Ask the Tough Questions

Volume, it Comes at a Cost, and is it Necessary?

    Over the past 8 years, from the inception of the first CrossFit Games in 2007 until now, CrossFit has evolved immensely. What once was simply a fitness program that held a competition has turned into a professional sport. There was a time where we could train at our affiliate, workout once a day, compete, or possibly even qualify for the CrossFit Games depending on the year. There has been a shift, a separation, and a new athlete has emerged since that time.  

    In 2007, 08, and 09 athletes came to the Games or competitions with little or no preparation aside from their daily workout at an affiliate. This may have been present in 2010 on some level, but I believe there was a shift somewhere from 2010 to 2011. The typical daily work load and volume for your recreational CrossFitter was no longer enough to compete at the Regional or Games level.  Additional programs, often focusing on strength, emerged shortly after the 2008 Games and had become routine for some athletes. 2009 brought volume never previously seen before which lead some athletes to incorporate “double days” as part of their regular training. At the Games in 2010 we saw gymnastic elements get more complex,  and barbells loadings continued to increase. Athletic demands were increasing and competitors were meeting them. Qualifying rounds were developed through competitions like “Sectionals” (now essentially the Open) and then “Regionals”. The population of CrossFitters was growing, people were improving, and the chances of getting to the Games was getting more and more difficult through solely performing the Workout of the Day, aka, the WOD.  

    Since 2011 the loading in many ways has continued to increase. Gymnastics movements have been challenged recently with the implementation of strict standards, increased volume, and slightly more complex movements, but they are generally the same as we have seen from the earlier years of CrossFit. Monostructural demands (running, rowing, biking, swimming) have increased in length and require a more well rounded athlete.  Particularly those that are competing in the CrossFit Games. What were once 60-90 minute training sessions in one day for a talented affiliate member have turned into 3-5+ hours of training for what resembles more of a “professional” athlete.  We as a community have evolved.  From the casual daily CrossFitter to the most elite there has been growth.  Affiliate members and Games competitors alike have pushed the boundaries of human performance and will continue to do so.  The job of the CrossFit Games is to find the fittest man and woman.  The programming will reflect the abilities of what the best athletes in the world are capable of.  Pushing them NOT outside of their limits, but merely their comfort zone.

CrossFit has done an outstanding job evolving, testing, and challenging the athletes in order to find the fittest. The broader the test, the more accurate and reputable the result.  As athletes have improved the programming has both broadened and challenged appropriately to match their capacity. CrossFit HQ has also accommodated the needs of the athletes at CrossFit sanctioned competitions like Regionals and the CrossFit Games, through providing them with medical, chiropractic, and massage therapists.The evolution was mandatory. Because of our growth as a community, particularly the “elite” pushing the envelope of what we all thought was possible; the volume necessary to “keep up” has increased dramatically. Here in lies the potential problem for the CrossFit Community if we are not responsible as individuals and affiliate owners alike.  

    Years ago, coach Glassman said “Our needs don’t vary by kind, only by degree.” This holds true to this day. What I’m about to say may offend some people, but it needs to be said. The level of fitness you have or are trying to acquire is very unlikely to be the same degree required by top CrossFit athletes in the world. For example, if you were a regional competitor and there were 200,000 competitors in the open you would be in the top .3 percent of the fittest men or women in the world. If you make it to the CrossFit Games you would be in the top .024 percent of the fittest men or women in the world. The demands placed upon these athletes, and affiliate members don’t vary by kind, but we are talking about a different planet when it comes to the degree. CrossFit is community oriented and we have grown together as a group. Most athletic communities look up to their top level competitors with admiration and an understandable desire to follow their leads and/or mimic their behavior. In my opinion these factors may have caused the average CrossFitter and some affiliates to make the mistake of following the path of the elite competitor. I believe this is the wrong path for the vast majority of affiliate members.(aka, YOU)  As I previously mentioned, the training volume of high level competitors is not appropriate for someone looking to be “fit for life”.  I know from personal experience this is a costly mistake to follow this path unnecessarily.

Competing at the top level of any sport often comes at a cost. We train through injuries. We walk around with constant nagging aches and pains. We make sacrifices in countless other areas of our lives on a daily basis. To train like a top athlete can also mean you need to be selfish with your time and this can hurt relationships with family and friends. When I was competing at the Games level it was a sacrifice my whole family had to endure, but it was something we agreed upon.  

For this article we will stick with the possible physical repercussions of training with the volume and loading required to be one of the best CrossFit athletes in the world. I know a number of top level competitors that have required surgery, dealt with nagging injuries, and may have caused some long term “damage”, if you want to call it that. Personally, I have developed some pretty nasty knee pain.  As of now it has been diagnosed as acute grade 3 condromalacia.  Basically that means the cartilage behind my knee caps and at the head of my femur has holes, grooves, and thinning in it.  It has affected my daily life in many ways.  Walking up and down stairs, trying to run behind my kids, and doing many movements I love in the gym are now a chore or simply out of the question due to the intense pain. Even sitting for a long period of time results in aching pain.

I started wrestling at age 6, played a variety of higher impact sports my whole life, and competed in CrossFit up till I was 35. It makes sense to assume that the totality of my athletic career, not any single event, has lead to my current state of physical pain. However, the volume of my training to prepare for 7 seasons of the CrossFit Games was the icing on the cake. I am confident that I will resolve my knee issues and I am taking steps to do that.  What upsets me is when I hear other people talk about having banged up knees, shoulders, hips, backs, etc from their high training volume which happens to be 100% unnecessary. The chances are that you do NOT require the volume that I did when I was training for the Games. As someone who wants to see you train for decades, not just a few years, I ask you to be brutally honest in your assessment of your training needs and goals. Some people are following a training program with volume and loading similar to a Regional or Games level athlete for no reason.

    I know a massive amount of people in the CrossFit Community with no joint issues or injuries. In fact, it is the overwhelming majority.  But I believe the reason why is they have appropriate amounts of volume. They don’t have every single day involve a 3 or 4 part training session with heavy lifting, metcons, skill work, and an oly cycle.  They go to the gym, hit a single workout with intensity, and leave. And get this, they are ridiculously fit and healthy people.  They may not be a Regional or Games athlete, but that’s not their goal. Their goal is to be stronger, better, healthier for all the things they love to do outside of the gym. Because of the intensity in training and the appropriate volume they reap the benefits and it shows.  

    In writing this I hope to bring awareness that volume comes at a cost. Not to all. I don’t think every elite competitor out there will walk around “banged up”.  But I do know lots of them that already do.  I knew going into my last year or two of competing that there was a possibility of having some form of pain when I was done. I am facing that now, and it was my choice. It is frustrating at times but I can’t complain because I made that decision. To make it clear, I have no regrets. The time I spent training for the CrossFit Games over the past 4 years in particular, has provided me with experiences and memories that I would have never had otherwise. I remember fondly not just the time spent on the floor at the Games, but the day in and day out training as well. I developed friendships, grew as a person both mentally and physically, and have been inspired and supported by countless members of the CrossFit community. I wouldn’t trade it, but it did come at a cost.

The question you have to ask as an individual, an affiliate owner, or a coach should be, “Is the volume you are prescribing appropriate, and if not, is it worth the potential consequences?”.  I am a firm believer that anyone that does CrossFit as a training program, trains once a day and follows the CrossFit methodology (spend your lives in couplets and triplets, go heavy once a week, and go long once in a while) will be able to use it’s methods and principles for a lifetime.  It is the most fun and effective health and fitness program in the world. I hope that you give yourself and your gym’s members this opportunity.  And if you were one of the competitors like myself, don’t assign others your level of fitness, and do your best to stay on top of those nagging injuries that are often a result of increased volume.  

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Nick says:

    This is one of the most honest articles I’ve read since starting Crossfit two years ago. With local boxes wanting customers to get the most bang for their buck, I feel the programming is far from what the original Crossfit template was meant to be. Much of what you see today seems to be based on a full Oly or powerlifting program with daily added metcons. For some this is great and works well. In my experience it can cause injury which leads to frustration. After going back to the basics and sticking to the original template, I am injury free and have more fun than ever.

    Thank you for being an inspiration and for the motivation to take a step back to the basics.

  • Kelly says:

    Thank you so much for posting this article. My husband and I own Artistic Crossfit in Michigan and totally agree with your advice here. We are constantly programming original Crossfit and reminding our clients that we are just “normal” people trying not to be in a wheelchair or use a cane in our 80’s. I wish more games athletes would open up about the intense amount of training, dedication, focus and sacrifice it take to be at that level and mobility! It’s good to put things into perspective. For the record I love watching the elite perform and love the Crossfit games. Oh yeah and Chris if you are ever in Mason, MI ……. We would love a visit ; )

  • Armin Khanpour says:

    Hello. First of all, much like everyone else who visits this page, I’m a big fan, but that is beside the point. I am quite skeptical as to whether or not this message will actually reach you but im going to go ahead and ask anyways. Now mind you if you dont get around to answering this question, I will eventually seek out an answer one way or another. But anyways, haha, as you suggested I did indeed take an deep and introspective look at my fitness goals and therefore considered very honestly the amount of volume that I would need to get me there. I realized that the volume I require would most probably exceed that which is required by your average affiliate member whom is looking to get fit for the challenges of daily life. This particularly involves a lot of bellow-prallel work, which will undoubtedly deteriorate the condition of my knees in the long run if approached recklessly. Having said this; I am indeed a firm believer that with meticulous technique, preparation, and a keen awareness of what your body is trying to tell you, you can absolutely be able to lift heavy weights often and with consistency, yet avoid the drawbacks of knee pain. Now what my question is (I know, that lead up took a while), is that what is the specifics of that preparation, because I know that rolling out for half an hour and opening your hips up before a squat sesh isnt going to freaking cut it anymore. So what is it exactly? Is there some sort of magic routine? Do i need to jam a lacross ball into the side of my knee cap? And for gods sakes what the fuck is voodo flossing? (you know what dont waste your time with that last one because I can figure it out myself).

    I’m constantly feeling this very minor thing in my right knee, it isnt even necessarily pain, its just a thing, and it is almost always there. I went to a doctor, got scanned, did the whole routine, and he said structurally everything was perfect and that he could see nothing wrong, and that I should also just stop squatting. I believe “stick to the leg press bud” were his exact words. Jesus. I also played tennis for a majority of my childhood (I’m seventeen now) and I was quite overweight (borderline obese) so I guess that wasnt too good for the old knees. But yea.

    And you knowwhat, after typing all of this, I realized that I could probably seek all these answers elsewhere, and that you must be far to busy too respond to every random message someone decides to post on a whim. So honestly feel free to completely ignore all of that. Anyways, cheers.

    • Chris Spealler says:

      All good questions and things to think about. I agree that solid technique and focusing on all the maintenance out of the gym is key to longevity with higher volume training. Listening to you body is key as well. The reality for me was that even though my body was “talking” to me I couldn’t afford not to squat heavy, oly lift, and do heavier metcons while training for the Games. It was more working through these things and I knew what I was doing. Massage work, foam rolling, and fancy voodoo flossing (really just wrapping your joint with a stretchy band to restrict and gain blood flow) wasn’t going to fix things anymore. Taking 3 months off at this time in my training wasn’t an option so I worked through it. Granted I was 35 at the time and had a lifetime of work and other sports under my belt that didn’t help with my knee condition. The volume required, as well as the dedication to keep going is what most likely pushed me over the edge. Sounds like you have a good head on your shoulders and your young enough that you have a great future ahead of you with the sport or heavy lifting in general. I still lift heavy, love it, just have to be smarter with it these days. 36 is different than 17 though and requires some more recovery. Train hard and have fun.

  • Brad S says:

    Hey Chris,

    Although this is a while back, thank you for sharing your story!

    Would really love to know the steps you’ve been taking to manage your knee problems. I’ve been diagnosed with grade 2/3 condromalacia patella at 33 and would really appreciate your training protocol (prehad / rehad / training). I think your voice, input and advice into OA of the knee amongst the “young lifter” community would go a long way!

    Would be forever greatful for feedback or an email with some help!


  • Mark says:

    I second the last question. What did you do, Chris, to deal with your chondromalacia problem?

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