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EXTREME CONDITIONING ON CAMPUS: Cracking Open a University Box

Sanders, Mary E. Ph.D., FACSM, RCEP; Fitzsimmons, James A. Ed.D.

doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e31826f7d86
COLUMNS: On the Floor

Extreme Conditioning on Campus: Cracking Open a University Box.

Mary E. Sanders, Ph.D., FACSM, RCEP, is a clinical exercise physiologist at the Division of Wellness and Weight Management in the School of Medicine and adjunct professor of the School of Public Health, University of Nevada, Reno. She is an associate editor of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal® and editor of the YMCA Water Fitness for Health training manual. Dr. Sanders is ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise SpecialistSM and ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist®. Her Web site is

Jim Fitzsimmons, Ed.D., currently is the director of Campus Recreation and Wellness at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has more than 20 years of experience in the fitness and coaching profession and has worked in a host of settings and with a wide variety of clients. Dr. Fitzsimmons recently placed sixth in the 2012 CrossFit Games.

Disclosure: The author declares no conflict of interest and does not have any financial disclosures.

“High intensity,” “short bouts,” “going for time,” “rounds,” “reps,” “functional,” “loaded,” “full-body integrated workouts,” “workout of the day” (WOD), and “varied challenges” are terms describing a popular trend in fitness.

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High-intensity interval training (HIIT) and extreme conditioning programs (ECPs) are growing in popularity at gyms, schools, and at home via Web sites, YouTube clips, video games, and television. HIIT programs combine quick bouts of high-energy exercise lasting from 30 seconds to 8 minutes, with low-effort rest intervals (2). Work to rest intervals may vary depending on the training objective, but typically, workouts are based on ratios such as 1:1 (30-second work: 30-second recovery) or 1:2 (30-second work: 1-minute recovery).

ECPs are defined in the CHAMP/ACSM Executive Summary (1) as high-volume aggressive exercise workouts with a variety of high-intensity exercise repetitions and short rest periods between sets. Programs are generally described as metabolically and physically demanding. Typically, they include multifaceted circuit-like training workouts using various forms of resistance and bodyweight plyometrics. Examples of ECPs cited in the report include CrossFit, P90X®Insanity®, Gym Jones, PT Pyramid, and others.

At the University of Nevada, Reno, HIIT and extreme conditioning exercises gained popularity in the University Wellness Center. Our university wanted to offer a structured program that would provide coaching for safety and progression under the umbrella of Campus Recreation and Wellness. We chose CrossFit. Since 2009, CrossFit participation in our campus at UNR has, for lack of a better word, exploded. Jim Fitzsimmons, Ed.D., director of Campus Recreation and Wellness and a 2012 CrossFit Games athlete, discusses the program and how it’s done at our university.

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The six-word description of CrossFit is constantly varied, high intensity, and functional movements.

“Constantly varied” means that the movement, duration, and intensity will vary from day to day. In the words of Greg Glassman, founder of CrossFit, “the death of fitness is a routine.” I don’t want to discount the effectiveness of periodization schedules, but people need to remember that the aim of CrossFit is broad, general, inclusive fitness and that is not achieved with a narrow or routine approach.

“High intensity” refers to the intrinsic nature of the program to challenge individuals. However, the intensity level that is performed is relative to, and determined by, the individual’s work capacity.

“Functional movements” are natural, full-body, and essential movements that are unique to moving a large load, a long distance, quickly. The squat, dead lifts, and clean are examples of functional movements that equip individuals with the capacity to perform functional activities at the speed of living.

The foundational movements are nothing new. They include movements that are human living in motion. What’s new is what’s described commonly as the “sport of fitness” and the sense of community that surrounds this program. Having been involved in the health and fitness profession for 25 years, my opinion is that it’s the most profoundly motivating fitness trend I have witnessed.

All ECPs incorporate exercises or movements that are unique to each program, and CrossFit is no different. It uses exercises that begin with primary fundamental movements, such as the following:

1. Air squat

2. Front squat

3. Overhead squat

4. Press

5. Push press

6. Push or power jerk

7. Dead lift

8. The clean

9. The snatch

These primary movements are often then mixed in with running, rowing, box jumps, pull-ups, kettle bell swings, lunges, sit-ups, and muscle ups to yield a dizzying array of combinations. These combinations are programmed as single element, time priority, or task priority workouts.

A “single element” might be to go run 10 km, 5 repetitions × 3 sets of a front squat, or something along the lines of “Karen,” which is 150 wall balls for time. A wall ball consists of going from standing upright with a medicine ball in the rack position, descending into a full squat (seam of the hip below the seam knee), driving up to full extension, and throwing the medicine ball to a designated target height. The single element is the workout for this day.

A “time priority” workout will ask that the participant completes as many rounds as possible (AMRAP) (see sidebar 1: Talking CrossFit), in a set period, of three generally moderately difficult movements. The workout “Cindy” is an excellent example. “Cindy” consists of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats, repeated for 20 minutes. The goal of the workout is to complete as many rounds as you can of these three movements in 20 minutes.

A “task priority” workout is generally three to five rounds of two or more movements performed for time or as quickly as the participant can safely move. An example of this is a workout called “Nancy” that consists of five rounds of running 400-m and performing 15 overhead squats.

I recently caught up with Jim to ask him some questions about our campus program at University of Nevada, Reno.

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Our student population is about 18,000. Each semester, about 5,000 students are Campus Wellness and Recreation members, with about 500 (10%) participating in our ECP. This is by far our most popular group fitness program, with more than 200 people a day attending one of six classes that are filled to capacity. To ensure safety, two to three coaches are scheduled for each class to accommodate the large numbers. The ratio of coaches to participants is 1:10. Recently, we invested $250,000 to expand our fitness center to provide additional space, which included an additional 2,500 sq ft to accommodate 25 participants.

We have a diverse cohort of participants, from ages 18 to mid-60s, including men, women, elite athletes, and complete novices. It is truly amazing to watch these groups come together with a common goal and to see them support each other. Such support can be described as “ferocious,” which truly is inspiring and unique to the program. I took a camera onto the floor and talked to participants. You can view the video at the link:

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Our “CrossFit Pink” class is designed for women only, is coached by women, and runs at capacity each day. Again, it is truly inspiring to see young and mature women come together with a unifying fitness paradigm of “strong is the new skinny” and “what you can do with your body is vastly more important than what it looks like.”

The “on-ramp” or “Cub Corps” program focuses on progressive skill development and safe technique.

Every semester, we hold a CrossFit Challenge, which is a 3-week series, and literally hundreds of students sign up to compete. In addition, every year, we form an affiliate team to compete in regional events and in the CrossFit Open Sectionals, which is the first step on the road to the World-wide Games. This year, we had 68 students and faculty who registered and trained for months to compete.

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First, all of our coaches are experienced CrossFitters, so they have a personal understanding of the program and know how it feels to train.

They apply and, if selected, they spend several months preparing for the level 1 certification by helping an experienced coach teach classes. After they complete their certification, they are required to team-teach for a full semester while we evaluate their performance. After which they are either assigned a class or required to do more team teaching depending on their progress.

As program director, I strongly support continuing education for certified coaches, and, therefore, host certifications so our coaches can attend; we also send our coaches to other certifications.

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Because much of CrossFit doesn’t fit neatly into the conventional framework, people assume that it’s random. There is a method to the program, and in our campus, we methodically and intentionally move our people through training formats that are designed to target strength, power, and endurance, as well as skill development. Our goal-based program is organized in multiweek blocks. The program design is constantly evaluated and, yes, there is some experimentation with formatting, but that’s how we learn and grow.

The real movement situations that the world throws at us are not logically sequenced and orderly. I can’t even go clean my garage without an unplanned event taking place that I need to react to physically. We train for unexpected “violent actions” on the athletic field, during police and fire duties, military physical tasks, playing with your kids, or snow skiing.

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We use an “on-ramp” program, also called the “Cub Corps,” that focuses on teaching the foundational movements and then slowly increasing the individual’s work capacity to the point that he or she is ready to join a group WOD or work independently.

Not only do we spend considerable time teaching the squat, front squat, overhead squat, press, push press, push jerk, dead lift, and clean, we also instruct the individual in gymnastic movements, such as pull-ups, box jumps, toes to bar, dips, push-ups, hand stands, jump roping, and rope climbs. We get his or her rowing and running technique up to speed, as well as his or her work capacity in these modalities. There are a variety of accessory movements, such as kettle bell swings, wall ball shots, and burpees that the participant also receives instruction in. Mobility skill building is a part of every session. Coaches teach participants to recognize mobility restrictions and teach them how to address them.

At the end of every instructional period, there is a WOD that incorporates the day’s skills. Nothing builds competence like correct repetition. Initially, we are establishing baselines for work capacities in specific workouts. These workouts ramp up over time, and at the end of the 4- to 6-week cycle, we return to and retest the skills, so we can compare with baseline scores and determine the improvement.

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Day 1

The participant will learn the air squat, front squat, and overhead squat with a PVC pipe (see photos previously mentioned). Once we are satisfied with the technical execution of the movements, we will have the individual or class do a very basic WOD that introduces the participant to how CrossFit workouts are structured. It also allows them to see a very small glimpse of various intensities that participants may choose. This “task priority” WOD may include three rounds of running 100-m, followed by completing 20 perfect air squats. The participants are instructed to do this as quickly as possible with consideration for proper technique and their individual work capacity using their own rating of perceived exertion. Amazingly, people know when to rest and when they can work. There are WODs that have mandatory rest periods built into them, but most rely on the participant’s own work capacity and personal motivation to set the pace or work. It’s working with our natural rhythm, in tune with how the human body is designed to work.

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Day 2

We’ll begin by reviewing proper squat technique with the participant and one progresses to the press series (see photo). When the participant or group can competently perform presses, push presses, and push jerks with a PVC pipe (see photo), we will again build a WOD using the movements. But this time, the coaches will incorporate the squat movement, which they can perform. This new “time priority” WOD may include 10 minutes of exercises, completing AMRAP of 10 air squats, 15 presses with a PVC pipe, and running 150-m.

Coaches then may lead a WOD to develop new skills or sequentially build a progression by introducing new skills and, when ready, by increasing intensities. It’s been my experience that the participants are highly motivated by using this structure, and our adherence is high perhaps because of the focus on personal skill development, followed by the variety of training WODs, coupled with daily measurable personal challenges.

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We have a blog and use social media. But to be honest, it markets itself. Word of mouth is the best marketing on campus. You can visit our blog at:

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With an initial investment of $10,000 to $15,000, you can purchase enough equipment to get started, provided you already have a space to hold class. The investment in all the CrossFit equipment is comparable to the cost of a couple of WoodWay® treadmills, which can accommodate only one person per session. For the same cost, I can accommodate 10 to 15 people in a CrossFit WOD.

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HIIT and ECPs are changing fitness. Reebok’s partnership with CrossFit will strengthen its appeal to mainstream fitness. Research conducted on modifications of these types of programs with various populations (e.g., patients in a cardiac rehabilitation program) will help shape and define safe and effective programs. Campus directors who want to start a program are advised to commit to excellence and be sure the coaches are properly trained.

Be ready for it to blow up! I’ll bet that your students are already doing it, so you probably have a ready-made population and don’t even know it. In my opinion, this is the future of the fitness scene. You can embrace it or miss an opportunity.

Special thanks to the University of Nevada, Reno, Coaches.

The University of Nevada, Reno is the nation’s first CrossFit university affiliate.

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1. Bergeron MF, Nindl BC, Deuster PA, et al. CHAMP/ACSM Executive Summary: High-Intensity Training Workshop [Internet] [cited 2012 July 13]. Available from:
2. Zuhl M, Kravitz L. HIIT vs continuous endurance training: Battle of the aerobic titans. IDEA Fitness J. 2012;9(2):35–40.
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