Monday, January 6, 2014

Doing crossfit and looking like a bodybuilder?

Top crossfit athletes like Annie Thorisdottir and Rich Froning Jr. (pictured below; photos from and look like bodybuilders even though their training practices are markedly different from those of most top natural bodybuilders. It is instructive, from a human physiology perspective, to try to understand why.

First of all we should make it clear that what makes Annie Thorisdottir and Rich Froning Jr. look the way they do is not only crossfit training. Genetics plays a key role here. Some people don’t accept this argument at all. Can you imagine someone arguing that top basketball players are generally tall because the stretching and reaching moves inherent in playing basketball make them tall? Top basketball players are not tall because they play basketball; the causality is stronger in the opposite direction: they play basketball because they are tall. The situation is not all that different with top crossfit competitors.

Often people will point at before and after photos as evidence that anyone can achieve the level of muscularity of a champion natural bodybuilder, if they do the right things. The problem with these before and after photos is that one can “go down” in terms of muscularity and definition quite a lot, but there is a clear ceiling in terms of “going up”. For example, if one goes from competitive marathon running to competitive bodybuilding, after a few years the difference will be dramatic if the person has the genetics necessary to gain a lot of muscle.

In other words, those who have the genetics to become very muscular can lose muscle and/or gain body fat to the point that they would look like they don’t have much genetic potential for muscle gain. Someone who doesn’t have the required genetics, on the other hand, will also be very effective at losing muscle and/or gaining body fat, but will be much more limited at the upper end of the scale.

The table below is from a widely cited and classic study by Fryburg and colleagues on the effects of growth hormone, insulin, and amino acid infusion on muscle accretion of protein. The article is available online as a PDF file (). The measurements shown on the table were taken basally (BAS) and at 3 h and 6 h after the start of the infusions, one of which was of a balanced amino acid mixture that raised arterial phenylalanine concentration to about twice what it was before the infusion. Phenylalanine is one of the essential amino acids present in muscle ().

There were four experimental conditions, two with only amino acid infusion, one with insulin and amino acid infusions, and one with insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and amino acid infusions. Protein synthesis and breakdown numbers are based on phenylalanine kinetics inferences. The balance number is based on the synthesis and breakdown numbers; the former minus the latter. Note that at BAS the balance is always negative; this implies a net amino acid loss from muscle. At BAS the measurements were taken after a 12 h fast.

All infusions – of insulin, IGF-1, and amino acids – were continuously applied during the 6 h period. There was no exercise involved in this infusion study, and the amino acid mixture was balanced; as opposed to focused on certain amino acids, such as BCAAs.

The numbers in the table suggest that insulin infusion brings the balance to positive territory at the 3-h mark, with the effect wearing down at 6 h. IGF-1 infusion brings the balance to positive territory at 3 h, with the effect increasing and almost doubling at 6 h. Amino acid infusion alone brings the balance to positive territory a bit at 3 h and 6 h, and much less than when it is combined with insulin or IGF-1 infusions.

The effects of these infusions were due to both reductions in breakdown (amino acid loss) and increases in synthesis. We see that insulin exerts its effect on the balance primarily by suppressing breakdown. IGF-1 exerts its effect on the balance primarily by increasing synthesis. The effect of IGF-1 on the balance is significantly stronger than those of insulin and amino acid infusions, even when these latter two are taken together.

While this is an infusion study, one can derive conclusions about what would happen in response to different types of exercise and nutrients. Under real life conditions, insulin will increase in response to ingestion of carbohydrates and/or protein. IGF-1 will increase in response to growth hormone (GH) elevation, of which a major trigger is intense exercise.

The type of exercise that leads to the highest elevation of GH levels is intense exercise that raises heart rate significantly and rapidly. Examples are sprints, large-muscle resistance exercise, and resistance exercise involving multiple muscles at the same time. At the very high end of GH secretion are exercises that use large upper and lower body muscles at the same time, such as the deadlift. At the low end of GH secretion are localized small-muscle exercises, such as calf raises and isolated curls.

Anecdotally it seems that, at least for beginners, those exercises that lead to the highest GH secretion are the least “comfortable” for them. That is, those are the exercises that cause the most “huffing and puffing”. So next time you do an exercise like that, use this as a motivator: these are the exercises with the biggest return on investment; whether you are looking for health improvement, muscle gain, or both.

Competitive crossfit practitioners tend to favor variations of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), with an emphasis on a blend of endurance and strength exercises. Endurance and strength are both needed in crossfit competition. Competitive bodybuilders tend to focus more on strength, often exercising with more resistance or weight than competitive crossfit practitioners.

Extrapolating from the infusion study, one could argue that high GH secretion exercises are critical for amino acid accretion in muscle. Both groups mentioned above – competitive crossfit practitioners and competitive bodybuilders – exercise in ways that lead to high GH secretion. Surprising as this may sound (to some), if you do chin-ups, you’ll probably have better results in terms of biceps hypertrophy than if you do isolated bicep curls. This will happen even though the overall load on the bicep muscles will be lower with the chin-ups. The reason is that the GH secretion will be significantly higher with the chin-ups, because more muscles are involved at the same time, including large ones (e.g. the lats).

It is interesting to see competitive crossfit practitioners talking about needing to lose some weight but not being able to (). The reason is that they do not have much body fat to lose, and the types of exercise that they do create such a powerful stimulus toward positive nitrogen balance () that they end up gaining weight even as they restrict calorie intake.

Carbohydrate ingestion prior to exercise may raise insulin levels, but will blunt GH secretion; protein without carbohydrate, on the other hand, will raise insulin levels without blunting GH secretion (). Whether ingesting protein immediately before exercising is necessarily good in the long run is an open question, however, because GH secretion is likely to be greater for someone who is exercising in the fasted state, as GH secretion is in part a response to glycogen depletion (, ). And, as we have seen from the infusion study, GH secretion is disproportionately important as a positive nitrogen balance factor.

Compensatory adaptation applied to human biology () suggests that the body responds to challenges over time, in a compensatory way. Which scenario poses the bigger challenge: (a) high GH exercise with more amino acid loss during the exercise, or (b) high GH exercise with less amino acid loss during the exercise? I think it is (a), because the message being sent to the body is that “we need more muscle to do all of this and still compensate for the loss during exercise”.

Maybe this is why top crossfit practitioners end up looking like bodybuilders, and cannot lose muscle even when a slightly lighter frame would make them more competitive in crossfit games. Their bodies are just responding to the stimuli they are getting.


Sam Knox said...


I think it's misleading to use Crossfit Games competitors as examples of the effects of Crossfit-style training. They don't train for the games by doing WODs, they train in the same way that anyone would for that kind of competition: lifting weights and doing high-intensity intervals.

js290 said...


Nassim Taleb talks about the "Swimmer's Body" in Fooled by Randomness. Also, I think it was George Hackenschmidt (inventor of the 'Hack squat') that said health cannot be divorced from strength.

Thorisdottir and Froning could probably be competitive bodybuilders if they chose to do that instead. Most people probably just have unrealistic expectations of what their own bodies.

John said...

Most elite crossfitters are coming from a healthy background, with lots of training and athletic activity. The average crossfitter is usually somewhat unmotivated, unfit, and overweight.

I think almost anyone can achieve a good physique, but maybe crossfit is not the optimal way. Hard work in the weight room combined with careful dieting will probably be better than doing WODs.

John said...

Oh, also we should consider the naivety of the public to think tested athletes are not using illegal drugs. Those physiques are certainly achievable without gear, but the level of performance is maybe not. Froning gained considerable muscle since starting competitive crossfit.

Anonymous said...

These guys - the CF athletes that are actually strong - long ago stopped doing CF work outs and use standard strength/lifting programming. This is fairly well known.

Cf doesn't make people strong. It makes them less weak.

johnnyv said...

The elite cross fitters got and maintain their physiques via standard body building hypertrophy work. On its own cross fit makes woman look good and men look weak as it is mostly endurance and poor form.
A structured resistance training regimen in combination with HIIT is VASTLY superior in terms of promoting hypertrophy.

Martin said...

Is the recommendation of eating high carb and protein postworkout meal wrong? Is it reducing the GH response?

efugeni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Nobody in my crossfit gym looks remotely like Annie or Froning, even the super studs that finish minutes before everyone else or lift 25-50% more. They work out 5-6 times per week and are religious about diet, calories, pre and post workout nutrition etc.

Frankly I have no idea how the crossfit competitors achieve these physiques. Froning supposedly eats primarily peanut butter and whole milk and then whatever he wants whenever he wants. This is so obviously BS that we probably have no idea what he really does.

I don't want to say that they are all juicing, but gaining 25-50 pounds of lean muscle is nearly impossible under normal circumstances.

Ned Kock said...

Hi Martin. Carbohydrate ingestion PRIOR to exercise is a problem; it may raise insulin levels, but will blunt GH secretion.

rs711 said...

Hi Ned,

Fasted training for a superlative all-round stimulus makes a lot of sense to me but I'm missing a piece...I wonder about our gluconeogenic capacity: how capable is it for fuelling HIIT style workouts on a ketogenic diet? A lot of the anecdotal evidence one hears about suggests a disadvantage in this state when attempting this sort of exercising...however, on the other hand, glycogen stores don't ever really get totally depleted as far as I understand (except in starvation scenarios of course). How does this all fit together (theoretically at least)?

Unknown said...

Awesome ideas!

Ned Kock said...

Hi rs711. Muscle holds on to glycogen greedily, releasing it only during glycogen-depleting exercise such as sprints and weight training. Liver glycogen is another story; it is there to supply the needs of the brain, so the liver releases it as glucose regularly.

The average body, mostly the brain, consumes about 5 g of glucose per hour. Most of it comes from the liver glycogen tank. Pregnant women are the main exception; they have two (or more) brains to feed.

If liver glycogen reserves are low, the body uses amino acids from muscle for GN, to supply the needs of the brain. Muscle cells are not lost in this case, and those amino acids that are lost are recovered when nitrogen balance becomes positive.

As I’ve said here before, the main stimulus for amino acid loss in muscle is not lack of protein ingestion, it is lack of muscle use (but, of course, dietary protein is important). If one’s arm is immobilized, its muscles will atrophy regardless of how much protein is ingested.

Ned Kock said...

There is always a limit to everything, including stimuli for compensatory adaptation. When it comes to exercising in a fasted state, I would argue that the limit is reached (or is very close to being reached) when one starts experiencing orthostatic hypotension; i.e., feeling dizzy when going from a sitting to a standing position. See this post for more details on this and suggestions on how to address the problem:

raphi said...

Thanks for the info Ned. I went back and read - the only time I experienced orthostatic hypotension is in my pre-Paleo days always after long bouts of TV-watching, something I don't experience anymore (the ortho.-hyp. or the long TV-watching).

Just for info: 2 days ago, after 15-16h of fasting + coffee + green tea, I did a short but relatively intense workout (~15min) and took some blood sugar readings. 147 mg/dl (20min after), 124 mg/dl (45min after), 102 mg/dl (1hr after)...and 20min after I ate my typical high-fat, quite low-carb meal my blood sugar was down to 70 mg/dl !

How typical is this? For info I am definitely fat-adapted, 24yrs old, male, and my fasting blood sugars are usually in the mid 70s-80s.

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Unknown said...

Hi Ned

Always enjoy your discussions. I agree with you that genetics are key. I remeber back in my competitive running days in school that we all did the same workouts at the same intensity but the results were wildly different suggesting that some people simply respond better to the training. Speaking of myself, my family has a tendency to become diabetic at a low weight ie become skinny fat. My sister died at 63 years old from complications from diabetes and she was not that heavy and father became prediabetic at 170 lbs which is not that heavy. My distance running I think has kept me getting diabetes but I am fairly thin and under muscled. Then about four years ago I started adding strength training to my training. Today I mostly strength train with my running which is very intermittent being about one third what I used to do. I have gained about 15 lbs with no change in my waist which I think is really good. I still only weigh 162-165 lbs at 5-10. I have noticed significant improvement in my health also except I get orthostatic hypotension often when I get up from a laying or sitting position, sometimes rather severe, sometimes during the workout also. I am 56 years old and I am wondering if I should be having more protien before the workout might help?

Ned Kock said...

Hi raphi. You may want to take a look at this:

Ned Kock said...

Hi William. OH is associated with an abnormal elevation of stress hormones; sometimes people push themselves too far in their workouts.

You remind me a bit of Jeff O’Connell, Editor-in-Chief for I reviewed his book, which I think you’d find very relevant to your case:

Leroy DAvis said...

wow!! that was an awesome result! i wanna try it!..

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