“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
One of my first and most fundamental failures in CrossFit happened on June 18th, 2011.
A few weeks earlier, Nicole and I had moved the boys and our dog Lily back to the East Coast and stashed them in Connecticut with her family so we could find a house in Annapolis. After a whirlwind weekend, we found the house we still live in today, put me on a plane back to Hawaii, and in just over a month, had successfully moved our family half-way across the world to begin what would be the culmination of our Navy-life.
Those last few weeks in Hawaii gave me a lot of time on my hands and I got a chance to spend much of it at CrossFit Oahu. I had been doing CrossFit for about two years at that point and felt that I was pretty good.
Okay, let’s be honest. These were the days when I cherry-picked the hell out of workouts; as long the barbell stayed relatively light, we didn’t go upside down, or need to do many muscle-ups, I could do most everything as prescribed, and generally finished near the top of CFO’s daily leaderboard. My definition of success in CrossFit revolved around my ability to go Rx.
For those of us who have been doing this CrossFit for, oh, I don’t know…a few seconds, I’m sure you can appreciate how talented I was at picking and choosing which classes to attend. The story I told myself usually entailed having unforeseen work commitments on heavy days or accidentally misplacing my keys if there was some kind of high-end gymnastics movement in the workout. I’m sure no one noticed.
Or perhaps someone did notice because during my last week, the owner and head coach, Bryant, invited me to join a small group of athletes who were going to attempt CrossFit Oahu’s quarterly Rx Checklist Challenge. As I logged my score in the Rx column for that day, I think I said something like, “Oh, sure, thanks Bryant. I’d love to.”
The rules to the challenge were quite simple. Athletes would attempt each line item of the checklist during a 2-hour period. If an athlete successfully completed a line item, she would move onto the next item in sequence. However, if unsuccessful in the first attempt, that athlete would have an opportunity to make one more attempt at the item. If unsuccessful again, that item would be marked as incomplete, and the athlete would get ONE more attempt at that item only after successfully completing all remaining items. Moving forward, if the athlete failed at any additional task, her challenge was immediately over. Since opening, CFO had only had 20 or so athletes successfully complete the entire Rx Checklist. Here is a picture:
I had a few days to look through the list after Bryant had invited me to join the challenge and I honestly thought I had a chance…until I looked back through it and noticed…3 x 135lbs SQUAT snatch.
At that point in my CrossFit career, my 1-rep max snatch was 125lbs and that was a disgustingly sloppy power snatch with a press out. I could barely land under a bar and definitely not in an overhead squat position. Just to provide some perspective, I wore Vibram five-finger shoes and Froning still hadn’t won his first Games. Spoiler alert: I failed the checklist.
I successfully completed every item up until the squat snatch and missed my first and second attempt. I proceeded to make it through every other item and with about 10 minutes left in the 2 hours, I went for my last attempt at the 3-rep snatch. With a lot of cheering and coaching from folks at the gym, I got a 135lbs squat snatch. I PRed my snatch by 10lbs and PRed my squat snatch by 20lbs. But I couldn’t repeat it and thus, failed the Rx Checklist Challenge. I felt defeated despite doing a lot of good work that day and I’m not sure even Coach Taylor could have helped.
The word “prescribed” or “Rx” when used in CrossFit acts as a metaphor. CrossFit coaches, like medical doctors prescribing medication, offer athletes a very specific dose of intensity with each workout. That dosage has an intended purpose and should yield a very specific stimulus. Those stimuli, when consistently applied across a period of time at varying degrees, facilitate an athlete’s ability to do more work. The athlete who can do more work is more fit. Improved fitness equates to improved health markers such as weight loss, lower resting heart rates, lower risk of heart disease, and improved defense against other metabolic disease-related morbidity. The road to improved fitness also goes through the path of consistent movement done mechanically well. When those movement mechanics can be done consistently well at a higher and higher degree of intensity, an athlete will continue to improve faster and faster. Intensity is the CrossFit prescription and the CrossFit coach’s job is to expertly prescribe and monitor that prescription for his athletes. Anything short of that, I argue we aren’t doing our jobs.
In the end, the metaphor works because when we use the term Rx in CrossFit we deliberately hijack the medical community’s understanding of how to prescribe medicine because CrossFit is medicine.
Almost a decade after that failure in Hawaii, I still struggle to explain the term Rx as a fundamental metaphor. Some athletes and some coaches get it, many don’t. Some days, I don’t. It’s a slippery little concept and as a cornerstone of our practice, it needs constant and vigilant reexamination.
Too often, athletes and coaches will prioritize or even de-prioritize Rx as a guiding principle because we don’t really understand the metaphor. We think that Rx is some kind of goal, that it makes an athlete special or, dare I say, is driven by some kind of checklist. I’m guilty of all of this and can honestly say that there are times that pushing that little Rx button feeds the nasty little devil of my ego.
It’s all bullshit. The reality is that the prescription of CrossFit applies to everyone. The needs of my 70-year-old mother differ from the needs of the 25-year-old CrossFit Games-level athlete solely in degree not kind. Just as a doctor would write different medical prescriptions for two distinctly different patients, both of those athletes will get personalized prescriptions during their workouts and, thus, should legitimately write Rx next to their names if they are doing CrossFit as prescribed by their coach. The determination is not in the load or volume but in the application of the prescription.
So then how does this whole wonderfully idealistic concept fall apart in practice? How did I walk away from that Rx Checklist Challenge and feel like a failure for the next 3 years until I could get a 3-rep touch-and-go 135lbs snatch. Yes, I worked on that little skill for a long time and even spent a few months rehabilitating a tweaked knee because I pushed too hard in pursuit of it.
I offer that it’s because we so often inaccurately define Rx as some kind of comparison between ourselves and others rather than a measure of our fitness needs against our current state of fitness reality.
In other words, we think that Rx is a competitive determinant rather than prescriptive. We want to be better than others rather than simply reap the benefits of an expertly prescribed dosage of fitness. Another spoiler alert…CrossFit actually ISN’T a competition for almost ALL of us almost ALL the time but when we get wrapped up into comparing ourselves to others or some arbitrary standard, we are doing ourselves a distinct disservice.
So how do we fix it? Well, first, I’d love to remove the Rx/Scale buttons on SugarWOD. I’ve submitted feedback to the company software nerds but haven’t gotten anything back. In the interim, what I would recommend is that we work on defining our intention of a workout prior to executing. When I program a week of workouts, that week has multiple emotional and physical narrative arcs. Sometimes I work in multiple climatic high points, sometimes everything builds to a final conflict, sometimes it’s just a post-modern examination of the futility of meaning. Either way, there’s intention. Usually that intention manifests in my VERY generalized establishment of Rx loads and volumes. But, I say this and I mean it, those are never written in stone. They are the start of the negotiation process with your coaches. And we are all a part of that negotiation.
The athletes who lean into that process, who challenge themselves, challenge their coaches, and challenge their fellow athletes to really explore what they want to get out of their time in the gym are the athletes who make this whole experiment worth it.
In the end, writing Rx or Scaled really doesn’t matter. What matters is knowing WHY you write Rx or Scaled. Understanding that difference will be the moment you stop thinking you failed because you couldn’t go Rx and instead, start feeling like you’ve already won because you chose to walk through the door, regardless of what happens after 3-2-1…GO!
See you on the Creek.