Strange Bedfellows in the Fight Over Fitness

What is needed is for all the players to come to the table, put their competing interests and rival methodologies aside, and make some common-sense decisions and agreements.

Here at Breaking Muscle, we aren’t generally in the practice of talking about what goes on at rival publications. But a recent piece over at the nexus of unabashed meatheads that is T-Nation caught our eye, mostly because of who wrote it. Russ Greene is chief in charge of something called “Brand Defense” over at CrossFit HQ, and one half of “The Russells,” whose purpose is to scour the internet and attempt to eviscerate anyone who besmirches the good name of CrossFit.

CrossFit, and The Russells themselves, have been the subject of no small amount of scrutiny over at T-Nation and here as well, and not without reason. From their apparent disregard for the safety of athletes, to the trainwreck that has been their social media, to the sometimes-questionable quality of CrossFit trainers themselves, there has been plenty to talk about for those who aren’t among the faithful. To their credit, CrossFit has done well to expose the fallacies of the bodybuilding style of training that dominated most gyms for decades, continues to improve their programs and competitions, and has never been shy to return fire when challenged.

So it is deeply significant that a website that has historically taken a stance of opposition to CrossFit in many areas would take the step to not only acknowledge their common ground, but invite a member of CrossFit’s PR arm to post there.

Strange Bedfellows

Greene presented an overview of the legislative and legal battles CrossFit HQ is currently engaged in fighting. He highlights the “unholy alliance” between Coca-Cola and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), which we have covered in the past. In short, Coke and the ACSM are spending a lot of time and money to link health to activity, rather than diet, both in the public mind and the government. This takes the spotlight of public opinion off of Coke’s unhealthy products, and serves to enhance the ACSMs customer base by increasing demand for trainers.

Tangent to that effort, the ACSM and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), eager to protect their certification businesses from competition with CrossFit, are pushing initiatives and legislation that would essentially make them the arbiters of what legally constitutes a fitness trainer and what does not.

Business and politics indeed make strange bedfellows. The NSCA and ACSM are essentially using the money and influence of brown, fizzy corn syrup to try and stifle their rival. And the rippling biceps over at T-Nation have contracted to give CrossFit HQ a thumbs-up.

It’s About Business, Not Athletes

It should be noted that none of the parties here are acting with pure altruism. The ACSM and NSCA are acting in a manner that they feel protects their future business interests, CrossFit is fighting back to protect their own, and Coke is doing everything in their power to avoid the fate of Big Tobacco.

But whether or not you accept CrossFit’s accusation of a conspiracy between Coke and the ACSM, you should oppose the latter’s efforts on their own merits. On the face of it, a qualified national registry of fitness professionals sounds like a very good thing for an industry that suffers from more than its share of pretenders and charlatans. But therein lies the rub: The Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals (CREP) does nothing of the sort.

Here’s how it works. To get your name on “the list,” you have to hold a certification from one of the Coalition’s partner organizations, all of whom have programs accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Those organizations are:

  • The Cooper Institute
  • The American Council on Exercise
  • The American College of Sports Medicine
  • The National Council on Strength and Fitness
  • The National Strength and Conditioning Association
  • The Pilates Method Alliance

The problems here are twofold. First, NCCA accreditation has nothing to do with trainer proficiency, and everything to do with testing standards. In other words, they’re checking the consistency and quality of your exam and materials, not the outcomes produced by your trainers. Straight from the NCCA’s website:

“Certification organizations that submit their programs for accreditation are evaluated based on the process and products and not the content.”

That means that organizations can essentially say whatever they want, as long as they present the material and test their applicants in accordance with NCCA’s standards.

The second problem is that the agencies listed above are perpetuating the exact problem that they purport to solve. Certifications at several levels from many of those bodies can be had for a small fee and an online exam. For all the wailing about how CrossFit has “lowered the bar” for what it means to be a fitness professional, their $1000 Level 1 course includes two days of intensive, in-person instruction, along with an exam (which, by the way, is accredited by the American National Standards Institute, or ANSI). By contrast, the American Council on Exercise, for all its NCCA accreditation and impressive sounding name, will certify you as a group fitness instructor for $299 and a self-study course. The other CREP member organizations aren’t a whole lot better, on average, though some do charge more.

Boundless Hypocrisy

For the ACSM, NSCA, and their partners to postulate that their purpose is to raise the standard of physical trainers in the United States is laughable, and CrossFit is right to call them on it. That there are lousy personal trainers, and CrossFit trainers, and gym teachers, and all the rest out there, isn’t up for debate. There are. But until the early 2000s, 100% of those lousy personal trainers were coming from the very organizations that now want to pretend they are in a position to say who should be a trainer and who should not. I agree with Russ Greene that their position and efforts are absurd.

The only thing perhaps more absurd is Coke’s role in all this. Kipping pull ups, box jumps, and double-unders are not killing Americans by the millions. Heart disease, diabetes, and the other maladies of the standard American diet and sedentarism are. It’s atrocious and duplicitous for a company whose primary product lines do nothing to promote health, and arguably contribute to widespread, chronic disease, to cast themselves as advocates for health and fitness. It’s as if Philip Morris was funding the American Cancer Society.

The Wrong Solution

I recently wrote that the fitness industry must stop discouraging people from trying things. Standards of knowledge and performance in the fitness industry could be a good thing. But introducing artificial, ineffective, and arbitrary barriers to entry for those who, whatever their methods, are striving to make people’s lives better, is stupid and counterproductive.

We have a duty to create a culture in which health and fitness are valued above sitcoms and sodas. We cannot accomplish that task if we ask the very agencies who have helped to create the problem, namely the government, industrial food producers, and mail-order certification companies, to solve it.

Intelligent public policy initiatives that encourage and incentivize people to improve their fitness would be helpful in reversing our nation’s course toward premature morbidity, mortality, and pervasive incapacitation. But giving any single body the gavel is exactly the wrong way to get that done.

At Breaking Muscle, we recognize that fitness professionals of all stripes are on the same side of the greater argument. Attempts to stifle competition are not consistent with the overall goal of positive societal change. What is needed is for all the players to come to the table, put their competing interests and rival methodologies aside, and make some common-sense decisions and agreements. A rising tide raises all ships, and if the tribes of fitness would stop throwing lawyers and acronyms at each other long enough to recognize that, the whole country would be better off.