Which is better at building at hard bodies: CrossFit or standard Army physical training?
Most CrossFitters will swear they already know the answer, but a new $2.5 million study gearing up to launch at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, aims to settle the question of CrossFit vs. Army PT once and for all.
Researchers with Kansas State University's kinesiology lab will track 20 groups of soldiers — more than 200 troops in all — over four years. Half of the troops will do by-the-book PT training, and the other half will get trained up in CrossFit.
"We'll be working with two, or maybe four, groups at once," says Kansas State kinesiology professor Katie Heinrich, who's leading the effort. Each pair of groups — one doing CrossFit, one doing regular PT — will get a broad range of fitness testing first, then train for six months, then get tested again.
Subjects will be recruited from students and staff at Fort Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College and Combined Arms Center. CrossFitters will work out at the post's Iron Major CrossFit box. The others will work out on their own or with their unit, but follow a training plan drawn straight from the service's mostrecent workout regs — Field Manual 7-22, Army Physical Readiness Training, released in 2012.
The study comes as all services have looked to revamp their PT programs in recent years, even as CrossFit has surged in popularity among those in uniform. While there are key differences, the military programs have fundamentally similar fitness tests with timed events in pushups, situps and run, with one variation in the Marine Corps, which substitutes pullups for pushups.
While PT itself varies, training inevitably circles back to regular doses of the tested events at most units. Movement on the PT front in recent years:
The Army overhauled its workout program in 2012, but field units have been slow to adopt it. The service is pushing it harder now, with a new emphasis on filling "Master Fitness Trainer" classes. Meanwhile, Army special-ops units have been moving forward with their own workout programs. The 75th Ranger Regiment, for example, has adopted the RAW program (Ranger Athlete Warrior), which draws heavily from the National Strength and Conditioning Association and Athletes' Performance Institute philosophies.
The Marine Corps in 2012 adopted "High Intensity Tactical Training" (HITT). Although similar to CrossFit in some ways, HITT was created by Marine Corps officials in conjunction with the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American College of Sports Medicine.
"There are other programs that provide high intensity, and there's a lot of merit to them," said Ryan Massimo, a Marine Corps fitness manager, when HITT was formally rolled out in April 2012. "But we wanted to design [a program] that Marines could call their own."
The Air Force has been tweaking its fitness testing procedures since adopting a new service-wide program in 2010. The most recent changes have focused on body-fat measurements. The service also has been emphasizing overall fitness, including opening more all-hours gyms.
The Navy has been considering fitness testing changes as well. Command fitness leaders recently were pinged for ways to improve the service's assessment. Nine proposals from CFLs recently surfaced, suggesting everything from body fat tape testing for everyone to mandatory command PT for all units.
Help from the mothership
CrossFit officials say they're excited to see the military take an honest look at comparing CrossFit with typical unit PT.
"I think this might be the first real empirical comparison, where they've looked at a stable of biometrics and performance tests, between two different programs," says Joe Alexander, a former Navy SEAL and now top instructor for CrossFit's training division, where he certifies coaches in CrossFit techniques.
Alexander is CrossFit's point man for the Kansas State study. The researchers say they wanted help to ensure that the program they develop is true to CrossFit's training philosophy.
"They want me to sanity-check the CrossFit part of the study so that the stimulus is in accordance with what we would program and bless this from CrossFit headquarters," Alexander says. "I'm excited to be a part of it. It'll be interesting to let this kind quantification of fitness speak for itself."
He's convinced CrossFit will prevail.
"We've seen it work over and over again," he says. "The beauty of CrossFit, at least what attracted me to it, was the simplicity of the program. With some humble equipment, you can do a lot. That's valuable for the military. You don't need a big facility with millions of dollars in machines and different pieces of equipment to conduct strengthening and conditioning, like the way they do now."
Alexander says a trial run for the CrossFit piece of the study will begin soon.
"We're trying to get the template for the 12 to 13 weeks of initial training set up for the beta test and then make any adjustments from there before we go into the full study."
Overall, the training won't look much different from what most CrossFit fans are familiar with.
"The only tweaking we'll do for the military audience is the off-site training where they don't have access to a gym during field time. So, there will be some tailoring there for more austere environments, but by and large it will be classic CrossFit."
For the study itself, before-and-after testing will include the standard Army PT test —timed pushups, situps and a two-mile run — as well as deadlifts, pullups, a standing horizontal jump and a timed 40-yard sprint.
"The 40-yard dash is what they use in the football combines, so that will give us some more numbers to compare," says Kansas State's Heinrich.
Researchers also will measure flexibility, resting heart rate and blood pressure, as well as weight and body fat percentage.
Subjects will undergo a third round of benchmark tests three months later to see how they fare when they can work out however they want — or even stop working out altogether.
"For that last three months, it's completely up to them ... they can do whatever they want," Heinrich says. "So, we'll see if we have significant changes at six months and then what happens three months later. Do they lose it if they stop exercising? Do they keep doing that type of exercising? Do they increase even further?"
She's hopeful that those who get a taste of the CrossFit Kool-Aid will keep chugging once they start seeing results.
Indeed, Heinrich, an avid CrossFitter herself, says she expects the CrossFit groups not only to see better improvement overall but also to need less gym time to do it.
"We hypothesize the groups that do high intensity functional fitness through CrossFit will experience greater increases in fitness than the regular PT groups as well as greater improvements in body composition," she says. "We also expect, because we've seen this in previous studies, that those who do the CrossFit training will spend less time actually exercising.
"Basically, they'll spend less time working out, but see more gains in fitness and more loss in body fat."
The daughter of two Air Force veterans, Heinrich first started doing CrossFit eight years ago in Hawaii at CrossFit Oahu, which was owned by a former Army infantryman. "There were Navy SEALs and other military coming in to work out — it was pretty crazy," she says.
This isn't the first time Fort Leavenworth has served as a CrossFit test bed. In 2010, Army researchers commissioned by the Command and General Staff College were tasked to explore whether CrossFit could improve physical fitness training.
Tracking 14 field-grade officers through an eight-week CrossFit program, the researchers reported an average 20 percent improvement in numerous metrics including pushups and situps and CrossFit benchmark workouts such as "Fran," "Fight Gone Bad" and "CrossFit Total."
"While those athletes that were least fit at the beginning of the study saw the largest net gains in work capacity, even the most-fit athletes in the study experienced significant gains," the study states.
This latest research comes in the wake of a controversial study out of Ohio State University that concluded that CrossFit improved aerobic fitness and body composition but resulted in higher injury rates. The study's authors reported that nine of 54 participates — 16 percent — dropped out of the study due to "overuse or injury."
CrossFit Inc. sued the National Strength and Conditioning Association, which published the study last year in the group's professional journal, after reports emerged that the dropouts actually left the 10-week study because of time constraints or lack of interest.
"The report of a 16% 'overuse or injury' rate is at best the result of sloppy and scientifically unreliable work, and at worst a complete fabrication. It simply is not true that nine participants sustained injuries that prevented them from completing the study," according to CrossFit's complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in San Diego. "In fact, CrossFit has spoken to a majority of those who did not complete the study; those participants denied reporting that they failed to finish because of injuries."
NSCA denies the allegations and "believes the action by CrossFit to be wholly without merit and a malicious attack on the NSCA," the organization said in a statement.
The two sides were unable reach a settlement during mediation hearings in August, and the lawsuit is expected to go to trial next year, according to a source close to the case.
The lawsuit has had a cooling effect on other CrossFit-focused research, says professor John Porcari, chief of the Clinical Exercise Physiology program at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse.
"I think people shy away from studying it because [CrossFit leaders] are so aggressive in their attacks on anybody who says anything bad about CrossFit," says Porcari, who led a 2013 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise. Looking at 15 men and women doing two popular CrossFit workouts, that study concluded that CrossFit was "off the charts" in caloric burn and other fitness measurements.
"The buzz is that it is a great workout — we found that in our ACE study — but word on the street is that a lot of people get injured doing it," Porcari says.
Porcari says he's excited to see what the Kansas State study finds.
"To my knowledge, this would be the largest CrossFit study."
Heinrich says she's taking it all to heart.
"Basically the lesson learned is: Don't make stuff up," Heinrich says. "When we have any type of injury, we're going to track them and report it. We are working with CrossFit in designing the study so that we make sure we've got training protocols that are balanced and fit the template of a military population."
Heinrich says she's confident CrossFit is as safe as any other type of workout, if not more so.
"We've already done other CrossFit studies — with kids, overweight and obese adults, regular adults, and even those with cancer," she says. "The only injury we've had is a single groin muscle pull. So we've been able to successfully and safely deliver this type of training program."