It’s common in CrossFit gyms to refer to all clientele as athletes. Young stud training for high school sports? Athlete. Overweight, middle-aged executive getting started with exercise for the first time? Athlete. Your mom? Athlete.

Why do we refer to everyone that walks through our door – individuals with diverse backgrounds, lifestyles and goals – as athletes?  And I say our because I did this exact same thing for many years. Some of it is probably driven by the herd mentality, but my rationale was quite simple.

Purpose in Training

Athletes have a purpose to their training. Their eating is dictated by the demands of their sport. Their recovery is aligned with their training. Essentially, their entire life revolves around being an athlete within their sport.

This ideal is something that average Joes and Janes walking in the door of your gym can connect with. After a few months of “working out” they start to see it’s not all about volume of exercise. It becomes apparent that eating well helps them in the gym. Sleeping well makes them feel better. Soon, as all the pieces start to fall into place, they begin training as an athlete in the sport of life.

Ok, so we’re all “life athletes.” Hunky dory, right?

Well, I’m not so sure anymore. Over time I’ve noticed some holes in this logic.

The Athlete

The thing about athletes is, they are optimizing to maximize their peak physical potential at the cost of everything else – including health.

Does your livelihood depend on how many reps you get in a workout?

8031495767_d141b0ce64_zTo an athlete, every single point, second, meter, or whatever the metric is in their sport can be the difference between a huge raise and getting cut from the team.

See where things start to fall apart? Pushing for that extra rep before time expires in your workout when you have to execute the movement with highly compromised form, and your livelihood doesn’t depend on it… is that really worth it?

Is it acceptable to see ruptured achilles, torn ACLs and herniated discs in a population whose primary interest in exercise is to “be healthy?” Does that high school kid, middle-aged executive and your mom all need to be pushing that hard?

CrossFit further confounds the issue by what we see in The Games and on the Instagram of top tier athletes vs. what transpires within the thousands of affiliates worldwide. Health clients forget they’re a “life athlete” and begin behaving more like a CrossFit athlete striving for performance in the gym rather than in life, i.e., health.

This isn’t a CrossFit specific issue though. It happens within many other fitness paradigms, especially those that have a sport counterpart. Off the top of my head powerlifting and weightlifting stand out.


So how do we align those interested in health with the notion of training without relying on the athlete moniker? I believe the answer is to put more of an emphasis on education.

An average person in a CF gym has probably received 100 times more direction and education on snatch technique from their coach than the impact of sleeping well. What will help our life athletes more with their overall health, snatch or sleep?

The same can be said for nutrition, mobility, stress management… you name it. Do you think 5 minutes of guided mobility work at the start of a session with advice to check out a K-Star video is the best prescription? You know a small percentage of folks will actually watch the video and even fewer will take action.


I know it’s scary to tell people you’re going to use a larger percentage of their already brief class time improving movement and discussing how to personalize their nutrition or how to enhance sleep hygiene when the gym down the street is doing the triple hero workout they saw Froning do yesterday.

But I invite those gyms that have a large percentage of their membership interested in general health and fitness to consider skewing their offerings this way. You can’t let your clients’ perception of what is good for them dictate your offerings. You’re the coach. You know how to help them reach their goals, that’s why they came knocking at your door in the first place.

So if your members want to improve their health, consider dropping the athlete analogy. Call them what they are, clients – and give those clients the things that will have the greatest impact on their health.