Taking a Stab at Beers’ “Fix”: Notes on CrossFit’s Whistler Event

Russ Greene
Oct 1 · 8 min read

Emily Beers and I both attended CrossFit’s 10-year affiliate gathering in Whistler, Canada. We each drew different conclusions, however.

For 9 years I have dedicated myself to protecting and promoting CrossFit and its affiliates, as a CrossFit Inc. employee. I consider Emily Beers an ally in this effort. Given her history as a CrossFit affiliate, a former CrossFit HQ writer, and a former CrossFit Games athlete, Beers’ experience with the CrossFit revolution likely exceeds mine in scope.

Breaking Muscle published Beers’ thoughts on Whistler in the article, “5 Ways That CrossFit May Never Get Fixed.” Beers posits that serious problems confront the CrossFit affiliate community. The heart of her critique of CrossFit’s event is that these issues either were not raised, or not addressed:

It felt a bit like attending a friend’s wedding vow renewal, where all the guests are thinking, ‘Why are we even here?’ Where there has been infidelity for the last 10 years, but nobody’s talking about it.

What was “nobody talking about” at Whistler? According to Beers,

I suppose myself and other attendees thought there might be a chance for a transparent conversation about the tarnished brand …

Beers is correct that CrossFit’s brand has been tarnished. This only raises more questions, though: Who tarnished CrossFit’s brand? How did they do so? What was their motivation?

Had Beers asked these follow-up questions, which would be familiar to any journalist, she would have arrived at an inevitable truth: The media’s hit pieces that have attacked CrossFit, beginning with 2005’s Getting Fit Even if It Kills You onward, have almost universally relied upon publications and/or “expert” opinion from CrossFit’s adversaries. That is, they cited representatives and content from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, and other related organizations.

Is CrossFit Destroying the World?

The turning point was the NSCA’s 2013 publication of a false 16% injury rate, which they alleged occurred at a CrossFit affiliate. This fraudulent article prompted Outside Magazine to ask “Is CrossFit Destroying the World?” on its cover. Prior to the NSCA article the CrossFit hit pieces were relatively few and reserved in tone. But the NSCA’s fake study provided the one element that had been missing: actual “science” and “data.” Never mind that the CrossFit affiliate had not injured anyone, as the study’s subjects and now a federal judge have made perfectly clear.

Is this all too complex for a normal CrossFit trainer to grasp? Is it too hard to realize that regular people are worried about CrossFit because they have read and watched countless media pieces that cited CrossFit’s adversaries making false and/or baseless injury claims?

It is not too complex for Craig Howard. The Diablo CrossFit owner published his notes on Whistler, explaining that Greg Glassman,

“told the story about CrossFit’s successful legal battle against the NSCA (& ACSM) who fabricated content in a research study that led to the popular and false propaganda that “CrossFit is dangerous” …

And what about CrossFit’s NSCA lawsuit? Does Beers acknowledge that CrossFit’s increasingly successful litigation is aimed at correcting the record and preventing the CrossFit brand from being further tarnished? Not once. Beers even belittles Greg’s focus on the adversaries who deliberately tarnished the brand:

“He also spent a great deal of time talking about his opposition to, and fight, with the NSCA, the ACSM, the evils of Gatorade, hyponatremia and the nephrologists he loves. What was not addressed were the very real problems CrossFit affiliate owners and coaches face today, problems which have led countless affiliates to move away from the CrossFit brand and de-affiliate, or close their doors entirely.”

Perhaps Beers does not think it’s a “very real problem” for affiliates that NSCA, ACE and ACSM spread the myth that they are dangerous. That would contradict, though, Beers’ previous concern that CrossFit’s brand has been harmed.

Had Beers acknowledged that CrossFit HQ has spent millions of dollars successfully defending the CrossFit brand against those who wished to defame it, she still could have objected to the approach. She does make the point that,

“The vast majority of people (some of whom tried CrossFit for a while) have a negative opinion of the CrossFit brand, so even if coaching and programming has improved a ton in the last 10 years — and even if the emphasis has shifted from intensity to health and longevity at many affiliates — the world doesn’t know this so they’re staying away from joining a CrossFit gym.”

Beers is right that CrossFit still faces significant challenges. And had Beers argued that lawsuits will not, by themselves, sufficiently repair the CrossFit brand, I would have agreed. It will take a concerted effort to re-position CrossFit affiliates as safe and effective fitness programs for all age ranges and abilities. This was, by the way, the main subject of Greg’s talk. Greg explained his journey towards reorienting CrossFit towards health. He emphasized one apparent result of this reorientation: a slew of positive media stories covering the transformative impact of CrossFit affiliates, with each positive headline shown on the screen behind him. Beers does not mention this positive coverage, nor its relation to CrossFit’s health message.

I do not think CrossFit Inc. is perfect. In fact, Greg spoke at length about how CrossFit Inc. has learned from past mistakes. Instead of recognizing the work CrossFit is doing to defend its affiliates, though, Beers attempts to paint CrossFit’s concern with its reputation and the health of CrossFit affiliate members as divorced from the day-to-day reality of CrossFit affiliates. To support her case, she claims that,

Glassman’s response to this question — I’m paraphrasing here — was to shrug and say he personally never had a client retention problem, so he didn’t know how to fix this because it was never an issue for him.

Yes, one member of the audience did ask about retention. And yes, Greg did remark that he had not had that problem. (I can confirm - Greg’s gym had the opposite problem. Classes were too crowded and we had to work out in the parking lot).

What Beers does not say is that Greg answered the question by first referring it to me and my thoughts on training. Craig Howard aptly summarized my answer: “too many athletes trying to move up the fitness pyramid before they are ready — thus becoming frustrated or disappointed. Longer term athletes have a more solid foundation in nutrition and cardio/endurance” (and in gymnastics) prior to focusing on weightlifting and competition.

That is, affiliates that make their clients fitter and healthier by first mastering the base of the pyramid will retain more clients than affiliates that focus too soon on weightlifting and competition. You don’t want metabolically unfit members attempting to metcon away their bad diets with 2–3 WODs a day, or lifting heavy loads when they cannot yet handle their own bodyweight. Instead, trainers can and should individually assess their members’ present capabilities and limitations (e.g. what don’t they want to come out of the hopper?), identify the upstream physiological causes of their functional limitations (the pyramid helps), and then prescribe safe and effective interventions to fix these problems, addressing the base of nutrition, conditioning, and gymnastics first.

This not a new or original insight, of course, but a return to earlier material, including the Virtuosity letter. And I first came to this appreciation after noting CrossFit.com’s 2019 content and programming and its conspicuous focus on the base of the pyramid (SLIPS, anyone?)

Image via CrossFit.com.

To be sure, my answer to the retention question was incomplete. I kicked myself afterwards for not mentioning the community aspect of retention, especially since I consider it one of the three essential components of effective methodology (exercise, nutrition, and community). But Beers makes it sound like Greg dodged the question and gave a meager answer. He did not. Greg answered based on his experience, graciously referred to me for my thoughts, and then he provided a supporting example based on his training experience. Beers did not mention any of this. Fortunately, CrossFit media got it all on tape.

Beers remarks that Greg often mentioned, but did not define, “professional training.” She does not acknowledge his many writings and other publications, on the subject, which any CrossFit affiliate owner might have read. Nor does she note that Greg has long recommended that trainers begin with one-on-one instruction first and only expand to group classes when they are able to provide sufficient individual attention to each member. (More one-on-one training would improve trainer compensation as well, a concern Beers expresses).

Others in the audience, besides Beers, seem to have received the message. My personal favorite summation of Whistler came from Jayson Keel, owner of CrossFit Jackson, a 12-year-old affiliate. As Keel told Armen Amirian,

“A lot of these people have so many similar stories that we have … Starting small, growing as you are able, the Glassman method. I’m hearing that over and over again as I talk to people. As you’re able, grow, love your people and take care of them, do the right thing, pursue excellence…Everyone that’s here did it that way … All these younger affiliates that are wondering ‘what’s the method?’ That’s it. That’s the method.”

Arguing with Greg over the past year, as is my wont, has taught me this: Greg wants CrossFit HQ to focus on what it alone can do for its affiliates. CrossFit HQ can educate its affiliates on training and nutrition. It can protect them from legal, legislative and reputational threats. And it can validate their practices by uniting medical and scientific authorities who acknowledge the efficacy of their nutrition and exercise methods.

That’s what CrossFit HQ can and will do. What CrossFit HQ will not do is restrict the supply of effective fitness training during our present chronic disease epidemic, or otherwise centrally command and control the affiliate community. Why are CrossFit HQ’s most vocal critics the same ones who seem to want it to intervene more aggressively in its affiliates’ businesses?

Emily Beers and I both attended the CrossFit affiliate gathering in Whistler. I and others at CrossFit Inc. would have been glad to discuss with her how CrossFit is defending its brand, what we are doing to prevent further tarnishing, how affiliates can retain members over the long haul, and any other CrossFit-related topic. I am sure we would have learned from her experience, and she might have learned from ours. Had she just asked.

Sharing the stage with Greg Glassman in front of CrossFit’s 10-year plus affiliates - an honor I will never forget.

Russ Greene

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