CrossFit: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

So I’ve finally decided to sit down and write about the oh so popular trend of CrossFit. Just a heads up, it’s a long read. As a forewarning to any crossfitters reading this, stop now. Your ego will be shattered by the truth of CrossFit. Don’t get defensive as this will further prove my points in the proceeding paragraphs. You won’t win this one no matter what crazy WOD (I’ll address this later) jacked you up enough to make you believe possible. Just let it be. I will point out the positives of CrossFit, but they are few and far between. So if you want the facts, read on. Otherwise go back to your ego lifting and your gym fails.

To start things off, what is CrossFit? It was started by a gymnast approximately 12 or so years ago. This form of “training” (it’s not) encompasses participants performing various exercises incorporating power, strength, agility, speed, endurance and power. The WOD (workout of the day) encourages participants to not only do the exercises, but do them for time. What does this mean? It means do everything on your workout plan and try to do it in the shortest time possible. Again, I’ll address this later. CrossFit’s definition as described by their organization is “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains”. Let me first point out how overused the word functional is in the fitness industry. I will also point out that walking on my hands isn’t functional no matter what any crossfitter says. It’s cool yes, but to claim functional is ludicrous. That above statement by CrossFit ties in pretty much every keyword that makes an avid exerciser drool. They want to be functional and do high intensity stuff right? So let’s all go do CrossFit! Right? Wrong.

I will start with the positives. CrossFit has brought more individuals into the fitness world. People have gotten off the couch and went to a gym looking to participate. That’s a positive. CrossFit has also drawn in people and brought a community feel to the gym atmosphere. This community feeling brings along intensity and self-worth. All positives. CrossFit has allowed more people to feel comfortable picking up a barbell and exercise using free weights. CrossFit has done the fitness industry a service and broken some pretty large stigmas, including women and weight lifting. That being said, I’ve found the risks of participation for the average person to be far greater than any benefits associated with doing so.

There are research articles stating how CrossFit made people lose weight and become fitter. I can’t argue that, it’s science. However, if a person ran to their friend’s house to watch CrossFit they’d lose weight. Simple energy expenditure. The articles claim muscle growth. Well, take that same crossfitter and put him on a strength plan, I assure you he’ll gain size. See my point? There are a billion chairs to sit on, but some are better than others. CrossFit is not the better chair (I appreciate a comfortable seat) and here is why.

First off, I will note that the majority of CrossFit issues arise from poor coaching. However, any person foolish enough to pay someone to teach poor “training” habits will get just that. Poor guidance and misinformation. These CrossFit “coaches” may genuinely believe they are educating their participants properly, but the reality is they’re not. They are simply avid crossfitters that took a weekend course from another person who charges even more to teach poor principles. That’s not to say ALL CrossFit coaches teach poor form however the title itself would lead one to assume they do.

CrossFit participants seem to misuse terminology quite frequently. They confuse fitness with conditioning, and exercise for training. Let’s be clear: training is specializing what you do in order to prepare yourself for performance of something else. CrossFit does not specialize. Want to argue? Read their quoted definition. CrossFit tries to be everything to everyone and therefore utilizes a one size fits all approach. In fact, a lot of crossfitters pride themselves on their lack of specialization. They are mediocre at most things, great at none. It is this model where the problems arise. Everyone has individual differences, whether it be physical abilities, limitations, etc. You can’t just throw everyone into the ocean and expect them all to know how to swim. But that’s CrossFit. Hop in and do what we are doing without any idea of your experience or capabilities. CrossFit training has no analysis of need and assumes everyone requires the same thing. It assumes the recreational biker has the same needs as the woman who just started at the gym. Jack of all trades, master of none. That’s the first concern.

I will next address the injury situation. We’ve all seen or heard of someone getting hurt doing CrossFit. Whether it be a friend at the gym or you turn on Youtube, CrossFit fails are a thing. The truth according to published research is that the injury rate is similar to Olympic weightlifting (don’t get excited yet crossfitters). That being said, it’s comparing apples to oranges. Olympic lifters know that the focus of competition relies just as heavily on the form of the lift as much as the weight being lifted. The professionally paid judges of Olympic weightlifting events agree. CrossFit ignores that concept, or at the very least is relaxed about it. It’s not that injuries happen more often in CrossFit, but that you are just more susceptible. Think of the CrossFit games. Judges are volunteers who have no knowledge of proper form and encourage just getting the movement done. The relaxed rules on form and technique lead to ego lifting (just get it done and hurry!).

The lack of form and emphasis on how fast you can finish your workout lead to injury. It’s pretty simple to understand. Go do 100 push ups, run around the block three times and hurry back so you can hopefully clean and jerk 15 reps at a preset weight as fast as you can before the clock runs out. Well, as you can imagine you’d be pretty tired. This is where I’ll elaborate ego lifting so we can all be on the same page. You try and try to get those 15 cleans in as the clock ticks down. You don’t care how the lift gets done, you just care that it gets done! Fatigue and your lack of discipline result in some crazy movements that endanger your body. Ego lifting, it’s that simple. Stats might say the injury occurrence is the same as Olympic lifting, but those athletes are trained and disciplined in highly complex movements. They understand the physiological concepts of power and understand sufficient rest and form is key. They get hurt lifting extraordinary weight for a 1 rep performance, not because they’re tired and trying to punch a clock. They risk their body to win a competition performing a 1 repetition MAX. I say again, you can’t significantly compare the two.

This leads to my next point in regards to physiology. It can be summarized in one word: purpose. The “training” (it’s exercising, let’s be clear) in CrossFit does not match the purpose of which those lifts were meant for. The load and duration do not match physiological principles that were researched and proven to standardize exercise. Power and strength lifts require fewer repetitions to maximize progress while endurance requires more at a lighter load. The purpose of highly complex Olympic lifts are to develop power and base strength. This requires fewer repetitions with substantial rest to maximize ability. CrossFit ignores this fact by implementing high rep ranges for time with complex movements. Not only is the rate of return diminished for progress but the body becomes fatigued, sloppy and prone to injury.

Efficient training requires separation of all aspects to optimally maximize results. Train strength aside from endurance. Train power aside from speed or agility. Then when it’s time to perform, you combine all areas of focus for a finely tuned finished product. That’s proper training. It is a means to an end for a purpose. The goal is to prepare for performance of an event or multiple events, not the training itself. One completely diminishes results by doing something rushed and improper. CrossFit is trying to turn fitness into a sport. This to me is nuts. Fitness by definition cannot be a sport as it is simply the act of being healthy (or “suitable” according to Oxford). By CrossFit’s “sport” standards, that would mean you could go munch on a head of lettuce and be a champion. Congratulations.

I’m not saying CrossFit isn’t exhausting. It is. Science shows the majority doing CrossFit are tired and rated high exertion levels. I won’t argue that, but don’t tell me you are progressing based on how tired you feel. If I spun in circles screaming my lungs off counting backwards from 137 I’d feel tired. Did that benefit me? Not likely. But that’s tiring too. Just because you feel tired doesn’t mean the benefits are similar. There are more efficient ways to improve without putting yourself at risk of injury (see my chair example). This just doesn’t apply to athletes either. If you are a normal person losing weight, specialized training will benefit you. A plan built for your needs around your abilities and limitations will get you to where you want to be. This leads to my next point: progression. CrossFit limits the ability to design and implement an effective plan. It disables the idea for specificity, overload and proper periodization. Reason? You are trying to do everything at once. Where do you go from there? Nowhere. You have no set skills, no base knowledge and no clue of what you are doing. So the only way to go is back to the beginning. Teaching proper form, breathing, lift technique and cues. If that goes well, we start building a sufficient base for proper training. Then we specialize.

Now, I know some of you (ego lifters) are thinking “wait a minute, people do cookie cutter programs all the time. Look at group classes or HIIT training. Those have some high intensity things with little diversity” and you’d be right. The difference is group classes themselves are fitness classes and typically do NOT involve complex lifts. The people attending have options to do body weight exercises, band exercises and if THEY feel comfortable can be assisted to use free weights. The majority of participants have some lifting experience but not enough to efficiently do it without risk. They are novices (not all, but in general). What’s better? They KNOW their limitations and understand them. They aren’t timed, aren’t rushed and most importantly SAFE. They put ego aside and do things right. Now, HIIT training classes are also different. It can be classified as training as it is specialized strength and power. The difference with HIIT is the lack of complex lifts, and the rush for time. HIIT typically utilizes body weight for plyometrics, light weights for particular exercises and rest time in between. There is no statement saying do AMRAP (as many rounds/reps as possible) in x amount of time with a barbell above your head. You go at your own pace (hopefully fast enough) and are told to recover at certain time points. Obviously you want to sprint as hard as you can or do as many push ups as possible, but there is no immediate danger. You get tired, you slow down or even just lie there. To summarize, it’s SAFE. That’s the difference.

Last point which I may have touched on already is the rate of return. If you’ve read my last article on hypertrophy, you have an idea of how muscular adaptations work. Time under tension and stress are major components. That means slow reps for strength with controlled form will flourish improvements. In the case of strength, momentum is NOT your friend. Yes, I am referring heavily to kip pull ups. A kip pull up is not a pull up. You are using momentum to throw yourself past the bar so you can tell yourself you did a rep and beat the clock. That’s garbage and completely wastes your time. What is the point of a pull up? To build back strength. You think swinging yourself around looking like a fish out of water is going to do that for you? No. That’s a cheap shortcut that if continued will have no benefit to one’s physical abilities. You can simply tell people you flopped around 100 times over a bar, and that’s it. Again, this is just one more example of how poor coaching and form waste time, money and people’s confidence in their abilities to improve. Before doing an exercise, think real hard. Ask yourself “what is the point of this movement?” and “what muscles should I be using?”. If you still struggle to identify why you are doing something, just ask yourself the surefire question “do I look like a jackass?”. I guarantee you’ll re-evaluate what you are doing.

That’s it for this post. I can only imagine that there will be a lot of enraged crossfitters bombarding my house and throwing eggs sometime soon. Probably with improper form. But if I have managed to educate even one person out there considering CrossFit, it’ll be well worth it. Read my previous articles and learn about proper training. Better yet, go to accredited associations that are federally run and read what they write. I guarantee you won’t be sorry you did. Proper exercise is honestly simple and easy to understand if given the chance. Correct form and technique will always be better than fast paced garbage. You’ll improve quicker and be injury free longer. Do yourself a favor and talk to a certified exercise professional. Get a program or join a class that best fits your needs and capabilities. You can always build on that. Need help? Call us and we’ll take care of you.

In closing, avoid the hype and keep things simple or the only WOD you’ll be doing is trying to stand up to go to your chiropractor.

Coach Matrixx

Matrixx Ferreira

Matrixx specializes in adolescent athletic development. He coaches some of the top athlete prospects coming out of high school in the Niagara region. He also works with dedicated members of the community who are passionate about improving personal fitness. Matrixx is also the author of The Iron Guide to Building Muscle.

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2019-03-05T10:29:45-07:00