Survival of the Fittest

If our version of fitness feels like survival—if you struggle to endure these workouts—that is a good thing.

Unfortunately, fitness is not universally defined. In fact, outside of CrossFit, it is not defined at all. One look inside a commercial health club—a “Globo Gym”—like the one we came from tells you at least that much, if it does not also expose some of the sillier activities that have managed to qualify for exercise over the years. Isolation training, bodybuilding, aerobics classes, stability balls, Nautilus machines, Pilates and long, slow “cardio” do not improve fitness or any sensible definition thereof. Some of those activities are barely passable in a rehabilitation environment, no less one in which health and wellness are the goals. There is nothing natural or prehistoric of any sort in the mainstream fitness industry—nothing that plays to the strengths of human biology, psychology, biochemistry or biomechanics. What is more, proponents of this aesthetically minded, functionally devoid culture have come to excuse states of poor fitness and nutritional habits—advice, even—with insufficient genetics and a litany of other “medical” justifications.

In response to observations and opinions such as these, I am often told that to accomplish any exercise or change in nutrition is better than to do nothing. I unapologetically disagree. That standard is simply too low, and it removes the burden of providing good information and even better coaching from the sources that have espoused aforementioned garbage to begin with. The conventional exercise and food industries, not to mention factions of the scientific and medical communities, should be, at the very least, publicly reprimanded for distributing data and recommendations that have absolutely contributed to the infirmities and deaths of thousands, if not millions of poorly informed people. Further, the above retort is analogous to peddling the claim that in terms of organ health, heroin is better for the user than crack cocaine, and so one should choose the latter if addiction is unavoidable. While there is truth in that statement, I hardly hear it advertised with any frequency, no less the frequency with which I am exposed to the “something is better than nothing” argument. I suspect that few would be willing to publicly make such a claim for its inherent ridiculousness, so I will not accept another, equally incongruous one.

The most unfortunate aspect of popular, media-driven fitness dogmas is that they presuppose some dramatic change in human biology—the needs and capacities of the body and mind—from when we were a more active species, and before we were the unfortunate bearers of domesticated agriculture, many thousands of years ago. This is patently untrue, and while today “science” can be used to prove virtually anything, most of it is still on our side—some is on this website. What science, particularly exercise science, can really provide in this realm is better, more efficient movement and recovery. To instead use or allow (continued) use of science to perpetuate the pattern of abuses in this industry, and to forgive a general lack of emphasis on truly improving the health of our bodies and minds is inexcusable.

CrossFit, our workouts and our brand of nutritional advice are an intelligent, well-constructed affront to the common perspective, and they are to be approached with vigor and accuracy. We are wholly performance-based, valuing efforts given in the moment and only comparisons to oneself. Once in this environment, how we permitted ourselves to exist otherwise is no longer relevant. Excuses and rationalizations no longer have meaning. What are relevant are discipline, focus and accountability. We must value our bodies and treat them with respect and admiration. This is the only path to results, and perhaps the most inexplicably difficult adaptation to create over any time domain. The course to succeeding in our fitness is built upon our genetic heritage and the positive belief that human capacity knows no limits. “Unwilling” must never be mistaken for “unable.” Only once this construct is accepted can the concept of intensity and its associates, nutrition and recovery, be understood.

If you are reading this, then perhaps at least the first step, workout programming, is complete. Each workout, from day to day, is designed to create as expansive a fitness level as possible, from as expansive a stimulus as possible. The person who has the greatest overall capacity and development in the 10 general physical skills will have the best opportunity for success here. Striving for a three-minute “Fran” only makes us more confident when “Fran” comes around. Training all metabolic engines, many physical competencies and for any situational eventuality breeds confidence and eliminates fear. The workouts are designed for completion at high intensity and with functional, compound, and loaded movement. The human body is designed for and is capable of this.

Surviving this brand of fitness demands the body and mind be treated well. Our bodies must be regarded as any athlete’s, and we should be prepared to suffer when straying from this practice. Priming the body for performance is similar to a soldier en route to do battle, or a fireman on his way to a fire. A soldier would never put herself in harm’s way without knowing exactly how much ammunition she had in her weapon or without donning her Kevlar helmet and vest, much like the fireman would not come into a burning building without knowing how much oxygen supply was in the tank on his back or whether or not it was working. Well, entering these workouts having gone ballistic on sugar and/or alcohol the night before, or sleeping only a handful of hours is not unlike the ignorant soldier or fireman. These workouts are very much a struggle—a battle with ourselves. Our preparation is proper—not necessarily perfect—nutrition, sleep and stress management. Also, we cannot be wary of overtraining. This is different than under-recovery, and the two should never be confused, though both lead to the same end of deprived performance. In a workout cycle, there are always certain kinds of “rest” thrown in, and if we take care of ourselves outside of the gym, there is no issue with training almost daily.

The more we train, and, in particular, the more we train what we least favor, the better athletic and emotional development we will experience. Practice leads to reduction in fear. There is a clear difference between what we really want versus what we fear, and everyone knows what they least desire to see come up in a workout. Learn to want that which you enjoy the least in order to make it your strength. In terms of anxiety, anyone who enters a workout completely relaxed is unprepared—if we are not nervous, we are not ready. Anticipation allows the nervous system to organize itself, the body and the mind for action. Fundamental neurophysiology shows the prepared body is the one that survives.

Preparation for these workouts can be completed before the training itself. To accomplish this, we can rehearse the workout in our minds—visualizing intensity and movement accuracy, and the score or time we desire. As Coach Glassman said, “intensity is the independent variable most commonly associated with optimizing return.” This means that regardless of our fitness goals, achieving high intensity during our workouts is the most direct path to achieving them. Scores and times—measures of intensity—give insight into other metrics, such as strength, body composition, nutrition, etc., more so than even many of those metrics themselves. As such, it is imperative to learn to avoid managing these workouts. With general, physical capacity the goal, we must begin with as much intensity and perfect form as possible, and we must push as hard as possible, all the time, with precision movement. To paraphrase a hero of mine, James Fitzgerald: strategizing leads to pacing, which leads to not pushing, which leads to diminished power, which leads to low long-term success. We must attack workouts and manage pain as it arises. If there is a concern about strategy, it is likely for the wrong reasons. Time and score are never the target. The aim instead should be to simply rule the workout. These efforts will ultimately lead to one, critical learning—an “ah-ha” moment, a glimpse of where pushing it that extra little got us. It is a powerful moment which will help further improve intensity and outcome in a short period of time.

The true measure of an individual is how he or she behaves, most obviously, when things are not going well—grace under pressure, among other qualities. Your best days in the gym are, ironically, of the least athletic and emotional value. Those days when you fall to pieces mid-workout, and the days where there is no desire to take care of your body or exercise at all, will be of the greatest benefit when you respond positively to this adversity. In the end, success lies within. Find it in yourself to be better than you were the day before. When you fall, pick yourself up as soon as possible. Know that at every turn, our community will carry you to success. And whatever you do, do not put the bar down.



  1. mikeheartsdeadlift | February 14, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    well said, john.

  2. rella181 | February 14, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    “We must value our bodies and treat them with respect and admiration.” This reminded me of something I heard on a talk show once…”You wouldn’t give your dog coffee and donuts, so why would you give it to yourself”…even though this is a seemingly inherent concept, it can be easy to lose sight of…I agree wholeheartedly.

    “Human capactiy knows no limits.” I would have to say this is something that I discover more and more every WOD.

    Visualizing: This has always helped when I dance, in terms of learning, executing and memorizing choreography, and something I will definitely be trying for these workouts.

    “It is imperative to learn to avoid managing these workouts.” This is what I want to work on. When I see something like 40 burpees as part of the WOD, my first instinct is to strategize, but the idea that it leads to not pushing, diminshed power, etc makes perfect sense.

    This was a lot of information to take in but all extremely valuable, so thank you for sharing.


  3. capitalpressure | February 15, 2009 at 2:48 am

    You have given me some things to think about for the next WOD. I am ready for another date with Fran. Jeff W.

  4. train2live | February 15, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    John, You’re my hero!! I nothing to say but thanks for the inspiration. I am going to try to read this before every workout.

  5. cdellinger | February 15, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    Good stuff, John….I had to read it twice. The part that resonated w/me the most was the battle w/ourselves and preparation. BTW, I think Peter La Fleur would enjoy reading this anti-Globo gym post! 🙂


  6. demonbowler | February 15, 2009 at 11:25 pm

    Provocative. Thanks. Ted

  7. tbferg | February 16, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Good stuff, John. Much to consider.

  8. globaldeb | February 16, 2009 at 6:29 pm

    Thank you, John. It is a lot to think about, but I understand the purpose–more thoughts to come. I will push myself not to put that bar down!

  9. daviesag | February 16, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    I appreciate your explanation of the best approach to the WOD. I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum (burnt out before the 2nd set and with too much left at the end).

    I  think crossfit is a great way to stay fit. However, for it to work, you need good coaches who watch and work with their trainees. It intensifies the workout and prevents injury. Thank you John and Meldoy for watching our backs.


  10. naustriaco | February 17, 2009 at 8:57 am

    Two things that keep coming back to me…stop strategizing and be accountable!


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