Every year thousands of people converge on the Stubhub Center in Carson, CA to watch an elite group of athletes punish their bodies through a series of “workouts” to determine who is “the fittest on Earth.” CrossFit, The fitness program turned sport has caused an overwhelming amount of controversy over the years. Those who were already involved in the fitness world were quick to write them off, and those who were brought into the fitness world through CrossFit were quick to defend, sometimes almost seemingly to the death. While many athletes criticize CrossFit’s claim of producing the fittest people on Earth, it’s only fair to point out that they are not the first ones to make such a statement. Traditionally the titles went to endurance athletes. In 1997 Outside Magazine named Triathlete World Champion Mark Allen the fittest man alive. In 2001 Joe Decker was inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records for being the fittest man alive after completing a series of exercises and workouts in a 24 hour period. Both of those happened before CrossFit was even really a “thing.” In 2015, Men’s Health named Cristiano Ronaldo the fittest man alive (sadly using how chiseled his abs are as evidence). Let’s not forget about Rich Froning Jr. who won the CrossFit games three times in a row. Many have made the claim, but who is right?
When hearing justifications for why someone is fit, we often hear remarks about how painful or grueling a particular activity is. Other times we hear arguments discrediting certain athletes because they would fair poorly in a sport outside of the one they compete in: “That NFL Lineman isn’t fit because he wouldn’t be able to run a marathon.” So what is fitness, exactly? Let’s take a look at the actual definition.
As you can see, the first definition is some what vague. The first rule of defining a word, is you cannot use the word itself in its own definition. This is what happens when certain concepts are considered obvious or just assumed to be general knowledge. How about further down the list to the 2nd or 3rd definition? This is where we can really begin to see the true meaning of the word. “the quality of being suitable to fulfill a particular role or task.” and “An organisms ability to survive in a particular environment.” People are so quick to pin the title of “fittest” on an athlete that competes in their favorite environment, be it soccer, triathalon, CrossFit, etc… No one wants to concede that another sport may be more physically demanding, or require more skill, or be more competitive. But those things don’t tell the full story of fitness, only parts.
Think about a lion. The “King of the Jungle” as they are often called. Are they better swimmers than the alligators? Are they faster than the cheetah? Do they have the eyesight of the eagle? Can they fire a weapon like a hunter? No. So what makes them king? The lion has evolved and adapted to thrive in its environment. That is fitness in the purest sense. The lion doesn’t concern itself with it’s 200m swim time, because it doesn’t need to be a strong swimmer. So why should an NFL lineman care about running a marathon? Training for that would only hinder his performance at the environment he needs to survive in (the football field). This begs the question, how do we then compare the fitness of athletes of varying sports? Before we discuss that, I’d like to point out that sports, while a big part of many people’s lives, are NOT life. In fact there are many sports that can shorten one’s lifespan or quality of life. This is the opposite of true fitness by definition, which remember, is the ability to survive. In the strictest sense, who ever the oldest person in the world is right now, is truly the fitness person on the planet. But, just for fun, let’s figure out how we could compare various athletes from differing sports.
I think this is the first thing you need to consider on judging an athlete’s fitness. How well have they survived or thrived in their given environment (sport). This is much easier for athletes that compete in an individual sport: Cycling, triathlon, CrossFit, Strongman, etc… With team sports, while there are absolutely athletes that clearly stand out, championships are a team effort. Would that athlete have done as well had they been placed on another team? We can only speculate. Personally, I tend to favor looking at athlete’s personal records and stats for comparison rather than titles or championships when it comes to team sports. But if an athlete is not dominant in their particular sport, we can probably pretty easily rule them out for title of “the fittest” regardless of how physically grueling their sport may be.
Quality of Competition
Being dominant is important, but it’s almost meaningless if the sport itself doesn’t attract many competitors or a high level of athletes. If there is to be one knock on Rich Froning’s title of “fittest on earth,” it would be that he is competing in a sport that is still in its infancy. It wasn’t that long ago that the CrossFit games were being held on a horse ranch, and workouts were filmed by people with handheld camcorders…not broadcast on ESPN with a sold out arena. Similar critiques have been made of other athletes as well. Famous MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko spent the majority of his career undefeated, but often came under criticism for fighting less than stellar competition to pad his record.
It’s important to consider how well an athlete has adapted over time as the sport evolves. While I’m mostly against arguments of how a particular athlete would fare in a different sport than their own, seeing how an athlete adapts to the changes within their sport is critical to evaluating their fitness for their given environment. A great example of this is famous MotoGP racer Valentino Rossi, who has won championships on two stroke motorcycles, 4 strokes, on different manufacturers, and has been a dominant force for over 10 years despite the vast changes in rules and technology within the sport of motorcycle racing. Every sport will change over time. It’s a natural process. But can the athletes on top stay on top?
CrossFit Had it Right…kinda
The idea behind CrossFit is to be “ready for anything,” hence the constantly varied nature of their programming, and the secrecy of the events leading into competition. CrossFit also had the right idea by more clearly defining the different elements of fitness. These are as follows: 1. Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance – the ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen 2. Stamina – the ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy. 3. Strength – the ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units to apply force. 4. Flexibility – the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint. 5. Power – the ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time. 6. Speed – the ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement. 7. Coordination – the ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movements. 8. Agility – the ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another. 9. Balance – the ability to control the placement of the body’s center of gravity in relation to its support base. 10. Accuracy – the ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity. While the list is pretty good, some of it is redundant (speed and power come to mind). I also question whether the CrossFit games themselves truly test these aspects of fitness, either individually or in combinations. What I mean by this is: If we can clearly define what fitness is, why would we not clearly define the test of those aspects? Think of controlled experimentation, where the aim is to control as many variables as possible. In CrossFit the aim is the opposite. While CrossFit prides itself on it’s “up for anything” attitude, it’s hard not to recognize this greatly skews the results. What CrossFit confuses is the difference between being ready for anything, and being good at everything. When these two things get confused that’s when people start to get hurt. Take the OC Throwdown for example (yeah yeah, I know it’s technically NOT a CrossFit event, but, we all know it is). One of the events last year was hurdle jumping. The hurdles got progressively higher and higher as athletes worked through the event. I think this demonstrates two valuable lessons. 1)Not everything can be scaled. Some of the hurdles were the height a high jump athlete would use in competition, which requires a vastly different technique, and different equipment (collapsible bar, pad for landing, etc…) and 2)Just because you’re ready for anything doesn’t mean you can do anything. If someone was well rounded in the ten elements listed above, that would be a good candidate to begin to learn hurdles, or high jumping. That doesn’t mean they are automatically good high jumpers or hurdlers, it just means they are physically prepared to endure the training for those events. There’s a big difference. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opYj0XICHvQ But despite the claims of being “ready for anything” competitors in CrossFit can still expect some combinations of certain movements. If its CrossFit you know there will be muscle ups, and burpees, and snatches or cleans, and handstands, etc… Every year CrossFit tries to throw in an oddball, like swimming, or throwing a ball for distance, this year was an old school peg board, but for the most part, you know what you’re going to get with CrossFit. One might argue that the CrossFit “benchmark” workouts are the standardized testing of the CrossFit world, but even those are done in such a random way, and often with slightly changed variables, that I still don’t think it’s a good standard. Please don’t be mistaken, the athletes that compete at the games train just as hard as anyone else, and are freaks. But when we’re talking about crowning the title of fittest on Earth, I just don’t think CrossFit is the right test. Just like triathlon, or Weightlifting, or any other singular sport wouldn’t be the right test.
If it’s Not Broken, Don’t Fix It. Just Tweak it?
There used to be a great overall event that tested a lot of aspects of fitness, it was called the Decathlon. It’s not super popular anymore (like most traditional athletics). Probably for a couple of reasons, it’s tough to brand, so it doesn’t get sold to you, and it’s tough to do, so you don’t want to try to do it. But even that wouldn’t the the best test of all around fitness. The sport of Decathlon is essentially the category of track & field rolled into one. Athletes compete in 10 events over two days:
100 meter dash
Running Long Jump
- 400 Meter Run
- 110 meter hurdle
- Discus Throw
- Pole Vault
- Javelin Throw
- 1,500m Run
It’s easy to see how well rounded one must be to succeed in Decathlon, but even still it’s lacking a few major aspects: Raw strength, and true endurance. Another consideration is the large amount of skill that comes with a lot of the events listed above, which I feel should perhaps be left out. More on that later.
The Ultimate Test of Fitness
The event would have to be over at least two days, if not more. Come up with some type of scoring system, and those with the highest score wins:
- Deadlift (total body strength)
- Overhead press (upper body strength)
- 100m run (speed)
- Weight Over Bar (upper body power for height)
- Overhead shotput throw (upper body power for distance)
- Running Long Jump (lower body power for distance)
- Vertical Leap (lower body power for height)
- Consecutive Pull-Ups (Upper body endurance)
- Run for maximum distance (aerobic and lower body endurance)
While there are certainly technical aspects to each and every event above, I tried to stick with activities that require a very low barrier to entry to perform. Remember, we’re testing physical abilities, NOT skills. One my argue that skill recruitment is a part of fitness, and I would probably agree, but it’s a tough thing to measure. A great example of this is two of my clients, Erin and Kelly, who both have decided to dabble in Weightlifting. These ladies are the same age, close in height, close in weight, close in strength, and even have somewhat similar anthropometrics. Yet Erin is starting to excel at the clean, while Kelly is developing more quickly in the snatch. Why? Who the hell knows why! They train together so they are usually receiving the same instruction at the same time. With all of that in mind, I decided to leave skills out of it, as much as possible. That’s also why I chose things like the deadlift and press, two movements I can teach someone in about 10 minutes. While I think Weightlifting is the greatest strength sport in the world, it’s much more cumbersome in terms of technicality. Of course this is not a definitive list. It’s merely a way to start the conversation about truly testing one’s fitness.
Landing the Plane
We’ve had a nice digression up until now, but what’s the point? This whole discussion simply illustrates the point of having goals. Without a goal in mind it’s difficult to formulate a plan, and without a plan, you’re just spinning your wheels. To quote Lewis Carrol “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” Unfortunately the idea of being good at everything just isn’t realistic for most people. Certainly there are freaks out there that simply seem to excel at whatever they do, but this is the exception to the rule, not the standard. You are not Rich Froning. There’s nothing wrong with finding a sport or activity you love and focusing, only on that, but no matter what, have a goal! When you have a particular goal in mind it makes life easy. Analyze where you’re at, where you want to be, and the things you need to do to get there. Take Obstacle Course Racing as an example. What skills are needed? Most races range from 3-15 miles. If right now you can’t run 3 miles, that would be your first goal. We’ve established we need to improve our running. There’s also a lot of climbing in OCR, so we know that pull-ups will help with that. We also might have to carry things for great distances, so we should probably add in work for our arms and back. Now we can see a training plan starting to come together.
At Arkitect Fitness our entire program revolves around custom programs tailored to YOUR goals. We don’t do classes or generic group training because it simply doesn’t work. Even if your goal is to lose weight or look better, you still should have a detailed plan, a road map if you will, of how to accomplish that. Showing up every day for some random workout a coach wrote minutes before yo got there, isn’t going to get you to your goals. And a great coach knows how to take exercise science theory, and apply it to the gym. Going back to our OCR example, I don’t have to be a Spartan Champion to be able to identify the physical skills needed to excel, just like you don’t have to be a sumo wrestler to know that you have to weigh 500lbs if you want to be competitive at sumo wrestling. From there it’s about applying those physical skills to standard training principals. We know the body can only sustain a certain amount of work per session, it needs a certain amount of recovery between sessions, and that each time a skill or attribute is being practiced, the demand should increase for progress to continue. Those are broad concepts that are applied not only to all sports, but also to all organisms. It’s a deep and fundamental understanding of these concepts that has allowed us to take completely new Weightlifting athletes to the top ten at the national level, and also help soccer players peak for soccer season and dominate during pre-season testing, despite the fact that none of our coaches at Arkitect play soccer or currently compete in Weightlifting.
If you’re tired of being treated like just another number on the hamster wheel of fitness, and want to get on a plan designed specifically for YOUR goals. Contact us today for your FREE assessment!