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Welcome to the Champions Club Summer 2018!

Entries in mel is not tupac (20)

Lifts 4 Gifts 2017

Yes kids, this is the official Lifts 4 Gifts confirmation and announcement, AND it's not even December yet. You should all be proud of Jarrod and me. If you are not proud, for some reason, then your expectations are set way too high. But like I said, it's official now. Here's the essentials.

When: Saturday, December 16, 2017

Time: 9 am

Where: Champions Club/CrossFit Athletic Group. 32301 Stephenson Hwy in Madison Heights

Donation: $20 (or toys)

Is Nasty Nas in the area? About to cause mass hysteria?This event started between the Champions Club and CrossFit BMW in 2011. As with most things in those days, it was the brainchild of Brian the Trainer. Since we could not hold a fundraiser at the school, Jarrod kindly opened up BMW to host, and Lifts 4 Gifts was born. It has undergone a few changes over the years - from location, to the actual lifts performed, to the prizes, but the essentials have always been the same: set a few pr's, keep the form looking mildly acceptable, help families less fortunate than us, and keep the ties strong between the Champions Club and BMW.

This year will run very similar to last year: a time cap for the max back squat, time cap for the max press, then deadlift ladder. You're welcome Wendy! The specifics of the ladder will be revealed closer to the event, but you can read this post for a general overview. We will also open up the event to a few outsiders, so be on the lookout. And, of course, we will all be eager to see if our favorite fan from North Carolina will be participating again:

Other than that, most of you know what to expect. Here's few bullet points to reference if need be:

Donation? Yes, this is a fundraiser first, competition second, and the proceeds will help local families in need. $20 has been the baseline, but if you can't swing that then you can bring in a few toys to donate. Cash works best, and any checks can be made out to the Madison Heights Goodfellows.

What should I bring? Other than the donation, boots or a change of shoes would be a good call if it is raining or showing.

How long will it last? Usually we get everyone out in an hour and a half.

What if it's snowing? Unless the roof collapses, Lifts 4 Gifts will still be on as scheduled. Last year it was too hectic trying to reschedule. If it's a blizzard, just do whatever you can.

Speaking of the roof... yes, the roof should be in tact and keeping the outsides outside. God I wish I could say that with complete confidence... but so far so good!

Anything new this year? We painted the floor. A few new pieces of artwork. A holy and rusty place of matrimony. And did I mention a roof!

Will Jarrod be there on time? Of course not.

Who is Mel? Well, we are not entirely sure, but we think we can rule out 2pac and Bigfoot. Most likely a very nice middle-aged manboy from North Carolina who loves Utah football and has been doing CrossFit out of his garage since the late 2000's.

How will Brian rig this workout in his favor? Excellent question dear boy or girl. If we knew the answer to that, he would already have another method in his pocket. My guess is something to do with a power index and the One Direction Soundtrack.

Will we have enough plates? Whoa boy, I hope so. If Michelle is participating then probably not. Anyone have any spares? 45's? Tires? Trucks?

Any specific gym etiquette we should know about? Space will be a bit crammed, so just be courteous. Again, this is a fundraiser first, not liftoff. Don't be that guy. And strict no-MSU dress code.

Is that handsome boy named Jacob single? Indeed. Single and looking to mingle.

Divisions and prizes? In the past it's been a teenage and adult division, male and female for each, with a small prize awarded to winners. Not sure how it will work this year, but we'll make it up on the fly as always.

Bold predictions? Fine. 35 people in attendance. $500 raised + toys. Jarrod and I are both talked into participating. Somebody drops the metal plates and scratches up Erika Banet's name on the floor. Somebody complains about having spotters on back squats. Katie Shakes and Michelle have a one-on-one fight to the death to settle a tie in their total. Alan participates, single-handedly throwing off the entire plans for distributing squat racks. Somehow Brian still wins.

Hope to see you guys there!

Mel's Musings Episode IV: Omega-3 - What it is and what it isn't

Omega-3 Fatty Acids are Important for Health

So if you haven’t been keeping up with major health trends, let’s first discuss why omega-3 fatty acids are important.  There are two main types of polyunsaturated fats, omega-3 (“n-3” from now on), and omega-6 (“n-6”).  (We won’t be discussing omega-7 or omega-9 fatty acids today.)

Both n-6 and n-3 fatty acids are important and essential to humans (“essential” meaning we must eat them, because we cannot make them).  A balance of these fatty acids is recommended, because they exert opposite effects physiologically.  n-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, and n-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory.  Pro-inflammatory sounds bad, but we do need inflammation for things, so n-6 fatty acids have their place.  But too much inflammation can lead to various health problems.  The recommended dietary ratio of n-6 to n-3 is generally considered to be 1:1 or 2:1.  Most Americans are believed to have ratios much more weighted toward n-6, on the order of 10:1 or 20:1.  This is largely due to the fact that we consume a lot of nuts, seeds, and grains (rich in n-6), and not as much fish (rich in n-3).  There are additional reasons, including the fact that most of our dietary meat sources are raised on grain instead of grass.  As they say, you are what you eat.

The underlying premise here is that, unless you’re an Inuit and eating fish every day, you likely need a better balance, so you should consume more n-3 fatty acids.  So how do you get more omega-3?  Let’s take the various sources one by one: in fish, in other meats, in flax, and Jacob’s favorite, in supplement form.

Omega-3 in Fish

Fish have a lot of n-3.  But not all fish.  Cold water fish.  Why cold water?  Partly because they make a lot of fat – they need to keep warm in that cold water.  I’m only half-joking.  Partly because of their diet.  If you go to the bottom of the food chain, algae are the original source of n-3.  If you’re a sardine, and you eat algae, you get n-3.  If you’re a tuna, and you eat a sardine that has eaten the algae, you get n-3.  On and on, up the food chain.

Some of the best sources of n-3 in fish are: mackerel, herring, trout, salmon, tuna.  Most of the more common white fish (grouper, flounder, halibut, cod) do not have much n-3.

Omega-3 in Meat: A Red Herring

Let’s focus on beef for now.  You may have heard that grass-fed beef has a better n-3 profile than grain-fed beef, which would make sense given what we know about the n-3 content in grass vs. corn.[1]

Grass-fed cattle can have n-6:n-3 ratios from 2 to 6 times better than their grain-fed counterparts

The ratios in the table above are striking.  But focusing on the ratios instead of the total quantity can be misleading.  An ounce of grain-fed beef has 167 mg of n-6, while an ounce of soybean oil has over 14,000 mg.  (Think of this next time you slather on the salad dressing…yes, Chris, I’ll wait while you go verify that your favorite ranch dressing’s main ingredient is soybean oil…)

Similarly, grass-fed beef has around 100 mg of n-3 per ounce.  An ounce of tuna fish can have as much as 780 mg of n-3.  So yes, you are getting a better ratio of n-3/6.  But 100 mg is not very much.  Beef is simply not a rich source of polyunsaturated fatty acids (be they n-3 or n-6)!  You’d be better off to just eat good ole American grain-fed beef and then supplementing with a can of tuna fish every now and then.

Omega-3 in Flax

Plenty of n-3 in flax.  But not all n-3’s are created equal.  You want EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), which can be used by the human body right away.  Flax contains ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is n-3, but can’t be used by the human body in this form.  It first must be converted to DHA or EPA, and sadly, the conversion in humans is low, on the order of 5-10% (depending on the study)[2],[3].

So, flax – or any source of ALA for that matter – will not supply you with your n-3 needs.

Omega-3 in Supplements

Omega-3 is not the same thing as fish oil.  Why not?  Fish oil is just that – fat from fish, in oil form.  It could be any fish.  It could be any fat.  If you want omega-3, you must look at n-3 content – and even then, it needs to be EPA or DHA content (not ALA).  Flax seed oil supplements, as you might guess, are next to worthless.

Red Krill Oil: Marketing at its Best

I have been trying to get my parents on the n-3 supplement train.  And they listen…sort of.  As I get older, I realize it’s very hard to tell your parents…well, anything.  Maybe because they were the smartest people in the living room for a long time.  Maybe because it’s hard to take advice from those closest to us, our friends and family.

Anyway, my mom says, “Yeah, we take fish oil.  But it’s better – it’s red krill oil.”  So I look it up, and sure enough, it is made from red krill.  And the n-3 content?  About 100 mg per capsule.  (As a baseline, I take well over 1 gram of n-3 daily.)  So, I tell my mom she would need to take a dozen of these pills just to get the effects I’m getting from 1 super-concentrated fish oil pill.  “But it’s red krill…”  Sigh.

The Horror of Light Tuna

Also at my parents recently, they were making sandwiches.  Tuna fish sandwiches.  I’m excited, because I like tuna fish and this is a food I can also get behind nutritionally, given its high content of n-3.  Then I grab the can – it says “light tuna”.  Huh, wonder what that means?  Um, it means they took out all the fat, including the n-3’s that made it healthy…and tasty![4]

Sorry, Charlie. With only 0.5g total fat, “Light” tuna just doesn’t have much omega-3 content.

I guess it’s not a total loss – there is still fish flesh (protein) in there.  But this is what we’ve come to as a society – so paranoid about ingesting fat that we eliminate the best kind of fat from a can of tuna fish.


Sushi – good, and good for you!

Don’t simply take my word for it.  Zone diet pioneer, Dr. Barry Sears, said of fish oil, “It’s as close to a miracle drug as I’ll ever see in my lifetime.”  So, eat fish and take your fish oil!  Or, as I hopefully illustrated in this article, that things are a little more complicated: eat fatty fish, and take high-dose EPA- and DHA-containing fish oil.


[1] Daley, et. al., A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutr J. 2010. Vol 9 No. 10

[2] Gerster, Can adults adequately convert alpha-linoleic acid (18:3n-3) to eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3) and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3)? Int J Vitam Nutr Res. 1998;68(3):159-73.

[3] (multiple studies cited).

[4] Nutritional review: Light tuna generally contains 0.2g omega-3 per 100g serving.  Albacore or yellowfin tuna can contain 5-10 times as much.

PSA from Mel: PORCH Durham

Our favorite Tar Heel, Mel, emailed me with some info about the PORCH Durham program he referred to in the Whiteboard/Sidebar this morning. It looks like a good project, and the fact that Mrs. Mel isa co-founder makes it even cooler.

Anyway, as you can read in Mel's comment in the Whiteboard, PORCH Durham is on the list to receive a $25,000 grant from State Farm. How do they get this, you ask? Simply by being one of the top-40 vote-getters. And this is where we come in.

Vote here.

Or vote here.

Or vote here.

But definitely not here.

Three of the four links above will take you to a place where we can vote daily until August 25. The other link is what Mel goes to sleep thinking about every night.

But for real though, take 35 seconds out of your day to make this happen. $25,000 is a crap-ton of money, and definitely worth whatever time it takes to click the vote button.

Mel's Beast Mode + Weekend Schedule Reminder

Just a reminder that this weekend's schedule is back to normal.


10 am (mobility/make-up workout)



12 noon (team workout)

1 pm (babies)

If you notice the sidebar, Mel, our favorite fan from North Carolina, recently achieved a longtime goal of completing every Hero workout. Here are the highlights from his final one last week.

Last Hero WOD (Hollywood) 2017 from Mel on Vimeo.

Great job Mel Man!

Mel's Musings Episode III: Why So Strict, Bro?

Dear Athletes,

I know you love kipping handstand push-ups.  But I’m writing to you today to explain why you should be doing strict handstand push-ups.

From the top, let’s get one thing straight.  A kipping handstand push-up vs. a strict handstand push-up is like a single-under vs. a double-under.  They are not the same movement.  And just like lots of singles won’t get you that elusive double-under, lots of kipping won’t get you a strict handstand push-up.

Reason #1: Power Output

You know I love me some power output.  And of course, this is the main reason why we choose to kip certain movements.  Because they allow us to do more reps in less time.  Kipping pull-ups are simply faster than strict pull-ups.  Interestingly, kipping handstand push-ups are not any faster than strict handstand push-ups.  In fact, compared to an efficient strict handstand push-up, they are slower.  Take a look at Chris Spealler, arguably the world’s fastest mover, performing a set of (strict) handstand push-ups in competition:

From Spealler’s 1:52 “Diane” at the 2012 South West Regional.

Therefore, if strict is faster than kipping, then that should be our default.  And only when we reach fatigue, would we then make the switch to kipping.


Reason #2: Movement Hierarchy

The kipping handstand push-up is a more complicated movement than the strict.  Kelly Starrett would describe the strict handstand push-up as a Category 1 movement, one where the athlete has a connection through the entire movement[1].  On the other hand, the kipping handstand push-up is a Category 2 movement.  The athlete enters “the tunnel”, moving from a position of stability to a position of instability, and then back to a position of stability.  Category 2 movements are more complex than Category 1, and require greater stabilization demands, because that “connection” is missing for a period of time.  Athletes have a tougher time staying in a good (hollow) position when they kip because of this loss of connection.  When an athlete is learning a new movement, the default should be to learn and perfect the Category 1 movement, and only then progress to the Category 2 movement.

This admittedly “academic” discussion is reinforced in our laboratory (“the gym”).  Which pull-up do we teach first, strict or kipping?  Of course, we teach strict first, and if the athlete lacks the strength for a strict pull-up, we scale the load by using bands.  Several coaches advocate for athletes to acquire the strength to do strict pull-ups before kipping.  One in the CrossFit community is down here in my neck of the woods.  Matt Crabtree, former owner of 21 CrossFit in Durham, says, “If you aren’t strong enough to do at least five dead hang pull-ups, you should abstain from kips and build up the dead hang using bands, negative, jumping, bands + weight, etc.  And once you are strong enough, kips should never completely replace dead hangs.  Never.”[2]  Similarly, CrossFit HQ’s former gymnastics subject matter expert, Jeff Tucker, says that handstand push-ups “should be a strict movement”, and that athletes “need to be working strict form before adding momentum to it.”[3]


Reason #3: Transferability 

Increased strength gained from practicing and mastering strict handstand push-ups translates surprisingly well into the overhead Olympic lifts, such as push press and push jerk.  I say, “surprisingly well”, because most Olympic weightlifting coaches make fun of handstand push-ups and would never program them for their athletes.

Why does the movement translate so well?  First, being inverted in a fully locked-out position (the top of our handstand push-up), is basically the closed kinetic chain equivalent of the finish position of our (open-chain) jerk.  Perhaps the isometric strength gained in the handstand supports a strong jerk receiving position?

But if this is true, wouldn’t a kipping handstand push-up be just as beneficial?  Yes, in theory; no, in practice.  If the athlete is doing a set of kipping handstand push-ups, and rests at the top of the handstand, there will be isometric gain.  But in my experience, athletes performing kipping handstand push-ups tend to rest at the bottom of the movement.  No benefit!

Pat Sherwood hates HSPUs.  He also lists the push jerk as his least favorite lift.[4]  Coincidence?

Similarly, the strict handstand push-up is the closed-chain equivalent of a shoulder press (with decreased ROM).  We never really do a partial-range shoulder press, but we often do push press.  The push press is initiated by the legs, but finished by the arms.  So where do the arms start pressing in the push press?  When the bar is somewhere near the top of our head.  Bingo!  The same range we start pressing on a strict handstand push-up.  Am I the only one for whom the light bulb just clicked on?

Finally, performing strict handstand push-ups is much easier when the athlete can maintain midline stability (hollow body position), not breaking into overextension.  This hollow body position is also the strongest position in our press/jerk.  These movements serve to reinforce one another.


Get Strict

If all this is true, why don’t athletes do more strict handstand push-ups?  My belief is: simply because they don’t have the requisite strength.  Strict handstand push-ups are hard; but then again, most things worth accomplishing are.  Perhaps you thought you would never get a pull-up, and now you bang out 10 of them, no problem.  There is nothing magical about the strict handstand push-up.  It just requires practice and patience.

You probably already know some options to increase your strength in the strict handstand push-up.  But here are a few:

  • Decreased ROM.  When I first started CrossFit, I could only do a few handstand push-ups at a time.  So when something like a 21-18-15-12-9-6-3 came up, I would scale the range of motion.  You don’t even need an Abmat for this.
  • Assistance.  It can be tough to rig up a band for handstand push-ups (although I’ve seen some), but you could also use a friend to help.
  • Negatives.  Just like with pull-ups, these can help build strength.
  • Hollow Body.  When I first did handstand push-ups, I was always overextended.  Thus, I was never in a strong position, and my lower back would be sore after several reps.  Somewhere along the line, I learned how to stay in a hollow position – the self-cue that worked for me was “squeeze your butt”.
  • Shoulder Mobility.  I know folks who really struggle with handstand push-ups, and the reason is they can’t fully open up their shoulder, and they are never “stacked” over their hands – again, not a strong position.
  • Practice.

A recipe for upper body strength?  Red meat and strict handstand push-ups.  Whiskey if you’re over 21.



Is there a place for the kipping handstand push-up?  Probably.  Like when the workout prescribes 100 HSPUs for time[5].  Or when learning how to do a freestanding handstand push-up.  But when it comes to the power output, movement hierarchy, and transferability, the strict handstand push-up is superior.


[1] Starrett, K., “Becoming a Supple Leopard 2nd Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance”, 2015.

[2] Crabtree, M. “CrossFitters: Why I Haven’t Taught You to Kip”, published online 2013.

[3] Interview with ASRX, 2011.

[4] Athlete profile from 2009 CrossFit Games, published online 2009.

[5] It’s all relative.  For some, the number may be 50 or 10.

Mel's Musings Episode II: Your Total Cholesterol Reading, Your Fitbit, and Other Worthless Items

Chris has graciously provided me a soapbox.  A place to rant about all the things in the world that I think are worthless: misguided, misinformed, or just plain stupid.  I actually keep a running list of these things.  The list is titled, “When Conventional Wisdom is Not Wise”, which I alluded to in Episode I.  Here are some of my current hot buttons.

Total Cholesterol as a Marker of Cardiovascular Disease

Everyone knows they need to watch their cholesterol number, right?  Wrong.  Total cholesterol is a very poor biomarker.

The origins of cholesterol as a marker go back into the 1970’s, with Ancel Keys and the “Seven Countries Study”, the thesis of which is that blood cholesterol level is a risk factor for heart attack.  Long story short, here – the study had major flaws, and total cholesterol is not as predictive as we used to think.

Your physician may even tell you as much.  He will say, “Well, we really care more about your HDL (high density lipoprotein, or ‘good’ cholesterol) and LDL (low density lipoprotein, or ‘bad’ cholesterol) levels.”  And of course there’s also VLDL (very low density lipoprotein) and triglycerides.  But it doesn’t stop there.  Hip doctors (well-read doctors, not orthopods) now look at ratios, such as the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL, LDL to HDL, or trigylcerides to HDL.

These are admittedly better measurements (i.e., they have higher predictive value).  And since most lipid panels will break these out now, knowing your total cholesterol number is meaningless.

You want to see your physician with a blank look on his face?  Ask him if your levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation, and perhaps a better marker of cardiovascular disease than cholesterol) are elevated.  He will either think you are grossly overeducated, or that you are a pharmaceutical rep about to pitch him something.

Too much of a good thing?  HDL levels and all-cause mortality shows levels exceeding 70 as being less than ideal. [1]

Total Activity as a Marker of Fitness

Another worthless item is the Fitbit[2].  You should go return this Christmas present before it’s too late and the store won’t take it back.  Hurry, it’s February!

Using a Fitbit is a complete waste of time, energy, and money.  “But Mel, people can achieve ‘fitness’ this way!”  No.  People may be able to find some semblance of “wellness”, but they will not approach “fitness”.  Yes, Fitbits will get people moving.  Getting out there, counting their steps, logging their miles, etc.  (Until they stop doing this, 3 months later…)  But in any case, steps and miles are not intensity.  Fitbit rewards volume and duration, not intensity.

Fitbits may get you to Wellness.  But to get to Fitness, you’re going to need something more[3].

That is the answer for those of us who drink the Kool-Aid, anyway.  But studies support the claim that fitness wearables don’t help people lose weight any better than other techniques, “Devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight-loss approaches.” [4]

Anecdotally, these devices do work for some people.  Why is this?  Is it simply the reminder – “Time to get moving, Faust!”  Perhaps.  I actually think the biggest advantage is the social aspect that Fitbit has intentionally cultivated.  People love to share their progress, and people love to compete.  Did you get more steps today than your sister, your brother, or your husband?

To me, this sounds an awful lot like “community”.  Or back before that was such a CrossFit buzzword, “friends”.  Why do people like to work out with friends?  Camaraderie, sure.  But there’s more than just that.  How about accountability?  On the days you don’t want to go to the gym, you might be pushed to go anyway, because you know someone is waiting for you.  Someone with whom you can compete.

So yes, the Fitbit may be better than nothing – if it can increase the sense of accountability to exercise.  But if you already train with a group of friends, or you have a dedicated workout partner, or you’re just self-motivated, you’ve already checked off this box.

Goring Other Sacred Cows[5]

So what else shall we tackle?  Here are some other items that, in my view, are just “silly bullshit” (can’t seem to get through an article without quoting Rippetoe – his article of the same title should be required reading, and was likely my inspiration anyway[6]), to wit:

  • The continued efforts of the popular press, the USDA, and dieticians in general to demonize fat, while they look the other way on the health problems associated with sugar.  For instance, at my kids’ public school, you can’t get whole milk, but you can certainly find chocolate and strawberry milk (low fat, of course).
  • Squatting below parallel is bad for your knees.  If you still get this comment from your friends who don’t work out, send them this clip of Boz:           
  • Eggs are healthier if you don’t eat the yolk.  I went to a Subway for breakfast once.  The lady asked if I wanted my breakfast sandwich with “white egg” or “yellow egg”.  I asked, in pseudo-naiveté, “What’s the difference?”  She said – with a straight face, mind you – “The white egg is healthier.”  Although I wanted to launch into a rant about how the yolk contains 90% of the calcium, iron, phosphorus, zinc, and B-vitamins – not to mention 100% of Vitamins A, E, D, K, omega-3 fatty acids, and carotenoids[7] – I bit my tongue and said, “I’ll take the yellow egg.”
  • The fact that my children are strongly encouraged (read, “need”) to have a water bottle on them at all times, including at school (drinking fountains), at basketball practice (ditto), and on a 1-hour hike with the Cub Scouts. 
  • Red meat is bad for you, because:
    • Too much fat[8]
    • Too much saturated fat[9]
    • Too much iron (!)[10]
  • And something fellow CrossFitters should appreciate, this sign, from a hotel gym (underline mine)…

When the going gets tough, maybe we should just quit.

There are so many things we should care about, so many things we need to pay attention to.  Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of caring about things that are worthless.


[1] Ko, et. al., High-density lipoprotein cholesterol and cause-specific mortality in individuals without previous cardiovascular conditions. JACC. 2016; Vol 68 No. 19 2073-2083.

[2] Or actually any fitness “wearable”: Jawbone, Garmin, Misfit, etc.

[3] Glassman, What is Fitness?, CrossFit Journal – October 2002.

[4] Jakicic, et. al., Effect of wearable technology combined with a lifestyle intervention on long-term weight loss: The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA 2016; 316(11):1161-1171.

[5] And mixing metaphors, apparently.

[6] Rippetoe, Silly Bullshit, CrossFit Journal – Issue 59, July 2007.

[7] Source: USDA.

[8] Mozaffarian, et. al., The 2015 Dietary Guidelines – Lifting the Ban on Total Dietary Fat. JAMA 2015; 313(24):2421-2422.

[9] Siri-Tarino, et. al., Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr 2010 March; 91(3):535-546.

[10] Seriously.  In researching this article, someone out in Internet-land cited this as a reason to avoid red meat.

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.