebrae and intervertebral discs was drawn on the board. “Here is how over-extension effects the spine.” Matt Chan grabbed my elbows and said, “Show me your armpits. Next time, I want to see you start in that position. Follow me?”

"I learned more in 2 days at my CF-L1 about human movement than did in 4 years at a tier 1 university getting a BS in Exercise and Sport Sciences." - David Barnett

“I learned more in 2 days at my CrossFit Level 1 about human movement than did in 4 years at a tier 1 university getting a BS in Exercise and Sport Sciences.” – David Barnett

The CrossFit Seminar trainers taught me a functional definition of fitness, in detail. I knew while hearing the definition and the three different models to explain it, that this was what I was blindly striving for over the past 4 years.  Fitness is work capacity measured across broad time and modal domains. More importantly, the CrossFit Seminar trainers taught me a practical blueprint for how to build fitness and, in turn, change lives.

I learned about the Zone diet and how to apply and adjust it to anyone looking to maximize performance. In two days, I got what I was looking for, for years in my formal education. The instructors made abundantly clear that I wasn’t done. They told me where to go next to learn more.

Two affiliates and thousands of hours coaching later, I am still reading the CrossFit Journal and attending specialty courses. Oh yeah, I am also taking my Level 3 test tomorrow.

David Barnett didn't know how to deadlift when he walked into a CrossFit gym. Now he squats 430.

David Barnett didn’t know how to deadlift when he walked into a CrossFit gym. Now he squats 430 and rows 2000m in 6:55.

David Barnett is a 27 year old husband and father to a two-year-old daughter. He opened, grew to 200 athletes, and sold CrossFit FMS in Midland, TX. Shortly after, he opened CrossFit Lubbock in Lubbock, TX. They have been open 6 months and have 75 athletes. David has trained athletes for 6 years and looks forward to making this a life long career. He has a B.S. in Exercise and Sports Sciences from Texas Tech University and has taken CrossFit’s Level 1, Coach’s Prep, CrossFit Football, CrossFit Mobility and CrossFit Endurance courses.

18 comments

  1. I have seen all of the Crossfit bias material on this topic this past week and I have drawn 2 conclusions.
    1. The ego of Crossfit’s credentialing has jumped the shark.
    2. As a Licensed Athletic Trainer, which is often mistaken for personal trainer to the public, I now hope Crossfit wins this debate on licensure.

    • I’ll never understand what people mean by using the pejorative “biased” in reference to someone’s writing. Bias is impossible to avoid and its existence is only a problem when it leads to fallacy.

  2. David, I appreciate your article, but you are assuming that all 4-year degree programs are the same and all CFL1 Certs are the same. You and I both no that any degree compentencies are highly dependent on the curriculum and faculty. As well as any hands-on certification relays on the consistency of the instructors and the compentency of the other attendees. Your population sample of one degree vs. one certification in which your livelihood (and others promoting this article) benefit from. Not knowing how to pick up a barbell or keep a neutral spine is not indicative of your degree… it’s a representation of your extra-curricular activities up until that point. Good promotional piece for CF and I am being sincere when I say I appreciate your honesty.

    • Mark,

      First, you state that David is “assuming that all 4-year degree programs are the same…” He has done no such thing and I challenge you to quote him directly if you believe he has. David has done nothing but describe his personal experiences, and I can’t find anything in his article that makes general statements about all 4-year degree programs, only his own. It seems that you are debating with a conclusion that you have drawn from his article, not one he has actually argued for.

      Second, you suggest that David’s ignorance of how to use a barbell “is not indicative” of his degree program, but is a “…representation of [his] extra-curricular activities up until that point.” How is a lack of practical movement training not a criteria for judging the value of a degree in exercise science? It simply doesn’t follow that we should allow David’s college program to escape judgment on this point simply because he could have learned how to squat through some other means.

      • Russell,
        Thanks for the reply and David had cleared a lot of this up via Facebook as I admittedly misinterpreted what he had written.

        I cannot take responsibility the curriculum design for every university. If they are not teaching basic movements, then shame on them for omitting this or at least not providing an more comprehensive internship requirement upon graduation.

        You would be surprised how many universities do not have hands-on, basic strength training courses. That’s why more universities are incorporating more practical application and coaching education components into the program. We have a lot of kids with degrees that spent an abundance of time doing research time with VO2 Maxes and hormonal changes in mice with no idea how to squat. I have had close to 100 of those kids in my internship program over an 8 year period, so I know.

        David was unjustly criticized. He never said a CFL1 should replace a 4-year degree program (although you will probably see more that feel that way.) “Why spend 4 years getting a degree in an exercise science related field that I don’t need to be a coach in a community I want to be a part of anyway?” Not sure that’s a good outlook, but I can’t blame people for thinking that way.

  3. I, and I am sure many others who have read this article, am left scratching my head a little bit. I thank CrossFit for a myriad of things. I have found that it has made it easier for me to instruct, analyze, and keep my athletes engaged since I have studied principles of CrossFit. It really is amazing and I feel like it should be considered a “gold standard” certification. Nation-wide, ASCM and NSCA seem to have those titles. I have held certifications in both. I have a BS in Exercise Science as well. I think that the only thing standing in the way is for CF is that some CF instructors haven’t put a lot of focus into the task. Unfortunately, some do it because CF is cool. David has clearly done the time and put in the research and work. The article comes off a little misleading saying that more is learned. Kinda sorta yeah, but really he just learned different things (not MORE) and how to apply them. Things that certainly should be taught during 4-yr degree coursework and, unfortunately sometimes, aren’t. Education is always an ongoing process. We can’t afford to remain stagnant. I really appreciate what CF has done for me, my education/knowledge base, and the fitness community as a whole.

  4. I am currently completing my BS in exercise science which will be completed at the end of this year. Whether it is nutrition or sport specific programming, I have brought ideas and new ways of thinking to each of these classes through discussion based off of the knowledge I have gained through CrossFit certifications and seminars. A good trainer/coach is constantly looking to expand their knowledge through various outlets (CrossFit Journal, podcasts, other coaches, formal education, seminars, certifications, etc). What route we take to become a better trainer should be our choice. The key is to never stop learning!
    As the lead trainer/programmer at Hit2Kill CrossFit in South Korea I can definitely say that experience is the best teacher. The knowledge I have gained in this position is far superior to the undergraduate degree that I am pursuing.

    Thanks for the article David!

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  9. Education and experience are key. You need both as the CrossFit idea of training has always maintained. If the question is get a degree or get a level one? What would Castro say? There is no denying that a four year degree will make you a more well rounded individual and leader in society compared to a 2 day seminar. You learn more, and you spend more hours concentrated on the human body. The article said nothing about the anatomy and physiology knowledge that was gained, the foreign languages, psychology, history of sport, adaptive education, k-12, marketing, and the countless hours of lab work and study sessions and test that have to be taking to achieve a degree. And that is one semester worth of studies.
    I love CrossFit, and it is a great strength and conditioning program in it’s grass roots idea. The sport of CrossFit has become sport specific, and the direction of CrossFit is leading towards a population of individuals that are a little more full of themselves than they deserve.
    We all deserve worse if you read my opinion. This article is a little over the top for me. I have both a degree and I have gone to the level 1 cert, and other certs with CrossFit and other accredited certifications besides CrossFit. None of them have taught me as much as my degree has taught. There is no possible way they can. Hours spent just like hours put in the gym are relevant in this situation. You can’t start working out for 5 days and expect to beat Rich Froning at a competition. You can’t study specific exercise movements for 2 days (a limited amount of specific movements) and say you know more or as much as one who holds their degree.
    I don’t know what the intentions of this article are, and I hope that educated individuals at headquarters are not trying to degrade the United States educational system, and claim that they know and are better than the institutionalized system that has helped produce some of the best leaders and educators in the world.

  10. Samuel, it seems to me that your entire comment can be summarized as “you learn more in a 4-year degree than at the CFL1.” The only response I can think of is “of course.” No one is arguing otherwise.

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