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Fad Exercise Programs: Separating Science from Hype?
Guy D. Leahy, MEd, CSCS,*D 6/4/2012 4:08:16 PM
Posted: Monday, July 1, 2013 12:38 AM
Joined: 6/4/2012
Posts: 2

This month's TSAC Forum is on fad exercise programs.  As tactical strength and conditioning specialists, it is a responsibility to concentrate on evidence-based training programs to help make tactical athletes the best they can be.  Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to separate evidence-based programs from those which may be very popular, but which do not have a firm research base of support.  Some training modes, such as resistance training, wobble board/balance training and agility training, appear to have a firm evidence foundation from which recommendations can be made.  


Other training techniques, though popular, do not yet have such a research foundation.  For example, CrossFit is a very popular high intensity training program, but the first peer-reviewed paper testing CrossFit was not published until earlier this year:  Another popular training variant, barefoot running, has also been controversial:

A recent review of many recent "nontraditional" training programs, such as CrossFit and kettlebell training were not, in the view of the authors, "supported in the scientific literature."

With this in mind, let's start the forum with some basic definitions.  What, in your view, constitutes a fad exercise program?  How do we distinguish evidence-based programs from fads, and what criteria should we use to do so?  Do you think that programs such as CrossFit, kettlebell training, barefoot running, suspension training and high-intensity interval training are fads or evidence-based?  What other training programs out there today might be considered fads?  

Matthew D. Tentis, CSCS 10/11/2012 6:10:22 PM
Posted: Thursday, July 25, 2013 1:12 PM
Joined: 10/11/2012
Posts: 5

Mr. Leahy,


Its been a while since I've been on the forum and just now found this post.  I used to work in the collegiate setting and began working in a CrossFit gym last August.  My career is taking me in the way of medicine, so an evidence-based practice has always been something I take very seriously.  Under that light, I'll take a shot at expressing a couple opinions in response to your questions.


1. IMO, evidence-based practice has a scientific standing behind it.  If not directly, then at least in essence.  I believe the NSCA published an article a while back suggesting a tiered approach to analyzing how a coach supports their methods.  Peer reviewed journals would score the highest, methods supported by years of anecdotal evidence practiced by experienced and reputable coaches may score just as high, and your latest muscle magazine article may score the lowest.  I apologize, but I can't recall the citation for that article, but will look and post later.  That may be a criteria for helping evaluate the evidence presented to support or not support a method.


2.  One aspect of a "FAD" that I support is that it fades out.  I do not consider CrossFit and KB training, HIIT to be in this category.  I speak of these because I have experience with them. Frankly, we as practitioners would be fools to not analyze and evaluate these methods (or actually methods within a company's practice) of training.  If the method is safe, pushes your athletes and improves their ability, why wait for science to catch up and evaluate it?  KB training, HIIT, and many training practices within CrossFit fit this description, IMO. 


There is value in creativity and sometimes the evidence that supports the training accumulates or it doesn't.  That's part of what makes this field exciting!  Evidence-based coaches and our programming continue to improve.  Design programs that are safe, improve the athlete's performance according to their need/goals, support it with the research as best you can and always know the "why" behind every aspect of the program. 


Just some of my thoughts. 


Matt Tentis, CSCS, ATC


BTW: CrossFit HQ had quite a colorful response to that research article.  I don't really have an opinion either way on that, but I do hope that further research is completed on the CrossFit style of programming.  practice is a must, but it should be exciting and create an environment where we evolve as




Guy D. Leahy, MEd, CSCS,*D 6/4/2012 4:08:16 PM
Posted: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 2:01 AM
Joined: 6/4/2012
Posts: 2

Mr. Tentis,

Thanks for your comments.

I suspect the article you're referring to is this one:

It's an excellent article, in my view, and definitely worth a read.

According to Pub Med:

If I were to rank the five modes of training I mentioned in my opening contribution,  in the order of which has the most published research to date, this is what one would see (the number next to the mode reflects the number of articles with the search term).


1. High intensity interval training: 186

2. Barefoot running: 50

3. Kettlebell training: 14

4. CrossFit: 2

5. Suspension training: 0

As you can see, high intensity interval training (HIIT), has by far the most published research available. It does not appear that modes 3-5 have enough data yet to properly evaluate them, at least according to the guidelines in the article cited above.  This will improve over time.  For example, at the ACSM/NSCA annual conferences this year, there were a total of seven presentations on CrossFit.  I am aware of two more that are in preparation.  It is likely that within the next year or so we will have enough research on CrossFit to begin to truly evaluate it from an evidence-based perspective. 

You brought up an interesting way to determine whether a training mode may be a fad or not: how long it remains popular.  Though not research as such, one can obtain a general idea of public interest in a subject by using the Google Trends search engine:

For example, if I use "barefoot running,"  this is the trend line:

As you can see, interest in barefoot running seems to have peaked in 2010/2011, and is now on a downhill slope.

Contrast this with "Crossfit training," and the trend line is quite different:

Interest in CrossFit does not appear to have peaked yet.  Only time will tell if this high interest continues.

Kettlebell training is somewhere in between:

HIIT follows a similar trend line to CrossFit:

You asked the question "if the method is safe, pushes your athletes and improves their ability, why wait for science to catch up and evaluate it?"  One could argue why it's a good idea to wait is that science may discover none of those statements are true, and quite a bit of time/effort may have been wasted on training methods which were not evidence-based.


For example, it was accepted for over 25 years that in order to help prevent running injuries, one had to match foot type (high, medium, or low arched) with shoe type (cushioned, stability, motion control.)  There was never any good scientific evidence supporting these conclusions, and recent research indicates that matching foot type to shoe type for injury prevention does not appear to be valid:

I agree that creativity has value.  It is a component of what we do that makes what we do so enjoyable.  The tactical populations we work with have unique training challenges.  It takes creativity to overcome those challenges.  I also agree it's important to know the "why" of what we do, and that's where the evidence-based training methods come into focus.

Yes... the study mentioned in my opening post could be interpreted as supporting CrossFit as a training method, though the study has design issues:

1. No control group

2. No alternative intervention group

3. Diet not controlled.

The 15% dropout rate due to injury might be cause for concern.

In addition, a follow-up study using the exact same study population found the diets these participants were following was associated with significant deterioration of the subjects blood lipids, so coronary artery disease risk appeared to increase. 

Thanks again for your contribution to the discussion!