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Love it or hate it, this phenomenon called CrossFit is extra ordinary. If one printed every blog post that espoused the positive or negative aspects of CrossFit, and then laid them down edge to edge they would circumvent the globe at least once. CrossFit is good because it prevents injuries. CrossFit is bad because it injures people. CrossFit is good because it is so inclusive. CrossFit is bad because it is too exclusive. CrossFit is good because it is like a big family. CrossFit is bad because it is like a cult. CrossFit is good because it pushes people. CrossFit is bad because someone’s cousin talked to a woman who dated a guy that knew someone with a grandmother who dropped over dead from AMRAP-induced rhabdomyolysis. Read 3 or 4 and you have read them all. Those blogs are the written equivalent of Charlie Brown’s teacher.

What makes CrossFit truly extra ordinary is that it so loosely defined.

Constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.

That is it. That is all that is required to call a system “CrossFit”; that, and a very functional $3,000 yearly affiliation fee. Require athletes to perform movements with (as opposed to machines) free weights, tires, hammers, Kettlebells, rings, medicine balls, etc., have them do it until their heart is ready to explode, and fork over three grand to Greg and Co, and one is a CrossFit gym owner. There is no supervision and no rules or framework. That is a beautiful thing. The glaring lack of specificity and structure allows for coaches to develop their own version of CrossFit. Hell, it is capitalism in its purest form. Greg Glassman, the owner/creator of CrossFit, allows anyone that holds a CrossFit Level 1 certification to open a gym and become a CrossFit Affiliate so long as they pay him his money and offer “functional movements”. The market alone decides the winners and the losers.

In any sizable metropolitan area, there are, not including the knock-off gyms too cheap to pay the yearly affiliation fee, 6+ CrossFit affiliates. In the greater Buffalo area alone we have 9 legitimate affiliates. The knock-offs around here seem to open and close with the change of seasons as the thrill of free trial memberships and $5 workouts are replaced with the frustration of stagnation and the bitter defeat of injury. Each legitimate affiliate provides their version of what Greg Glassman envisioned when he first published the system in 2001. They are all great places to train, are full of talented and caring coaches working with motivated and inspiring athletes, and all believe firmly that the product they offer is the optimal version of CrossFit. They all offer a completely different experience and a unique perspective on how one should train. Go outside the greater Buffalo area and the options only increase. Include the entire US, and one could probably walk into 365 CrossFit affiliates and experience 365 different versions of functional fitness.

Clearly, results drive membership numbers. Yet, it is more than just results that allow all of these affiliates to not only remain open, but also grow. It’s the experience. Results, indeed, provide fodder for great advertisement but it is the journey that keeps people showing up at 0515 to start their day. It’s the personality of the gym that draws athletes in at 1930 after a long days work though a hot dinner and a soft bed are calling. It is the manner in which the affiliate owner guides their athletes down the grueling, uncompromising, challenging, intimidating, exhilarating, and supremely rewarding road to results that leaves most athletes thinking of their gym as home.

The road that athletes must endure at our gym as they move along their fitness journey is paved with cold, undeniable scientific facts and is built on the experience borne of enduring the rigors of combat and gained from leading men into battle.

Why do we place so much value on executing a movement with strict form over the completion of numerous repetitions?

This one is simple. Every time one lowers the standard, they just set the new standard. One will ALWAYS fight the way they are trained. It pays, then, to train the way one wants to fight. Doing things the right way. Attention to detail. Learning to separate the wheat from the chafe. Those are all traits that are learned from sound training techniques and the willful adherence to movement standards.

Why can’t my athletes simply drop the weights after a lift?

My goal is to make my athletes hard to kill. My priority isn’t weight loss, it is not body composition changes, nor is it to make people look good. My goal is to make someone the toughest version of themselves possible so that they can overcome any obstacles they face and win at life! In one’s day-to-day routine one is faced with the unknown and the unknowable. Be it on the sports field, walking to work, or traveling on a plane, we are potentially subject to violence. The single best way, other than practicing combatives, to prepare one to handle the impact of unexpected violence is to have an athlete recover their bar. The impact of the weight on the body closely replicates the disruptive forces placed on the body by an unexpected collision, fall or punch. The crushing impact of a heavy bar on your body does wonders for bone density and ligament and tendon strength, while the speed and violence of the action improves our body’s proprioception and kinesthesia.

Why do I tell my athletes to breath only through their nose when recovering and why do I spend so much time teaching athletes how to recover?

Remaining calm in stressful situations is important. Working in an environment where losing one’s cool often had deadly implications, it became very important to me to train my Marines how to remain calm, emotionless, and in control at all times. While I would have loved to have been able to pull a “Gunny Highway” (Heartbreak Ridge reference for my younger readers) on them with an AK-47, that was simply not an option. Life up at the Mountain Warfare Training Center soon taught me, however, that extremely tough physical training was a darn close substitute. I’d push them to the point that their bodies were, quite literally, physically failing and then require them to accomplish certain tasks; tasks that required a cool head and a thoughtful plan. As far as I’m concerned all of my athletes are leaders. Be it at home or at work they are looked up to by others and are expected by their family or coworkers to be able to perform at all times. Nobody wants to follow someone who is running around with their hair on fire or is so caught up in their own misery and suffering that they are not able to maintain their situational awareness. We focus so much on breath control while we are training because it is such a powerful tool in remaining calm and composed. One can’t hyperventilate and remain a calm at the same time. The two are physically and psychological intertwined. Conversely, one cannot get emotionally or physically excited when one is breathing deeply, calmly, and under control. My goal is to separate the emotion from the physical suffering. I want my athletes, no matter how tired, to learn to be calm aware, alert, and ready for the next mission. Life never rests; neither can we. It’s easy to lose control. It takes practice to maintain ones composure. When the chips are down, who is better equipped to cover one’s 6? Is it the raging maniac, or the one who remains resolute, calm, and in control?

Why do I, at times, add time to the clock (a bonus round) to allow people to finish the WOD?

I always told my Devil Dogs that our country had ZERO use for Marines that were unable to accomplish the mission. I’d remind them that accomplishing the mission was a point of honor, and failing to accomplish the mission was a point of dishonor. In their training and in their garrisoned life I made it a point to afford them every possible opportunity that would allow them to accomplish their tasks and get the win. I wanted to build in them the habit of wining. Accomplishing the mission needed to become a ritual that was engrained into their very soul. I found that the habits established during tough training became the character that got them through tough times in life. I’m training my athletes for life. If I can afford them the opportunity to see something through to the end I will. I want to reinforce the habit of accomplishing the mission in all my athletes.

Why don’t I let my athletes lay on the ground after a workout?

He had gray eyes. I wish I could remember his name. I feel so guilty. There were so many of them, and their names all so foreign to my tongue and ears it was hard to keep them all straight. I didn’t know him well. Part of my guilt is based in my failure to get to know all of them better. I try to tell myself there was no way I could have. That it wasn’t my fault or a failure as a leader on my part. “I wasn’t their commanding officer”, I continue to repeat to myself over and over again, “ I was merely an advisor to the commander.” With the shear size of the brigade, there was simply no way to get to know them on a personal level like I was able with my Marines. I will keep telling myself that.

Somehow we always found ourselves with the “door kickers” right at the tip of the spear. The Iraqis were tasked with clearing Route Corona, a nasty 600m stretch of dirt road in the heart of bad guy country that was strewn with, literally, hundreds of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines. The Iraqi’s, though under our advisement, were not working for us. Hell, I was working for them and they have their own way of doing things. They decided, in the absence of US anti-mining and EOD support, to do it themselves – manually. That’s right. The Iraqi commander had his soldiers using metal detectors and crawling on their bellies probing for mines with their bayonets.

BOOM! Looks like they found another.

They would send in more Iraqis. We had the training and assets to provide emergency medical support and transportation. We weren’t able to talk them into waiting for anti-mining equipment, so we provided support as best as we could with our life saving capabilities.

He had gray eyes. His breathing was labored. It’s different than being out of breath from exercise. The labored breathing of a dying man is different than that of someone who just got done exercising. It’s mournful and pitiful, the weak, erratic staccato of spasmed gasps. His gray eyes were full of confusion. I don’t think he could hear anything. Fluid was leaking out of both ears. He kept trying to get up, fighting us, as we were doing our best to restrain him so we could provide aid, comfort really, and get him loaded on an awaiting helicopter. His body was failing. He was getting weaker. I don’t think he understood the reason we wouldn’t let him get up. He didn’t understand he was a dying man delaying the inevitable. His gray eyes, the hard weathered lines around them softened, yet the fire in them remained. He was emotionless but for his gray eyes. The quarter sized holes in his skull where fragmentation blew through the bone like a bullet through an egg shell leaving small bits of brain stuck in his hair all matted with drying blood and CS fluid, were stark contrast to his otherwise untouched body and face. To his last breath, literally, he was trying to get up.

At a competition we were hosting, after completing a workout, an athlete collapsed on the floor, in obvious pain, and was “unable to move”. There the athlete lay, surrounded by on lookers. All of them had compassion in their eyes wishing there was something they could do for this individual, who was clearly in so much pain and needed help, as a few folks tended to the athlete as if administering last rights to the terminally ill.

I asked the person what was wrong. They said they were having a back spasm and couldn’t move. I asked them if they could feel their feet. They said yes. I told them to wiggle their toes. They did. With a warm smile and a tone in my voice that was pleasant but unmistakably clear in intent I said, “Great. You are fine. Get up and rest somewhere else”. Amazingly, they got up, and the competition went on without missing a beat.

It was his gray eyes I saw as I looked upon the athlete that was lying there, motionless, feeling sorry for themselves. I saw the faces of countless other Iraqis and Afghans I saw torn limb from limb. I saw the face of my buddy pulling himself back up behind the 50 cal after he was shot though his side. Every time I see someone lying, post work out, in a weak, pathetic heap on the floor I see the faces of men that have truly given their all, yet all kept fighting to get up.

I cannot abide someone telling me they can’t stand, are too tired to stand, or they “gave it their all” and therefore need to lay down. There will be plenty of time to remain recumbent when we are dead. Until that time, stand. Out of admiration and respect for the warrior class that fights for us, stand. As a celebration of life and freedom, stand. As a commitment to remaining ever vigilant and ready against all that would threaten our liberty, stand. I’m not asking anyone to workout until they pass-out. I’m not implying that anyone is not working hard enough. I’m simply keeping things in perspective and training my athletes to be always ready.

What keeps bringing you back to your affiliate? What is it that clicks with you, that makes you feel so alive, so powerful, and so full of life and energy that you refuse to stay away. What ever it is share it with your family and friends. And if you are so moved, at the end of your next workout think about those gray eyes, and stand.

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