The School vs. The Gym, by David Barnett

I recently wrote an article about my personal experiences with the CrossFit Level 1 as well as getting a Bachelor of Science in Exercise and Sport Sciences. As expected, I received a lot of criticism and backlash for this. My conclusion and “thesis” of this article was:

I learned more in 2 days at my CrossFit L1 about human movement than I did getting a BS in Exercise and Sport Sciences.

I stand by that statement. A handful of people responded by saying I was wrong to expect practical application in my degree. I disagree.

Here are descriptions of the ESS courses that were required for my degree: http://www.depts.ttu.edu/officialpublications/courses/ess.php

Just one example:

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As described in my original article, the coursework claims to emphasize “implementation”. I was simply let into the gym and told where movements are done. Based on my experience, I think this strongly supports my thesis.

While this is just a personal experience, and not a conclusion about ESS programs in general, I am not alone in this conclusion. Dr. Lon Kilgore came to a similar conclusion in The CrossFit Journal.

It is an all-too-common occurrence for graduates in exercise science, health and fitness, kinesiology, human kinetics, physical education or any of the other programs in operation to leave university with no tangible fitness instruction or programming skills. They have only read about or been lectured on the concepts. Because the three-hours-of-lecture-per-week approach to education is financially viable, they might never have spent a single moment learning the practical aspects of teaching basic fitness skills such as running and lifting or might never have practiced putting them together into a coherent program that accomplishes a fitness goal.

Dozens of people with similar degrees also commented and said that they came to the conclusion. Even Rich Froning seems to agree with me:

Mark Watts, the Education Director at EliteFTS.com, presented some thoughts and after a brief back-and-fourth, summed it up well when he said, “I do think people are making the mistake of assuming you are saying all degree programs are inferior. You are just writing about your experiences and that makes it more credible.”

I have learned a handful of things coaching, that don’t align with a lot of the basic concepts I was taught repeatedly in school. Coaching at a CrossFit affiliate over the past 3+ years with a BS in Exercise and Sports Science, I’ve seen a lot of things happen that they taught me in school weren’t really supposed to happen.

In school, I was told that you aren’t allowed to have your cake and eat it too. Namely, athletes aren’t supposed to develop a high degree of aerobic capacity (possession of cake) and strength (consumption of cake) concurrently. In the European Journal of Applied Physiology Robert C. Hickson at University of Illinois concluded that, “…simultaneously training for strength and endurance will result in a reduced capacity to develop strength.”

Let me tell you about my really weird client Albert.

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On March 29th, 2012 Albert Gillespie ran a mile in 6:57.

Just a few weeks prior to that, on March 3rd, 2012 Albert hit a 10 pound personal best, when he got one snatch at 135 pounds in CrossFit Open workout 12.2.

About 2 and 1/2 years later, Albert did this:

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Albert wasn’t a runner, and in fact, he wasn’t “running”. He was doing CrossFit. This was just the first part of a longer workout. He only logged it because he knew it was a PR. Two months later, this happened:

PR

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Over roughly two and a half years, Albert had taken 1:34 (23% improvement) off of his mile time and added 60 pounds (31% improvement) to his snatch. Despite Hickson’s conclusion, Albert’s “capacity to develop strength” certainly didn’t seem hindered to me. In my humble opinion, any weightlifting coach would be satisfied with his development as a recreational CrossFitter training with a weekly time commitment almost identical to the subjects in Hickson’s study.

You know what else they taught me in school? When strength training, I should rest 3-5 minutes between efforts. In the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers tested different rest intervals and concluded that, “…no significant differences were noted between 2, 3, and 5 minute rest conditions.” They also said, “The total work with a 1-minute rest period was significantly less than both the 3 and 5 minute rest period.”

But sometimes, things don’t work out in the gym, the way they work out in the lab. I myself am no exception. On November 20th, 2014 I hit a snatch PR of 245 pounds. About a month later, after a few weeks of admittedly weightlifting-biased training, a 1RM came up again. On December 16th, 2014 I failed to hit 250:

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Another month of hard training went by, and with it, another missed PR:

After a full barbell cycle of traditional weightlifting and evidence based rest periods (3-5 minutes between sets), I hadn’t hit a PR.

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Then, on Thursday, January 29th I did an EMOM of 1 snatch + 3 bar facing burpees. I started at 45 pounds and added 10 pounds each minute. After 20 successful snatches and 60 bar facing burpees, I walked up to the bar with my current 1RM of 245 pounds. To watch what happened next, click HERE. I hit 245, did three bar facing burpees, added 10 pounds to the bar, and began my “rest” at 0:29 into the video. At 1:17 (exactly 48 seconds later) I snatched 255 for a 10 pound PR.

My total work, with even less than 1-minute of rest, was significantly more than the 3-5 minute rest periods used the last two times I attempted a 1RM snatch. This was the polar opposite of the result that the JSCR got.

Please understand, my goal isn’t to find fault in either of these studies. I am not claiming that they are inherently wrong and that this isolated event is a superior way to train weightlifters. I am also fully aware that the Hickson subjects (Albert’s example) weren’t doing CrossFit over a long period of time and the subjects of the JSCR (my example) were bench pressing and not snatching. We all know that a sample size of one person doesn’t really help us make any reliable conclusions about strength and conditioning. That being said, I think you would be hard pressed to find an experienced CrossFitter who hasn’t hit a PR on a lift using the EMOM format or improved strength and aerobic capacity dramatically, concurrently.

What I do fault, is the notion that the strength and conditioning world needs to accept the conclusions of peer reviewed articles as dogma. People often apply the conclusions of studies like these with little hesitation. The result is often programming that lacks variance. There are 11,000 affiliates breaking the rules and expectations of Exercise and Sports Science every single day. So don’t put your training approach in a box defined by the limited perspective and possibilities of the lab.

The laboratory is a great place to test ideas, concepts, and theories in a more controlled setting. But these ideas, concepts, and theories, all too often pale in comparison to the things that happen in the real world. If you’re an owner, coach, or athlete at an affiliate, you potentially have a piece to contribute to this puzzle of performance. We all have an individual responsibility to use our own “laboratories” and come to our own conclusions based on measurable, repeatable, increases in work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

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But don’t take my word for it. Let Jason Khalipa tell you,

The lab is a place where you get a bunch of people together and you experiment with different things to see what kind of stimulus you can get. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not as good. Take the good stuff and run with it. Take the bad stuff, and throw it out. But always try and progress.

6 comments

  1. Mr. Barnett,
    As an educated individual, may I inquire why you are relying on anecdotal evidence to dismiss published research?

    It is well established that specializing in either strength or endurance will result in greater gains in those areas than training both at the same time. This is clear, not only in the research, but in real world training methodologies, such as elite power lifters/long distance runners.

    Also, a complex movement such as a snatch is a combination of skill and strength. Most novice snatchers, even those who are strong, will not be able to snatch significant weight due to lack of skill. It is very plausible you had sufficient strength to snatch all of those PRs but lacked the skill.

    That being said, I do very much like your last point. It is important to realize that although the science clearly shows one thing for the majority, the individual is unique who may be an outlier that responds completely differently than expected.

    • Russ Greene

      David explicitly stated he was not trying to dismiss “publish research” just using anecdotes:

      “Please understand, my goal isn’t to find fault in either of these studies. I am not claiming that they are inherently wrong and that this isolated event is a superior way to train weightlifters. I am also fully aware that the Hickson subjects (Albert’s example) weren’t doing CrossFit over a long period of time and the subjects of the JSCR (my example) were bench pressing and not snatching. We all know that a sample size of one person doesn’t really help us make any reliable conclusions about strength and conditioning.”

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  3. This overall premise seems sad.. whether the article or the video. First, with any degree program/university it is upon the individual to do their due dilligence in finding the right program to meet their needs. Secondly, if the program or the instructors were not meeting those needs then that is something that a student needs to bring up.. in the process of attendance, a student can file a grievance to receive a refund for a course that is not meeting the standards. I could continue on in this direction, but I wont. On my side of the coin, a Crossfit cert is infinitesimal and a waste of time compared to what I learned in the B.S. Ex Sci program at the university I attended whether on movement or anything else; not even including my internship. However, to each their own.

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