Crossfit is, by all accounts, one of the fastest growing fitness concepts in the world today. Part team sport and part training methodology, Crossfit has taken the fitness world by storm because of its proven ability to transform deconditioned average people into ripped fitness freaks. While these results are real, they also can come at a huge risk. There is a huge knowledge gap when it comes to Crossfit that makes the consensus on its effectiveness and its dangers extremely hard to have a discussion on. Crossfit itself, honestly, doesn’t even know how to define itself, as is evident by their far from clear ideology definition:
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.
Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.
Just to be clear, that is neither a clear message on methodology or approach to fitness, strength, and/or conditioning. All it is, in reality, is an open positioning statement about who can participate in Crossfit. This isn’t just poor marketing to the consumer, but also points to the problem Crossfit has with internal communication and standardization amongst its coaches. The problem with Crossfit, both from an external and internal perspective, comes back to knowledge. There is too much bullshit dialogue around Crossfit (both by supporters and detractors) that is rooted in zero knowledge of the concept or fitness in general. I, myself, am a huge fan of Crossfit, but only when it’s practiced with a strategic and educated approach. Otherwise, it’s one of the most idiotic and dangerous fitness concepts in existence. With that being said, here is my quick and brief attempt at breaking down the truths (some good and some bad) about Crossfit.
What is Crossfit: Crossfit is, essentially, a blend of strength training and gymnastics, typically set to specific time intervals. It is rooted in big complex movements like Squats, Deadlift, and Snatch, that engage the entire body and supplemented by bodyweight driven exercises like handstand pushups and muscle-ups. However, everything is usually based around specific time periods for training that then effect the percentage of max weight that you’re moving. The basic philosophy is that you’re not strong if you can’t move real weight. You’re not functional or fit if you can’t move and control your bodyweight, and you’re not athletic unless you can do both at some aerobic level.
Why does Crossfit get results with seemingly everyone: There are a variety of reasons why Crossfit gets such dramatic results, but I’m actually going to split this answer up to make sure we cover each point appropriately.
- Complex Movements: Big complex movements like Squats or Power Cleans, require the entire body to function tightly, efficiently, and powerfully. While you may not realize it, every single muscle in the body is somewhat engaged during exercises like this. However, the most important muscle groups (legs and core) are fully engaged. The bigger the muscle groups you work, the more muscle you build and the more calories you burn (that’s a very rudimentary explanation). Most people simply do not execute big complex movements as part of their regular workouts EVEN THOUGH they are probably the most important things from a functional standpoint. Everyone just wants to isolate muscle groups (bench press, lat-pull, leg-press) when you can get significantly more marginal return by not isolating the muscle group and working those muscles through these bigger movements.
- Maximal Effort: Crossfit is based around a competitive mindset that always encourages maximum effort (we’ll come back to the negative side of this). Believe it or not, most people simply do not push their bodies even close to their maximum effort….EVER. They don’t truly aim at improving. They use the same weights, do the same reps, and maintain the same speeds. Crossfit pushes regular people to train like athletes, with goals of improving with each day. This also plays a huge part in the conditioning aspect of Crossfit, forcing people not just to push weight or aerobic capacity, but pairing both together.
- Team Atmosphere: This is probably the most amazing and under-appreciated by outsiders aspect of Crossfit. Every single “box” I’ve ever been to seems to exude the most positive, loud, and competitive team atmosphere. Everyone is both competing against and rooting for everyone in their class. You’re not just working out alongside someone, you’re part of their team. This has a huge psychological effect on people, and I think this is one of the single biggest factors for the success and cult like feeling surrounding Crossfit. I wrote a whole story on the importance of finding your training team, but Crossfit seems to bottle this up in every gym and it’s truly amazing.
- Body Control: One of my favorite parts of Crossfit is that it has taught people the value of body control. A muscle up, a pistol squat, a handstand, all require feats of body control that are most commonly associated with gymnastics and martial arts. It’s so functional. Real life requires our bodies to move our own weight 100 times more often than moving additional weight. However, few people ever focus on being able to move their own body weight smoothly and efficiently.
- Adjusted Mindset: This mainly applies to women, but Crossfit has changed our perception of both what is fit and what is sexy. Men are more concerned with mobility and form than just fake lifting big weights, and women are ok with actually having muscle and sweating at the gym. This is awesome. Seriously, the fact that people have made such a radical change of mindset towards true health and fitness is awesome and due in large part to Crossfit. Ps Crossfit chicks are the hottest (I just had to say it).
So what’s so bad about Crossfit: Honestly, there is very little bad about Crossfit in philosophy, however there is plenty that is bad about Crossfit in practice. Again, let me split this up into multiple points for clarity’s sake.
- Coaching: This is flat out the most important part of Crossfit. When you have people doing big complex movements at maximal levels, even the most highly conditioned athletes require high levels of coaching. The problem is the majority of people who participate in Crossfit are not experts at these movements (many have never even done them before), which makes coaching all the more important. Unfortunately, Crossfit simply does not monitor the standards of their coaches nearly enough. From gym to gym the level of coaching quality can differ to an embarrassing and dangerous level. Look here at the flimsy requirements to become a Crossfit Instructor, none of which include any prior education on physiology, kinesiology, or anatomy, let alone any formal training certifications. I have serious problems with the training industry and the limited knowledge most trainers have with their bullshit certifications, but this is much more serious. We’re not talking about some wanna be trainer having a soccer mom doing curls or side-lunges. We’re talking about loading people overhead with real weight while completing olympic lifts. When you have good coaching, like my friend Matt Griffin at Crossfit DTR, your experience will be safe, controlled, and highly beneficial. When you have bad coaching, I promise you that you or someone in your class will be at risk of serious injury every single time you set foot in the class.
- Programming: We all learned really young about breaking our workouts up during the week so as to not overwork the same muscle groups. While the lines of thinking as far as programming is concerned have come a lonnnggg way since “Chest Mondays” and “Back and Bi’s Tuesday”, the general principles of programming are even more important and advanced now. With that being said, many Crossfit gyms simply don’t program for more than a day at a time. This means that your workout today may be great in isolation, but if put next to what you did yesterday and what you’re doing tomorrow, that same workout may be totally dangerous or just stupid. You need to look for a gym that AT LEAST programs for the week. Now ideally the gym should be programming your muscle groups, effort levels, and rest periods towards a goal that is 4-12 weeks out, but I understand that this isn’t always possible. However, you want to go to a gym that does at least understand good programming, and it’s necessity for preventing injury and progressing towards goals.
- Warming Up: Again, I put this mostly on individual coaches, because Crossfit does always incorporate a warmup in every workout, however it’s rarely given enough attention. If you’re going to be squatting heavy or doing 40 meter overhead walking lunges you NEED to make sure your body is truly warmed up. This can’t be accomplished in 10minutes quickly before class. This truly takes between 15-25 minutes to get your body ready for that type of complex movement at a maximal effort. You need to make sure, before doing any crossfit class, that you’re foam rolling, static stretching, dynamically stretching, and warming your aerobic system for about 15-25 minutes before you grab a weight.
- Overexertion: I am 100% for pushing yourself. In fact, there are parts of me that are probably stupid when it comes to this aspect of training. However, I am a highly conditioned athlete and can get away with pushing my body to ridiculous levels without being in real danger (I also know my body well enough to really know when and how to shut it down). However, Crossfit does, at times, encourage people to try and push too much weight, too many reps, or too much intensity. While I truly believe this is a positive thing for the most part, when you don’t have good coaching or programming it can be dangerous. This is also not to mention the fact that sometimes there simply is no point to all that effort. What is the point of getting in 95 reps of 225 lbs of a deadlift in 2 minutes? That’s a lot of stress on your spine and core and you better make sure you’re resting the next day. Again, within reason this is one of the best aspects of Crossfit, but it does need to be paid attention to.
At the end of the day, if you can’t tell, I love Crossfit in theory and am supremely critical of it in practice. I have worked out at about 30+ Crossfit boxes in the US, UK and South Africa and I can tell you that less than 5 really know what they are doing. From movement coaching, to programming, to stretching the majority of Crossfit gyms simply do not have the expertise necessary to implement what truly is a phenomenal fitness methodology. It’s a shame too, because people seem to truly love everything about Crossfit and it does get results. The problem, and what keeps a majority of the non-crossfit based fitness community at such a distance from it, is the lack of education and strategic approach when it comes to implementation. It’s no different than making fun of those meatheads in college who just tried to max bench and curl everyday. At the end of the day, we’re only given one body and you need to take care of it.
My belief is that Crossfit is an amazing fitness concept that outsiders should learn more about before dismissing, and internal ambassadors should educate themselves more on the details fitness before becoming advocates or coaches. However, if you’re looking for a great way to change your body and your body’s capabilities then I highly suggest you seek out a GOOD Crossfit gym, with great coaches. Because when it’s implemented correctly, I truly believe that it is the perfect non-sport specific training methodology going.