Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The relationship between the U.S. military and the CrossFit program

Is CrossFit the solution to get the military back in shape?


By Jim Gourley, Best Defense exercise bureau chief

Is CrossFit the solution to get the military back in shape? The answer is “yes,” “no,” and “it’s complicated.”

The Defense Department began collecting data with a specific view on the decline of physical fitness among service members as early as 2007, but the component services have had relative degrees of success in developing broadly applicable solutions. Leaders have adopted existing programs from the commercial fitness industry such as P90X, Insanity Workout, and Gym Jones to combat the trend at their level. The most popular by far is CrossFit. But while individual commanders in different services have brought it into their gyms, several military health and wellness officials remain skeptical or even critical of CrossFit. Citing high injury rates among participants in the aforementioned regimens, they caution that widespread adaptation of CrossFit would do more to harm than help combat readiness. Still, CrossFit’s roots in the SEAL community give it broad appeal among military members. A new research study set to begin next year may yield evidence that the DoD should move forward with full-scale adoption of such a program.

The study will be funded by the National Institute for Health rather than the DoD. The NIH awarded the $2.52 million grant to Dr. Katie Heinrich and Dr. Walker Poston based on their proposal to study if a CrossFit-inspired exercise program can reduce obesity in a test group of soldiers based in Fort Leavenworth. Heinrich is the assistant professor of kinesiology at Kansas State University, where her husband is also the head CrossFit coach. Her previous research has focused on the influence of exercise on children and older adults. Poston is a former Air Force officer and Deputy Director and Senior Principal Investigator for the Institute of Biobehavioral Health Research at the National Development and Research Institutes. Based on their experience, they believe CrossFit will be beneficial to the military by facilitating weight loss while reducing injury rates compared to current physical training regimens.

“Our study is specifically looking at body fat percentage, but we’ll also observe fitness outcomes regarding speed, strength and agility,” says Heinrich. “Obesity is actually a lot of different chronic conditions. There’s a good debate about whether a person with body fat can still be fit.” Poston, who has studied obesity for more than a decade, agrees. “In 1995 we had mapped about five or six genes for obesity. By 2000, we had identified 500-plus genes for weight regulation. It’s a fundamentally complex problem.” Still, both scientists says that being overweight correlates with musculoskeletal injuries during physical activity as much as smoking or high-mileage running. A 2013 report in The U.S. Army Medical Department Journal stated that 56-percent of non-battle injuries requiring medical evacuation from recent theaters of operation were a direct result of physical training. Such figures indicate a problem which Poston believes is more about methodology than muscle.

“All military branches focus too narrowly on what it means to be fit. They emphasize aerobic capacity and upper body and core muscle endurance. Strength and flexibility get left out.” CrossFit is known for the extraordinary variety of its workouts, constantly working (and resting) different muscle groups while demanding adaptation in strength, agility and range of motion.

The Marine Corps concluded these principles would be highly beneficial to its personnel after a 2008 study comparing two battalions using either a “usual” or “trial” conditioning program. Results demonstrated lower injury rates and greater improvement in multiple areas of physical performance under the trial program. Four years later, the Corps enthusiastically introduced the High Intensity Tactical Training (HITT) regimen to give Marines a program like CrossFit that “they could call their own.” Gyms at several installations now offer HITT classes, and an official website provides everything from video demonstrations of the individual exercise movements to complete workouts for each day of the week. While the Navy, Army and Air Force have all published a slew of directives to revise or emphasize physical training and testing standards, they have not taken such sweeping or drastic measures as the Marines.

The Army has perhaps given high intensity workouts the coolest reception, calling them “extreme conditioning programs” (ECPs) in a 2011 paper written in conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine. The primary concern of that report was that “there is an apparent disproportionate musculoskeletal injury risk… particularly for novice participants, resulting in lost duty time, medical treatment, and extensive rehabilitation….” While the report did acknowledge beneficial aspects of ECPs, it concluded that “these programs have limitations and should be considered carefully. Moreover, certain distinctive characteristics of ECPs appear to violate recognized accepted standards for safely and appropriately developing muscular fitness….” However, a 2013 study comparing the army’s own Advanced Tactical Athlete Conditioning (ATAC) program, the Ranger Athlete Warrior (RAW) regimen, and CrossFit within a Brigade Combat Team found that all approaches caused an equivalent increase in injuries during physical training compared to “standard” physical training. The report said that 62-percent of male participants in the study were considered either overweight or obese at the beginning of the study and noted that physical fitness test scores were correlated to injury rates. Unlike the USMC study, it did not record any changes physical performance at the end of the program. Dr. Poston disputes the claims about CrossFit yielding higher injury rates. “Studies conducted on athletes in different sports have found that there are about 10 injuries for every 1,000 hours of run training. There are 5.4 injuries per 1,000 hours of triathlon training, but that number spikes to 17.4 injuries per 1,000 hours of triathlon competition. There are between 6.2-7.9 injuries per 1,000 hours of USMC Officer Candidate School training, and 3.9 per 1,000 hours of just regular physical training. But in CrossFit there are only between 2.4-3.1 injuries per 1,000 hours.” CrossFit’s headquarters published its own response to the Army’s claims.

Colonel Jeffrey Leggit, Associate Professor of Family and Primary Care Sports Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USHUS), believes that the debate should be discussed in terms of fundamentals rather than brand-names. In his view, the Army doesn’t need to adopt CrossFit or similar programs because the 2012 revision to the Army Physical Readiness Training Manual has already incorporated those principles which will be most beneficial to soldiers. “You always need to train with a goal in mind. A triathlete and an osteoarthritis patient are going to have different goals. You can get any program to fail by doing too much, too fast without enough recovery. The problem with ECPs isn’t totally their principles. CrossFit does incorporate some very good principles. The problem is adjusting the program to the individual person and providing adequate supervision in executing it.” While the Marines have taken on the supervision problem in the Semper Fit gyms, Leggit says the Army has chosen to rely on its Master Fitness Trainer-qualified personnel distributed throughout the force. The Master Fitness Trainer Course was revamped at the beginning of 2013 with the goal of distributing approximately 4,500 certified trainers throughout the Army by the end of this year. It’s still too early to know what the long-term effects of either program will be. The most recent available data on overweight and obesity in the military was taken in 2011. At that time, the Army had the highest obesity rate of all the services (16.1-percent) and the Marines had the lowest (5-percent). Leggit says that he is open to considering the results of Heinrich and Poston’s study if it finds an improvement in body composition associated with the program, but he cautions not to buy into marketing messages. “If the study succeeds, does it succeed because of CrossFit, or because it uses good principles? Most diets would help a person lose weight if they would follow them. The problem is actually doing what the program tells you to do.”

That so many different high intensity programs like CrossFit exist on the commercial market is probably the best demonstration of Leggit’s argument. They all incorporate the same general principles. CrossFit itself cited the Marines’ development of HITT as a vindication of its brand, which is also seemingly an admission that it’s the philosophy that matters more than the name. Still, there’s no denying CrossFit’s popularity, and that a large number of its participants get results. The 3rd Infantry Division has embraced the program, funding training for 600 soldiers to become certified CrossFit coaches in 2012. Then commanding general Robert Abrams told The Frontline that “CrossFit will change you.” Statements like that signify a momentum that may prevent the army’s own program from gaining traction. Poston says that the regimen’s popularity was the exact reason he and Heinrich chose it for the test. Between that and the army’s conspicuous ranking in the body weight standings, and depending on how soon they can demonstrate the efficacy of its current physical regimen, Heinrich and Poston’s findings may wind up receiving more consideration than expected.

Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer. He tweets at @jim_gourley

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1