Episode 52: Gommaar D’Hulst on Why CrossFit is One Small Rep for Man, One Giant Broad Jump for Mankind


In today’s hyperspeed, digitized world, people don’t seem to have time for paradox or ambivalence. They want clearly defined, mutually exclusive sides, and they want to align with one immediately. But while this may be an expedient approach to separating friend from foe, it’s not an especially honest or judicious way of looking at things.

In fact, forming polarized opinions requires oversimplification and exaggeration-- two enemies of truth. And, unfortunately, CrossFit has fallen victim to today’s side-taking, label-sticking culture. It’s become a hot-button issue that sparks heated debate, that divides people into “camps”, and that, for the love of all things science, we’d like to salvage from the ruthless mania of politics.

Which is why we invited Dr. Gommaar D’Hulst onto our podcast. Founder of WOD Science and exercise physiologist with a PhD in molecular biology, Gommaar views CrossFit as fertile ground for scientific advancement, and he sees science as CrossFit’s greatest ally. To Gommaar, CrossFit is an intriguing approach to exercise that has brought a good deal of positive change to modern life at the same time that it’s a corporate entity with an agenda that jeopardizes the progress of sport.

And that’s what Gommaar wants to be precise about. There’s CrossFit programming, which has challenged the assumptions of exercise and sports science and provided an efficient, engaging alternative to traditional training modalities. And then there’s CrossFit as a company, which has stubbornly aligned with low carb diets and which doesn’t require box owners to teach their clients proper (and safe!) technique. These are two separate facets of CrossFit, and it is entirely possible and defensible to champion the former while you lament the latter.

This brings Gommaar to the mission of WOD science, which is to bridge the gap between science and the layman practitioner of CrossFit. (A very noble mission, if you ask us.) He explains how WOD science accomplishes this mission, as well as why he and his colleagues feel it’s important to discuss the methodology behind scientific research at the same time that they discuss research results.

Some limitations of exercise and sports science research, especially when it comes to sample size and composition, are particularly salient in the world of CrossFit, which has only been the topic of 121 studies. Compare this to the 20,000 studies that have been conducted on resistance training, and the amount that we don’t know about CrossFit reveals itself to be staggering. For Gommaar, this is invigorating. It’s an immense opportunity for the scientific community, especially because CrossFit has conferred some significant benefits to millions of people.

The first of these benefits is that CrossFit has, has he puts it, “gotten people off the couch.” And in a world where one of the leading causes of health problems is inactivity, this is no small contribution to progress. Gommaar remarks, “If you have a program that comes out of nowhere, and all of the sudden millions of people are moving, you can have some negative thoughts about CrossFit, but [you must admit] that at least people are moving. At least people are physically active and burning calories.”

Beyond this benefit, it’s clear that CrossFit can elicit a hypertrophic response in athletes. If you want evidence for this, look no further than CrossFit games competitors. And what CrossFit does to muscles on a molecular level is something Gommaar is particularly interested in studying. In fact, his current research is focused on the mechanisms underpinning the physiological adaptations elicited by CrossFit style training.

Gommaar discusses some intriguing findings from studies on elite CrossFitters, including one which found that elite CrossFit athletes’ aerobic conditioning is only 25%-30% behind that of elite endurance athletes like Lance Armstrong. Considering that Lance Armstrong’s training is entirely dedicated to aerobic performance, this is a surprisingly small margin.

The implications of such findings are enormous, and they could lead to massive advancements in athletic performance. But, Gommaar cautions, that can only happen if CrossFit does not “become a cult. You must try to make crossfit as mainstream as possible,” he explains.

Which means that CrossFit, as an entity, cannot turn a deaf ear to research. And that means it must stop demonizing researchers. By breathing down the necks of scientists who are beginning to study the effects of CrossFit style programming, it could stultify its own progress.

And that’s because science takes time. Studies need to accumulate so that overall trends can be discerned and outliers and confounding variables can be pinpointed. How can researchers continue to do their jobs with the threat of lawsuits looming over them? They can’t.

So, it’s up to people like Gommaar and YOU to seek out the truth about exercise and sports science, to stay skeptical, and to not be afraid of a little paradox.

To learn more about Gommaar and the science behind CrossFit, visit the WOD Science website at: https://wodscience.wixsite.com/wodscience/home or follow WOD Science on Instagram at @wod_science.

Kyle Clechenko