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More Program than Gym

See the editorial here.

Schedule change

8:30 am, 4:30 pm, 5:30 pm, 6:30 pm

Mel's Musings Episode 1: Explaining Power Output to Your Grandma

If you’ve done CrossFit for any appreciable amount of time, you’ve been there.  You know, in that awkward conversation with your relatives or your friends, where you’re trying to tell them how great CrossFit is?  If you somehow manage to get them over the first hurdle – i.e., “CrossFit is dangerous!”, then you are immediately met with the next objection.  It usually runs something along these lines:

CrossFitter:     “CrossFit is awesome!”

LSD[i] Junkie:   “Why is that?”

CF:                  “Well for one, the workouts are short.  Most are shorter than 20 minutes.”

LSDJ:              “You can’t get in shape that way.  You don’t burn enough calories.”

CF:                  [Puzzled look.]  Thinking to self, “Was Glassman wrong?”

The Myth of “A Calorie (Burned) is a Calorie”

It’s hard for folks to part with conventional wisdom.  Even when it’s dead wrong.  Many people have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that all calories (eaten) are not the same.  In the same way, most folks think the only important thing to look at in exercise is total calories burned.  We’ll have to save the first myth – the eating one – for another day, but let’s look a little more closely at the second.  Isn’t a calorie burned a calorie burned?

Well what is a calorie, anyway?  It’s a unit of energy, and in the context of exercise, it’s a unit of work.  CrossFitters love to talk about “work capacity across broad time and modal domains”, right?  So calories burned should be a pretty important number.

But if you’ve been involved with CrossFit, you know that our focus is on intensity, or power output, not total work.  So our thesis to Grandma is this, “Intensity (not duration) is the most important factor in maximizing health benefits.”  But why?

Let’s Get Physical

Fitness, circa 1981

Parents, pop in your Olivia Newton John cassette for this next piece.[i]  What?!?  Am I the only one who owned this album?[ii]  Okay, no matter.  To really understand power output, we have to get into some rudimentary physics.  First of all, we know that exercise is doing work, but what is work?  In physics, work is force times distance, and is represented by this equation:

W = F x d

And what is force? Force is mass times acceleration, represented as thus:

F = m x a

Mass is easy, right?  That’s the object we’re trying to move.  What is acceleration?  Stay with me, because people sometimes get confused here, thinking perhaps that moving a weight quickly implies more acceleration than moving a weight slowly.

Acceleration in this formula is gravity.  In fact, that’s what gives us “weight” in the first place.  Weight is a force, namely mass times gravity.  Morrow will tell you that a kilogram (unit of mass) equals approximately 2.2 pounds (unit of weight), but Jacob will rightly correct him by saying, “It only does here on planet Earth!”  The mass of a kilogram never changes, but its weight is dependent on gravity.

So back to our Force equation, mass times acceleration is simply the weight we’re trying to move.  And then Work is how far (distance) we move that weight.

Walking or Running a Mile

Let’s go back to the premise asked by our LSD Junkie friends, that calories (total work done) is the most important thing to focus on in exercise.  If this is the case, then there should be no difference between walking or running a mile.  Because in each case, you are moving a set weight (your bodyweight) a given distance (1 mile).  Work = force x distance, so total work is the same.  Therefore, if work is what you focus on, walking a mile should be just as good at burning calories and therefore improving your fitness.

Of course, we know this to not be the case.  Most of us don’t break a sweat or even breathe hard walking a mile.  I mean, walking a mile has another name – it’s called “shopping”.  (I’m pretty sure I stole that from Mark Rippetoe.)  But running a mile – really running, like as fast as you can – well, you will be feeling that during, immediately afterward, and maybe even tomorrow.

And this is one way to explain CrossFit to your Grandma.  People understand the difference between walking and running.  What they may not initially appreciate is that the work performed is exactly the same.

"Calories burned" is a good example of conventional wisdom

The Single Most Important Variable

Well, if work is not the right thing to focus on, what is? Greg Glassman writes, “Intensity is defined exactly as power, and intensity is the independent variable most commonly associated with maximizing favorable adaptation to exercise.”[iii]

Well then, let’s define intensity – i.e., power.  In physics, power is simply work divided by time.

P = W / t

We can now see that the power output of running 1 mile vastly exceeds that of walking 1 mile, namely because the same work gets accomplished in less time.  Compared to walking, the power output can be 2-4 times greater when jogging, and up to 6-10 times greater when sprinting (not that anyone is sprinting for a mile).[iv]

You may have noticed the beginnings of the CrossFit methodology here, of performing constantly varied movements at “high intensity”.  The intensity can be measured in terms of power output, and there are even websites devoted to this (e.g., Beyond the Whiteboard).  Nearly all CrossFit WODs are seeking to maximize intensity, whether it be time-priority (Cindy, Fight Gone Bad!), or task-priority (Fran, Murph).

Scientific Literature

There is a growing body of evidence from the academic literature to support the superiority of high-intensity exercise.  Here are several pieces of evidence:

  • "12-week controlled study in Denmark of high-intensity interval walking for patients with Type 2 diabetes showed it helped control blood glucose levels better than continuous moderate exercise, even though the same number of calories was expended by both groups."[v]
  • “…intensity of physical activity is inversely and linearly associated with mortality.”[vi]
  • “Improvement in insulin sensitivity after six months combined supervised group training in female diabetic subjects is related to exercise intensity…”[vii]
  • “Light activities were not associated with reduced mortality rates, moderate activities appeared somewhat beneficial, and vigorous activities clearly predicted lower mortality rates. These data provide some support for current recommendations that emphasize moderate intensity activity; they also clearly indicate a benefit of vigorous activity.”[viii] 
  • “…moderate-intensity aerobic training that improves the maximal aerobic power does not change anaerobic capacity and that adequate high-intensity intermittent training may improve both anaerobic and aerobic energy supplying systems significantly…”[ix]

So if Grandma likes science, send her the links to these studies.  Yet perhaps Grandma prefers anecdotes to data – you know, feel-good stories and personal testimonials.

From Personal Experience

I ran the 800 meter run (primarily) and the 1600 meter run in high school, and after my freshman year, my father got me turned on to the writings of Bill Bowerman, the former track coach at the University of Oregon.  Bowerman advocated for a combination of interval training and overdistance.  Interestingly, “overdistance” was still the flavor of choice for most track coaches in my day; it consisted of longer distance runs (runs “over” the distance you raced at) done at a speed slower than your race pace.  In contrast, in interval training, you ran multiple “intervals” shorter than your race distance (with breaks between), but at a pace equivalent or faster than that of your race.

Because intervals are run at a faster pace, they have a higher power output.  Not coincidentally, interval workouts are just awful; I used to dread them.  My least favorite – by far – was ten 400’s.  Despite hating them, I had to admit they were very effective, and I became a much faster middle-distance runner.  As a sophomore, I started beating the seniors who trained only LSD.  As a junior, I was named team captain.  My senior year, I finished in 7th place at State in the 800 meter run.

Because of this experience, CrossFit resonated with me from Day 1.  I had seen firsthand the power of interval training, and it made complete sense to me that one might incorporate this into other movements, not simply running.  If you watch closely, you will even see intervals come up on main site.[x]

You may have personal experiences of your own which support the thesis of intensity.  Sometimes, people are swayed more by personal stories and anecdotes than they are by real data.  The scientist side of me hates this, but the business side of me realizes that sometimes, marketing works.

Geeking Out

Why is intensity the most important variable?  Answering the why of power output is a more challenging task, and perhaps beyond the scope of this article.  But let’s try; if you’re one of those TL/DR people, just skip this section.  The short answer, anyway, is that we’re just beginning to understand the reasons.  Because of that, I will dispense with the citations for this section, although the statements I make below are supported in the literature.

Let’s look at a few factors that make power output more important than total work performed.  First, exercise done at higher intensity means your heart rate, breathing, and metabolic system is elevated for a much longer period of time post-workout – by several hours in some studies.  This means additional “work” done while you are recovering.  Therefore, the total calories you burned during the workout may not at all be indicative of the total calories expended because of the workout.

What do you mean, "That was only 20 calories"!?!

Second, increased intensity drives muscle gain and fat burning.  Muscle requires more calories than fat to maintain itself; therefore, if you have more muscle, your basal metabolic rate increases (you burn more calories in a resting state).

Third, and perhaps most importantly, increased intensity drives larger responses in the neuroendocrine system.  One role of the neuroendocrine system is the regulation of your anabolic hormonal levels, including insulin and glucagon.  Exercise, and especially high-intensity exercise, causes increased production of: glucagon, epinephrine, human growth hormone, cortisol, and insulin-like growth factor (to name a few), and decreased production of insulin.  The reason behind the hormonal response is thought to be adaptation.  After an intense workout, your body says, “This person is trying to kill us.  We need to build more muscle; we need to grow new blood cells and new blood vessels; we need to scavenge all these free radicals; we need to increase our mitochondrial production.  Bottom line - we need to make sure that we are ready if this &#*! ever happens again.”

Mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother

In Summary

Maybe Grandma hasn’t bought in quite yet to CrossFit.  But we know that she should!  “The needs of an Olympic athlete and our grandparents differ by degree not kind.”[xi]  Intensity is one of the defining characteristics of CrossFit.  Perhaps we would have a better time convincing folks to try CrossFit if they understood why intensity is so important.  To do that, we have to explain power output, and we have several options on how to do that.

First, we can explain the concept through physics and the 1-mile discussion, why doing the same amount of work in less time is higher power output, and also better for fitness.  Second, we can cite scientific literature, which shows many examples of why higher intensity exercise leads to better fitness and health.  Finally, we can rely on personal stories and testimonials.  And knowing Grandma, if she thinks it’s working for us, she may become a believer.

Of course, the next challenge will soon rear its ugly head, when Grandma says, “Sure, dear, CrossFit sounds great.  But I’m not one of those athletes I see on TV!”

Sigh.  Another issue for another day.


[i] Don’t judge me, “aerobics” was huge in the 1980’s.

[ii] Technically, my Mom owned this cassette.  But I listened to it a lot, especially when I was “working out”.  

[ii] “Understanding Crossfit”, CrossFit Journal Issue 56 – April 2007.

[iv] Assumptions here: walking speed is 2-3 mph; jogging speed is 6-8 mph; sprinting speed is 15-20 mph.

[v] Karstoft, et. al., The effects of free-living interval-walking training on glycemic control, body composition, and physical fitness in Type 2 diabetes patients. Diabetes Care 2013; 36: 228-236.

[vi] Warburton, et. al., Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ. 2006;174:801–809.

[vii] Dunstan, et. al., High-intensity resistance training improves glycemic control in older patients with type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care 25: 1729 –1736, 2002.

[viii] Lee, et. al., Associations of light, moderate, and vigorous intensity physical activity with  longevity. The Harvard Alumni Health Study. Am J Epidemiol 2000; 151:293-9.

[ix] Tabata, et. al., Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anerobic capacity and VO2max. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 1996; 28(10): 1327-1330.

[x] I routinely avoid these.  They are still awful.

[xi] G. Glassman, “What is Fitness?”, CrossFit Journal – October 2002.

Mini Case Study - Blocking Movement w/ Shakes's Swimmers

Our reigning Athlete of the Summer and jazz enthusiast Katie Shakes is coaching theboys swim team at Warren Mott. While they were doing flip turns the other day at practice, Shakes noticed a major flaw for some of the swimmers: they were crossing their feet on the transition.

Considering they are going to be pressing off the wall momentarily, the position shown above would not be ideal to produce power (sneak peek to Mel's Editorial tonight!). Shakes tried a few different cues and drills but the athletes still kept their feet crossed. So she thought of how we correct things in the gym and applied it to swimming: blocking movement.

In this case, she had a little block thing.

Not exactly sure what it's made of, but her athletes were required to hold it between their feet while practicing flip turns. After some time practicing, here's how it looked:

Much better! It always makes me happy to hear our kids taking what they do in the gym (or program, if you will) and use it in the real world.

Nice work Coach Shayko!

One Year Anniversary: Reggie and Arlene

One this day last year, Reggie and Arlene completed their first day of Fundamentals at the Champions Club.

The Ellsworth family origin with the Champions Club comes directly from Shannon, who shares a cubicle with Arlene at work. After doing some individual running sessions in the fall of 2015, Shannon persuaded "R" to come in to try out a workout. The first day she came in with Reggie and Josh, and shortly after, the couple signed up for Fundamentals.

Some of their featured traits can be recounted in the Combating Adulthood editorial from June, but we have seen both of them really start shining since the Summer started. Arlene began forcefully placing herself in the front of the class during technique work (against my directions) and somehow her form has transformed into some of the most consistent regardless of who's in the session. Meanwhile, Reggie's biceps have been leaving onlookers in a petrified and mangled state. Best of all, both have involved the rest of their family - as their sons James and Josh were staples in the Summer's 11 am session and our fall group.

Reggie and Arlene fit in right from the get-go; there is no other way to put it. They both carry the perfect combination of coachability and sass that make me look forward to coaching any session they're at. From the looks of it, the Ellsworth family is here for the long haul and Reggie and Arlene are leading the way.

Congratulations on a great year of CrossFit and hope there's many more to come.

Goon and Goblin Resurgence 1/16/2017

This conversation started before the 5 pm session on Friday with Erica from Henkel and spilled over into the next session. And Matt the Marathon Goblin picked it up for this week's poll.

What exactly constitutes a sport?

Return of Campus + Schedule Update/Reminder

Just a reminder that the winter session times are as follows:

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday

8:30 am (except for MLK day - 11 am instead)

4:30 pm

5:30 pm

6:30 pm


5:30 pm (mobility/makeup wod)


11 am (mobility/makeup wod)


12 noon

1 pm (babies)

1:30 pm (kiddies)


Also, this week will mark the return of the Campus Improv Workouts. I am definitely looking for better participation, so please make the effort and post your workouts to the regular Build a Champion comments. I'll give it two months then see how it looks after that.

MLK Day Update + Mel's Editorial Announcement

Hey folks, just a quick correction on the schedule. For this Monday only the morning session will be at 11 am instead of 8:30 am. Most of the kids and parents are off for MLK Day, so I figured we'd have it a little later in the morning.

Maybe we'll see some familiar faces back?

Mel's Musings: Episode 1 will be released Tuesday at 5 pm.

New Graduate: Dawson is Super Gump

Last night as I was turning down the music ready to cut off the warmup, I noticed Dawson swinging on the bar doing pull-ups. As I was pausing Pandora, it occured to me that I could not, for the life of me, remember seeing Dawson do a pull-up before. I asked him and of course he had no idea, so I did a quick site search and did not find anything. So the camera got pulled out and I put him on the spot. Here's what we got:

I have made fun of Dawson being a gump in the past, and I have no plans on stopping in the near future. But the Super Gump has been working very hard in here since the spring and his patience with form and technique is going to pay off very soon. Remember, this kid is only a junior; he's got another year and a half to improve before heading off to college. If it's anything like the last few months, there should be good things in store for Dawson.