Review of Ben Musholt’s “Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia”

This past July I was on tour with my band in northern California when I came across an article on Breaking Muscle written by a Portland-based physical therapist and parkour athlete named Ben Musholt. The more I researched this guy, the more I liked him! A short list of his experience includes parkour, freerunning, gymnastics, martial arts, capoeira, trail running, snowboarding, and beyond. I greatly respect whenever a fitness professional is well-versed in multiple disciplines instead of just a single domain or speciality. Check out some of Ben’s skills from his American Ninja Warrior Regional Semi-Final in 2012 (ignore the title, the name is wrong):

I also learned that Ben was raising funds for an exercise encyclopedia he was planning to release in October called Mad Skills300+ pages of workout movements with over 700 illustrations on disciplines ranging from bodyweight to kettlebells to barbells and more? I’m in! I made a donation and have been eager to see the finished product ever since. Here’s the book trailer from Ben Musholt’s Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia (available on Amazon here):

Having donated to the fundraising campaign, I was afforded the opportunity to read through an electronic copy of the book this past weekend, and in short, I love it! There are so many positives to how this book was put together. First off, in the Introduction Ben writes, “The broader array of movement skills that you train, the better athlete you will be.” Sound familiar? In my “What Are We Really Training For Anyway?” post I concluded something very similar: “Train to learn new skills, gradually and progressively, so as to become capable of and masterful in more complex movements.”

Second, this book achieves exactly what it set out to become: an exercise encyclopedia filled with brief descriptions and illustrations of movements; not some sort of esoteric treatise on movement philosophy. Because of that, Mad Skills is an invaluable resource for personal trainers, CrossFit coaches, martial artists, and athletes of any sport. Heading into the gym to do squats today? Check out Ben’s chapter on leg strength (aptly titled “Pillars of Steel,” love it!) to get some ideas of possible subtle variations on your routine. Or do you need some ideas on programming for your athletes? Ben includes an entire chapter on push-ups, so there’s no reason to stagnate, plateau, or get bored in your training anymore.

This book is also very comprehensive. It is quite a daunting task to set out and list all the possible exercise movements that are out there, and I can only imagine that it must have taken Ben years to compile all this information. Here’s a brief list of the variety of entries in Mad Skills: shadow box, ginga, cossack squat, plate pinch curl, bodyweight chest fly, zercher lunge, neider press, barbell sit-up, double KB windmill, KB bear crawl, sandbag overhead squat, plank push-up, breakdance push-up, handstand leg raise, cocorinha squat, precision jump, archer pull-up, towel drag, quadruped skiers, stability ball bird dog, fireman carry, scorpion downward dog pose, revolved side angle, rectus femoris stretch, levator and scapula stretch. Phew!

Lastly, the last chapter in the book, titled “Cooking it up,” is a very straightforward, to-the-point summary of how to construct an exercise program. Ben mentions general athleticism vs. sport specificity, sets and reps, variety, social support, recovery, and the bottom line, which is that “movement is the answer” and “just go play.” And it is important to note that throughout the book Ben is able to do just that: keep it playful. We’re talking about exercise people… moving your body and external objects through space because, in one way or another, we want to do it! As a resource to be referred to time and time again over the next few decades, I highly recommend Ben Musholt’s Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia to all human movers.

CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

crossfit-logo

A few days ago Medium.com published an article titled, “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret” written by a physical therapy professor named Eric Robertson. Professor Robertson’s article details a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which is extreme kidney malfunction due to excessive muscle damage. While he makes the case that rhabdomyolysis is commonplace in CrossFit gyms, I will argue that his position is exaggerated and perhaps even dishonest.

CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

The first issue that we must address is the elephant in the room whenever you talk to experienced CrossFit trainers: there is no one single thing that you can point at and say, “THAT is CrossFit.” Due to Greg Glassman’s theoretical idealizations of general physical preparedness, constant variance, and functionality, you can make an argument for virtually any physical activity fitting under the CrossFit umbrella. A short list of activities that could easily pass for CrossFit includes weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, sprinting, calisthenics, kettlebell training, triathlon, running, and even certain types of yoga. Clearly, this makes defining the term ‘CrossFit’ very challenging.

Next stop on the debunking train: CrossFit gyms and trainers vary WIDELY from place-to-place. While some people may argue that CrossFit HQ has a quality control problem, it is worthwhile to consider that ANY large corporation runs into this issue. Have you ever been to a Starbucks that just “feels better” than another Starbucks? Similarly, there are plenty of yoga studios, for instance, that have much more experienced teachers than others. Thus, extrapolating an individual’s experience with one CrossFit gym to CrossFit as a whole is a bit misleading. There are CrossFit gyms, and then there are CrossFit gyms. Just as with any act of consumerism in a free market, the buyer must make a smart, educated choice when choosing a gym and trainer.

My main problem Professor Robertson’s article is that the title is overly sensationalized (just like a piece published on Salon.com in early September that was originally titled, “CrossFit embodies everything that’s wrong with America”). To write an article about one individual’s experience with rhabdomyolysis is one thing, but to then state, without evidence, that rhabdomyolysis is “commonly encountered in CrossFit” is just blatantly dishonest. To provide some perspective, I have been training in a CrossFit gym since June of 2009, and I have witnessed exactly ZERO instances of rhabdomyolysis in that time.

Lastly, this argument is from a commenter on reddit (hat tip to Brian Sawyer from CrossFit 908):

Let’s say, internationally there are 100 cases a year (pure guess – if there were more I’d imagine we’d hear more about it). There are probably 10 people at a WOD, twice a day, 5 days a week, at 6,000 affiliates. That means in any given week there are 600,000 WOD’s – and I think I’ve been fairly conservative there not including non-affiliate workouts. That’s 31.2 million workouts a year.

So we’ve got 100 cases from 31.2 million workouts. That’s a 0.0003% incidence, making up half a percent of all reported cases. Even if it was 10,000 reported Rhabdo’s a year, that would only be 0.03% of all CrossFitters, hardly “commonly encountered.”

Thanks for reading! If you found this post interesting, helpful, or even controversial, please share it! On Thursday I will be writing about some Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting.