Starting Strength’s New Take on an Old CrossFit Concept

Formalities aside, the most important thing you can do as a coach is to help your clients get healthy.

Starting Strength’s June 23 article, “The Athlete, The Patient, The Training Log, And a Modest Proposal,” was not only thought provoking, but also tickled a memory.

The article’s “modest proposal” is that your doctor should look at your training log as part of your health evaluation. The argument being that the physical performance markers recorded there are relevant indicators of your overall health. Sound familiar?

At the 2009 Affiliate Gathering in Austin, Texas (aka “FilFest”), Greg Glassman made a remarkably similar proposal. He proposed that one’s physical performance record over time was an accurate indicator of the traditional medical definition of health. In fact, he proposed that measuring fitness (as described by CrossFit) would actually be a better indicator of health than many standard measures, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, or BMI.

In this regard, the Starting Strength article sits closely with what Glassman espoused. Where the article veers is claiming that relevant physical performance data can only be obtained via “training.” The article makes a clear distinction between “training” and “exercise,” and yes fitness fans, we are back in old and familiar territory.

Here’s the distinction, according to the article:

“People who just exercise don’t keep a training log…because they don’t have to. Exercise is always better than a sedentary alternative, but it doesn’t require record-keeping or careful programming. All that’s needed for exercise is a willingness to sweat, along with a P90X CD or “boot camp” membership, a cool-looking headband, and some acetaminophen. Exercise is something you do today.”

“Of course, if you’re particularly motivated, disciplined, and completely outside the norm for the average American adult, you may also do it tomorrow, and the day after that. Which, again, is far better than sitting on your Big Old Butt in front of the TV – unless the exercise itself is stupid and reckless and gets you hurt. In the age of broad domains and fashionable group thrashabouts, this unfortunately happens with a certain regularity. Caveat emptor.”

With reference to “broad domains,” the article not-so-indirectly calls out CrossFit as “exercise,” thereby discounting any data that might be collected from the program as irrelevant for your doctor. The exercise versus training debate is old news. An old feud that’s easy to characterize as a longstanding argument between Greg Glassman and Mark Rippetoe.

The article’s key points parallel much of what CrossFit advocates – railing against things like BMI, pharmaceutical solutions, discounting the importance of nutrition, and sedentariness. Even though both camps arrive at the same conclusion regarding the importance of physical performance markers as indicators of health, they will continue to be at odds over what constitutes “training” and what constitutes “exercise.”

CrossFit sees Starting Strength as limited, specialized, and not broad enough to be considered a complete approach to fitness. Starting Strength sees CrossFit as “stupid and reckless” random exercise that gets people hurt. Yet both argue that physical performance, which I will go out on a limb and generalize as “your numbers in the gym,” should be a key part of your medical assessment. And that’s great.

Using physical performance as markers to evaluate health is not only valid, but necessary. Starting Strength would bias those markers toward strength. CrossFit, on the other hand, would generalize those markers to the more loosely defined, “broad time and modal domains.” Starting Strength argues that these markers are only valid if achieved through a deliberate, programmatic, and periodized approach to “training.” CrossFit only sees these as useful markers if achieved through a broader and more general set of movements and activities, which they also call “training.”

Let’s settle the training versus exercise debate later. Or, maybe never. Instead, let’s focus on the good thing about this article: It highlights the idea that the physical adaptations you help create in your clients are important indicators of health and should be considered by physicians. And that’s good news for fitness professionals. You can leverage this to further your career through improved client engagement. It further legitimizes your profession. It helps clients see their fitness program as important and relevant. It makes what you do more valuable.

Now get out there and train your clients. Or have them exercise. Whatever. Just make sure you get it written down.

Headline photo courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.

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