Crossfit and the Need to Train Variety: An Interview with London Head Coach Andrew Stemler

As a trainer, I have always believed that variety within any training program is essential for maximum results. The athlete who embraces a variety of training methods in his routine will certainly have an advantage over the one rigidly attached to a single form of training, due in large part to the body’s ability to adapt, thereby causing habituation problem. Basically, this means that the body begins to build up 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 just one training method.

Unfortunately, the narrow focus of single method training regimens is still prevalent in many gyms and sports fields, but a mindset shift is beginning to appear in the UK, with more athletes in a variety of fields incorporating greater variety into their training schedules.

With these thoughts in mind, I went to Crossfit London’s i course, run by one of Britain’s few Level 2 Crossfit instructors, Andrew Stemler, to learn more about the Crossfit philosophy and how it applies to daily training.

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

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

CO Hi Andrew, thank you for agreeing to participate in this interview. May I start by asking you a bit about yourself and how you came to pursue a career in fitness?

AS Sure, briefly, I graduated law school, I did banking for four years, then I went into ownership and hated it, but I kept it up until 2002, and just when I turned 37, which was about ten years ago, I got a lot of being out of shape and began to practice many martial arts. I did a lot of fights and the last one was in 2005 when my trainer 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 fucking ridiculous!’ But then I thought, ‘well, okay, I’d like to try it.’ so I booked a flight and went to California to learn how to do it.

CO And what is the Crossfit philosophy? How is it different from other training methods?
AS Well, on one level it shouldn’t differ at all, because it’s actually just what sports science tells you to do; but basically it focuses on a complete general fitness. Most people will tend to define fitness as very specific to 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 to be a good human being you need to specialize in everything, and that includes training all three energy systems to become a good aerobic athlete, a good anaerobic athlete, and a good sprinter. We think you need to train all three systems. Obviously, if you want to go out there and become a marathon runner, you have to do that specific training, but people shouldn’t confuse sports-specific training with general fitness.

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

AS Well, you actually 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 have dramatically different workouts. So, for example, in the session we did on the i-course here, if you tell people, ‘do ten overhead squats,’ some may decide to use a 10kg bar, others a 20kg bar. and others may decide to use a broomstick. Those who are very strong can do it very fast, some may have to do it in 3 reps. So if you are very strong, that workout becomes pretty easy; for others who are not as strong, that would be their maximum training, 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 moves and just think it would be too hard for them?

AS I think a lot of people talk themselves out of doing things before they even try, but it’s nice to have a few different goals. Sometimes my biggest complaint about fitness, and it goes back to my first fitness course, where I was taught to treat everyone as if they were cardiac rehab patients (so as not to risk people getting their hands on the head, no overhead pressing), and this long list of terrible injuries that could occur. And I think as a result of that, as a coach I wasn’t in shape and the people I was coaching weren’t in shape either. So I think having tough goals is what we want. We all set hard goals for ourselves, like trying to own a house, trying to marry someone who isn’t a total bitch 🙂 and when you think about it like that, trying to muscle up pales in comparison to insignificance. So it’s not as difficult as you first thought, especially if you work through the exercises gradually. There is nothing that cannot be done. The exercises we chose are very basic in terms of the sport we actually play, for example the average six year old gymnast can muscle up quite easily, but you just have to keep working at it.

CO Right. So it’s a pretty broad and general way of training that focuses on a lot of compound movements, do you think there’s a place for isolation exercises?

AS Hmmm. In general, 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 are a lot of people who look at a pull up and can’t do one, and will go off and do bicep curls and side pulls, etc. and it doesn’t seem to have the same stimulation, it doesn’t seem to help them achieve the pull. UPS; There’s something unique about struggling in a pull up, so you’re better off practicing the actual movement with the help of the bands. However, if you are injured and need rehabilitation, for example a certain leg, or if you have a chronic imbalance, then I would use isolation exercises.

CO So isolate to reintegrate so to speak?

AS Yes exactly.

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

HOW I think the rings should be, 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 are a really cool piece of equipment.

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

AS In Theory is for anyone with an interest in starting Crossfit, it takes you through the basic moves. I think there is a lot of ignorance even in gyms about what a basic squat is, for example; it’s great that people can come and see and review his technique; it’s very rare that you see people come in with a perfect squat, usually there are small flaws to correct. In general, we just don’t know how to teach in this country; on the back of British teachers I had no idea how to squat, unless you went to some very unique Olympic lifting clubs. Most gyms just don’t have a clue. So what this course gives people is some good, solid basic fundamentals. So even for people who want to stick with their current training method, if we can get them to do a few more squats or a few more pull-ups, then we’ll be totally happy, because the magic is in the movements themselves and doing them well. form. The programming, the diversity, the intensity, it’s not an additional key, but if you have people doing good fundamental moves, I think that’s incredibly important.

CO Ok, does Andrew Stemler have a personal mantra?

AS Yes, never have personal mantras! I think I’ve read pretty much every self-help book and I think listening to how other people achieve things isn’t necessarily the way you’re going to achieve it. So, by all means, look at the lessons of others, but continue to make your own decisions. In fact, I have a mantra: ‘You are the experiment’. What works for one person won’t always work for another, so do what works for you.

Excellent company Andrew, thanks for taking part in this interview and for a brilliant day at i-course.

AS It has been a pleasure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *