Thursday, March 22, 2012

Robb Wolf, James FitzGerald and the Ghosts of Crossfit Past

Lessons in life are often repeated, and we may not get it the first time around.  A high school reunion is coming up, and I've had the opportunity to chat with some old friends not in touch for 20 years.  And despite those decades they are still the same, still terrific people.  When I find such friends I do try to keep in touch nowadays, as it is so easy to link a facebook account.  But of course there is no substitute for seeing someone live and in person.  Biologically speaking we use all our senses when meeting up with someone, note chemokines, subtle changes in expression, a lively or reserved manner, the sparkle in one's eye… or the threat, as it is likely murder was a big contribution to mortality in the past.  These non-verbal signals are why in clinical psychiatry practice even a video therapy session will never quite replace the in person visit.

Schubert Impromptu No. 3 (right click to open in new tab)

At PaleoFx12 I had the great pleasure of meeting several fellow "paleo MDs."  After the final panel I went with two of them (we shall call them Catfish and Hollywood*) to BBQ and the wild Austin scene of SXSW on a Friday night.  When one meets another paleo blogger intensely interested in the science, as at AHS and PaleoFx, it is rather like crawling out of the desert into an oasis of likemindedness.  Meeting other paleo doctors is like crawling out and finding the Taj Mahal.  I hate to get all "poor me, I'm a physician," but the current suffocating paradigm of American medicine can be so deflating.  In psychiatry we are squeezed into this impossible space between the FDA, Medicare, the scientific literature or "evidence base", common sense, expectations, history, and ethics.  Sometimes there are no right answers, and clinical practice becomes the square root of a negative number.  So to meet other doctors who look at the evolutionary paradigm, and have succeeded in their personal lives implementing it and are thinking about implementing it for their patients is exhilarating.  They understand the legal and cultural ramifications of such a change.  In a very real sense, we are a brotherhood, and they are my kin.  Such meetings can be intense, but fulfiling.  We walked together past the Texas State Capital at midnight, knowing we would meet the next day for an after-conference training session at a local Crossfit (appropriately enough).


The training session was an OPT presentation by James FitzGerald.  Apparently he has the honor of being kicked out of Crossfit just like Robb Wolf.  And to me this situation (ghost-like at paleoFx as the last time Robb and James were in Austin was for the infamous Black Box Summit where they were summarily dismissed from the official Crossfit fold) is absolutely remarkable.

Have you ever met Robb Wolf?  He is an incredible presence.  Intense, organized, smart, driven, good-looking, and by all accounts devoted and kind.  Any reasonable business would love to have him as the poster boy of the Good Example.  James FitzGerald was a similarly impressive specimen.  It is hard to define him without using swear words (as he ended about every third sentence with one or another), but  it is clear from his presentation that he thinks in 17 directions at once, he cares intensely about athletes and training, and he has the wisdom to break it down and know what is going wrong to you can set it right.  Though much of the presentation went over my head as a non-trainer, I was captivated by James' ideas and break-down of the essential problems facing an athlete in an intense moment.  Is it blood flow, psychologic barriers, lungs, training, diet… whatever it is ask the athlete his or her experience after the WOD and he or she will tell you.  James has been in the research game from the beginning, and he noted with excitment that we could throw out the numbers from endurance athletes and straight -up weight training, as the differences with Crossfit-style training showed whole new numbers, and whole new possibilities of human capability.  

How could Crossfit HQ dismiss James and Robb for the crimes of suggesting paleo nutrition, the idea of on-ramp beginners training rather than ubiquitous "scaling"  and *gasp* periodization?    

The answer is in my wheelhouse.  Personality.  James and Robb with their brilliance and drive were a threat to the powers that be.  At that moment HQ were more comfortable jettisoning the bright stars than accepting new ideas.  As wildly off base as such a business decision could be, it makes sense in light of an understanding of a personality in charge confronted with the young challengers.

In the paleosphere we have the same challenge.  There are flamboyant and brittle personalities who insist they are correct, and new information coming online all the time.  What does the newbie hold onto?  With opposing and strongly-argued viewpoints, what do we believe?

Forget the paleo myths.  Forget the personalities.  Are you eating (for the most part) real food (excepting autoimmune disease).  Are you exercising?  How is your sleep?  What are you feeling?  What are the pitfalls?  What is your family doing?

Fix those issues and answer those questions first.  Know where you are, and then look for more guidance.  We are working on a network of doctors who might help.  I hope cults of personality won't get in the way, but don't let it confuse you.  What makes sense, from every angle?  Never suspend disbelief.

* so named because a woman at a restaurant mistook him for a Hollywood star.  And while he was certianly ruggedly handsome and in good shape, I felt the incident serrved as an example of how a good lifestyle and exercise regimen could beautify someone  to more mythical status...

14 comments:

  1. Wow. You amaze me with your writing. I now really wish I would have joined y'all that night! Oh well, we will party in Boston.
    Thank you for being my "Taj Mahal"

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  2. spot on, Emily. "Common sense medicine" begins with real food, sleep, exercise, and stress management. This is what Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson come back to every time. That is also the key to bringing Ancestral Health to the masses! Keep the reason flowing!

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  3. Excellent advice here!

    "Know where you are, and then look for more guidance."

    Thank you for bringing it front and center in this arena. Getting rid of the labels that have come forth with this movement would serve us well.

    The triad - Awareness of body, engaging the mind and for lack of a better phrase, awakening spirit. The primal/ancestral within ;).

    If you don't know the score, how can you make change? We have become detached, disconnected and distracted.

    Doctor Catfish ... I would call that the Big 3 - Eat Real Food, Functional Movement, Stress Reduction (where I include sleep, but realize it deserves its own category completely!).

    Bring on the process! It certainly helps the counseling aspect of this major lifestyle change for many professions. Thank you again! ~j

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  4. My wife is a health nut, very fit, is 46 but looks 26. But she is still stuck on Dr. Oz high carbs: rice, quinoa, popcorn, etc. She is from the Philippines. One day I was pondering this. Us white folks have to think back 10,000 years to know what is best to eat. This does not make it all that easy. She has only to go back 500 years. I told her that I wanted her to eat like her ancestors before Magellen arrived. She said, "Fish, veggies, and rice." And I said, "just fish and veggies, forget the rice." She will do whatever she sees fit (excuse the pun), but I put the idea in her head. Her ancient ancestors did not eat rice.

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  5. "Emily,

    Hi, this is Russell Berger from CrossFit HQ. I can tell from your tone and scientific background that you appreciate a well-rounded perspective where both sides of a story are taken into account. I also really appreciate the advice you give in your blog’s “Basic premise” section, and think it sounds remarkably similar to CrossFit’s
    “World-Class Fitness in 100 Words” (http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/start-how.html) In other words, I think we have a lot in common.

    That said, your post contains some significant factual inaccuracies. I don’t blame you specifically for these – I’ve seen these claims repeated in a variety of places, but I think this is a good place to set the record straight.

    You wrote: “The training session was an OPT presentation by James FitzGerald. Apparently he has the honor of being kicked out of Crossfit just like Robb Wolf.”

    James Fitzgerald was not “kicked out of CrossFit.” He owned CrossFit Calgary until December of 2011, when he voluntarily transferred his ownership of CrossFit Calgary over to Brett Marshall. I’ve seen the email thread where they transferred ownership, and it happened in a friendly manner agreeable to all sides. I can't tell you why he did it, but I can tell you it was of his own accord.

    You also wrote: “How could Crossfit HQ dismiss James and Robb for the crimes of suggesting paleo nutrition, the idea of on-ramp beginners training rather than ubiquitous "scaling" and *gasp* periodization?”

    This statement is also not correct. A Paleo-type approach to food quality is consistent with what CrossFit teaches and has always taught. Check out the the Nutrition section on the CrossFit website: http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/start-diet.html.

    The real disagreement between Robb and CrossFit was never “Paleo vs. Zone.” This is an imaginary argument; nowhere in anything CrossFit has written or taught have we been against Paleo or a whole foods style of eating.

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  6. (continued)

    "Emily,

    Hi, this is Russell Berger from CrossFit HQ. I can tell from your tone and scientific background that you appreciate a well-rounded perspective where both sides of a story are taken into account. I also really appreciate the advice you give in your blog’s “Basic premise” section, and think it sounds remarkably similar to CrossFit’s
    “World-Class Fitness in 100 Words” (http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/start-how.html) In other words, I think we have a lot in common.

    That said, your post contains some significant factual inaccuracies. I don’t blame you specifically for these – I’ve seen these claims repeated in a variety of places, but I think this is a good place to set the record straight.

    You wrote: “The training session was an OPT presentation by James FitzGerald. Apparently he has the honor of being kicked out of Crossfit just like Robb Wolf.”

    James Fitzgerald was not “kicked out of CrossFit.” He owned CrossFit Calgary until December of 2011, when he voluntarily transferred his ownership of CrossFit Calgary over to Brett Marshall. I’ve seen the email thread where they transferred ownership, and it happened in a friendly manner agreeable to all sides. I can't tell you why he did it, but I can tell you it was of his own accord.

    You also wrote: “How could Crossfit HQ dismiss James and Robb for the crimes of suggesting paleo nutrition, the idea of on-ramp beginners training rather than ubiquitous "scaling" and *gasp* periodization?”

    This statement is also not correct. A Paleo-type approach to food quality is consistent with what CrossFit teaches and has always taught. Check out the the Nutrition section on the CrossFit website: http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/start-diet.html.

    The real disagreement between Robb and CrossFit was never “Paleo vs. Zone.” This is an imaginary argument; nowhere in anything CrossFit has written or taught have we been against Paleo or a whole foods style of eating.

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  7. (Sorry Emily, this is the second part of my reply. Blogger apparently auto-filled the first part again and created a duplicate post. Here is the second part:)
    ...

    CrossFit has also never opposed the use of periodization as an approach to individualizing training plans based on an athlete's goals. Greg Glassman has said “Periodization as variations in intensity: inescapable. Periodization as planned variations in intensity to optimize performance: witchcraft." This quote is often interpreted as CrossFit rejecting periodization in all forms, but CrossFit’s critique is of the one-size-fits-all approach to periodization. Greg Glassman has said this is like throwing size-8 shoes into the crowd. For some, the shoes would fit great, for others, not so much. This criticism has proven to be too nuanced for most critics to grasp, but the distinction is important, as I’m sure you can see.

    Furthermore, the disagreement between CrossFit and Robb was also not “on-ramps or
    not”, as Robb has claimed. This is another imaginary argument. CrossFit has always encouraged affiliate experimentation with foundations classes and on-ramp programs.

    In this 2009 video (http://library.crossfit.com/free/video/CFJ_Glassman_OkinawaLecture4.mov), Greg Glassman encourages a group of Marines (presumably in better shape than a deconditioned civilian client) to “Spend a month (at least) on just basics before doing anything with intensity.” He goes on to warn that “...If you don't plan for low trajectory on a distant horizon, nature will provide it for you." This shows that the idea of a lower intensity, skills-based on-ramp or foundations program is clearly in-line with the core philosophy of the CrossFit program. Robb's issue is that CrossFit would not standardize on-ramp programs and require that all affiliates use them.

    This last point highlights the central disagreement between Robb and CrossFit: CrossFit has always insisted upon offering our Affiliates maximal autonomy to run their own businesses. In contrast, Robb has long recommended that CrossFit HQ exert “quality control” over the affiliates (source: http://robbwolf.com/wp//wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Episode-91.pdf). “Quality control” would require CrossFit HQ to impose a particular way of training and business upon the affiliates.

    CrossFit, on the other hand, prefers that its affiliates be free to experiment with various methods in all aspects of their businesses, whether that be a Paleo approach to nutrition, or not, using an on-ramp program, or not, or using periodization, or not (source: http://journal.crossfit.com/2012/07/gregglassmansitdown-part1.tpl).

    So, as you can see, the real debate is over how much freedom CrossFit affiliates should have to make their own decisions. CrossFit insists that its affiliates should be able to train their clients and run their businesses as they see fit. Robb, and many others, argue otherwise.

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  8. Emily,
    Sorry again for the accidental double-post of the first part of my response. Any chance I'll be hearing a reply from you based on the information I've provided about your post?

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  9. I rarely comment on new comments on old posts (life is short, after all). I'm sure the 6 people who read this post nowadays will be very interested to hear your side of the story. :-)

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  10. I was actually hoping you would respond by creating another post for your blog with these (correct) version of the events you described. I only wrote this on your blog because I assumed that as an M.D. you have some appreciation for the process of seeking truth, and I also assumed would feel morally obligated to correct a publication of yours that was inaccurate.
    This seems especially important because the inaccurate version of the events you have described discredits my company (CrossFit) and the many good and honest people who work for it. Thank you for considering.

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    Replies
    1. Russel-
      good to see the HQ SS machine finally caught this! You guys need to tighten your web to make it happen in "real time".

      How far you have fallen man. Once an American Hero, now this.

      Delete
  11. Robb,
    I feel it is important to set the record straight. The version of events you've sold to Emily paint a negative picture of the people I work with and are as unfair as they are inaccurate. I realize this may be a sensitive issue for you, but criticizing me personally doesn't do anything to show where or how I got the facts wrong.

    thanks,

    Russell

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  12. Emily,
    In a professional setting, personality and fit matter as much as competence. High-performing teams need to get along and give way for each other, or they will fail. I saw this as an Infantry Officer while in the Army and I see that now as a consultant. Ask any leader of a large organization about this, and he or she will tell you a story about a talented person who was not right for the group because they had differences or could not get along. This is normal, and I am only surprised that you just seem to have learned this. I do not know why those folks left Crossfit, it is not my business and would think you have more to do with your time and talent than make it yours. I do know that Crossfit has done incredible good for my community, and as a Veteran I am thankful for that.
    Rather than throw rocks, build something.
    Sincerely,
    Brandon

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