CrossFit is fast becoming a household name. CrossFit.com defines the modality as strength and conditioning program whose specialty is not specializing in any one form of fitness.
CrossFit creates an athlete who is proficient across the spectrum of physical expression with the idea being that real life situations demand this form of generalized conditioning. As such, CrossFit is the training style of choice for many police departments, military personnel, and martial artists not to mention just about anyone who simply wants to be in the best shape of their lives.
Chris Spealler is one of CrossFit’s finest. He owns CrossFit Park City in Park City, Utah. He is also a top competitor in the annual CrossFit Games with three top 10 finishes to his credit (to include 3rd at the 2010 Games!).
The balance of this article will be an interview with Chris which will provide more details about him personally and delve deeper into the phenomenon that is CrossFit.
Chris Mason: Chris, for many of our readers this article will be their first encounter with CrossFit. So far they know you are a prime example of a CrossFit athlete. Can you provide us a brief bio on yourself? Perhaps some personal information and how you found CrossFit?
Chris Spealler: Ok, to start, I’m 31 years old and married with a four and a half month old baby boy. Our other baby is our black lab. We live in a small town just outside of Park City, Utah. I am a CrossFit affiliate (gym) owner and I also work for CrossFit Headquarters as a head trainer. As already stated, I am an active CrossFit Games competitor.
Outside of my CrossFit life I love skiing and mountain biking. When I am not traveling on the weekends my family and I attend Capital Church.
My athletic background is pretty expansive and diverse. I have been active in sports for as long as I can recall. My parents were active in sports throughout their youth and they instilled a love for athletics in my sister and me from a very early age. I think they had a healthy way of going about encouraging us to be athletic. They provided us a great deal of freedom in choosing the sports we wanted to participate in, but they had a rule that we had to stick with a sport for at least one season once chosen. This taught us how to stick with something and thus was a valuable lesson in personal stability.
I stumbled into wresting in the 1st grade and stuck with it as my main sport until graduating college. Up until junior high I tried many a sport to include track, lacrosse, and even golf. Once I was in junior high I decided to wrestle year round and it become my sole sporting activity. I excelled in wrestling and was recruited by Lock Haven University, a Division 1 wrestling school.
Upon graduation from Lock Haven I had some opportunities to pursue wrestling further, but decided not to. I soon began to yearn for a new competitive outlet and along came CrossFit. A buddy of mine who was in the Marines at the time introduced me to it. Like the proverbial duck to water I instantly took to it. It has been a wonderful gift to me. It embodies all of the attributes that I cherish in fitness. It also allows me to express my athletic blessings in a way that both promote personal growth and allows me to help others.
Chris Mason: Chris, you mentioned how your parents guided you and your sister in athletics. Do you and your wife plan to do something similar with your son?
Chris Spealler: Yes, I firmly believe that athletics can provide so much beyond just the physicality aspect. With children, athletics are especially important because they not only provide them the exercise they need (especially in today’s videogame age), they can also foster such life skills as teamwork, learning to be coachable, and being responsible for and accountable to others.
Chris Mason: As mentioned above, this article will be the first time many readers are exposed to CrossFit. Can you give them an overview of it? Perhaps describe some of the workouts of the day (WODs)?
Chris Spealler: Absolutely, and I think a great way to get started is to clear up some common misconceptions about CrossFit. The most frequent concerns I hear are that you need to get in great shape prior to trying CrossFit, that CrossFit is dangerous, and that CrossFitters don’t care about technique. None of these are even remotely accurate! The idea that one needs to be in great condition to CrossFit is one that particularly gets my goad. In fact, it is one of the basic tenets of CrossFit that training is scaled to the needs of the individual and that said needs do no vary in kind, but only in degree. In other words, your grandparents may have the same training needs as a top level Olympic athlete.
We all need a huge base of general physical preparedness (GPP). GPP provides all around physical ability (strength, endurance, flexibility etc.) which translates to virtually any physical activity. Grandparents need it to stay out of a nursing home and Olympic athletes need it to gleam the most from their sport specific training.
CrossFit is GPP on a grand scale. This results in workouts that are constantly varied and focused toward ‘functional’ movements. Workouts range from as short as two minutes to as long as an hour. The movements practiced, loading schemes, and repetition (rep) ranges are always changing. This brings me to another knock I hear about CrossFit which is that we are good at many things, but great at nothing. We don’t see that as a negative, rather it is what we are all about. We feel that real life punishes the specialist and rewards those with generalized physical abilities. Real life situations demand a combination of strength, endurance, coordination, and mental toughness. CrossFit develops all of these attributes to a degree rarely seen elsewhere in the fitness world.
To be clear, we don’t knock specialists, in fact we respect them to such a degree that we try to bring the best of the best in each specific area of fitness into the CrossFit world to help make us better at their chosen specialty. We have recruited the best running, Olympic lifting, and powerlifting coaches to educate our trainers and to learn the ‘secrets’ of each discipline. As I said, it’s all about being really good at a wide spectrum of physical activities.
I used the term ‘functional’ above. It is a term which is pervasive in today’s fitness world yet defined differently at nearly every turn. In CrossFit the term refers to being able to better execute natural physical movements such as running, jumping, punching, kicking, throwing, and so on. We all have to squat down to sit or deadlift an object from the ground as part of our daily life so we incorporate those movements (the squat and deadlift) into our training. Conversely, we never have to use weight machines in real life so we don’t use them in training.
Unlike bodybuilders, we don’t use single joint movements knowing that the functional movements (like squats, deadlifts, and chins) provide a systemic response which equates to a more efficient and functional manner of training. We train functionally to be super-functional (if you will) outside of the gym.
Most CrossFit workouts are couplets (2 exercises) or triplets (3 exercises) of exercises blended together in various combinations. Below are just a few of our workouts of the day (WODs) as examples:
21-15-9 (21 reps followed by 15 reps followed by 9 reps of each movement)
Thrusters (barbell starts on chest and you go into a full squat and then come back up and press the barbell overhead – as one fluid motion with the rising of the body)
Pull-ups (kipping is allowed because it provides us with a higher power output = greater intensity)
Snatches (barbell is pulled from the floor to a fully locked-out overhead position in one motion) 30 reps
Clean and Jerks (barbell is pulled from the floor to the shoulders, then essentially thrown with body momentum to an overhead position) 30 reps
* Men’s prescribed weight is 135 lbs
Run 400 meters
21 Kettlebell Swings (swing a kettlebell from between one’s legs to the overhead position)
10,9,8,7… down to 1 rep
1.5 x bodyweight deadlift
1 x bodyweight bench press
3/4 bodyweight squat clean (barbell is pulled from the floor to the shoulders via dropping underneath of it as you pull it upwards and then catching it at the shoulders – ending in the bottom of a front squat position)
Each of the above workouts is done for time with the goal being to finish the prescribed exercises and reps in as short a timeframe as possible. Training in this fashion accomplishes our goal of building an individual with all around physical prowess. It provides for increased work capacity over broad time and modal domains (our CrossFit ‘mission statement’).
Chris Mason: You mentioned WODs above. Can you give us some of the other most frequently used CrossFit specific verbiage?
Chris Spealler: In the same vein as WODs, CrossFitters will often use the terms ‘prescribed’ or ‘rx’d’. As the words imply, the terms are used to indicate a workout is to be completed as written.
‘Scaling’ is a term we use to describe altering the loads (and sometimes other parameters) for people of varying levels of fitness so that they can all reap the maximum benefit from their CrossFit training. So, for example, a beginner might perform the IsaGrace described above with 60 lbs instead of the prescribed 135 lbs.
‘Kipping’ is another term used quite often. It refers to a specific style of pull-up. It is derived from gymnastics and involves a significant amount of body English to help propel one to the top of a chin. It is more of a whole body movement than a traditional strict chin (which we do as well). It allows the trainee to get more done in a given period of time thus increasing power output, intensity, and results.
‘Met-con’ is yet another common term in CrossFit. It stands for metabolic conditioning which is a form of training whose purpose is to improve the body’s efficiency at storing and delivering of energy for activity. These workouts have the dual benefit of improving both strength and aerobic capacity. In fact, while the workouts are absolutely nothing like standard aerobic training they can confer aerobic benefits that rival those of the best traditional programs. The majority of CrossFit training would qualify as met-con.
Chris Mason: Chris, you have placed well at the CrossFit Games more than once, but have yet to win. Watching you this year you really dominated many of the events with absolute strength seeming to be your only limiting factor. What, if anything, do you plan to do to address that (or do you even agree with the observation)?
Chris Spealler: Absolute strength has always been a relative weakness for me especially in comparison to the larger athletes. I am going to incorporate a heavily Westside Barbell influenced program for a 6 week block. I will follow that with a 5-3-1 program for my back squat with additional accessory work for my posterior chain. Heavier met-cons will be included along with Olympic lifts of varying rep ranges. Each of these changes should all work towards improving my 1 rep max (1RM) strength.
I will, of course, continue with my more standard CrossFit training and use the above to attack my weaknesses and make me a more well rounded athlete for next year’s games.
Chris Mason: That sounds like a solid plan! Have you considered adding a bit of body weight? I think 6-10 lbs of lean muscle would make all the difference and turn you into even more of a machine than you already are.
Chris Spealler: I feel the idea that increased body weight equals increased strength is a trap that too many people fall prey to. This is especially true for CrossFitters as we need to keep our strength to weight ratio high so that the body weight and running components of our program are not compromised by excess bulk.
My goal is to just get silly strong!
Chris Mason: I totally agree and should have clarified my point. Demonstrable strength is a component of several factors, but the two that are controllable are myofibrillar hypertrophy and neural efficiency. What you mention above would be focusing on the neural aspect which is definitely a solid plan, but not optimal.
My thoughts when asking the question were that 6-10 lbs (and perhaps that was a bit high, maybe it should have been 3-6 lbs) of lean muscle in the form of myofibrillar hypertrophy (the myofibrils are the contractile – force producing – elements of the muscle cells) combined with low repetition training to force neural adaptation would be the optimal approach.
Everyone is different, but especially in a seasoned trainee like yourself there gets to be a point where you essentially tap-out your strength progress at a given body weight.
If the weight gained were kept to 5 lbs or less and in doing so you got significantly stronger I don’t think your body weight abilities would suffer. The end game being the absolute gains you can make in maximal strength would be greater with the addition of some lean muscle tissue, and if said muscular gain is kept to a minimum you should be able to enjoy the best of both worlds (jacked up 1RM strength and no decline in your body weight abilities).
Chris Spealler: What you have described is absolutely my goal, but in my experience one more easily stated than done. I feel like I have run the gamut in terms of trying different training styles and techniques to build my absolute strength. I’ve done everything from 5×5 linear progression training, to maxing out, to 5-3-1, and now to Westside conjugate training.
I have actually added 3-4 lbs since the games, but that is a function of a decrease in my total training volume (no 2-a-days right now). It is always easier for me to keep weight on when my overall volume is down.
I will never be one to keep pace with the biggest guys on 1RM lifts. Even if I were to add 10% to my maxes (which is a lot for an experienced athlete) I would still be considerably off what the strongest guys can do. I instead focus on moving heavier loads with my met-con training thus allowing me to have the strength endurance to keep up with the bigger guys in CrossFit competition.
In the end, I don’t know if there is a magic formula for that big 1RM and an extreme level of strength and aerobic endurance, but I am always open to suggestions.
Chris Mason: Chris, maybe we can speak about this privately? I have some thoughts on what you could do to add that 10% or more, but need to know more information. Perhaps fodder for a future article ?
Continuing with the topic of body weight, can you speak a bit about diet for CrossFit generally, and your specific dietary regimen?
Chris Spealler: CrossFit basically has two approaches to nutrition. The first is the simplest. It establishes some basic dietary guidelines which are geared towards mitigating insulin release (i.e. a form of carbohydrate control). In a nutshell, eat meats, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no refined sugars.
This approach helps people to get away from the high carbohydrate (carb), low fat diets which are responsible for many of the health issues we see today (obesity, age onset diabetes etc.).
If people then want to take things to the next level we recommend the Zone Diet combined with consuming the right foods (as listed above). This helps to establish control over portions being consumed and thus to tailor consumption to goals.
My personal experience with the zone was underwhelming in the sense I saw no real performance improvement. The experience did, however, teach my some things of interest. I learned that I need to eat more often throughout the day and felt better when consuming a good mix of macronutrients at each meal. I also learned that I have a sensitivity to most cereal grains (breads, pasta, rice etc.) and felt much better when avoiding them.
Beyond diet, I have begun supplementing with fish oil (morning and evening) and have been using Progenex’s Recovery as a post-workout shake. I have seen a huge difference in recovery with the addition of these two supplements.
Chris Mason: Chris, it seems like the Paleo Diet is also quite big in the CrossFit community. What are your thoughts?
Chris Spealler: That’s a good question. Interestingly, many people assume that what we recommend for beginners (meats and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch etc.) is the Paleo Diet. While it shares some similarities with the Paleo Diet, it is most certainly not Paleo. The Paleo Diet is much more exacting, things like no salt, no dairy, no gluten, and so on. These specifications make a strict Paleo Diet quite difficult for most people to adhere to.
I believe the individual should find what works best for them. There is so much individuality in how we respond to dietary intake that it is imperative people experiment for themselves. Now don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are some basic dietary guidelines which are nearly universal in applicability (such as those we teach beginners), but it is within those general guidelines where I believe the individual tinkering should occur.
Chris Mason: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Do you have any parting thoughts for our readers?
Chris Spealler: Thanks for the opportunity to allow me to share a bit about myself and CrossFit. I just want to encourage people to give CrossFit a shot. It’s an amazing program with an even more impressive community. The vast majority of people involved are passionate, humble, and accepting. Don’t assume you aren’t fit enough for it, or that it’s too hard. The program is completely scaleable and that is one of its major strengths.
The CrossFit definition of fitness may be a compromise, but I personally believe it is the best compromise one can make. Being a specialist is not a bad thing, but specialists never get to experience the feeling of knowing you are a well rounded athlete ready to tackle virtually any physical challenge that may come your way in life. It is a good feeling, trust me!
Written by Chris Mason