Kaizen Over All

This week, I’ve been writing about the process of continual improvement, best described by the Japanese word Kaizen.


Kaizen isn’t a fitness method or a system. Instead, it’s the sum of systems. Here’s why this is important right now.


If you’re familiar with the CrossFit system, then you know that many coaches are in turmoil right now. Some coaches would like to stop using the system because of the actions of its creator. Some gyms are renouncing the name; others are defending it. Some, like me, are trying to separate the exercise method from the brand (and most, like me, are struggling to do so.)


To that end, many coaches are introducing their own “system” of combining weightlifting, gymnastics and other methods. To some degree, all of these are constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. In other words, they look a lot like CrossFit.


But CrossFit is actually a sum of systems. Thousands of people used kettlebells before CrossFit. Tens of thousands did weightlifting, and hundreds of thousands did gymnastics. Early fans will remember Parkour instruction and even workouts with bicycles. It’s an inclusive system. CrossFit brought many of these marginalized modalities to the mainstream by combining them. But it’s not exclusive: you will find other things that work. When you do, upgrade your method.


If you traveled backward in time by a mere decade and visited a gym, it would look quite different than gyms do now. You’d never see gymnastics rings. You’d struggle to find a pull-up bar. You might not even find a barbell. This is the true measure of the CrossFit method: that gyms who aren’t CrossFit affiliated–or even CrossFit-educated–now follow the basic tenets of “large loads, long distances, quickly.” They have barbells. They have a rig. They have a clock. Because CrossFit works.


To that end, almost every “new” program is a derivative of CrossFit.


Think about the alternative systems you see online, in franchises and even in your neighborhood park:

“We’re like CF except for the group classes. Group classes are bad!”

“We’re like CF except our classes are 45 minutes. That makes all the difference!”

“We’re like CF except we track heart rate. Heart rate is the kingmaker!”

“We’re like CF except you can start your workout anytime you want. Video coaching makes us flexible!”

“We’re like CF except we don’t care about / only care about competition!”

“We’re like that but injury-free!”


…you’ve probably seen all of them. And that’s okay, because CrossFit is the best model we have for fitness that delivers on its promise. But it’s not the only model, and evolution dictates that we seek and test other models to build our coaching practice. You can’t build a business on the story of “not quite CrossFit.” And you can’t build long-term continual improvement by cherrypicking one part of fitness over another.


The future depends on rising above one particular method. I think the evolution of coaching means being the “sum of systems“. I think the greatest coaches will have broad knowledge of many systems, and connect their clients to specialists only as required (which won’t be often.) Following the pareto principle, great coaches will prescribe training methods only until their returns begin to wane. Then great coaches will practice kaizen at its different levels, as I laid out yesterday.


Specialists will still exist, of course. But specialists will work for generalists: great coaches will connect their clients to Pilates instructors, cycling coaching and Zone nutritionists for short-term requirements. But like great meditation coaches, great fitness coaches will always bring clients back to center. And kaizen defines that center.


My gym took CrossFit off its billboard. We still coach constantly-varied functional movement performed at high intensity, because those things work for some of our clients in some of their time. Other clients are prescribed low-intensity work–sometimes we tell them to read books and walk. Sometimes we send clients to specialists. Sometimes we recruit new clients who need general fitness coaching.


That’s a client-centered approach. That’s using “learn, design, deliver, refine” as a model. That’s a sum of systems. That’s kaizen.

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