Fiasco: Tom Ricks Casually Disregards the Truth about CrossFit

Image via wikipedia:

Image via his wikipedia page.

Tom Ricks has won the Pulitzer prize twice, written five best-selling books on the military and foreign policy, and is a Senior Advisor at the New America Foundation. The American Society of Magazine Editors named Ricks’ blog, “Best Defense” the best blog on the internet in 2010.

This week Tom Ricks’ blog covered cyber warfare, Cuba, Iraq, torture and … CrossFit?

It’s not that much of a leap. Few would dispute that physical fitness is an essential component of military preparation. Yet the American military does not meet basic standards of health, let alone fitness:

“Only 35.7 percent of active duty personnel are classified as being a healthy weight. 51.2 percent of uniformed personnel are overweight; 12.4 percent are obese.”

Back to the CrossFit article on Ricks’ blog this week. Guest author Jim Gourley examined the military’s response to this problem in, “The relationship between the U.S. military and the CrossFit program.” Gourley reviewed some of the same figures and events that we’ve covered on this blog, including Dr. Katie Heinrich’s upcoming CrossFit study and General Abrams’ multi-million dollar commitment to CrossFit L1 seminars.

It's not hard to see why the ACSM is concerned about CrossFit's relationship with the military.

It’s not hard to see why the ACSM is concerned about CrossFit’s relationship with the military.

Gourley got those parts right, but two lines stand out as blatant misrepresentations of the truth:

The Army has perhaps given high intensity workouts the coolest reception, calling them “extreme conditioning programs” (ECPs) in a 2011 paper written in conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine …

CrossFit’s headquarters published its own response to the Army’s claims.

The 2011 article that introduced the “extreme conditioning program” phrase could only be the “Consortium for Health and Military Performance and American College of Sports Medicine Consensus Paper on Extreme Conditioning Programs in Military Personnel.”

But the “Army” did not write that article. As its title states, the article was a joint effort between the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). ACSM is an aspiring civilian competitor to CrossFit and CHAMP is a small division of the Uniformed Services University.

Neither represents the Army. In fact, the CHAMP study itself states,

The opinions and assertions contained herein are the private views of the authors and are not to be construed as official or as reflecting the views of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, U.S. Air Force, U.S., Marines, U.S. Coast Guard, or the Department of Defense.

This could not be clearer. There is no reasonable rebuttal to this point. The Army did not write the CHAMP article on extreme conditioning programs, and it does not represent Army or DOD policy in any way.

So getting this corrected should be simple, right? Email Ricks and Gourley, let them know the error and the evidence, and they’ll issue a correction.


I emailed this error first to Gourley, then Ricks and two Foreign Policy editors. I explained why the CHAMP article doesn’t represent the Army. Again, there is no reasonable argument on this point – the article clearly states that it contains private opinions and not those of the US Army or DOD.

We’ve found an inverse relationship between journalistic prestige and accuracy. The better known the source, the less willing it is to correct its errors. Local outlets often issue corrections within 24 hours. National publications and award-winning journalists sometimes don’t attempt to correct errors.

Neither Ricks nor his guest author Gourley has bothered to correct the article. You can read my full correspondence with each on Scribd: Gourley, Ricks.

Gourley defended his error, stating,

Thanks for the info. While I did see that other army leaders are extremely pro-CrossFit, I got the sense that they’re individuals acting within a larger institution that’s skeptical of the program and risk-averse to the injury hype. Based on the research and interviews I conducted, I got the impression that the Marines were out looking for a program that would substantially improve fitness, while the army sought one that would not lead to injuries.

Gourley’s “sense” may reflect his personal experience, but it is irrelevant. No matter how he feels about the Army’s stance towards CrossFit, the Army did not write the CHAMP article in conjunction with the ACSM.

Ricks responded quickly to my concerns, at first. Then he stated that he was “still trying to understand why this is noteworthy.”

I wrote back,

The current FP article states that the Army took an official stance against CrossFit. This would certainly be noteworthy, if true.

But that’s not true, and it actually is contradicted by its own source.

Next Ricks asked me if I would approve one line correcting the error. I sent him an accurate sentence he could use.

The following day, Ricks still hadn’t corrected his blog. I asked him if he had an idea when the error would be corrected. Ricks simply responded, “No.” So I gave him one more day before I would publicly correct his blog’s error. That time is up.

The details of this case are complex, but the underlying principle is simple. If the military’s relationship with CrossFit is worth covering, it is worth covering accurately.

It’s too bad that Tom Ricks doesn’t care enough to report the truth.


  1. Mr. Ricks looks like he hasn’t done a push-up in decades. His persona appears to be like that of a Richard Simmons aerobics fitness kind of guy – you know, rockin’ his short shorts and tube sox… Hardly that of a military fitness expert. I’m a 69 year old CrossFit coach and also a 20 year Army and Vietnam combat veteran. Back then, we were not in great condition, compared to today’s troops (although we thought we were). Most young military types, at least in the operations side of the house, absolutely love CrossFit. Their survival depends on their fitness and they bet on CrossFit. Mr. Ricks doesn’t know his ass from a snatch.

  2. You make a big deal out of scientific accuracy except when you make your own claims, then it’s just unsupported statements. – refer to section 1.5. Will I/can I get big doing CrossFit?

    You provide no proof that CrossFit is superior to natural bodybuilding. Steve Reeves competed before steroids were commonly available, show me a CrossFit athlete that compares, if you actually can then we’ll question if they are truly natural given how laughable CrossFit’s drug policy is. ( You know CrossFit drug policy would fail WADA standards)
    Before you demand scientific standards from everyone else please demand it of your own organization.

    • Russ Greene

      So you conjecture that if today’s athletes are bigger than Steve Reeves, then they must be on drugs? Your premise therefore is that there have been no advances in training or nutrition in the past 6 decades. On what basis do you conclude that?

      Reeves was 6’1 and 215. Jason Khalipa reports himself as 5’9 and 210. That would put Khalipa’s BMI above Reeves’. Tommy Hackenbruck is 6’1 and 210. There are many, many other CrossFit athletes near or beyond Reeves’ size.

      Competitive bodybuilder Christian Thibaudeau wrote that:

      “I’ve trained figure competitors who go to extreme lengths in their dieting, cardio, and training, and quite a few of the CrossFit girls I’m working with have better physiques than the figure girls… and that’s without dieting. Similarly, a former Canadian national bodybuilding champion I know started training for CrossFit and she looks better – not just better, but also more muscular and stronger – than when she was bodybuilding!”

      After doing CrossFit himself, he lost fat while gaining muscle and reported that, “This is the first time in my life that I really like the way I look.”

      • You still have not provided any scientific basis for your claim that CrossFit is more effective than weightlifting. Please cite a study proving this claim.
        You demand a high scientific standard from others but lack any with your claims.

      • Russ Greene

        We were talking about bodybuilding, not weightlifting. They are two entirely distinct activities. I am surprised that you confused them. Weightlifting finds who can lift the most in the snatch and clean and jerk, whereas in bodybuilding men and women flex on stages and judges pick who they think looks best.

        Exercise scientists have just barely started studying CrossFit – they have not yet compared CrossFit with traditional bodybuilding. So no relevant published study exists. If practitioners waited for exercise scientists to validate their programs, no one would know how to program long term concurrent strength and conditioning, since exercise scientists have not studied it yet. They have plenty of studies on sports drinks, though.

        That said, you’ve certainly provided some compelling evidence with your idea of comparing CrossFit athletes with old school bodybuilders. Furthermore, I earlier provided an example of bodybuilders who achieved superior results with CrossFit than in their previous training.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: