Why Jillian Michaels Is Right and Wrong About Crossfit

Why Jillian Michaels Is Right and Wrong About Crossfit

The CrossFit community has had their collective wrist wraps in a twist this week due to a video and article posted on Shape.com by Jillian Michaels (of The Biggest Loser fame) where she apparently "slams" CrossFit. I thought nothing of it until I saw the disrespectful, vulgar, and downright inappropriate comments from members of my recent CrossFit gym.  After seeing those comments I felt a need to respond.

Full Disclosure: I am an avid CrossFitter (since about 2006), a level 2 certified trainer, have opened my own affiliate, and am currently taking a break from CrossFit to focus on strength.

First thing is first, this is what made me even become interested in the unfolding of events...

Completely inappropriate, sexist, and disrespectful comments

The Video

So let's talk about what Jillian says in the 59 second video that has CrossFitters kicking over chalk buckets across the world.

First, she states that there are only really 20-25 movements that you typically see at a CrossFit gym which is not quite the wide variety that CrossFit generally touts. Additionally, those movements do not challenge the body from different angles and with different movements.

Secondly, though CrossFit claims to work all modalities, Jillian disagrees.

Lastly, she states that a better workout program would include more strength, agility, endurance, and mobility.

All of this is also attached to an article where Jillian details her hate of the kipping pullup.

Fitness In General

First, I want to level set on how I feel about fitness in general. In skydiving, we have pull priorities (as in pulling your parachute while falling towards the earth).

  1. Pull!
  2. Pull on time!
  3. Pull while stable!

Similarly, we have priorities in fitness.

  1. Workout!
  2. Workout on a program or plan!
  3. Workout on a program or plan that is tailored to your body, schedule, and goals.

What is the best fitness routine?  THE ONE YOU FOLLOW!

So where does CrossFit fit into those fitness priorities?  Well, as always, the answer depends on YOU and YOUR goals.

Jillian #1: Not Enough Variety

I want you to honestly make a list of the movements you feel like you do on a regular basis in the CrossFit gym. Without getting into all varieties of a single movement (power, hang, etc) I got to 20 really fast and then had to think hard to go past that to 25. We see really cool, new, and crazy movements at the CrossFit games, while the average gym does not (or cannot) achieve that same level of variety. Having a pool or minimal use equipment at the gym is simply not cost effective.

What Jillian is describing here is either a financial reality for gym owners or poor coaching.  Good coaches find variety, branch out into other fitness realms (power lifting, Strongman, endurance running, etc).  CrossFit has a real problem with acting better than other fitness communities when really we should be learning from them.

At a CrossFit gym I have beat tires with sledge hammers, pulled cars with ropes, lifted Atlas stones, done bench press (gasp!), and curled a barbell (gasp again!).

Any coach who ignores or refuses to do certain movements because "that isn't CrossFit" is just plain wrong and you need to go somewhere else.

For Jillian to put this on the entire community as a whole though? That is wrong.

I would argue that that average gym falls into this trap, there are still many gyms that do this right and are always striving for new and exciting ways to keep their members fit.

Just ask yourself when the last time you did a Zercher squat was...or dumbell bench press, or curls, or a skin-the-cat, etc.

Jillian #2: Modality Coverage

CrossFit claims full dominion over three fitness modalities: Monostructural Metabolic Conditioning or “cardio”, Gymnastics or Bodyweight, and Weightlifting.

I totally see Jillian's point here.  In the Monostructural category we have things such as (and generally limited to) rowing, biking, running, and jump rope (double unders).

The problem here is that most workouts see these in small increments; 400m runs, 500m rows, interval sprints on the bike, a handful of Double Unders.

In these short spurts, none of these movements really meet the necessary stimulus to be considered cardio or endurance training.  Similarly, calling a 95# thruster "weightlifting" also does a disservice to the modality.

I think Jillian's point here is that CrossFit could be much better at broadening the definitions of modalities and ensuring that lumping all movements into 3 categories is not actually hindering progress of fitness minded individuals. Throwing a 500m row as a cash-in/out for a workout is NOT meeting the intent of a constantly varied functional fitness program.

To echo my point from the previous section, this comes down to coaching.  Good coaches already know this...unfortunately many CrossFit gyms do not have adequate coaching.

Jillian #3: Strength, Agility, Endurance, and Mobility

This part of Jillian's argument is probably the least defined and hardest to work with.  

I agree that most CrossFit gyms could to a better job of following a defined strength program for better results.

I agree that CrossFit has a major problem with lateral stability/strength and therefore agility (there is no pivot and turning in CrossFit).

I agree CrossFit needs to address endurance in a better way.

We ALL agree that most CrossFit gyms do very little to promote mobility during classes other than to post cool MobilityWOD of ROMWOD videos every once in a while.

Again, good coaches know this, they do these things, and they ensure their clients have a path to success and continued progress.

The Best Modality...Sleep!

To Sum It Up

Jillian is right about a lot of things for a lot of gyms.  I would even go so far as to say that the average CrossFit gym falls into these traps.  That does NOT mean that CrossFit is the problem.  Take time to find the right CrossFit gym.  If they have these problems, go somewhere else. CrossFit is a great methodology when executed properly.  Be sure to find the person who does it right.

Trevor's Rules for CrossFit Gyms:

  1. If they do not have some form of an on-ramp program to teach new folks the ropes, go somewhere else.
  2. If the on-ramp only focuses on a few movements, is less than 2 weeks, or does not have a strictly academic portion (what is CrossFit, why do we do what we do, diet planning, etc), go somewhere else.
  3. Ask the coaches how they program and what (if any) program they follow.  They should have a very detailed and coherent response to this.  If their response is something like "we keep it varied", "the coaches trade off programming", "whatever random thing we come up with", or "we blindly follow superfitclubstrongmanbadass.com" then you need to go somewhere else.
  4. Lastly, don't workout somewhere where there are not people better than you. Be sure that if your goal is progress, that you have people to follow, look up to, and train with.