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BOOK REVIEW: Embrace the Suck by Stephen Madden

Embrace the Suck: A Crossfit MemoirEmbrace the Suck: A Crossfit Memoir by Stephen Madden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Embrace the Suck is one man’s account of his experience with Cross-fit and other high intensity fitness regimens, including SEALFIT 20X. While Madden comes across as a regular Joe, i.e. not one of those crazed individuals who wreck their bodies through lack of rest, failure to heed the body’s warnings, or by way of starvation diets pursued to get that perfect cut, he’s a cheerleader for Cross-fit. If one is looking for an unbiased account of the strengths and weaknesses of Cross-fit, there are probably more objective accounts of the system’s pros and cons. This book is for someone who’s trying to psych themselves up for high intensity interval training. In that regard, the book does a good job because Madden always portrays himself as a human with the unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and limitations that condition entails. He succeeds because he guts it out in the company of the people around him who are portrayed as being more fit (at least in some dimensions) and driven than he.

Still, Madden’s account does give one a taste of the ugly side of the notoriously cult-like fitness system. For example, there is the trainer who refers to orange juice as poison–because it’s a high glycemic index carbohydrate. Even more disturbing is the wife who chastises him upon seeing a photo of him smiling as he crossed the finish line in a marathon–because it showed he hadn’t pushed hard enough. [Come on, it’s not as if, even if he’d died upon crossing the finish line from exhausting all bodily resources, that some Kenyan wouldn’t have been hours ahead of him.] Madden does include a chapter about pain and injuries, but it just suggests one should know what is run-of-the-mill fatigue and what is an actual injury. He mentions an example of a shoulder injury from his own body that he “should probably get checked out.” Furthermore, the final chapter seems to be a cautionary tale about packing too much training into too few days.

The book lays out the Cross-fit approach to exercise, and explains why it is so successful without getting deeply into the research. For those unfamiliar with high intensity interval training (HIIT), the general principle is that one constantly varies one’s workout, and that said workouts are done at maximum intensity with short and regimented rest breaks (though the core workout—i.e. the so-called WOD, workout of the day, is often quite short, i.e. 15 -20 minutes.) The track record for increasing fitness for this approach is good. Studies have indicated that one can get about the same level of cardiovascular benefit as one does from traditional cardiovascular exercise while building muscle (endurance activities like running pursued in isolation tend to result in muscle wastage) and reducing risk of repetitive stress injuries (because one is always changing one’s workout / movement.)

It sounds like there’s no down-side. The workouts are short (granted you may puke, but you’re out the door in an hour or less.) The benefits are high, and it doesn’t seem to be deficient in cardio—the one area in which one might think it would be. The jury is still out on the injury risk. Cross-fit puts out guidelines (which Madden explains) on how frequently one should take a rest day and on the need for perfect form. Those who follow the guidelines may not have any higher risk than other exercisers (the science remains insufficient.) However, the problem may be that it’s hard to maintain the aforementioned perfect form when a trainer is shouting, “faster, faster, faster” in one’s face. Furthermore, moderation and following rest suggestions has apparently not proven the strong suit for many Cross-fitters, some of whom come down with rhabdomyolysis (a deterioration of skeletal muscle from over-exertion / insufficient rest.)

Diet is, of course, an essential topic for any book on fitness, and Madden touches on the two diets that are popular with Cross-fitters. One of the diets, The Zone, is quickly dismissed as being of little use to him because it requires weighing out one’s food portions, and that level of anal retentiveness is beyond his capabilities. The other diet popular in Cross-fit is the one that Madden practices and addresses in the chapter on diet. It’s the so-called Paleo diet—in which one is supposed to eat like one’s pre-agrarian ancestors–except if it involves a high glycemic index food that our ancestors ate, in which case, no. Madden stresses the 80% rule that other Cross-fitter put him on to. That is, follow the diet in a strict way 80% of the time, but allow for a cheat here and there of no more than 20%. Madden’s approach to diet, like his workout drive, seems more moderate and approachable than that of other individuals one sees in the book.

The most fascinating chapter was his description of completing the SEALFIT 20X challenge. This is a one [long] day program in which one trains like a Navy SEAL. It’s part of a fitness and mental toughness conglomeration headed by former-SEAL Mark Divine. This training is a bit different from the Cross-fit workouts in that endurance is a major challenge, and the mind is challenged as much as the body. I don’t just mean that will is important, but the SEALFIT program tests one’s ability to use one’s brain under the pressure of intense physical training.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in learning about the Cross-fit and SEALFIT 20X experience. If one is trying to get an unvarnished view of Cross-fit, you may want to start with another book before getting to this one. It’s readable and thought-provoking.

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