Source: Bev Childress
One of the more useful conversations sparked by the rise of CrossFit is the very definition of fitness. For better or worse, CrossFit has planted their flag on quantifiable work capacity. They have taken the hard stance that their champions are the “Fittest on Earth,” and it’s a claim that’s hard to argue, if you accept their definition of what constitutes fitness.
Take this year’s cyclocross event at the Games in Madison. When a guy the size and build of Mat Fraser can thrash a mountain bike around, finish second, and has the audacity to look like he’s having fun doing it, clearly CrossFit is doing something right. (Seriously Mat, stop being so good at stuff. You’re making the rest of the guys feel bad.) Nobody can look at Fraser, or indeed any of the Games field, and say that they aren’t fit.
Elite Generalists Are Specialists
Still, as astonishing as Fraser’s fitness may be, he isn’t likely to even sniff the podium at your local club race. The truth is that being an elite generalist, as top-level CrossFit athletes are, is its own unique flavor of specialization. After a certain point, CrossFit makes you good at CrossFit, at the expense of other things. It helps you build incredible overall work capacity, teaches you dozens of useful physical skills, and is an excellent antidote to the general sedentarism and malaise that are characteristic of most Western lifestyles.
But while world-class CrossFit athletes are competent at a remarkable array of tasks, they are excellent at relatively few, when compared to other athletes who put in similar amounts of work. Compromise is necessary in order to excel at any sport, and CrossFit cannot escape that reality.
Tia Clair-Toomey (of whom I am an unabashed fan) is proof of the rule. The Fittest Woman on Earth for 2017 also qualified and competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics in weightlifting, just weeks after finishing second at the 2016 CrossFit Games. That is an exceedingly rare feat for an athlete at the top of any sport, but it’s not as if the training for weightlifting and CrossFit don’t have enormous overlap. Far more than, say, CrossFit and tennis, or CrossFit and basketball.
Even given the congruity between weightlifting and CrossFit, Tia’s total at Rio earned her 14th place, a massive 51kg from the gold. She’s clearly happy with her choice in specialization, and we all stand in awe of her performances. She is the fittest woman on earth for CrossFit, but to be the fittest at anything else would require her to step away from one sport to focus on another.
And let’s not pretend that the Games will ever be able to measure all aspects of fitness, if only because some measurements would be dangerous, or just terrible television (remember the half marathon row?). Things like winter sports, land navigation, combat sports, and primitive survival skills are inarguably within the realm of fitness, but you’re about as likely to see them in the CrossFit Games as you are to see Josh Bridges starting for the Lakers.
Fitness Is Transitive and Personal
The trouble with limiting the definition of fitness to any one discipline (even if you define it broadly) is that it becomes unnecessarily restrictive. This is because, contrary to Mr. Glassman’s efforts, fitness is not a concept unto itself, but is always linked to a task. Fitness is transitive, meaning it must be applied to something in order to be evaluated.
That brings us to the question of how fitness should be defined for the rest of us. For anyone not getting paid to compete as an athlete, that definition should start with quality of life. If you are fit to live, that means you are generally healthy, and have adequate levels of movement proficiency, strength, and yes, work capacity. It means you can carry your own groceries, rearrange your own furniture, get off the floor without assistance, run if you’re being chased, and generally haul your carcass around without undue fatigue or injury. Those boxes are all checked by a well-designed and competently coached CrossFit program.
Beyond those basic requirements, your definition of fitness will depend on what you want to be able to do. That makes the definition itself highly personal. While I maintain that everybody should learn to love running, for instance, I know that’s an argument I’m unlikely to win with everyone. Some of my friends want to be fit to climb mountains, to ride their bikes across the country, or to put a bodyweight barbell over their heads. Others want the pride and accomplishment of maxing out their military fitness test, or qualifying for an event like the Boston Marathon or the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
Every individual will necessarily have their own ideas in mind as to what tasks will define their fitness, and intelligent pursuit of those tasks will require some degree of specialized attention. The higher the level of performance in that area that a person desires, the more attention they will have to pay to it. While we mortals all understand that we aren’t likely to stand on the top step in Madison, or Pyeongchang, or Tokyo, there’s nothing wrong with throwing yourself headlong into the pursuit of your own maximum performance.
Varying Levels of Fitness
For my part, I have certain levels of physical performance I like to maintain across the board, but I’m willing to compromise them at certain times of year to chase a PR or develop further in a certain area. For instance, I like to walk around with a reliable 400lb deadlift, but during most summers I’ll allow that to slip a little as I train for bike and running races. One day, I’d like to work up to a 500lb deadlift, but I know that will require a time investment that will take away from my pursuits on foot or on two wheels. I encourage you to explore your fitness with sufficient breadth and depth to find those baseline levels of measurable fitness for yourself.
Not every measurement of fitness has to be all about quantity, either. You can work to maintain a level of fitness that allows you to ride your bike to work and not look like a hot mess when you get there. You might want to be fit enough to chase your kids around at soccer practice without being winded. I call myself fit on my mountain bike when I can clear a certain section of trail near my house without dabbing a foot. However you choose to define your level of fitness, just ensure it’s enough to keep you challenged, interested, and engaged in the pursuit for years to come.
As we age, we can reasonably expect that our definition of fitness will change, both by degree and type. A 5k time that I find acceptable now will most likely unattainable by the time I’m sixty, and the clock is definitely ticking for me to notch up that 500lb deadlift. Likewise, my bike obsession may fade in favor of more gym work, or mountaineering, or water sports (though I should probably learn to swim, first). We must anticipate, accept, and embrace those changes, if we are to continue being fit through all of our years.
Be Real With Yourself
There is a certain amount of internal honesty and realism required when choosing how you will define your fitness. With the limitations of time and biology, you won’t be as fit as you like in all areas all the time, and that’s okay. If you are working diligently to add 50lbs to your back squat, don’t be too hard on yourself if your 5k time slips a little. Once you’ve reached one goal, it’s totally fine to back off of that area for a while and chase something else. In truth, that’s what sustainable health and fitness look like, particularly for adults with jobs and kids and mortgages and in-laws to visit several times a year.
You will also have to identify and accept that not all areas of fitness can be crammed into your lifestyle. I mentioned that I can’t swim, for example. While it’s on my “one of these days” list, there simply isn’t time to focus on it on top of all my other personal, professional, and athletic pursuits. My wife (the most wonderful woman in the world and frequent dispenser of sage advice) often reminds me that I can’t berate myself for my weak areas while I’m PR-ing at the rest of life.
The only definition of fitness that I reject outright is appearance. Fitness has everything to do with your capability to perform at a desired level in a given task, and nothing to do with what you look like in the mirror. I suppose the latter may influence your ability to attract a suitable mate, but with 7.5 billion people tromping all over the planet, I think we can check procreation off the list of things we’re fit to do as a species.
There is no doubt that body composition can be a limiting factor in performance, but it is a poor indicator of fitness in itself. Far too often, it represents a host of misunderstandings, neuroses, and unsustainable practices that hurt people’s progress toward health and fitness, rather than helping. I encourage everyone who comes to me for advice to choose their sport; train, eat, and sleep to become the best at it that they can be, and let their body composition follow.
Your New Definition of Fitness
I believe that fitness is the ability to say yes to the things that animate your spirit. To realize what those things are, you will need to listen to your heart when it says “I must,” and ignore your brain when it says “but I can’t.” If your physiology or psychology are holding you back from anything, you owe it to yourself and those around you to engage in a process that will allow you to overcome those obstacles.
If you find yourself just messing around in the gym with no real direction, or wasting away in a recliner wishing that there was more to yourself and your life than Netflix binges and takeout, then decide to change something. Sketch out what a fit you might be capable of doing, and then make it your highest priority to find the tools that will get you there. We learned in seventh grade that growth is part of the scientific definition of life. If you aren’t growing, aren’t pursuing your fittest self, are you even alive?