I’m here to tell you one thing: it’s okay. Specifically, it’s okay not to squat. No, seriously. I know, crazy right? You may have read somewhere before that if you want to be a serious exerciser, that you have to do full-range back squats and deadlifts. You may also have heard that Crossfit is the best way to get fit, and that there’s nothing like it, with it’s electric atmosphere and crowds of friends cheering you on, pushing you to be better than you were yesterday. You may think that you can only be fit when you’ve got 90 degree dent in your shins from death by box-jumps, and when your arms are connected to your shoulder socket only by sheer virtue of the skin surrounding it thanks to endless flailing butterfly pull-ups, or when you have chronic back pain after months of AMRAP angry cat deadlifts. You may have been told that this is the price of endeavour, or even better, that these are badges of honour to be worn with pride, the battle-scars of hard work that other fellow warriors in this social movement recognise within each other, and acknowledge with a subtle, knowing smile as they pass one another on the street. Only they know what it takes, and what they have given to the cause, to be something, to achieve that fabled ideal, that glorious state of nirvana. To be…functional. But is this narrative that we’ve been told just a clever marketing campaign? Or maybe simply, and less conspiratorially, a case of good intentions, but an ultimately confused and logically flawed philosophy? But, everyone back squats, so you should too, right? Well, it depends.
Fitness is now a part of most cultures in a way that it seemingly never has been before. Gyms are popping up across cities like whiteheads on the face of a 13-year-old kid who deep-fries chips at McDonald’s. The fitness industry is booming. There’s now increasing pressure on people to be in good physical condition, or what people would call: ‘stay in shape’. And this isn’t a bad thing, people should worry about their health (if they’re in bad health) and should take care to maintain their physical condition (if they’re in good health already).
There are now countless online fitness personalities and vloggers on social media platforms such as Instagram and YouTube, many of whom who make a decent living from publishing content, thanks to the number of views that they receive on a regular basis – which is also not necessarily a bad thing. I myself follow several accounts on social media of fitness personalities and weightlifters, such as the actor and strongman who plays The Mountain on Game of Thrones, Hafþór “Thor” Björnsson (he’s Icelandic, I haven’t just raided the dingbats section of special symbols on Microsoft Word); The Rock (no introduction necessary); Matthew Fraser, the winner of the last three Crossfit Games; Larry Wheels, a powerlifter, bodybuilder, and all-round physical freak; and Elbakh “Meso Hassona” Fares Ibrahim, a 20-year-old Qatari Olympic weightlifter who recently broke the Junior World Record in his weight-class for the clean and jerk with a ridiculous weight of 225kg.
Some people follow fitness accounts for motivation, so that they have a constant reminder of what they’re aspiring towards, and there is potentially a grain of truth in that for me as well. I do admire the physique of many of these athletes, and maybe there’s an element of holding myself accountable to a higher standard by having a constant reminder of what level I’m actually at, in order to avoid becoming complacent and comfortable with my current physique – not that you’d think that there were anything wrong with me health-wise from looking at me (hopefully). For me though, the main reason that I follow these accounts, is that I simply enjoy watching physical freaks lift massive weight with good technique. With other accounts, such as The Rock’s and Mat Fraser’s, as well as being likeable people, they just post entertaining content (although they can definitely lift massive weight as well). Simply put, I follow fitness accounts primarily for entertainment.
Some people, however, follow fitness accounts and “personalities” because they may be beginners in the realm of fitness and exercise, and are looking for information and guidance as to what they should be doing, which is entirely reasonable, considering that not everyone can afford a personal trainer. But these influencers have a lot of…well…influence, on their followers, who view them as authorities on the subjects of fitness. I believe it was Donald Trump who once said “With great power, comes great responsibility”. Or maybe it was Uncle Ben, the rice guy, but whatever, my point is: these fitness personalities have a lot of power over what their viewers believe they should be doing in their own fitness programme, because they have the trust of their viewers. This may be because they’re in great shape, or market themselves really well, or have really well-edited videos, but ultimately, it’s difficult to establish who actually knows that they’re talking about. The majority of these personalities make money from their social media work, but of course in order to continue to receive an income from this they have to constantly pump out new and fresh content. This creates a perverse incentive to promote fads or workouts that may not be as effective as stated on the tin, and to attempt to rebrand existing methodologies in a new and interesting way, just so that they have something new to post on a daily basis. The same phenomenon can be seen in the countless editions of publications like Men’s Health, in which practically every subsequent monthly edition contradicts the previous one. This is partly because science itself hasn’t reached a general consensus on the best way to achieve certain fitness goals, largely because physiological and anatomical responses to exercise are highly individualised, but also because there is a lot of bad science out there, and exercise science is relatively underfunded compared to probably more important research areas such as oncology and immunotherapy. But, in my view, it’s primarily because publications (and now online fitness personalities) have a bottom line that they need to meet, and simply confirming old and existing information isn’t sexy, and it doesn’t sell. And the latest trend that I’m seeing all over my Instagram Discovery page is content attached to the buzzword(/term) of the day: “functional fitness”. A term that sounds great, and cool, and as though it’s based on evolutionary science, but, in fact, if examined under the line of questioning of even Kay Burley, falls apart like a house of damp playing cards in tumble drier. Maybe I’m off my hinges, but whatever they’re selling, I ain’t buying.
The fitness craze that has swept the world supposedly began with Arnold Schwarzenegger in his heyday, around the time of his seven Mr Olympia victories (the pinnacle in the sport of bodybuilding), and with the release of ‘Pumping Iron‘, the feature-length documentary following him and his competitors in his final Mr Olympia competition, focusing on his rivalry with then up-and-comer Lou Ferrigno. The documentary gave exposure to what had previously only been a niche sport and peripheral subculture, and made Arnold Schwarzenegger a household name – apparently sparking a fitness craze as a result.
Of course, the ensuing fitness culture was centred primarily around achieving a certain physique, as bodybuilding is a physique sport, and not necessarily a performance sport. A good physique, however, does not necessarily indicate a healthy body, or a body that is able to “perform” well, whatever that may mean. Bodybuilders do not necessarily have good cardiovascular health (i.e. strong hearts), as cardiovascular exercise is not entirely necessary to stay lean. Furthermore, nor does having a lot of muscle mean that one is able to move “well”, that is, move your body in an efficient and safe manner, or have flexibility and control in the entire range of whatever motion that you are performing. Conversely, neither does a high standard of performance in a certain athletic pursuit necessarily mean that one is healthy. The world’s best powerlifters and weightlifters, who specialise in lifting the most amount of weight as efficiently as possible, may have poor diets, worn joints, and weak, or over-stressed hearts. On the other extreme of the spectrum, endurance runners, for example, may have strong hearts, but in order to be as efficient as possible for their sport also have minimal muscle mass. But muscle doesn’t just have aesthetic purposes, it’s important for longevity in order to be stronger in old age, as well as in reducing likelihood of injury at whatever age, as muscles support your joints and allow you to withstand heavy loads (get your mind out of the gutter). This is essential if you want to play a sport recreationally, or if you’re moving furniture, for example, or, heaven-forbid, get into a fight*. Muscle is both a fun-enhancer and an insurance policy.
*this may sound like toxic masculinity talk, but there are people in the world who do stupid things, or think about doing stupid things, and you never know when you may be in a situation in which someone threatens you, and you need to be able to defend yourself, or increase the deterrent to the individual in question who is evaluating whether to take whatever frustrations or insecurities they have out on you, so that the calculated cost:benefit ratio of messing with you is untenable
Clearly, however, each of these sports, in being so specific, have a tendency to ignore crucial aspects of fitness and health, and, fundamentally, lack a balance in their philosophies. Granted, I’m sure many practitioners of these sports, especially if they’re competitive athletes, would readily admit that what they’re doing is not optimal for general fitness or health, but that this is the trade-off that they choose to make by participating in the sport, just as with people who play rugby or American football, who play, not necessarily because it’s the best thing for their brain or their body, but because of the sense of achievement, enjoyment and purpose that they get from playing it. This is the trade-off that we all make every day by getting out of bed or leaving the house. Clearly, life wouldn’t be fun or meaningful without risk. There’s probably a higher risk of injury outside of the house than there is inside, and you would probably live longer if you stayed in bed all of your life and ate a perfect diet, instead of going out and bungee jumping and eating the occasional burger, but life clearly isn’t just about longevity, or staying alive for the sake of it. Herein lies the difference, however. Whereas sports tend to be performance-based or physique-based, fitness is about staying alive, and staying alive well.
The term ‘survival of the fittest’ doesn’t refer to those who looked the best or those who could lift the heaviest weight, or run the fastest for the longest amount of time, it generally meant those who could perform well in each of those criteria. Of course this depended on the climate and environment in which our ancestors lived, and there are exceptions for extreme climates. For example, countries in the Horn of Africa and neighbouring countries such as Kenya have consistently produced some of the world’s best distance runners, as their ancestors were clearly selected due to survival pressures to be able to run for long periods of time, and the genes that allow for this were inherited by their descendants, which is apparent in their typical physiques and their above average ability to run for long distances extremely efficiently and quickly. But there is also a further point, which is particularly relevant for the demographic who will likely be reading this, and that is that we are no longer living in conditions of uncertainty with regards to our survival. We are no longer hunting with spears to provide for our Sunday roast. Our environmental requirements have largely averaged out because of our lack of survival pressures. The only things from which there is a reasonable demand to be fit for are day-to-day activities and events such as carrying the shopping, walking up the stairs, falling over, moving furniture, picking up your children, hopping over a fence, and maybe playing a sport. But these are everyday activities, and in order to get the most out of life it does pay to have an overall level of fitness, to have a reasonable amount of muscle, to have a good range of motion in all planes of movement (to be flexible and mobile), to be injury-free, to have a good level of cardiovascular fitness. Being generally fit allows you to navigate and enjoy life to a higher degree, gives you more options, and makes you more durable to the unexpected and unpredictable nature of life. As mentioned, however, the sports discussed earlier in this post arguably neglect key aspects of fitness. As sports, they are of course impressive to witness and comprehend when done to a high standard, and can often be entertaining, but as blueprints for the ideal physical condition they fall short, and when sold as the solution to those looking to become generally fit, can be damaging.
It was on the back of this premise that Crossfit, or so-called “functional fitness” movement, was born. Crossfit was a response to the rigid and “non-functional” (and no, I don’t mean ‘dysfunctional’, thank you) physiques of bodybuilders, the monostructural (meaning one movement, done repeatedly without variation) nature of endurance sports such as running, cycling and rowing, and the neglect of cardiovascular fitness in sports such as powerlifting and weightlifting. Its methodology was to incorporate elements from every sport into one holistic package, typically in the form of what would, for all intents and purposes, a circuit. Although the founder and CEO of Crossfit, Greg Glassman, has said previously that Crossfit is “everything”, that is, all sports and all movements, which, in fairness, is manifested in the Crossfit Games (basically the world cup for Crossfit), if you had to boil the average Crossfit workout down, it would essentially be a combination of gymnastics, Olympic lifting, and monostructural movements in a circuit, with the goal of completing a certain number of reps or doing the workout for a certain amount of time. This is what would be called a “WOD” (workout of the day), or a “metcon” (metabolic conditioning), and it is the bread and butter of Crossfit. If you ever go into a “box” (a Crossfit gym) and do a free taster session, the structure is almost guaranteed to be a warm-up, then a period of time developing a specific skill such as a weightlifting or gymnastic movement, ending in a metcon.
The purpose of Crossfit is to make fitness holistic, inclusive, functional, and enjoyable, which sounds great in principle. And without a doubt Crossfit has become a huge phenomenon, precisely for this reason, and also as a result of its biggest marketing event, which is the annual Crossfit Games, a visually appealing and exciting event where competitors take part in a wide range of events to see who is the most well-rounded athlete in the world, with the winner of each category being given the title of “Fittest [insert category] on Earth”. The one principle that underlies Crossfit above all, however, is functionality. But what does “functional” mean? Functional for what?
Of course, functionality is dependent on what the object with said function is supposed to function for. A hammer may be functional for hitting nails into wood, but when it comes to flipping eggs (if you like them that way, that is, you monster), not so much. Crossfit places an emphasis on performing complex movements including olympic lifts such as the snatch and clean and jerk, and incorporates these into metcons for a high number of repetitions, under fatigue. Other movements that feature heavily in the Crossfit handbook are the back squat, front squat, overhead squat, deadlift, overhead press, handstand push-up, pull-up, kipping pull-up, bar muscle-up, ring muscle-up, and handstand walk, among others. They cite these exercises as being functional, but what exactly they are functional for, and in what way they are functional, isn’t entirely obvious.
In my opinion (and the opinion of the Oxford English Dictionary (but not really)), functionality is dependent on the individual, and specifically, what they’re training for. An individual’s programme should be tailored according to their current physical condition (i.e. injuries and range of motion), how much time they can dedicate to exercising and improving, and what their goals are. The full-range squat and deadlift, for example, are movements that require a large amount of coordination, stability, and mobility, in order to perform with efficient and safe form. These movements, done with improper form, or losing form at the end range of the motion (i.e. rounding of the lower back) under heavy loading or for repeated repetitions (as is more likely when done under fatigue, as during a metcon) can lead to injury, which isn’t conducive to any sort of goal, apart from self-destruction.
Without question, movements such as the squat, the deadlift, the snatch, and the clean and jerk work a relatively large percentage of your muscles, which is why these lifts are the ones in which you can move the largest amount of weight. If your definition of functional, then, is an exercise that trains muscles that you’re going to use in everyday life, then I guess that these movements are functional. But, by that same definition, so is every movement. Even if you wanted to argue that these movements replicated the type of things that our caveman (or cavewoman! Or caveperson. Or whatever they may have identified as) ancestors did on a regular basis to survive, I struggle to imagine a situation in which someone was performing anything resembling a snatch or a clean. The fact of the matter is, any movement that you can perform is “functional” by the simple fact of you physically being able to perform it, because you have muscles that allow you to do it, which means your body was designed to be able to do that movement. Functionality may be increased if the exercise replicates a movement that you’ll be carrying out outside of your fitness programme, but there is no hard and fast rule about what is and what isn’t functional, there is no universal law. Functionality is individual-specific. Yet, people, especially those that join Crossfit gyms, are being told that they need to learn exercises such as the snatch, the clean, the back squat, and the overhead barbell press in order to be healthy and to have functional bodies. I see videos of 80-year-olds doing snatches, and I wonder what the point of that is. Shouldn’t they be focusing on their mobility, working on isolation movements such as lateral raises and leg extensions – traditionally bodybuilding exercises – to work on strength and stability around the joint, before they attempt some of the most complex movements in sport? Fair enough, if they actually want to learn to execute these exercises, and that’s one of their goals, then they should of course be allowed to. But they should also be advised to work on these exercises in isolation before incorporating them into a workout (and I wouldn’t even advise that).
Ultimately, a functional body is a well-rounded, injury-free body. Well-rounded meaning proportioned, and not having an enormous disparity between how much you train various muscles, and no disparity between muscles on either side of your body. And injury-free meaning, by implication, being flexible, and not be chronically tight, as this makes you susceptible to tearing a muscle following a sudden movement or awkward fall. And if you can’t walk due to a torn muscle then your body’s functional for nothing. Additionally, a functional body has to be one that has a reasonable capacity to work, and one that has a strong heart (literally, but also metaphorically I guess), so that you don’t get out of breath from walking up the stairs.
In summary, I believe that the fitness industry, largely as a result of Crossfit, has become quite elitist in its outlook towards fitness methodologies that aren’t what it defines as “functional”. Functionality depends on the individual, and not every needs to do loaded back squats, deadlifts, snatches and cleans in a circuit to be fit and healthy. Personally, I do weight training about six days a week and try to do some interval training at the end of each session, and tend not to mix my cardiovascular exercise with my weight training, except inadvertently when I do back squats for sets of 15 reps, the cardio effect of which is unavoidable. And yes, I personally do both back squats and deadlifts, but firstly I’m 23, secondly I’ve been training for several years, and thirdly I can afford to dedicate a sufficient amount of time to warming up and working on my technique. But these are luxuries that not everyone can afford, and many people may be in a situation where they simply want to improve their general level of fitness without getting injured. But Crossfit creates unnecessary demands or expectations of what the average person should be doing as part of their fitness regime, and classes create a competitive environment where people might feel inclined to push harder than they may think is sensible when doing complex and demanding movements such as snatches or back squats, which hugely increases the risk of form break-down, which is a precursor to injury.
I understand the appeal of Crossfit, and I admittedly follow the results from major competitions throughout the year, because as a competitive sport I find it interesting. But do I think that it’s the most effective way of gaining muscle, staying lean, getting stronger, and improving cardiovascular fitness, whilst staying injury free? No. I think the fitness paradigm that Crossfit propagates is fundamentally flawed, and unsuitable for the average person looking to just improve their overall fitness. If you want to improve on all of the aforementioned aspects of your fitness, then just get some friends together and either organise to do a circuit at your local gym or each chip in to buy some equipment that you can use to do a circuit in a local park every other day or so*. If you want to get stronger as well, maybe join a weightlifting or powerlifting club to go to on the other days, and try to do a quick dynamic stretch routine each morning to loosen up any tightness that might have when you wake up.
*If you’re interested in what exercises I think would be ideal for a circuit, then please follow this link to an addendum post
Your fitness programme doesn’t need to be advanced or intimidating to be effective. If you want to try a new skill like the olympic lifts, then by all means, but don’t be mis-sold the idea that you need to join an overpriced Crossfit gym to be functionally fit and healthy. Crossfit doesn’t have the monopoly on well-rounded fitness, and is, in my view, just a well-marketed circuits brand. Crossfit has certainly had a net-positive effect in revitalising sports such as gymnastics, rowing and olympic weightlifting amongst the average population, but I think in its seemingly noble effort to make fitness more holistic, it has overcorrected, and also misunderstood what it means to be fit, and what the necessary criteria are for fitness.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say, after nearly 4000 words, is…if you want to do some curls, just do some *%$@ing curls.
All the best!