Fitness as a sport. The quest to define ultimate athleticism. Consider the decathlon. Ironman. Strongman. Highland Games…all legit. Performance limits are being challenged everywhere.
But is there such a thing as ultimate fitness or all-around fitness? Which athletes really are the fittest on earth?
Elite athletes inspire. That’s the first thought that comes to my mind. This is true across all of sport. Seeing people who have achieved mastery execute their art form is equal parts entertaining, inspirational, and educational. And in the modern trend of organized training methods and competitions based around the conditioning workout, the top performers are equally amazing.
The 3 major fitcomps we’re going to examine attempt to display their version of the ideal human beast. There really are more pros than cons…it just has to be viewed in the proper context. Sports, comps, and events select athletes and then they further shape them. By this I mean that certain body types and personalities will be drawn toward the sport or exercise that fits them best. And then, continued participation in said training will further develop and hone the athlete’s abilities. It’s the classic nature plus nurture situation.
Let’s take a look at three of the most popular “fitness meets athletics” models. These are CrossFit, Spartan, and Hyrox. This won’t be a comprehensive analysis. I’d like to showcase the recent championship events in each of the three disciplines and I’ll provide links to the video programming for each. Using an objective lens, I’ll describe the competitions and some of the things I observed.
This was the championship event among the 10 finalists (5 women, 5 men). Comprised of 12 events over three days, the Games were an exciting show to watch. Defending champion Tia-Clair Toomey won her 4th consecutive title as Mat Fraser went on to his 5th victory. Here is a list of the events which I copied and pasted from Wikipedia:
- Event 1: 2007 Reload – 1500-meter row, then five rounds of 10 bar muscle-ups and 7 shoulder-to-overheads (Women 145 / Men 235 lb.)
- Event 2: Corn Sack Sprint – a 320-meter hill sprint with a corn sack (Women 30 lb. / Men 50 lb.)
- Event 3: CrossFit Total – 1-rep-max back squat, 1-rep-max shoulder press, a 1-rep-max deadlift
- Event 4: Handstand Sprint – 100-yard sprint on hands
- Event 5: Ranch Loop – 3-mile loop. An unexpected twist was added and athletes had to run back to finish
- Event 6: Toes-to-Bar/Lunge – 30-20-10 rep scheme of toes-to-bars and kettlebell lunges
- Event 7: Snatch Speed Triple – weightlifting speed ladders (Women 145 to 185 lb. / Men 225 to 285 lb.)
- Event 8: Bike Repeater – 10 rounds of a 440-meter bike sprint and 1 legless rope climb
- Event 9: Happy Star – Four rounds of hill loops, burpees and thrusters. The run course changed and the reps and weight increased in each round.
- Event 10: Swim ‘N’ Stuff – 4 rounds of (women 10/men 15) calories on Air Bike, 50-meter swim, 10 GHD sit-ups, and 10 ball slams (Women 40 / Men 60 lb.).
- Event 11: Sprint Sled Sprint – a 100-yard sled push between two 100-yard sprints
- Event 12: Atalanta – 1-mile run, 100 handstand push-ups, 200 single-leg squats, 300 pull-ups, and another 1-mile run, all while wearing a weight vest (Woman 14 / Men 20 lb.).
This was an absolutely exciting competition to watch. CrossFit Director of Sport Dave Castro was incredibly creative in designing each extremely challenging event. CrossFit demands an immensely strong and versatile athlete who is capable of very high work output over relatively short time frames. The sport recruits and builds a muscular athlete, but because of the gymnastic and Olympic lifting skills involved in some events, CrossFit requires much more agility than would be developed in say, bodybuilding or powerlifting alone.
Popular in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) world, the Spartan Games was an invitational 4-day event held last fall with 24 (12 female, 12 male) elite competitors from a variety of sporting backgrounds. For an event list, leaderboard, and other details, check out Obstacle Racing Media’s Spartan Games page. This is an endurance-based competition in part. A 6-hour trail run, long mountain bike ride, and open water swim were part of the comp. But there were also warrior skills such as wrestling and different agility components wrapped into obstacle course events, as well as some strength focus such as lifting atlas stones. Durability seems to be the main focus of Spartan, in which who can best handle the long sessions and back to back days of competition tends to rise to the top. On the women’s side, Lindsay Webster edged out Corinna Coffin by a mere 7 points. In the men’s race, Ryan Atkins held off Hunter McIntyre by a margin of 9 points. The close competition made for good TV and a bit of drama.
Using terms like the World Series of Fitness and Functional Fitness Athlete, Hyrox endorses a gym-based all-out sufferfest lasting about an hour. In this competition, the athletes run 8 x 1000m on a motorless treadmill while connected to heart rate monitors on the display screen and interspersed with 8 events which were:
- 1000m Ski Erg
- Sled Push 175kg men/125kg women x 50m
- Sled Pull with Rope 125kg men/75kg women x 50m
- Burpee Broad Jumps x 80m
- 1000m Row
- 200m Farmer Carry (kettlebells) 2 x 32kg men/2 x 24kg women
- 100m Sandbag Lunge 30kg men/20kg women
- 100 reps Med Ball Wall Balls 9kg men/6 kg women
Lauren Weeks of the U.S. took the victory for the women as McIntyre was dominant among the men. This comp is all about the burn. Who can hold redline for an hour? It requires a very high high VO2max, proficient running ability, and lactate-ridden output with all around strength/power between bouts of locomotion.
Frankly, every athlete in each competition was world class. That needs to be stated right off the bat. Instead of suggesting that one model is better than the other, I’d like to posit that they just showcase a different type of athlete. So, by each group’s definition, their champion is the fittest in that genre. But the very traits that make one a champion CrossFitter might not define the best Spartan or OCR athlete. And Hyrox probably most effectively exposes a slightly different type of competitor. It’s all good.
But one thing is for sure…the volume and intensity at which these world champions compete would in all likelihood destroy most of the rest of us. So, my advice to anyone who is going to be overly critical of any of these “camps” and say it’s too much/too hard for the average Joe and Suzy is to pause and think. These challenges are too tough for many recreational athletes and fitness enthusiasts, but they may not be and sure don’t seem to be for the competitors portrayed in these shows. Professional athletes are what they are for a reason, and we don’t want to forget that. Each of these models has merit if we can scale them back to fit our personal conditioning and skill level.
I have a new book coming out in a few weeks. It’s actually a revised, second edition of an ebook program I originally wrote back in 2018. It’s called AnimalFIT and now it’s going to be available in paperback. The subtitle remains the same: “Unleash Your Inner Beast and Unlock Your Athletic Potential.” AnimalFIT combines both science and whimsy as it helps the reader to embrace an animalistic profile of athleticism. You can determine which one of 9 animals in the AnimalFIT kingdom best represents your inner athlete: bear, panther, coyote, badger, wolverine, racoon, wolf, otter, or bobcat. Going with that theme, I’ll relate these fitness comps to a few animals.
CrossFIT is the territory of the badger and wolverine. Bears who are super strong but too big just can’t sustain the WOD’s. Panthers who are smoking fast sometimes do OK but usually lack the repeatability needed for the grinds. CrossFIT breaks otters, racoons, bobcats and wolves…eventually the load is just too heavy. Only the most tenacious, ferocious, and durable beasts (badgers and wolverines) can stand atop the CrossFit podium.
Spartan is a different beast, and it emphasizes a different athletic animal. There is enough strength and power to eliminate the coyote. We saw this when the pro ultrarunner got last place in the men’s comp. Spartan has way too much endurance for a bear, who just can’t move his own mass to that degree. There is not enough true speed in Spartan to match up with the panther. Racoons and otters do OK. But it really favors the wolf, who has enough strength and agility to handle most of the events but whose overall stamina reigns supreme.
Hyrox is also unique. The strength demands (which are quite substantial, at least in a strength-endurance capacity) automatically eliminate racoons and coyotes. There is too much aerobic burn for a sprint-specialist panther. Wolves can’t handle that much load. It’s the otters and bobcats who rein supreme because they can combine good strength with go-go mojo.
Let’s take what we can learn from all these comps. Maybe get into one of the local (if available) offerings of any of these. Or possibly create your own version of an ultimate fitness competition and stage it with a few friends and family. I have been doing something like this every summer for over a decade and it keeps evolving. This is due in large part to the great inspiration I receive from things like CrossFit, Spartan, and Hyrox. Accept challenge, throw down, and strive to be your best. Don’t be afraid to test it from time to time.