It’s hard to know where the meme got started, but it’s all over the Paleo world now. Apparently, many people seriously believe that CrossFit is a Paleo practice. A quick Internet search shows us cartoon drawings of cavemen flipping tires and doing Olympic lifts. CrossFit has a major presence in Paleo-style conferences and publications and many CrossFitters are quick to make the claim that CrossFit is the exercise program of our ancient past. One popular T-shirt even tells us that “Snatch is Paleo.”
But let’s get something clear. CrossFit has some virtues, but being Paleo is not one of them. There was nothing resembling CrossFit in the Paleo. There were no barbells or kettlebells, no med balls, no truck tires and no trucks. The Paleolithic period began some 2-3 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. During this period, the exclusive physical challenge was hunting and gathering. No one exercised. No one did strength training. No one did anything resembling CrossFit. No one did the snatch.
Advocates for the “CrossFit is Paleo” meme suggest that their hard-core physical training would have been ideal for success as a hunter-gatherer. But this assertion ignores the bedrock principle of specificity in training. That is, if you want to get good at something, you need to practice doing that very thing. If you want to be a better hunter-gatherer, you have to practice hunting and gathering, a lot. Even if Paleolithic people had CrossFit gyms on the grassland, it wouldn’t have done them any good. The way to get good at hunting is to hunt.
And hunting is not easy. It’s a subtle art that demands acute sensation and finely honed judgment, all based on experience in natural habitat. The only way to learn this art is to actually practice it. Practicing other skills doesn’t help. CrossFit training makes you better at doing CrossFit, nothing more. To say that “CrossFit makes you a better hunter” is like saying “CrossFit makes you a better guitar player.”
If CrossFit was truly Paleo, we would expect that existing hunter-gatherer populations would excel at CrossFit exercises, but they don’t. They don’t even have an interest. Just try it: Gather a bunch of Hadza bushmen from Tanzania, !Kung from the Kalahari or Inuit from the far north and test their CrossFit capabilities. If you could even persuade them to participate (a highly unlikely proposition), their performance would be the same as any non-CrossFitter. That is, they wouldn’t do very well. But they could out-hunt you in a heartbeat. Likewise, try a time-travel thought experiment: Take a few CrossFit champions and send them back 100,000 years. Uneducated in the ways of plants and animals and lacking a deep oral tradition to maintain vital knowledge, the champion CrossFitter would soon perish, no matter how strong he or she happened to be.
The true folly of CrossFit is revealed in the tag line: “We train for the unknown and the unknowable.” But if the future is unknown and unknowable, how can we possibly train for it? Are we to suppose that success in the future will hinge exclusively on our ability to pump out big reps of power-endurance exercise? What if the future holds some other kind of challenge? And besides, I thought that CrossFit was about the past? Please, make up your mind.
If the purpose of CrossFit is to mimic Paleolithic hunting and gathering challenges, then why not craft it specifically to that end? Why not train outdoors, in natural habitat? Why not emphasize sensation and knowledge of the natural world? Why not study the actual challenges of the Paleolithic period and devise training exercises that mimic them?
It’s worth pointing out that in the Paleolithic era, all human experience took place outdoors. But CrossFit literally puts people in a box, an indoor environment that has no relationship whatsoever to Paleolithic reality. And even when CrossFit does go outdoors (as in a major CrossFit competition), the action is in a stadium, on artificial turf, in well-marked, linear lanes. This kind of environment has zero relationship to Paleolithic habitat or experience.
All of this is not to say that CrossFit has no value. Of course it has value. If you’re one of the lucky ones who manage to escape injury, then you may well enjoy greater strength, power and muscular development. You might even feel great.
Just don’t call it Paleo. It’s not.