Crossfit and the Need For Training Variety – An Interview With London Head Coach Andrew Stemler

As a trainer, I have always believed that variety within any training programme is essential to obtaining maximal results. The athlete who encompasses a variety of training methods into his or her routine will undoubtedly have an advantage over one who sticks rigidly to a single form of training, due largely to the body’s ability to adapt which therefore instigates the ‘problem’ of habituation. This basically means the body begins to build a tolerance to a certain type of exercise and therefore improvements in strength and conditioning performance tend to slow down. It is also very difficult to produce a ‘complete’ athlete using a single training method.

Unfortunately the narrow-minded approach of single method training regimes still prevails in many gyms and sporting domains, but a shift in mindset is beginning to appear in the UK, and more athletes in a range of fields are incorporating increased variety into their training timetables.

With these thoughts in mind, I went along to Crossfit London’s i-course, led by one of Britain’s very few Level 2 Crossfit instructors, Andrew Stemler, to find out more about the Crossfit philosophy and how they apply it to everyday training.

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

I caught up with Andrew after the workshop to find out more about him, the course, and the Crossfit philosophy;

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

AS Sure, briefly, I took a law degree at university, did banking for four years, then went onto property and hated that, but stuck with it until 2002, and just when I turned 37, which was about ten years ago, I got sick of being unfit, and started doing a lot of martial arts. I did a whole lot of fights and did my last one in 2005, when my coach 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 f**king ridiculous!’ But then I thought, ‘well OK I’d like to have a go at that.’ so I just booked myself on a flight and went over to California to learn how to do it.

CO And what does the Crossfit philosophy involve? How does it differ from other training methods?
AS Well, on one level it shouldn’t differ at all, because it’s really just what sports science tells you to do; but basically it focuses on a general all round fitness. Most people will tend to define fitness as being very specific on one thing, so you end up with strong people who can’t run, and runners who can’t be strong; what we’re really saying is that be a good human being you need to specialise 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 off and become a marathon runner you have to that specific training, but people shouldn’t confuse specific sports training with getting generally fit.

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

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

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

AS I think a lot of people talk themselves out of doing stuff before they even try, but it’s good to have some different objectives. Sometimes my main complaint about fitness, and it goes right back to my very first fitness course, where I was taught to treat everyone as though they were a cardiac rehab patient, (so not to risk getting people to put their hands over their heads, not do overhead presses), and this long list of terrible injuries that could potentially happen. And I think as a result of that, as a trainer I was unfit and the people I trained were unfit as well. So I think having difficult targets is what we want. We all set ourselves difficult targets , like trying to have a house, to try and marry someone who’s not a total bitch : ) and when you think about it like that, trying to do a muscle up pales into insignificance in comparison. So then it’s not so hard as you first thought, especially if you work through the exercises progressively. There’s nothing that can’t be done. The drills we choose are very basic in terms of the sport that we actually do, for example the average six year old gymnast can do a muscle up fairly easily, but you just have to keep on working at it.

CO Right. So it’s quite a broad and general way of training focusing on lots of compound movements, do you think there’s any place for isolation exercises?

AS Hmmm. On the whole 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’s lots of people that look at a pull up and can’t do one, and will go away and bicep curl and lat pull 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 to struggling in a pull up, so you’ve better off practicing the actual movement with assistance from bands. However, if you’re injured and you need to rehab, for example a certain leg, or if you have a chronic imbalance, then you would use isolation exercises..

CO So isolate to reintegrate as it were?

AS Yes exactly.

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

AS I think it would have to be the rings, 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 kit.

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

AS Theoretically it’s for anybody that has an interest in starting Crossfit, it takes you through the basic moves. I think there’s so much ignorance even in gyms about what a basic squat is for example; it’s great for people to be able to come and get their technique looked at and checked out; it’s very rare that I see people come in with a perfect squat, there’s usually little defects to correct. On the whole we just don’t know how to teach in this country; on the back of british teachers I had no idea how to even squat, unless you went to some very unique Olympic lifting clubs. Most fitness centres just have no idea. So what this course gives people is some good, solid fundamental basics. So even for people who want to stay with their present method of training, if we can get them doing a few more squats or a few more pull ups then we’re totally happy, because the magic is the moves themselves and doing them with good form. The programming, the diversity, the intensity, isn’t extra key, but if you’ve got 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 to have personal mantras! I think I’ve read just about every self-help book going, and I think listening to how other people achieve stuff isn’t necessarily the way you’re going to achieve it. So by all means look at the lessons of others, but keep on making your own mind up. Actually, I do have a mantra, ‘You’re the experiment.’ What works for one person won’t always work for another, so do what works for you.

Co Excellent. Andrew thank you for taking part in this interview and for a brilliant day at the i-course.

AS It’s been a pleasure.