I recently attended the Charles Poliquin biosignature seminar (with Scotty Hagnas of CrossFit Portland) in Scottsdale, AZ. With the recent developments of Charles’ thoughts on CrossFit this has left me in an interesting position given my place in CrossFit. This review is my best effort at an objective assessment not only of Charles’ technology, but also my experience implementing it in a thriving CrossFit practice. I have sought guidance and fact checking from Scotty, James Fitzgerald (OPT) and Ido Portal. This was to discuss theory, compare notes and make sure I’m doing things “right” and to verify if these other folks were observing the same things as I. That said, this final analysis is solely mine and therefore any errors, stupidity or other goofiness is mine and mine alone. This first section will describe the content of the seminar, the second will look at my experiences implementing the technology the past few months, the third section will look at Coach Poliquin’s position on CrossFit and some thoughts I have in response.
Biosignature Seminar: Scottsdale AZ.
Scotty and I attended the Biosignature Seminar a few months ago in the still toasty, Scottsdale AZ. The format was a 5 day seminar with a mixture of lecture, hands on training in body-fat measurement using calipers and Q&A.
Biosignature: The premise
Disclaimer: I will not discuss any of the specific protocols. Please do not ask me questions about how these measurements are made.
The premise of the biosignature technology is that different hormone states lead to different patterns of fat deposition around the body. This can indicate pending disease states and can offer insight into potential training, supplementation and lifestyle changes to address hormone imbalance and restore optimum health and performance.
The sites we learned to measure were assumed to indicate relative levels of the following hormones: Cortisol, insulin, testosterone, estrogen, hGH, thyroid, and progesterone. Most people are now familiar with the notion that an “apple” fat deposition pattern (thick midsection) is consistent with insulin resistance and thus higher rates of many associated diseases. The biosignature program is an outgrowth of this type of epidemiological work.
The caliper measurements require a great deal of practice to achieve a decent level of accuracy and precision. One of the measures in particular, the hamstring is so prone to error I have abandoned tracking it (this was confirmed by OPT).
Coach Poliquin provided detailed protocols for specific situations: Insulin protocol, cortisol protocol etc. Most of the conditions in fact have several different protocols; there is the potential of managing various conditions simultaneously and thus achieving some level of synergistic action. The protocols involve lifestyle factors to change, nutrition support/alterations and heavy use of supplements.
Dietary recommendations consisted of a paleo diet (gluten free) and carbs up to one’s insulin tolerance. Coach Poliquin uses the cyclic low carb approach with most clients, folks who have very high glycogen demands make good use of post WO carb feedings. Charles uses of shakes extensively, although he recommends the bulk of food should come from whole sources.
The protocols are heavily supplement oriented and Charles offers an extensive line of supplements to support the biosignature practitioners. Charles was very balanced about offering products outside of his line if he felt it was a better product. There is no MLM element to the supplements (I’ve received this questions several times).
Charles was solid in presenting the need for sleep, adequate rest and recovery and how all this fits into cortisol and insulin management.
Charles has a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of everything health, fitness and training related. I really liked the content of the seminar from a geek standpoint but Charles’ frequent digressions into experiences he has had with clients and experiences of other coaches he respects (Mauro Di Pasquale for example) was just as good as his foundational information. He certainly has a passion for what he is doing and he is a good public speaker. He was good about citing sources other than himself for various techniques, protocols and information that he uses or presents.
Q&A was good but sometimes tough as Coach Poliquin has a very brusque style…there was not an opportunity for “discussion”, you asked a question, he answered it…if you did not get it, agree, or wanted to delve into minutiae that was not well received…this can be attributed in part to keeping things on a fairly strict timetable AND some of the folks were just in over their heads with regards to the information. I took 36 pages of hand written notes and had a far better background than anyone else in attendance. I am still working my way through those notes and there are some gems.
85% of the material I really liked and “bought” right away. 10% I was (and am) unsure of…this pertains specifically to the various protocols centered on insulin management and other conditions i.e.-do the prescribed protocols work? 5% I just could not buy into. Coach Poliquin threw out a few dingers like: right hamstring pulls are a magnesium deficiency and left hamstring pulls are a potassium deficiency and this based on yin/yang theory. I completed 40+ units of Chinese medicine theory and diagnostics and thus feel fairly well steeped in the theory. Coach Poliquin has thrown out some thoughts on training with Chinese medicine principles that I liked, but some of this seems far-fetched. He also did an applied kinesiology/muscle testing demo. I hate that shit. It just reminds of Yuri Geller spoon bending and psychic surgeries…Maybe I’ll take a course in it because I thinks it’s complete crap, but there are a lot of other things I’d rather do with my time. That considered, this represents a very small proportion of the seminar.
Implementation, Results and Interpretations
Upon returning to Chico I started tracking the biosig of several of our trainers. I also embarked upon an insulin management protocol and cortisol protocol for myself. As background, I believe I had severe adrenal fatigue earlier in the year. Travel, bad food on the road and running a CrossFit facility cooked me to a crisp. I talked with Josh Everett, OPT and few other folks about the adrenal fatigue and embarked on a recovery program back in July. The protocol Coach Poliquin laid out for the cortisol was identical to what I was familiar with from previous research.
My biosignature showed high environmental insulin levels and high cortisol. This was consistent with what I had experienced and this was right at the height of my mass gain experiment. I was damn chubby, but nearly all of it right at the love handles (insulin) and umbilicus (cortisol). Coach Poliquin suggested that I switch my mass gain efforts to more of an insulin management protocol (cyclic low carb for the diet). I was to continue with the cortisol management.
The biosignature of our trainers (all female) correlated well with what we knew of their nutritional status and it jived with some issues such as PMS (too much estrogen) and even corroborated a hypothyroid condition. Overall I’m quite impressed with what the biosignature tells us with regards to hormone status.
I have been under-whelmed with regards to the insulin management protocol involving Insulinomix and Fenuplex. I am honestly bummed as I hoped this would be my ticket to solid muscle gain without turning into a fat-ass. I have yet to see anything touch CrossFit, a low carb diet, sleep and fish oil for leaning out. As I mentioned before, the cortisol management protocol seems VERY effective. This was something I used previously and have found good mileage. In fact OPT verified these findings in his own practice and puts the greatest emphasis on cortisol/stress management.
One piece I have found helpful for nearly everyone is a digestive support protocol that involves HCl supplementation with meals plus zinc and magnesium near bedtime. Nothing too controversial there, this is a common and well described protocol.
Our female trainers have had little results with the estrogen management protocol that we do not get from a low carb diet and the endocrine response of CrossFit (see James Fitzgerald’s article in the Performance Menu for more info on this). In essence, if we manage sleep, stress and insulin effectively, we see favorable shifts in estrogen. This is in process so I’ll report any changes if they occur.
I’ve found the biosignature readings to be accurate of hormone status however I have had limited success with the protocols besides the cortisol management. This from the perspective of significant (and pricey) supplement usage. Granted, I may be doing all this wrong, but I’m a reasonably bright guy and have found corroboration with other folks familiar with the Poliquin material. I have yet to implement an androgen protocol for myself, I’ve been holding off on that till my cortisol readings are stellar. No sense in ramping up DHEA-S just to turn it into cortisol. I have begun recommending a methylated-b vitamin due to a HTMFR genotype that benefits from said supplementation…this is a large point for Poliquin in his seminar.
As it stands right now, the biosignature material is interesting, but I cannot say that it influences my coaching much. We will likely use it in our practice to help keep some metrics on our clients. I feel comfortable with recommending a fish oil and methylated b to our folks…this seems like a slam dunk as we have recommended this for some time. At this point I cannot, in good conscience, recommend much beyond that for our clients. I’m reticent to recommend something that cannot be had by simpler (cheaper) means. The totality of the Poliquin seminar for my practice then is reduced to HCl, zinc/magnesium, a multivite and fish oil. In the case of a cortisol situation I feel comfortable recommending some specific supplements for that. I will continue to tinker with this stuff and if I change my mind on something, I’ll post an update. As it stands I guess a good question would be “Do I recommend the biosignature seminar?” That is a “yes”, the information contained is well worth the price of the seminar. The material is, as I said previously, 85% solid. I need to update my biosig status once per year, so, in theory I will be attending this again next year. It’ll be interesting to see where things are in a year.
In other Poliquin news, I want to comment on Coach Poliquin’s Case Against CrossFit. Again, I’m attempting to be a balanced on this as I can. Obviously I run a CrossFit facility but I think this allows for not only bias…but also actually knowing what the fuck I’m talking about. That’s up to y’all to decide. Below is Poliquin’s original piece that went up on www.charlespoliquin.com but was subsequently removed. Posting something on the internet is a bit like pee in a pool: tough to remove. I will put my responses to each section in bold.
The Case Against CrossFit
A closer look at this controversial workout program
by Charles Poliquin
“The best program is the one you’re not using,” is one of my favorite axioms. I say this because I’ve never believed that there is one perfect workout system. The high-intensity training methods of the late Arthur Jones work…for a time. Strongman training works…for at time. And weightlifting and powerlifting methods work…for a time. Variety, whether it be correcting a lack of it or too much of it, is one of the keys to making continual progress with your training and achieving your goals. And that brings up the topic of CrossFit, Inc. TM.
If you Google the words “Poliquin” and “CrossFit,” you’ll find that there has been a considerable amount of discussion about my recent comments on another website about this method of training. Although my intent was to make a few general comments about what I thought of this method of training – and throw in a few wisecracks in the process – it’s obvious that a more in-depth discussion about CrossFit is in order. So, here it is.
What is CrossFit?
Founded by Greg Glassman nearly three decades ago, CrossFit is a militaristic type of workout that uses a variety of training methods, including gymnastics and Olympic lifting, using short rest intervals. CrossFit is very popular with the military, police forces and mixed martial artists. CrossFit offers certifications, and graduates can pay a fee to become an affiliate. And because the equipment used is relatively inexpensive, it’s relatively easy to open a CrossFit gym.
Charles is usually pretty precise in his language so it’s odd that CrossFit is a “militaristic” type of Workout. Many people in the military do CrossFit, most people (though not all) are fans of the military (those serving their respective countries) but I find it tough to call a fitness movement Militaristic:
- Glorification of the ideals of a professional military class.
- Predominance of the armed forces in the administration or policy of the state.
- A policy in which military preparedness is of primary importance to a state.
Often with CrossFit you don’t perform the same workout twice, and because CrossFit often facetiously uses feminine names to describe their workouts, your training schedule might look like this: Monday, “Fran”; Wednesday, “Grace”; Friday, “Helen.” Here are some workouts I’ve found on a CrossFit website:
Perform the following circuit using this repetition scheme 10/9/8/7/6/5/4/3/2/1 – for time:
A1. Deadlift, 1 1/2 Bodyweight
A2. Bench Press, Bodyweight
A3. Clean, 3/4 Bodyweight
Perform five sets of the following superset, for time:
A1. 400 meter run
A2. Overhead squat 95 lbs x 15
Perform three supersets of the following exercises, for time, performing sets of 21/15/9 reps.
A1. Deadlift 225 lbs
A2. Handstand push-ups
The CrossFit program is controversial. A New York Times article published on December 22, 2005, presented these quotes by Glassman: “It can kill you…I’ve always been completely honest about that,” and “If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don’t want you in our ranks.” The article also said that a popular axiom among CrossFit practitioners is “I met Pukey,” which suggests they have vomited as a result of training so hard. Notes the author of the article, Stephanie Cooperman, “Some even own T-shirts emblazoned with a clown. Pukey. CrossFit’s other mascot is Uncle Rhabdo, another clown, whose kidneys have spilled onto the floor presumably due to rhabdomyolsis.” Rhabdomyolsis is a serious kidney disease, often associated with excessive exercise.
Ah yes, the New York Times piece. Charles and Mike Boyle must have circulated the same copy, juicy gossip that it is. WHEN is anything reported that is not taken from the sensationalistic angle? Admittedly, a story talking about our geriatric clients who have rehabbed from hip, knee and shoulder replacements is less compelling than the NY times piece. What Charles IS doing however is citing the NY Times as some kind of expert resource and is thus comfortable with any and all points in the article that may be non-factual, inflated or spun for effect. The Rhabdo story is something CF-HQ has NEVER shied away from. They publicized rhabdo immediately upon learning of it’s existence and potential to do harm. But again, there’s not much sensationalism in that.
On the legal side, on October 9, 2008, the Associated Press filed this story:
“MANASSAS, Va. — A former Navy information systems technician has been awarded $300,000 after suing a Manassas gym over an exercise program he says left him permanently disabled.
“Makimba Mimms, 29, of Bristow says the CrossFit workout he did in 2005 caused him to urinate blood and his legs to swell.
“Mimms sued Manassas World Gym, where he did the workout; Ruthless Training Concepts, a CrossFit affiliate at the time; and a Ruthless employee who administered the workout. A Prince William County jury found all three defendants liable Wednesday.”
In the legal complaint, these were the specific breaches of duty (constituting negligence or gross negligence) cited against instructor Javier Lopez:
• He failed to exercise ordinary care.
• He failed to refrain from injuring plaintiff.
• He failed to give plaintiff proper and reasonable instruction.
• He gave plaintiff unreasonable and hazardous instructions, entreating and demanding that plaintiff exert extraordinary effort, not cease to rest, not cease to drink fluids or regain his strength, breath and resilience.
• He failed to refrain from exposing him to extraordinary hazards and actual injury to his person.
• He failed to observe and monitor plaintiff so as to guard and protect him from injury.
This sniffed remarkably of a hatchet Job after a higher ranking Navy officer wrote a critical and ignorant piece on CrosFit. Oh well, the legal system is always right, just ask OJ.
In the basic CrossFit certification, which costs $1,000, participants are introduced to numerous workout protocols and exercises, including the Olympic lifts. According to recent comments on a website from an individual who went through the certification, and from information that I viewed on their website, these certifications primarily consist of participating in workouts. There is no written exam to determine if the participants fully understand the material presented. Pay $1,000 and you are certified, and pay $1,000 and you can promote your business as an affiliate. The first CrossFit gym opened in 1995, and I’ve read where there are now over 600 CrossFit affiliates.
The Level 1 cert involves lecture, hands on coaching and directed training via CrossFit WOD’s. The Front page of CrossFit.com has been an open forum for people to say if they liked or disliked the cert since their inception. The vast majority appear to think the cost of attendance is equal to the return on investment. So this whole “I talked to someone” thing just does not feel right. I have NO DOUBT there have been people who have attended the Level 1 Cert and it was not to their liking. What percentage of folks is this? Gauging the rate of growth of CrossFit it’s apparently quite low.
I attended my CSCS exam which consisted of a written test. No coach to coach interaction, no hands on instruction. I studied for the test while driving to Oakland. The most challenging element of the exam was remembering to not answer the questions as I would DO things but rather how the NSCA wanted. Benefit? I got insurance through them, other than that, a waste of time.
I’m not sure how a CSCS or ACSM newbie is any better than a CrossFit Level 1 newb. More book learning? Perhaps, but there is ample opportunity for folks to further their education both in and outside of CrossFit. Specialty certs in Olifting, basic barbell, kettle bells, gymnastics. A level 1 cert is, like many other certs a beginning…I fail to see a problem with that.
A Cause for Concern
Many individuals love CrossFit, and in fact it has been criticized as having a cultlike following. Many of these individuals believe it is the perfect program that will enable them to achieve their goals and are very satisfied with their progress. And I have no doubt that some individuals have never been injured from CrossFit. That being said, here are six of my major issues with this form of training
Lack of Sufficient Testing Protocols. In looking over detailed notes from a CrossFit certification, I was concerned about the lack of testing for structural balance issues with trainees. There are protocols for beginning, intermediate and advanced workouts using multi-joint movements. But in my work with Olympians in 20 different sports and with numerous professional athletes, before having any athletes perform their first power clean or squat, I recommend a series of structural balance tests to red-flag muscle imbalances that could increase the athlete’s risk of injury. And if there is a history of injuries with an athlete, those should be addressed in any workout design.
I suspect the section on scalability, mechanics, consistency then intensity were lacking from the “detailed” notes Chuck was referring to. I use quite an interesting battery of screening movement…they are called “functional movements”. Inability to perform them leads to corrective measures. That there are trainers (both in and out) of CrossFit that are better or worse at this screening and scaling process is without a doubt. Is Charles 100% confident in the abilities of EVERYONE he has certified? This is just ignorance of our methodology and holding CrossFit to a standard his own trainees cannot uphold.
One reason Olympic shot-putter Adam Nelson could not perform power snatches before I started working with him was that he had adhesions in his rotator cuff muscles – after we addressed this injury with such treatments as Active ReleaseTM, Nelson was able to reintroduce this valuable exercise in his workout and within a month did 286 pounds for three reps. Jim McKenzie, a professional hockey player I’ve trained, went from a 280-pound close-grip bench press to 380 pounds in less than four months by focusing on corrective exercises – and for the first three months of this program Jim did not perform bench presses!
We refer to an Active Release Practitioner on a nearly daily basis to enormous benefit…I guess it’s time to measure Dicks since we appear to be doing the same things. Charles is good at what he does, other people are good at what they do…there is not a monopoly on information good training or results.
Focus on a Single Training Protocol. In regards to the concept of specificity, the protocols in CrossFit are not appropriate for developing the highest levels of strength or power or speed. It is doubtful that you will see any elite powerlifters, weightlifters or sprinters using CrossFit protocols as their primary method of conditioning. For example, I’m training Sam Baker, an NFL lineman who needed to dramatically increase his strength and muscle mass. Prior to Baker’s entering the NFL, where he went as a #1 draft pick, in two months my training protocols enabled him to add 25 pounds of solid muscle, reduce his bodyfat by 8.1 percent, increase his vertical jump by four inches and significantly increase his strength. I didn’t accomplish this by having him superset high-rep push-ups with mile runs.
Any coach worth a bucket of piss would know that a football player needs more time indexed efforts for conditioning with ample strength and power work. John Welbourn has done exactly this in his training to good success. There has never been a claim that CF would produce a world class Olifter or sprinter…the statement has been “Forging Elite Fitness” and fitness has been defined as “Work Capacity across Broad Time and Modal Domains…” That said, people have used the concepts of intensity, functionality and variation to good effect for GPP. Shocker. Look to Mike Burgner’s use of CrossFit in the off season for his athletes and what Jason Bagwell accomplished with his Powerlfiters.
Many sport coaches often overemphasize energy system training with athletes, often to the detriment of other physical qualities. Check out any exercise physiology textbook and look at the studies performed on elite athletes and their VO2 maxes. It is not necessary for a baseball player, or a basketball player for that matter, to have a VO2 max of 70. The promotional materials I’ve read about CrossFit imply that this type of training addresses all the strength and conditioning needs of an athlete, but the concept of specificity suggests that if you try to excel at everything it is unlikely that you will reach the highest levels at anything. This is why we don’t see individuals who can run a mile in four minutes flat and also bench press 500 pounds.
Again, for MOST athletes, a generalist program of gymnastics, olifts and smart, time indexed met-can is the goods. Fun to do also, AND this is a big point, CrossFit is a methodology unto itself. Folks do CrossFit for the sake of doing CrossFit.
Insufficient Instruction for Teaching Complex Training Methods. It takes more than a single weekend seminar to develop the competency to teach certain types of exercises or be able to adequately prescribe protocols for complex training methods. In this category I would include the classical Olympic lifts, strongman exercises and plyometrics. Often in the strength coaching profession these aforementioned training methods have been criticized as dangerous; but when you look at why athletes become injured from these training methods, it can often be traced to poor technique.
The basic movement covered in a level 1 cert are accesable and easy to implement in either a 1-on-1 or group setting. Specialty certs, level 2 testing and internship offers many opportunities to improve one’s skill base. Again, does Charles expect that everyone know everything all at once?
Inappropriate Repetition Brackets for Complex Exercises. Although high repetitions and short rest intervals can be used to develop muscular endurance, these protocols should not be used in some exercises. This is especially true with the Olympic lifts, as it is difficult to maintain proper technique when using high reps with these exercises – especially when supersetting them with other multi-joint exercises such as deadlifts. Simply watching CrossFit trainees performing these lifts in videos on their website will confirm this truth. Further, the Olympic lifting movements are most appropriate for developing power; if you want to develop muscular endurance, simpler movements should be used.
Oh boy. We can buck hay for 8 hrs and that’s ok, but high rep Olifts are dangerous? Mike Burgner seems to think otherwise. Javorek complexes anyone? This is just crap. Hang a sign on something that it is “dangerous” and you have instant credibility.
Inappropriate Exercise Order. To achieve specific responses from exercises, the exercise order should be addressed. As shown in the “Linda” workout described earlier, what is the logic in fatiguing the lower back with deadlifts prior to performing power cleans? To activate the high-threshold motor units with power cleans and to perform them with optimal technique, all the sets of the power clean should be performed before deadlifts. Further, combining weight training exercises with sprints places an athlete at a high risk of injury, especially to the hamstrings.
Again, this is a lack of familiarity of what CrossFit IS. Linda is not designed as a max-effort, optimized motorunit recruitment workout…it is designed to kick your ass. The technicality while under significant muscular and metabolic load is really something EVERYONE with an opinion on the topic should experience. Again, this seems to belie the potential of doing planned strength work in and around metabolic efforts. Judging a whole fitness program by 1-workout?
Endorsement of Controversial Exercises. On one website of a CrossFit affiliate, I saw video clips of athletes jumping onto cars and standing on Swiss balls. I appreciate having a wide variety of exercises to use with clients, but you have to question the logic of using such high-risk exercises in a program.
I dislike swiss balls and endo-boards. These guys sound like retards. Finally something we agree on? OHH! Wait…these guys were having FUN! I think I’ll pump my 9am geriatric crew through this next week…bilateral hip-fractures anyone? One affiliate defines the programming and technicality of everyone in the movement? This sounds like a line borrowed from Mike Boyle! Perhaps it circulated with the NY Times copy?
The principle of individuality suggests that not everyone will response equally to the same workout program, and that for optimal results a workout program should take into account those factors that are responsible for this difference. If you’re an 18-year-old Army recruit about to be deployed to Iraq, then perhaps the CrossFit program might be appropriate for this individual. If you’re an elite athlete trying to reach the highest levels in your sport, a CrossFit approach may not be the optimal way to train.
Or perhaps it is. The trophy case is growing, time will tell on this count. Kelly Starrett Coached a girl to a Gold medal in rowing using CrossFit. We have a national champion motocross racer, several people going to worlds in Triathlon and a few others I’ll keep to myself for now. Again, it appears to escape Coach Poliquin’s notice that programming can be modified for individual needs. That the WOD may or may not be appropriate for an NFL lineman is immaterial…the concepts are what matter in conjunction with smart implementation. If people need significant strength work, they get it.
Because of these concerns, I cannot recommend CrossFit training, especially for those seeking the highest levels of athletic performance. But in the interest of being open-minded, let’s leave it at this: Despite its many inadequacies, CrossFit is a workout system that is continually evolving. It’ll be interesting to see how the program changes as more athletes, and non-athletes, participate in this program.
The take home message I guess is that someday, perhaps, CrossFit will not suck? This is really an unfortunate situation as I think the two camps have much to offer each other. I think Charles would appreciate and actually LIKE the holistic nature of CrossFit. I think many people in CrossFit could benefit from Poliquin’s knowledge of high-end strength/power training, planning and nutrition.
My friend, Ido Portal, did a blog post recently on Jack of All Trades. He makes a solid, irrefutable point that one would be best served coming to something like CrossFit with a year of o-lifting instruction and a year of gymnastics instruction, and then layering on significant metabolic conditioning. This is an enviable sequence of events that I think we would all kill to accomplish. The reality is that this is not a reasonable proposition for most CrossFit devotees to DO this. It is possible for coaches to shift focus and help their clients to bring this base up as best they can. In fact this is the criteria by which I judge coaches in and out of CrossFit…the ability to build this well rounded base. When I see affiliates doing 30 min long WOD’s, day in, day out I know the instruction and coaching suck. These folks need to get a clue.
Something to keep in mind however is that the folks doing CrossFit are also: running a business, fighting wars, raising children, fighting fires and arresting criminals. They are normal folks doing incredibly hard things amidst friends. I think this is still something that escapes folks like Poliquin, Boyle and the various and sundry haters out there. CrossFit has taken Olympic caliber strength & Conditioning and brought it to the masses. You’d think this would be a good thing…I know it’s a good thing, other folks are slow on the realization of this fact.