Last year, high-intensity fitness company CrossFit Inc. sued the Colorado Springs-based National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for false advertising and unfair competition regarding an article printed in NSCA’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.

Among many positive comments about CrossFit training, the article included what CrossFit claims is a false stereotype. Russell Berger, CrossFit head trainer and company spokesman, said the article will lead readers to believe that CrossFit “will get you hurt.”

The article was based on research conducted by professor Steven Devor, Ph.D., and then-Ph.D. student Michael Smith at Ohio State University involving 54 people who trained at Fit Club, a CrossFit affiliate in Columbus, Ohio.

Research focused on VO2 max (an athlete’s maximum oxygen-consumption rate during a workout) and body fat changes after high-intensity power training. According to the study abstract, results showed that type of workout improved both VO2 max and body composition.

The study also said nine of the original 54 participants dropped out of the training program due to “overuse or injury,” and two cited time constraints as to why they dropped out of the study. The study revealed no further information about the “overuse or injury.”

‘Fabricated’ evidence?

“Every blog, every author, every news article printed was very quick to draw attention to this paragraph. It had a huge impact to CrossFit and our affiliates,” Berger said. “When you’re a personal trainer, a strength and conditioning coach, one of the most damaging things anyone could say about you is that you hurt people.

“You don’t fully appreciate the impact of that claim unless you work in the industry.”

Berger likened the claim to that of news being published about a daycare provider with a child molester nearby.

“It’s a good analogy. It’s a business ruiner. Everyone who works in this industry knows that. It’s a death knell,” Berger said.

Originally, Berger saw an abstract of the study before it was printed in full form. Wanting to know more about the claims of injury, he phoned both the professors at OSU and the owner of Fit Club. He said his investigation revealed that the statistics were “fabricated.”

The professors told Berger the study was a “blind study,” in which the researchers did not know the participants’ names.

“The only interaction they had with the participants was in their lab when they took blood,” Berger said. Six months later, the participants were to have returned to have their blood tested again. Eleven did not return for the second blood draw.

“The researchers claimed nine cited overuse or injury, and two cited time constraints. If they didn’t know the participants’ names [and they did not return for the follow-up blood draw], how would they know the feedback? It is patently impossible to take information from people who aren’t physically present.”

To alert the NSCA before printing the full study results that Berger said were fraudulent, he called its headquarters and emailed its board of directors.

“I shared with them links and said please look into this. I never heard back from them,” Berger said. “I called Dr. [William] Kraemer [editor of the NSCA journal]. I explained the study was likely fraudulent. He basically waved it away, saying it had been peer-reviewed. He basically blew me off and published it without investigation.”

NSCA response

When asked to comment on specific allegations of the lawsuit, NSCA Media Relations Manager Michael Hobson said in an email, “At this time, because the lawsuit is ongoing litigation the association is not granting any interviews on the topic.”

Hobson pointed to two previous NSCA statements.

“At the center of the lawsuit is a research article published in NSCA’s Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (JSCR). As with all research published in NSCA’s journals, the article in question was authored by independent researchers and was accepted for publication following a rigorous peer-review process,” said an NSCA statement dated May 12, 2014. “While NSCA has no opinion on the validity or invalidity of claims made in the article or the criticisms of same being leveled by CrossFit, NSCA has full confidence that the review and publication processes for research published in NSCA journals is [sic] beyond reproach.

“These charges are patently untrue.” 

– NSCA

“The NSCA is a research-based nonprofit organization committed to the highest standards in its publications, certifications and educational services. As the worldwide authority on strength and conditioning, the NSCA is dedicated to promoting the application of best practices among its thousands of members and certified professionals around the world.”

In a March update this year, NSCA denied CrossFit’s claims “and is vigorously defending itself in the court of law. Although CrossFit chose the legal system to address the claims it made in the legal action, CrossFit continues to take to the Internet via blogs, message boards, articles, and social media outlets to maliciously attack the NSCA.

“CrossFit’s ongoing commentaries contain inaccurate information, misquotes, and false statements that seek to disparage, discredit, and defame NSCA. They assert that NSCA manipulates research and produces ‘junk science’ to create the perception that CrossFit is dangerous. CrossFit says NSCA views it as a threat to the NSCA’s revenue. These charges are patently untrue.”

The March statement continued, “CrossFit is a self-proclaimed $100 million for-profit company attacking the NSCA, an educational non-profit, whose mission is to support and disseminate research-based knowledge and its practical application to improve athletic performance and fitness. For more than 35 years NSCA has been driven by its mission in order to serve its members, certificants, and ultimately the public.”

Academic publishing, peer review

Studies published in JSCR come from independent laboratories, the NSCA said.

“Articles submitted for publication in the JSCR must first go through a thorough double blind peer review process,” the NSCA said in its statement. “This process prevents authors and reviewers from knowing each other’s identity, thereby reducing potential bias based on personal information. The peer review process invites experts in relevant areas of research to evaluate the research study for scientific merit, to ask rigorous questions, to clarify any gaps in the research methodology, or address any oversight regarding the current body of knowledge.

JSCR is a highly respected and cited journal in the scientific, medical, and academic communities. It is ranked 31/84 by Thomas Reuters in the sports science category of the Journal Citation Report, publishing more research yearly than any other journal in the sports science field.

JSCR’s Editorial Board is comprised of 29 senior associate editors and 124 associate editors, with international expertise across the entire spectrum of strength and conditioning. These editors are highly educated, well-respected, and some of the most qualified professionals in the industry.

“The NSCA is dedicated to staying true to its mission and will continue to serve our members, exercise professionals, and the research community by publishing sound research-based knowledge in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” the statement read.

Depositions, sworn statements

After a year of depositions and sworn statements, Berger said, “We’re waiting to see if we can get a preliminary ruling that the study was false. I think we’re going to get it.”

Michael Smith, the professor who sponsored the research, “admitted he didn’t actually speak to any of the individuals who didn’t show up,” Berger said. “Every one of those 11 have sworn in federal court they were not injured.”

The legal discovery phase of the case “paints a very clear picture that his study was rejected until it was sufficiently disparaging of CrossFit,” Berger said, citing emails between Kraemer, the NSCA journal’s editor, and Ohio State.

Originally, the article did not mention injury, Berger said. The peer reviewers at the editorial offices were chosen because they “had very strong opinions against CrossFit,” he said. n CSBJ