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Crossfit and the need to train Variety: An interview with London head coach Andrew Stemler

As a trainer, I have always believed that variety within any training program is essential for maximum results. The athlete who embraces a variety of training methods in his routine will undoubtedly have an advantage over the one who rigidly sticks to a single form of training, due in large part to the body’s ability to adapt which therefore causes the “problem” of habituation. Basically, this means that the body begins to build a tolerance to a certain type of exercise, and therefore improvements in strength and conditioning performance tend to diminish. It is also very difficult to produce a ‘complete’ athlete using only one training method.

Unfortunately, the narrow focus of one-method training regimens is still prevalent in many gyms and sports arenas, but a shift in mindset is beginning to appear in the UK, with more athletes in a variety of fields incorporating more variety into their training schedules.

With these thoughts in mind, I went to Crossfit London’s i course, run by one of Britain’s few Level 2 Crossfit instructors, Andrew Stemler, to learn more about the Crossfit philosophy and how it applies to everyday training.

Course participants were expertly coached through a host of different exercise modalities and progressions, including barbell overhead squats, snatches, deadlifts, kettlebells, pull-ups, muscle ups, push-ups, parallel bar work, and more.

I met Andrew after the workshop to find out more about him, the course and the philosophy of Crossfit;

CO Hi Andrew, thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview. Can I start by asking you a bit about yourself and how you came to pursue a career in fitness?

AS Sure, briefly, I graduated with a law degree from college, banked for four years, then went into ownership and hated it, but I kept at it until 2002, and right around the time I turned 37, which was about ten years ago, I got tired of being out of shape and started doing a lot of martial arts. I did a lot of fights and the last one was in 2005 when my trainer referred me to one of the Crossfit sites. I looked at it and thought, ‘that’s ridiculous.’ and then I went back and looked at it again and thought, ‘that’s fucking ridiculous!’ But then I thought, ‘well, okay, I’d like to try it.’ so I booked a flight and went to California to learn how to do it.

CO And what does the Crossfit philosophy consist of? How is it different from other training methods?
AS Well, on one level it shouldn’t differ at all, because it’s actually just what sports science tells you to do; but basically it focuses on a complete general physical condition. Most people will tend to define fitness as very specific to one thing, so you end up with strong people who can’t run and runners who can’t be strong; what we are really saying is that to be a good human being you need to specialize in everything, and that includes training all three energy systems to become a good aerobic athlete, a good anaerobic athlete, and a good short sprinter. We think you need to train all three systems. Obviously, if you want to go out and become a marathon runner, you have to do that specific training, but people shouldn’t confuse sports-specific training with general fitness.

CO Ok, so it’s kind of a one-size-fits-all approach? How does Crossfit meet the needs of a variety of different goals?

AS Well, you actually set everyone to the same workout, but because you allow people to change their own rep systems and the weights they actually use, what you’ll find is that people have dramatically different workouts. So, for example, in the session we did in the i-course here, if you say to people, ‘do ten overhead squats’, some may decide to use a 10kg bar, some may decide to use a 20kg bar, and some may decide to use a broomstick. Those who are very strong can do it very quickly, some may have to do it in reps of 3. So if you are very strong, that training becomes quite easy; for others who aren’t as strong, that would be their maximum workout, in terms of strength.

CO Sure. So what would you say to people who look at the concept of Crossfit, see people doing muscle ups and advanced movements and just think it would be too hard for them?

AS I think a lot of people get discouraged from doing things before they even try, but it’s nice to have a few different goals. Sometimes my biggest complaint about fitness, and it goes back to my first fitness course, where I was taught to treat everyone as if they were cardiac rehab patients (so as not to risk people putting their hands over their heads, not doing overhead presses), and this long list of terrible injuries that could occur. And I think as a result of that, as a coach I wasn’t in shape and the people I was coaching weren’t in shape either. So I think having tough goals is what we want. We all set tough goals for ourselves, like trying to own a house, trying to marry someone who isn’t a total bitch 🙂 and when you think about it like that, trying to muscle up pales in comparison to insignificance. So it’s not as hard as you thought at first, especially if you work through the exercises gradually. There is nothing that cannot be done. The exercises we chose are very basic in terms of the sport we actually do, for example the average six year old gymnast can muscle up pretty easily, but you just have to keep working at it.

CO Right. So it’s a pretty broad and general way of training that focuses on a lot of compound movements, do you think there’s a place for isolation exercises?

AS Hmm. In general, I think you have to have a very good reason for it. It shouldn’t be your first instinct because you don’t do isolation moves in real life. There are a lot of people who look at a pull up and can’t do one, and will go off and do bicep curls and lat pulldowns, etc. and it doesn’t seem to have the same stimulus, it doesn’t seem to help them achieve pull ups; There’s something unique about struggling in a pull up, so you’re better off practicing the actual movement with the help of the bands. However, if you are injured and need rehabilitation, for example a certain leg, or if you have a chronic imbalance, then I would use isolation exercises.

CO So isolate to reintegrate so to speak?

AS Yes exactly.

CO Great. So Crossfit is obviously based on a variety of different pieces of equipment, but if you could only use one piece of equipment, what would it be and why?

AS I think rings should be, because you can take them anywhere with you, you can get them through customs, they’re portable, they’re cheap, and there’s so much you can do with them. They’re a really cool piece of equipment.

Excellent CO. So recently he introduced the new London Crossfit i-course. What is it briefly about and who is it for?

AS In theory, it’s for anyone interested in starting Crossfit, it takes you through the basic movements. I think there is a lot of ignorance even in gyms about what a basic squat is, for example; It’s great that people can come and see and review your technique; It’s very rare that I see people come in with a perfect squat, there are usually little flaws to correct. In general, we just don’t know how to teach in this country; on the back of british teachers i had no clue how to squat unless you went to some very unique olympic lifting clubs. Most gyms just don’t have a clue. So what this course gives people is some good, solid basic fundamentals. So even for people who want to stick with their current method of training, if we can get them to do a few more squats or pull-ups, then we’re totally happy, because the magic is in the movements themselves and doing them with good form. The programming, the diversity, the intensity, it’s not additional key, but if you have people doing good fundamental moves, I think it’s an incredibly important thing.

CO Ok, does Andrew Stemler have a personal mantra?

AS Yes, never have personal mantras! I think I’ve read almost every self-help book and I think listening to how other people get things done is not necessarily the way you’re going to get there. So, by all means, look at the lessons of others, but keep making your own decisions. In fact, I have a mantra: ‘You are the experiment.’ What works for one person won’t always work for another, so do what works for you.

Great company Andrew, thanks for taking part in this interview and for a brilliant day on the i-course.

AS It has been a pleasure.

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