Taking a Sledgehammer to a Fly: The Proper Coaching of CrossFit

Debate continues on the role of pain in CrossFit. Coach Jennifer explains that at her gym they have two different programs – one for athletes, and one for everyday people. “Pain” becomes relative.

This is a rebuttal to Josh Bunch’s article, It’s CrossFit and It’s Going to Hurt:

Pain and CrossFit. What a complicated and fascinating issue. This is where the ego, the mind, the heart, the soul, and the body all scramble for power. There are as many opinions on this issue as there are people who do CrossFit and people who coach CrossFit. After almost five years of running a CrossFit facility I have crystallized my own philosophy regarding the role of pain and hurt in CrossFit coaching and programming. After five years of doing some things wrong and trying to be a careful observer of my clients, we made some serious changes in how we programmed and guided our athletes and clients.

The framework I use to guide our programming goes like this – CrossFit, at this juncture in time, is two things and they hold hands but they are not married. The two things are:

  • Thing 1: A competitive sport with sponsorships and prize money.
  • Thing 2: A strength and conditioning program perfect for a wide range of folks

If you are down and dirty with Thing #1, competing for glory, podium spots, and money, then hurting is where it’s at. As many wise observers have commented, the CrossFitter at the top of the heap is the one who can suffer the most. If winning is important to you, if being stronger, faster and more powerful than the person next to you is what you want, then prepare for pain and a lot of it. Prepare to get injured, and to work past, around, and through injuries. Nothing is more incredible than watching a human being find the limit of his or her body and mind. Watching someone work through feelings that would stop most of us in our tracks is chillingly awesome in the true, old-fashioned sense of the word awesome. That is why we, as humans, love our athletes, our soldiers, our record-breakers. We watch something turn real that only existed in someone’s imagination because of the physical and mental effort put forth by a fellow person.

josh bunch, crossfit, crossfit pain, crossfit injury, jennifer higginsBut, hey, the majority of people doing CrossFit are not competing for money, medals, or glory. They came to a CrossFit gym because they wanted to feel better, look better and do more. They came for Thing #2. They have kids, families, jobs, grueling hours, and days of running around their communities, accomplishing hundreds of things a week. If they hurt or are in physical pain their ability to be patient and loving, to be going-going-going, to wrestle with their 10-year-old who sat in a chair all day, to tune pianos, to lift their patients, or to sit at their computer are all negatively impacted.

If these people who make our world function are injured or hurting, then things break down for them. They spend money on massage, physical therapy, surgery, or worse – alcohol and medications. Injury, pain and hurting are not positive parts of CrossFit for them. Injury, pain and hurting are not part of CrossFit even at the root. The definition of CrossFit is “constantly varied, functional movement performed at high intensity.” It doesn’t say if you don’t get hurt, if you aren’t in pain, you haven’t done CrossFit. But that little phrase “high intensity” is where, I believe, the confusion lies.

“High intensity” is that place where the line between Thing #1 and Thing #2 gets blurred. High intensity is where this idea of misery and pain is born. But in truth, high intensity is, for most, non-competitive CrossFitters, simply discomfort. Novice CrossFitters believe they are dying when their muscles seize up and they run out of easily accessible oxygen. I think this is where the idea that CrossFit is synonymous with suffering was born. I think a wise way to think about this concept comes from the coaching words of James Fitzgerald – something about “getting comfortable being uncomfortable.” That is one of the gifts of CrossFit. Learning to be comfortable when you are out of your comfort zone.

For novice CrossFitters, all it takes is a couple of 400m runs or practicing getting upside down in a handstand to be outside the comfort zone. High intensity can be reached at 10 burpees per minute for some people. Discomfort isn’t the same as hurt or pain. The power of CrossFit comes from tackling your own individual barriers and that can involve a truckload of discomfort (primarily mental and emotional of course), but the power of CrossFit does not come from physical hurt or pain. Testing yourself and learning new things about your ability is a gift of CrossFit and it doesn’t require hurt.

josh bunch, crossfit, crossfit pain, crossfit injury, jennifer higginsA wise and careful coach can guide you to a place where you test your limits, push your personal comfort zone, and learn to be comfortable with the uncomfortable without hurting or injuring you. You simply do not have to get hurt to receive the gift of CrossFit. It is a matter of pacing. All it takes to give someone the experience of being uncomfortable at a new level is to add two more 1 pood kettlebell swings to their interval. All it takes to give them a new experience of themselves is to give them twenty seconds on the battle rope when they wanted to stop at fifteen. For a better athlete maybe it takes shortening the rest intervals.

There are a million ways to give someone the experience of pushing past their personal physical and mental barriers in a CrossFit gym. It doesn’t take injuring them or hurting them. My grandfather called that using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. You don’t need to smash the furniture to swat a fly. You don’t need to hurt your clients to show them the power of CrossFit.

Click here to read another rebuttal from CrossFit coach Mike Tromello

Photos provided by Miguel Tapia Images and CrossFit LA.