Monday, August 27, 2012

Specializing vs. Generalizing: An Interview with Britt Ringstrom

Lately I have been thinking about fitness in terms of specializing and generalizing. With the increased popularity of sports like mixed martial arts that draw on multiple sports or types of fitness, it seems that generalizing is gaining popularity. This is somewhat of a false distinction, I admit. Even in a “specialized” sport like baseball, multiple skills are required. Likewise, MMA — which draws on the sports of wrestling, jujitsu, and kickboxing, among others — does not require every fitness capability.

Still, I think there is a difference between sports like baseball and MMA. I have also been wondering whether specializing vs. generalizing is analogous to family medicine vs. a specialty field like neurosurgery. Rightly or wrongly, neurosurgeons seem to enjoy more prestige than family practitioners. In general, do specializing athletes enjoy more prestige than generalizing athletes? If so, are the tables turning?

In a few weeks, I will post an interview with Marcus Taintor, a Duluth, Minnesota-based ultramarathon runner. Here, I share my interview with Britt Ringstrom, a CrossFit athlete and personal trainer, whom I met with in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, on August 14.

Britt Ringstrom

View of Athletic Trainers

My first question for Ringstrom was whether athletic trainers look down on one method (specializing or generalizing) or prefer one, with the acknowledgment that it is a hard question to answer definitively. “Being an all-around athlete is not everyone’s goal,” Ringstrom replied. Personal training is really about helping an individual reach his goal. But, Ringstrom added, “This doesn’t mean we wouldn’t want to try to get him better in other areas.” One of the things she likes about CrossFit, which she called “the works,” is that it prepares you to be “constantly ready for whatever’s thrown at you.” Ringstrom has found that many of her clients have broadened out from what they came to her for, weight loss being a common initial goal. She mentioned, though, that many trainers do believe that training method x (power lifting, for example) is the only way to train.

Sacrifices and Bonuses

Next, I asked Ringstrom about the sacrifices she has had to make in specific areas to do CrossFit, and about the unexpected bonuses there have been. She first explained that CrossFit is humbling. Gymnastics is one area that has been particularly hard for her. She and other CrossFit athletes have to re-teach their bodies how to do things. At the same time, they realize that things they thought they’d be fine at, they’re actually not. For example, Ringstrom had a solid background in power lifting, whereas pullups have been a challenge.

Ringstrom at the 2010 Elite Barbell AAPF Power Meet

Regarding sacrifices, specifically, she mentioned losing strength — though she has gained muscle endurance, she has lost some strength of the power or Olympic lifting type. She has also started to do intermittent fasting to drop weight, in order to make pullups easier. As far as unexpected bonuses, Ringstrom has been improving areas that haven’t always been her strengths. She has learned she can push herself much further than she realized, especially in competition, which she considers “the best time to learn.”1 Reflecting on her experience so far in competition, she said, “As scary and uncomfortable as it can be, I learned a lot.” She also enjoys learning additional aspects of familiar fields, and acquiring a deeper understanding of techniques, such as the technicality of Olympic lifts.

Advantages of Generalizing

When I asked Ringstrom whether one or the other (again, specializing or generalizing) seems to have inherent value — or, all things considered, whether one is better — she answered that focusing on all-around fitness is better, providing three reasons. First, it pushes you both physically and mentally. Second, you’re ready to take on anything, even in real-life situations. In CrossFit, for instance, you’re learning and practicing very functional movements like squats that you do every day. Third, there is the feeling of completing a workout that seemed impossible. Despite her preference for generalizing, Ringstrom admitted CrossFit isn’t for everyone. “Some people live and breathe CrossFit,” she said,  “but it’s simply a tool. It’s a way to live, but not the only way to live.”

Ringstrom at the 2012 CrossFit
North Central Regional in Illinois

Generalizing Gaining Respect

Finally, I asked Ringstrom if she thinks generalizing is gaining more respect. Yes and no, she replied. “There’s still a large population of gurus, like the kettlebell world and body builders, who make fun of CrossFit. Some CrossFit athletes sacrifice form, and that’s looked down on. And it can be seen as an ADD sport.” When we talked briefly about the trendiness of MMA and how more and more MMA athletes are generalizing, Ringstrom agreed that generalizing might turn out to be something of a trend. She pointed out again that regimens like CrossFit are not for everyone, citing football players as the kind of athletes who wouldn’t benefit from many of the components of CrossFit.


As I reflect on my conversation with Ringstrom, I appreciate her open-minded attitude about CrossFit and generalizing. From the beginning of my inquiry into this subject, I have never felt strongly about one side over the other, although I am drawn more to generalizing. As she states, all-around fitness — to the level of a CrossFit athlete, especially — is not everyone’s goal. I agree with nearly all Ringstrom said, one quibble being that two of the advantages she gives to generalizing (pushing you physically and mentally, and the feeling of completing a seemingly impossible workout) seem to apply equally well to specializing. I look forward to getting a specialist’s view of things, and to writing a more research-based third post to wrap up my analysis.

1. For an opposing view about the value of competition, see the work of Alfie Kohn.

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