Interview with Greg Glassman
by Tyler Hass
Greg Glassman is the founder of CrossFit, an exciting training protocol and way of life that is rapidly gaining popularity in a wide variety of sports. He also publishes the CrossFit Journal. I am excited to offer a free issue to all of the readers of Girevik Magazine, entitled "What is fitness?". It is an incredible read and will surely change and challenge your views on the topic.
Greg, thanks for agreeing to do the interview.
First of all, what is unique about your Crossfit approach to training?
I think we are unique in both the efficacy of our regimen and our methodology. In terms of approach, I don't know of another program utilizing gymnastics skills and drills, Olympic Weightlifting/powerlifting, and multi-mode sprint work. Our hallmark of combining these elements in single workouts may be globally unique - we're still searching.
In terms of efficacy, of course our results are due to our methods - this is true of every program, but more to the point we have spent literally thousands of hours honing our definition of fitness. It is our definition of fitness that has refined our approach, and, in turn, forged our results. For CrossFit the specter of championing a fitness program without clearly defining what it is that the program delivers combines elements of fraud and farce. The October 2002 issue ("What is Fitness?") of our magazine, CrossFit Journal, is an eleven-page manifesto of our view and standards of fitness.
So Girevik readers can get some sense of our method, here from that issue of the CrossFit Journal is "World-Class Fitness in 100 Words":
"Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports."
I'm curious about your background. How did you get started in fitness and how did your experiences gradually evolve into the Crossfit methodology?
My first training job was in 1974 as a gymnastics coach at the Pasadena, California Y.W.C.A. I wan an 18-year-old college student. Over the next fifteen years I trained in dozens of great Southern California gyms finding success with a highly efficient, high intensity workout and a celebrity/athlete clientele. It was my work with cops, though, that was so formative of my training. It was easy to see what was lacking in both body builders and endurance athletes when it came to the demands of arrest and control. Over the years it became abundantly clear that combining elements of traditional body building (curls, leg extensions, lateral raises, etc.) with extended aerobic efforts while producing results paled to mixing heavy fundamental movements with high intensity "cardio" efforts. Trainers, athletes, coaches, and gym goers watched in stunned disbelief as my athletes alternated heavy deadlifts with 400-meter sprints - that is, until they tried it. To this day you are about as likely to win the lottery as you are to find someone mixing heavy fundamental resistance movements with sprints in single workouts in a commercial facility. This won't be the case if strength and conditioning are going to advance.
By 1995 CrossFit had been featured on TV and radio, and in print for its contributions to police fitness and our athletes achievements and dominance. But it was the launching of our website in February of 2001 with a daily workout that gave us regular interaction with thousands of athletes worldwide. We have had the honor and challenge of putting our beliefs to worldwide test with thousands of athletes from every walk of life. It would be rough to overstate the value of this feedback, experimentation, and exposure with a global audience.
Today, we are a leading force in elite physical conditioning with a growing influence in military, police, and martial arts communities and a growing roster of national, world, and Olympic champions from more than a dozen sports.
You have established a solid reputation in the mixed martial arts community. Do you practice any martial arts yourself?
No, I've no formal martial arts training. The martial arts community found us; we've made no direct overtures to that community. A few of our martial artists elevated themselves from regionally significant to world dominance and had the grace and good nature to publicly thank us - one after an eleven second UFC rout.
If you know martial arts, especially MMA/NHB, and understand CrossFit, it is fairly obvious that I would hold these athletes in the highest regard.
What kinds of people have you been working with?
Literally, all kinds. I wouldn't know how to begin to characterize our typical client. We've got a 70-year-old author of a standard reference in cardiology, the only American black belt BJJ world champion, and terrorist hunters.
It is our work with military special op's teams and police that has won our hearts and for which we are most proud. To get emailed testimonials from soldiers returning from Afghanistan who've been awarded Silver Stars Nominations, Bronze Stars with "V" devices, Bronze Stars, Joint Service Commendations Medals with "V" devices, ARCOMS, Air Force Commendation Medals, and CIB's and Overseas Bars due to their "high levels of physical fitness in preparation for the conduct of combat" is, for me, an honor I will never forget. The U.S. Department of Justice's National Police Corps Training Specialists became our first certification clients this year, and helping these fine men and women create a new standard for police training is the culmination of my nearly thirty years of studying human performance.
The most amazing thing about your program is that it is designed as a one-size-fits-all workout, regardless of the needs of the individual. I was shocked to hear so many success stories from such a variety of people. What makes this possible? How does Crossfit work for so many different types of people?
It has long been our contention, our observation, that people's needs differ by degree not kind. Olympic athletes and our grandparents both need to fulfill their potentials for cardiorespiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, speed, power, coordination, accuracy, balance, and agility. One is looking for functional dominance the other for functional competence. Competence and dominance manifest and optimize through identical physiological mechanisms. We scale our program by altering rest, load, intensity, etc. while utilizing the same tools (exercises) for everyone whenever possible.
We get requests from athletes from every sport looking for a strength and conditioning program for their sport. Firemen, soccer players, triathletes, boxers, and surfers all want programs that conform to their perceived specific needs. While admitting that there are surely needs specific to any sport, the bulk of sport specific training has been ridiculously ineffective. The need for specificity is nearly completely met by regular practice and training within the sport not in the strength and conditioning environment. Our terrorist hunters, skiers, mountain bikers, and housewives have found their best fitness form the same regimen - CrossFit.
What type of planning goes into the routine? What is your method for selecting the exercises each week?
Our view of what fitness is and isn't creates, in effect, a theoretical template that guides the selection of exercises, their rep range, frequency of occurrence, length of workout, etc. Come to know our standards and aims and the rationale behind our workouts' architecture becomes somewhat self-evident. The workouts themselves are a near perfect expression of our vast experience building the world's toughest athletes. This question is great but somewhat like asking Tiger Woods, "How do you do it?"
That being said, the process is without a doubt part art. In fact, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, that august non-profit arbiter of exercise science admits in its Essentials of Strength and Conditioning that exercise programming is still more art than science. At CrossFit we call it the choreography of exertion. Our routines display balance, symmetry, theme, composition, and an aesthetic cultivated over decades of experience - including successes, and failures. The workouts are designed to maximize human physical capacity, period. That being the case, they are universally regarded as being the toughest workouts in every athlete's experience.
Finally, I cannot discount the utility of posting workouts to the site and getting feedback from hundreds of elite athletes around the world. This would prove invaluable to any strength and conditioning coach or program.
What is the best way for a person to get started in Crossfit?
It is imperative that someone new to CrossFit takes the first month to learn the movements, if they're not already intimate with them, and establish consistency before increasing intensity. If you can get through the workouts for one month straight without falling apart, then we recommend that you up the intensity a little the following month. If you throw yourself at this task 100% from day one, these workouts will chew you up and swallow you whole. I promise it. Don't be misled by the workouts' brevity. The tougher you are the harder you'll go down, guaranteed.
Based on the experience of friends doing the Crossfit program, I have heardmany reports of new PR's and other feats of strength in specific lifts.
This happens despite the fact that the particular lift only comes up on an occasional basis. This completely flies in the face of conventional training wisdom, so I must ask: how is this possible?!
If you come to us with a 4-minute mile, six months into it you are going to be 30 seconds slower but a whole hell of a lot fitter. Similarly, if you come to us with a 900-pound squat, in six months it's going to be 750 pounds, but you, too, will be much fitter. A 4-minute mile and a 900-pound squat are both clear and compelling evidence of a lack of balance in your program. This doesn't reflect the limitations of our program but the inherent nature of flesh and blood.
But here's the fascinating part. We can take you from a 200 pound max deadlift to a 500-750 pound max deadlift in two years while only pulling max singles four or five times a year. We will though work the deadlift, like most lifts, approximately once per week at higher reps and under grueling conditions. It may intuit well that if you can pull a 250 pound deadlift 21 times coming to the lift at a heart rate of 180 beats per minute, then 500 pounds for a single at a resting heart rate is perhaps manageable.
Now, I know there have been studies done that seem to demonstrate that regimens that combine resistance training and endurance training in a single workout do not develop strength or endurance as well as regimens that develop them separately. It is true that if I train for the deadlift on some days and the mile on others, I will when tested for the deadlift on one day and the mile on another show better results for both than if I had trained with the deadlift and run combined - I'm sure of that. But what if I tested both protocols by running 400 meters then immediately deadlifting and repeating this four times without rest? Promise yourself that the mixed protocol will beat out the separated. The real point, though, is that running 400 meters followed immediately by deadlifting, repeated four times has dramatically greater application to sport, combat, and survival than superior performance for both performed on separate occasions.
Also operative in the phenomenon you mentioned is the nature of our exercises. We work with a cast of about thirty exercises where about fifteen account for 80% of the workouts. The cast of characters that comprise are routines are so potent in increasing strength from head to toe that regular exposure to any of them nearly guarantees improvements in the others. Improve your deadlift, bench, and pull-ups and your squat, dips, and rope climb will come up. The neuroendocrine response of the major lifts is so potent that they alone will increase your strength measured by any other exercise so that seemingly infrequent exposures to some exercises is not a certain disadvantage.
At CrossFit we endeavor to blur the lines between "cardio" and strength training simply because nature frequently does not recognize the distinction and will on average punish those who cannot see past the distinction. We've often noted that the demands of survival, combat, and life look more like running up five flights of stairs with a keg of beer on your shoulder for time than running a mile on Tuesday and deadlifting on Friday.
Conventional training wisdom is - like most popular notions - frequently at odds with reality. That is the nature of things.
Outside of the gym, what other recommendations do you make for your athletes in order to maximize benefits from the Crossfit program?
We could never have accomplished what we have without keen insights into nutrition. We allied ourselves with Barry Sears, author of the Zone books, long before he published his first book. Much of our athlete's results have been greatly magnified by realizing the deficiencies of the low-fat, high-carb, fad diet that characterizes conventional training wisdom. Here again following the masses is to miss the truth.
hWat is the Neuroendocrine response and what kind of exercises stimulate it the most?
Neuroendocrine response is a change in the body that affects you either neurologically or hormonally. Most important adaptations to exercise are in part or completely a result of a hormonal or neurological shift. Current research, much of it done by Dr. William Kraemer, Penn State University, has shown which exercise protocols maximize neuroendocrine responses. Deadlift, squat, presses, and cleans all have a demonstrated potent neuroendocrine response.
Among the hormonal responses vital to athletic development are substantial increases in testosterone, insulin-like growth factor, and human growth hormone. Exercising with protocols known to elevate these hormones eerily mimics the hormonal changes sought in exogenous hormonal therapy (steroid use) with none of the deleterious effect. Exercise regimens that induce a high neuroendocrine response produce champions! Increased muscle mass and bone density are just two of many adaptive responses to exercises capable of producing a significant neuroendocrine response.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of the neuroendocrine response to exercise protocols. This is why it is one of the defining themes of the CrossFit program. Heavy load weight training, short rest between sets, high heart rates, high intensity training, and short rest intervals, though not entirely distinct components, are all associated with a high neuroendocrine response.
Lastly, we should discuss your magazine, the Crossfit Journal? How did the magazine come about and what types of material you cover?
We've long puzzled over the fact that there are dozens and dozens of commercial fitness magazines available and none contain any material that would be of use to the serious or professional athlete. The peer reviewed exercise science journals hold even less value for the hard-core athlete. (We've repeatedly and publicly challenged the exercise science community to name a single major contribution to sport coming from their ranks - steroids don't count!)
We decided in September of this year to launch "CrossFit Journal" a monthly electronically distributed fitness magazine chronicling the methods of the CrossFit program. The response has been overwhelming!
Thanks a lot for doing the interview. Be sure to check out the Crossfit website where you can read more about the program, see the daily workout and find out more about the Crossfit Journal.