CrossFit before there was CrossFit

I once interviewed a former Army Special Forces Captain, and we talked about his experiences as a Green Beret. We got into an interesting discussion on the image of the Green Berets vs. the Navy SEALs, and he had this to say:

"The U.S. Army Special Forces like to call themselves the 'Quiet Professionals.'  We pride ourselves on doing our jobs, not saying anything about it, and then just melting away in the dark like those scary blobs in the Patrick Swayze movie Ghost.  We don't brag; we don't show off...
"But I actually think that this total embrace of the 'Quiet Professional' attitude and culture hurts Green Berets.  Why?  Because nobody knows who we are or what we do! 

"I literally want to punch myself in the groin every time I've been cornered in a conversation to eventually explain what the Green Berets are and say, 'Uh... yeah, we're like the Navy SEALs, but for the Army.'  The worst is when they say back, 'Oh you're an Army SEAL?'

"...there is one enormous category that the Navy SEALs have us Green Berets beat hands-down and twice on Sunday in: marketing.  Man, the SEALs sure do know how to market and sell themselves.  A joke in Special Forces is

"'Q: How do you know a Navy SEAL is in the room? 

"'A: He'll tell you.'

"Sure, funny, and makes fun of their egos, but you know what?  Navy SEALs get way more ass than Green Berets, and it shows when we have to explain ourselves as 'Army SEALs' for anybody to even understand what we do for a living." 

In business marketing, there's this idea that it doesn't matter if you show up first.  What matters is if you are first in people's minds.  In the fitness world, we have a similar phenomenon with CrossFit.

Back in 2005, I was a training a client, a dotcom woman who liked to party.  I was showing her various exercises, exercises she was completely unfamiliar with, and as I'm training her, she tells me, "I've never done these exercises before.  Is this like CrossFit?"

"Uh, no.  You know, there was CrossFit before CrossFit. We called it cross-training."

You may think that CrossFitters invented everything from kettlebells and tire flipping to gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting, but CrossFit is really a case of good marketing.  Kettlebells, strongman training, gymnastics and weightlifting all existed before CrossFit.  CrossFit just combined various established training modalities, repackaged it and sold it to people who had no clue.

Mainstream gyms will even have a CrossFit area (an open area with ropes, kettlebells, gymnastic ring, tractor tires and jump boxes), even though they're not affiliated with CrossFit.

CrossFit before there was a Crossfit

In the old days, a bodybuilder was not just a bodybuilder, but a strongman, an Olympic-style weightlifter and a gymnast as well.  In the old days, a bodybuilder was a complete strength athlete.

A prime example of the complete strength athlete was the legendary John Grimek. Grimek not only won the Mr. America twice as a bodybuilder, but he was also an Olympic weightlifter representing the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Grimek looked strong, because he was incredibly strong. Grimek was squatting over 400 pounds well into his 60s. Grimek was also a skilled gymnast who could perform a number of gymnastic exercises, such as handstand pushups.

Tommy Kono, who is arguably the greatest Olympic weightlifter the US offered to the world, was also a successful bodybuilder, winning the Mr. Universe title in 1955 and 1957.  He built a phenomenal physique in an era before steroids.

In the old days, a bodybuilder was fit across many strength training disciplines.  CrossFit existed before CrossFit the chain. 

Even some of the training methods that people would consider hallmarks of CrossFit training, such as high rep Olympic lifting, existed long before CrossFit the chain.

High rep clean and jerks were used by old time bodybuilders for rapid muscle gain, similar to 20 rep breathing squats. Ironman Magazine editor Peary Rader wrote of a lifter who

"used the clean and jerk as an exercise in a weight gaining experiment... He went on this program of clean and jerks... with all the poundage he could use correctly for the required number of reps (about 15 to 20).

"He immediately began gaining weight very rapidly and was amazed that the practice of this one lift or exercise could have such a profound effect on his body. Subsequently others of us have made similar experiments with this lift and found that it not only was a good weight gaining medium but also developed strength, endurance, speed, and timing that nothing else could give us. We also found it to be the toughest workout we have ever had."

Timed Sets

Another hallmark of the CrossFit methodology is the "timed set."  Of course, CrossFitters did not invent the timed set.  It was a technique that was incorporated into the Crossfit methodology when they incorporated kettlebells.

Instead of performing a specific number of reps, with a timed set you continuously perform a lift for a certain length of time. So if the optimal time under tension to build muscle is 40-60 seconds, you would rep out continuously for a timed set of 1 minute. Timed sets allow you to focus on accomplishing the goal (optimal time under tension) as opposed to the accomplishing the task (hitting a target rep).

Timed sets can easily be integrated into a program.  Although CrossFitters like to do timed sets of  the snatch, timed sets of Olympic weightlifting exercises are dangerous.  You're likely to injure yourself with high rep weightlifting, since your form will falter under the prolonged fatigue. 

Timed sets work best with bodyweight exercises and kettlebells.  If you're just interested in bodybuilding, then timed sets can even be used on machine exercises and certain isolation movements.

The following exercises are ideal for timed sets:

  • Pushups
  • Pull-ups
  • Air squats
  • Kettlebell snatches
  • Ketllebell swings
  • Seated cable rows or rowing machine
  • Barbell curls

To perform timed sets, you will need a countdown timer. Set the timer for 60 seconds. Start the timer and start performing the exercise. Keep performing the exercise until the 60 seconds are up.

You may find that you can’t continuously rep out the entire minute and that you will need to momentarily pause, catch a breath or two and then resume. This is known as “rep pausing” and is perfectly fine, as long as you do not break form (i.e. let go of the pull-up bar or collapse from the pushup position).

You can adjust the length of the timed set according to the difficulty of the exercise. So if you can perform a high number of pushups, then you can shoot for a timed set of 90 seconds. If you can only do 12 pull-ups, then a timed set of 30 seconds would be an appropriate length of time.


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