Fitness Competitions: When a Good Idea Goes Very Wrong

Fitness throwdowns and competitions have literally exploded. And in some cases s#$% is out of control. Here’s what NOT to include in your competition, and some advice on how to organize a good event.

It wasn’t that long ago that weekend fitness competitions were few and far between. In 2011 when I launched the Firebreather Throwdown in Cincinnati, there were almost no other competitions in the area. As a result, we had some major names compete with us in our humble gym in Loveland, Ohio, including Kate Rawlings, who was a national-level CrossFit Games athlete in 2010. Since that time, competitions have literally exploded.

It wasn’t that long ago that weekend fitness competitions were few and far between. In 2011 when I launched the Firebreather Throwdown in Cincinnati, there were almost no other competitions in the area. As a result, we had some major names compete with us in our humble gym in Loveland, Ohio, including Kate Rawlings, who was a national-level CrossFit Games athlete in 2010. Since that time, competitions have literally exploded. Every weekend some throwdown goes down with a cool name like “Fall Crush” and “BLOOD ON THE BAR! 2013.” These events have morphed from what used to be one-day, three-workout competitions into three-day festivals with major sponsors and multi-tiered, qualifier-laden beat downs with major prize money.

And in some cases, shit is getting out of control. And, to a certain extent, this includes the CrossFit Games themselves. (From softball throws to what is becoming nearly a week-long competition of CNS-shattering, hand-shredding craziness, it seems as though the games have become less a test of fitness and more a test of survival skills. But that’s an article for another day.) In an attempt, I believe, to make an event memorable, to stand out from the crowd, or to become “that competition” that everyone wants to be a part of, throwdown organizers are coming up with some crazy, chaotic shit. In addition, many of these weekend events have become serious beat downs.

Imagine if you will that every time someone sits down to put together the programming for their event they have to come up with something new, something never done before, something where everyone will say, “Wow man, remember that friggin’ 165lb. thruster-cow milking WOD from the Northeast Smackdown of 2014? That was EPIC!”

No one wants to program this:

  • Workout #1: “Fran”
  • Workout #2: 10 minutes to build to a max back squat
  • Workout #3: Row 3,000m

Now, what a fantastic test of fitness that might be. “Fran” would be a test of the short time domain quick-burst classic CrossFit workout, workout number two is a classic test of strength, and workout three a test of aerobic endurance. But, no. How boring might that be, a 3K row. No one wants to watch that. No one wants to do that. But, if you’re looking to podium the fittest in your particular demographic area, it might be a solid clump of tests.

crossfit competitions, crossfit throwdowns, what's wrong with crossfit, crossfitInstead, we are in this phase where we have to top. We have to top last years’ events and we have to top the box around the corner or the one on Facebook that everyone is talking about. So instead of programming “Fran,” now we have to do “Fran + Grace,” or “Heavy Fran,” or “Fran” while someone is pelting you in the face with a soccer ball. The workouts get more creative (read: crazy and chaotic), the competitions get longer, the volume goes up, and the workouts get longer and more extreme. Soon you’re ending up trashed after a weekend competition, having to take a week off to recover and then another week of light work and Z1 stuff.

The result? Well, for one, some of these competitions have become notorious for serving up such bizarre workouts that the images have been immortalized on every CrossFit satire blog like Irongarm.

Some of the Tom Foolery that has been seen includes:

  • One partner stands on a box with gymnastic rings hanging from their neck while the other partner does ring pushups. (See picture above.)
  • One teammate hangs from the bar using both arms and both legs while the male teammates thruster the bar. (See picture below.)
  • Team rope skipping. Two team members jump rope in unison playground-style while two volunteers rotate the handles.
  • Javelin throwing. I kid you not.
  • Pulling a car around a track with ropes where the girl falls and is almost run over (See video below.)

Remember, we’re testing fitness here. How fit am I as compared to how fit are you at a set of given tasks. There are a lot of ways we can test that fitness without winding up in a fail compilation video.

Aside from the novelty WODS, some competitions have just become body-trashing beat downs. I participated in a competition last year that was plannedas a two-day event but was cut down to one. The box owner didn’t want to let go of any of the WODs, so we did seven workouts in one day.

crossfit competitions, crossfit throwdowns, what's wrong with crossfit, crossfitSometimes, you have brand-new box owners who want in on the fun. People who got their CrossFit L1 certification a year ago, opened a box last month, and now are putting together the “Halloween Fear Fest 2013!” They know little about programming a workout, let alone a two-day competition that tests multiple energy systems. They just want to be awesome. Man-makers with a flaming dumbbell. Burpees while a middle-school student jumps on your back with wearing cleats. Where do we go from here? 20 wallballs to a fifteen-foot target, three-man deadlifts, dodge ball with a shot-put? Seriously. After the neck-ring debacle, I had thought I had seen it all, but perhaps not.

Want to bulletproof your competition? Consider these ideas:

  1. Before you program any workout, ask yourself, “How would this look on a compilation video with the Benny Hill theme behind it?” If the answer is, “Not good at all,” then perhaps come up with something else.
  2. Stop trying to top yourself or your neighboring competitions. You want to test for the fittest? Come up with three solid tests that will test strength, endurance, and CP function. “Amanda” tests strength, and skill as well as your lungs. It’s short, solid, and difficult without being unreal.
  3. Fran with a four-minute cap? Ten minutes to build to a max clean and jerk?
  4. If it’s a two-day event, consider that not all of those six or seven workouts need to be fifteen-minute grinders. One could be a four-minute test, a strength component, even a skill. There is no need to pulverize your competitors into a bloody heap at the end of two days. And for God’s sake, please don’t make it up as you go along. I seriously competed in an event where the final workout consisted of the event coordinator standing at the whiteboard throwing shit at the wall.
  5. Consider having someone program your event for you. Seek out experienced program-design coaches who have studied under people like James “OPT” Fitzgerald. Look for coaches who have literally studied program design. Have them program your event. This will assure several things: one, that it’s evenly programmed, and two, that it does not favor you people who may be competing. (Like it or not, we’re biased toward our own athletes. I have been to numerous competitions where the host box won the event. Imagine that. Programmed toward your folks’ strengths or coincidence? You tell me.)
  6. Define the goal of your competition. Is it a friendly, one-day community gathering? Is it a fundraiser? Or is it a true prep-competition for the CrossFit Games Open, to allow high-profile athletes to test themselves against others in their region? If so, by all means, have a qualifier, and then program a 70%-regionals-style weekend. But be clear in your purpose, and program accordingly. (This should be a minority of competitions. The majority should fall into the community-style funfest, which should bring you back to the first four bullet points.)
  7. Publish your workouts at least a few days in advance. Sure, this is “unknown and unknowable,” but it’s also not the CrossFit Games. Give your competitors an opportunity to review the workouts, strategize, and maybe decide as to whether or not they are in over their heads, or in the wrong division – novice versus elite, and so on.

Competitors, you need to be willing to say no. If the event organizer begins whiteboarding the third workout and starts writing, “Teammate one will stand on two boxes with a set of Rogue rings suspended from their necks,” be willing to walk away. As long as the competitors keep accepting the shenanigans, event organizers will keep dreaming up new ones. Be willing to step back and say, “Sorry, that is dangerous, foolish, and no, I won’t do it.” Vote with your feet.

Photo 1 by English: Lance Cpl. Derrick K. Irions [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.