How Fit is CrossFit?
The exercise profession has an abundance of both advantages and irritations. On the plus side, you can’t ask for a job more worth doing. Fitness pros and coaches like myself can enjoy ample autonomy, daily opportunities for critical thinking, and clear reward for effort in the form of healthy, satisfied clients and students. On the other hand, training in gyms and health clubs can be excruciating. Observing the typical gym workout can range from mildly amusing to something that’s just horrifying, like watching people attempt to perform surgical procedures on themselves after taking in a few episodes of Gray’s Anatomy.
The reality is that no one has really stepped up to provide our communities with comprehensive health and fitness education. Not that anyone even could do such a thing. Despite the practiced façade of medical professionals and fitness ‘experts,’ the truth is that much of the human body, especially optimum health and athletic performance, remains a mystery. Though often presented as unassailable truths, most of our ‘exercise rules’ have little to no empirical substantiation; they are purely the product of traditions and bias. There simply is no single right way to work out – but probably lots of wrong ways.
So in the absence of any real understanding we latch on to trends. We find whatever workout gimmick or product is in vogue at the moment and hammer away at it, expecting miracles. I’ve seen a billion incarnations of this: from Ab-Rollers to Pilates Method, then Boot Camp Fitness, then the Perfect Push-Up, the Ab-Rocket and, in the latest show of jaw-dropping absurdity, the ShakeWeight, which has sold millions of units even though it’s completely and quite obviously retarded. There will never be a shortage of entrepreneurship when it comes to exploiting widespread ignorance.
Exercise professionals are, to my continued chagrin, no better. In fact, most trainers effectively learn about exercise in the same consumerist way and tend to demonstrate, if anything, even more susceptibility to marketing and trends. I can think of no clearer example than exercise education. There are degree programs in exercise science, but with only the smallest exceptions they are next to worthless, producing graduates inured more to exercise mythology than science and with zero practical experience. Unlike massage or physical therapy, there is no state licensure for exercise professionals (not that there should be….whole other issue) so we fill the credibility gap with certificates and correspondence courses. You heard right: correspondence courses – for exercise. Can you imagine taking your car to a mechanic who learned their trade via an online course?
Trends develop in this arena as well. First it was a certification through ACSM you just had to have, then the Ecosgue Method was the thing, then NASM became the standard and if you really wanted to get your stripes you’d do a Paul Chek course, then Gary Gray, then Kettlebell training became the thing, and now, the CrossFit ‘methodology’ has entered the fray, becoming the fastest growing brand in group fitness in the US as of the end of 2010 and, commendably at the very least, not a correspondence course.
I find CrossFit both brilliant and terrifying at the same time. It’s brilliant because of its inclusive community structure and that it has managed to effectively brand something that people have already done for years: circuit training. (I can already hear the howls of protest from any Crossfitters reading this about how CrossFit is its own thing and completely different from circuit training. Yeah, you might want to just stop reading now.) It’s terrifying not because as practiced it invites danger, overtraining, and injury. Most training you see in the average gym does that well enough already so CrossFit isn’t really tipping the scales there. No, it’s terrifying in how effective its marketing is. Without infomercials, a well-designed website, or I daresay even a coherent philosophy, CrossFit has become the hot thing in fitness and featured in probably a third of the conversations I’ve has with colleagues in 2010. It’s positively awe-inspiring.
It’s a terrifyingly savvy business model as well. By crafting a Spartan, no-frills aesthetic, CrossFit invites franchising, as the entry and overhead costs are quite low compared to a more manicured gym. Many CrossFit facilities get built in converted garages and other repurposed sites, often using just flooring, a few Olympic platforms with plates, bars hung from the ceilings for chin-ups, rings, kettlebells, plyo boxes, mats, and word of mouth. Training sessions come in the form of small group classes more often than one-on-one and with 10 participants to a ½ hour class at $25 a pop, way more cash finds its way into instructor and facility owner pockets. Unsurprisingly, franchise or affiliate gyms have cropped up all over and they provide regional testing for instructors that sell out the minute they get announced.
Curious yet? I wanted to use the CrossFit website itself to explain what exactly it entails, but this is what you first encounter on the “What is CrossFit?” section:
“CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide.”
That the first paragraph manages to tell you absolutely nothing about CrossFit while plugging itself as a method of choice does not bode well. The rest of the section doesn’t offer up much detail either although it does illuminate some of the guiding principles. “The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree not kind.” CrossFit is “broad, general, and inclusive,” and “we scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.” Another blog, “CrossFit and Why Everyone Should Be Doing It” begins by telling readers…that certain people shouldn’t be doing it, namely bodybuilders who are after – I love this – “big, non-functional muscles.” The author does not go on to explain how muscle might be “non-functional” but does echo the sentiments above, emphasizing safety and effectiveness.
What is CrossFit then? Multiple things, really. Mainly – and this is its greatest draw and in my opinion most appealing feature – CrossFit is a community. Crossfitters design and post workouts, usually some variation on a circuit, to the CrossFit website called workouts of the day (WODs). The WODs usually receive clever names like Helen, Heavy Fran, or Fight Gone Bad and can include accompanying video. Other Crossfitters then perform the WODs on their own or in groups and post their time, number of rounds, reps, max weight, or some combination thereof to compliments and encouragement from the rest of the community. A typical CrossFit training center displays a whiteboard with the assigned WOD and each participants name and time, fostering a uniquely competitive gym atmosphere.
I really can’t express my admiration of this aspect of CrossFit enough. For those who’ve drunk the kool-aid, so to speak, CrossFit is a calling. I’ve never encountered people more consistently enthusiastic about fitness. Given the trends that dominate our culture, this fact deserves explicit praise.
This isn’t all. There are numerous special programs and groups. The organization does a lot of its work with police and emergency responders. CrossFit bills itself as The Sport of Fitness, and since 2003 has held regular tournaments in which competitors complete selected workouts for time. These tournaments are national-level events, with winners pocketing substantial cash and prizes and they can serve as major motivators for CrossFitters to get into the gym and train.
I’ll be charitable and describe the workouts as somewhat distinctive. They are unified in that they are always hard, usually stringing together sprints or cardio intervals with several traditional and not-so-traditional strength training exercises done back-to-back for extraordinarily high numbers of repetitions. Helen, for example, consists of three rounds of 400m runs, 21 kettlebell Swings, and 12 pull-Ups. These workouts are ass-kickers and you’ll taste breakfast if you’re not prepared for them.
So what’s my beef? Why the critical tone where so many have lavished praise? Take a look at this video montage of the WOD Fight Gone Bad. Make sure to watch the entire thing. It’s the end I want to comment on.
Did you like that? Did you see how virtually everyone in the video hunched over or collapsing at the end? For CrossFit enthusiasts I’m sure this is exactly the point. Years of misinformation mixed with some bizarre, masochistic cultural obsession have convinced millions of us that a good workout should always leave you nauseous and completely incapacitated. The CrossFit website is full of conceits about providing the, “the hardest training outside of any military organization.” Clearly, this is the go-hard-or-go-home school of fitness.
The reality is far less severe. For one thing, military recruit training is only marginally aimed at improving fitness levels. Its true, rather explicit objective is to create a psychological state in recruits more conducive to the operant conditioning that is boot camp. Soldiers need to consistently obey orders in chaotic environments. Recruit training is about preparing them to do just that and weed out those unable.
For already well-conditioned individuals and athletes exercise that produces this type of result has some utility, providing it’s done to meet some specific objective (Mixed Martial Arts comes quickly to mind) and performed infrequently (think maybe 1-2x per month). Indeed, many of the people that LOVE CrossFit are already alleged exercise professionals. But training like this every time you work out, or, like most Americans, you’re new to vigorous physical activity altogether is just stupid: a shortcut to adrenal shock, subsequent overtraining, and injury.
Adherents bring this same cavalier attitude to the form and execution of exercise. CrossFit is the latest entrant into a long line of exercise philosophies that are big on rules and programs but short on basic anatomy. The typical WOD includes a smattering of movements that either straight disrespect human joints (like dips) or require expert levels of flexibility and control (behind the neck bar presses, deep squatting, depth jumps). Of course, when it comes to form in exercise it doesn’t help matters that the majority in CrossFit training are prescribed at impossibly high rep schemes and then performed with weights that are way too heavy. Even the most seasoned athlete is just massacring form by rep 30.
CrossFit defenders have told me that their instructors are some of the best in the world at teaching complex exercises like a snatch or clean and jerk. The videos and workouts I’ve witness indicate otherwise, but okay. But why do you need to do a snatch or a clean and jerk? If I don’t regularly include either in my workout, am I somehow at a loss? Listen; there is nothing magical about a kettlebell swing or burpee. Exercise isn’t really about the exercise at all, but the adaptation that it stimulates. We usually apply Olympic lifts like the snatch to stimulate changes in power, starting strength, and explosiveness, but there are an infinite number of ways to encourage these qualities. Competent exercise professionals do not simply memorize exercise rules and programs then apply them to people across the board, but instead create exercises and workouts that match the specific needs and abilities of the person performing them. You make the exercise fit the rules of the person, not the other way around.
Getting back to the workout structure, while nominally “broad and inclusive” CrossFit is actually extraordinarily narrow in terms of its energy demands. As I already mentioned, most CrossFit WODs are done as circuits where one exercise begins immediately after the last one gets finished with no rest at all. And the reps schemes, while subject to some variation, average out at 20-30, with doing more in the specified time usually the goal. Lastly, workouts centrally feature exercises usually applied to develop power and explosivity like box jumps and power cleans.
First of all, exercising for high-reps + using heavy weights + fast, jerking movements + fatigue creates an internal environment ripe for overuse injury. Doing CrossFit a few days a week and not injured yet? Don’t worry. Give it time. The comment boards on the website are filled with enthusiastic questions about how much they love this WOD or the other, but “does anyone know how I can get my knees to stop hurting when I squat?”
Second, that circuit format combined with the high reps biases the imposed demand heavily toward muscular endurance and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Yes, despite the distaste for bodybuilding and ‘non-functional muscles,’ most CrossFit training incorportates training that works to build muscle. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s worth noting that this form of training is incredibly calorie demanding. But the demands concentrate in the fast glycolytic energy pathway. For the right population of athletes who need to remain constantly active during competitions and move heavy loads over and over this can provide a powerful stimulus, but outside of that group it’s actually problematic, especially if its all you do.
Maximum strength and power, for example, rely on the phosphagen energy system, large diameter motor neurons, and the IIb fast-twitch muscle fibers they innervate. Volumes of research recognizes that adaptations which improve these components are best realized through high-intensity training – low-rep sets of very heavy loads (2-6RM) with ample rest in between sets to allow for the complete replenishment of ATP-CP in active muscle cells. I’m all for training across energy systems. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, there’s overlap in human metabolism, and still a lot of uncertainty about the contributions of genetics and intention to performance. But performing 30 reps of something is, by definition, low intensity exercise, regardless of the speed of movement. Training this way can actually make someone slower.
Back on planet earth, one often needs to regress is one area in order to progress in another. The higher metabolic demands inherent to hypertrophy training with its greater overall volume will diminish maximum strength thresholds, for just one example. Modern sports training uses periodization models to best mete out the stimulus of exercise to reach athletic objectives. CrossFit apparently believes you can develop all strength and fitness qualities at once. This is another place where enthusiasts have claimed unfair criticism, that in practice workouts are varied in intensity and scalable to individual needs. To this I call bullshit. I’ve watched one CrossFit WOD after another. You go hard in every single one.
And scalable to individual needs?! The individual is nowhere to be found in CrossFit. The Workout of the Day format itself eliminates all subtlety from training. Everyone does the same thing give or take a rep or two. The competitions, so central to the CrossFit ethos as the sport of fitness are about determining who can perform a pre-determined workout with a best time. Maybe it’s my bias as a personal trainer, but my sentiment is that exercise should take the form of something that’s, you know, personalized, not some mindlessly followed template where everyone does the same workout and then compares results. It’s also worth asking, as my Toronto-based colleague Sam Trotta has, whether all exercise-related goals should be based on competitive rankings and reps/units of time.
Enthusiasts have told me that they are in the best shape of their life because of CrossFit. My first thought, given that many of these claims have come from colleagues – exercise professionals who are paid for their expertise in exactly this area – is, what exactly were you doing before? Second, that’s great, you’re in fantastic shape, but that in no way precludes there being even more effective, far less risky methods to accomplish the same fitness level or better. As Deng Xiao Ping said, ‘the color of cat doesn’t matter so long as it catches mice.’
Moreover, and exercise professionals really should know this, any newly implemented training regimen will garner improvements. That’s what happens when the demands in training get subjected to significant alteration, not because CrossFit is somehow magic. In practice this is rarely what happens, but we should really judge conditioning systems on their results over the long-term, not a few workouts.
Ultimately the most important requirement for any training regimen is whether or not you enjoy it. Personally, I love really demanding circuit training in the CrossFit vein. It’s one reason I’ve been putting workouts together like this for years. I just wish I had thought of branding them. It’s not new or innovative in any way, but that’s really a genius move on the part of CrossFit. But there are other questions that need to get asked when it comes to conditioning as well. Like, what are the goals of training? And, what are my current abilities? Is this form of training the most appropriate for me? What does the risk to benefit ratio look like for an exercise like a dip, or kipping pull-up? Unfortunately, as enjoyable and wildly popular as CrossFit has become, it’s simply not asking those questions.
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