CrossFit is an all encompassing sport and training style with its own well developed community. To read more about what CrossFit entails, the workouts and the community of CrossFit, read part 1 of this two part article. As mentioned in the first section, there are a multitude of opinions out there on CrossFit, and all of them are put forward extremely heatedly. So what are the pros and cons of this sport, and what is it about them that fuels so much debate?
Watch Out Interview With Crossfitter Ashleigh Schwab About Why She Chooses To Do Crossfit
Firstly, the high intensity aim of this sport makes it particularly prone to injuries. Greg Glassman himself doesn’t shy away from this aspect of his program: “It can kill you. I’ve always been completely honest about that.” The problem with performing high intensity exercises to exhaustion means that eventually, form is compromised, even in the most highly trained of athletes. And most crossfitters are members of the general public, performing complex movements under competitive conditions. Meaning they will sacrifice safety in order to squeeze out one more poorly executed rep within the specific time limit. A number of the exercises are based upon an ‘as many reps as possible’ design. Movements are repeated to an exhausting number at the same intensity, with an increasing risk of injury the further down the line you go. But within an environment where improvement is everything and a competitive edge taints every session, individuals will seldom stick to their limits.
The technical nature of some of the exercises presents its own problems. Any individual can complete a two day course and become a CrossFit instructor, opening their own box. Two days is hardly enough time to learn some of the techniques yourself, much less instruct others in their execution or have an appropriate level of knowledge of bio-mechanics to prevent injury. This lack of quality control comes down to one reason – profit. The more boxes open, the more money the company gains. The Olympic lifts are an excellent example of this lack of training, there are individuals who have spent years perfecting them, and CrossFit encourages novices to complete them at numbers most professionals would never attempt. Form and safety has to suffer, and reps are ramped up before mastery of the skill has occurred.
The CrossFit company’s reaction to the high level of injuries is less than ideal; even using it as further marketing, or ‘proof’ of their extremity. There is a high level of rhabdomyolysis associated with CrossFit workouts compared to other sports – a potentially fatal condition caused by over exercise, where the muscle tissue is so damaged that it begins to breakdown, releasing toxins and causing kidney failure. Even this has failed to elicit an appropriate response – a workout that nearly killed a first time attendant from the disease has been renamed after him, and re-categorised as a ‘children’s’ workout. This completely derisive attitude to the seriousness of his condition could be seen as arrogance, or at least a lack of care as to the effect of workouts that they actively recommend. One of the company’s mascots is a clown named ‘Rhabdo’ - his image shows him hooked up to a dialysis machine with a kidney on the floor and weights in the corner. Exercising to injury shouldn’t be glorified as it has been done by CrossFit.
Overall, combining a lack of skill with a hugely competitive environment is asking for injuries. But not only that, it may reduce the benefits of the workouts themselves. People are so focused on getting the fastest time, or the heaviest lift, or even just finishing some of their extreme workouts, that the reason they are completing it in the first place is lost. An equivalent in bodybuilding would be lifting a heavier weight with poor form – less benefit is gained than lifting a lighter weight but with perfect form.
The irregularity of the workouts also has drawbacks. It appears haphazard to most other fitness instructors, and are not carefully designed workouts around different areas of the body, focusing on different groups of muscles at a time. Instead, the exercises are picked at random and as such can go against traditional fitness regimes. In the CrossFit Journal, an online magazine written by the company, exercise science is described as “a myth if seen as other a nascent science yet to make significant contribution to human performance.” A far-fetched claim indeed, and this lack of a scientific base shows in some of their workouts. An example of their poor design (or rather, lack of a design), is a WOD that recommended high rep dead-lifts, fatiguing the lower back, before another session of high rep clean and jerks without rest, a dynamic movement and almost guaranteed to now injure the already fatigued area.
The lack of programming also leads to a lack of measurable results. Rather than working towards a goal, the exercises are done too sporadically to quantify your scores in terms of fitness. Generally, when exercising people have a goal in mind, be it weight loss or muscle gain, or cardiovascular fitness. This is impossible when working out with CrossFit, since you cannot design your program around your goal. Instead, the vague definition of ‘general fitness’ appears to be trying to be reached. It seems that the majority of people are trying to finish the exercises for their own sake, rather than any measurable fitness end.
It could be argued that this general fitness doesn’t exist, in any case. The body adapts to specific demands placed on it; there is no generality where the body is prepared for anything. It changes in respect to what is is needed to do. The fictitious idea whereby the body is at an optimal fitness for ‘absolutely anything’ is simply that – fictitious. It is frequently broadcast by CrossFit representatives that CrossFit will help athletes accomplish any goal, no matter what it is. But you cannot improve at everything, and be elite in one thing, at the same time. Choices have to be made. Powerlifter Dave Tate put it most eloquently – the ten areas of fitness are like the graphic equalizer on a stereo. Putting all the settings at the mid-line, even with each other, can accommodate all kinds of music, but it all sounds less than optimal. You need to set it to the type of music you’re listening to, for optimal results.
The type of diet recommended by CrossFit is also something that might be less than ideal. Called the ‘Paleo diet’, it is based on what human ancestors may have eaten during the hunter-gatherer phase. It consists of 40% carbohydrates, 30% protein, and 30% fat. This is not even close to the recommended diet for active individuals from the Government department, and will not provide the energy serious CrossFit athletes will use in a session. Without the carbohydrates to fuel their body, muscle breakdown will occur. It is not created by a qualified dietician, nor is it evidence based upon any studies, and there is limited information actually given out by the CrossFit company. Instead, internet searches are recommended. Not exactly a brilliant way to educate people about nutrition.
However, it’s not all bad. Many of the problems listed above also come with their own benefits. It’s randomness is also something many people find appealing, as well as being a potential negative. CrossFit is nothing like the monotonous workouts the majority of the population undertake, and essentially find boring and unsatisfying. Never completing the same workout twice definitely has its perks.
Lets face it, the majority of people in gyms don’t have specific fitness goals, rather, a vague aesthetic one. CrossFit provides those gym members wandering aimlessly from machine to machine with a set workout, and a community to do it in. This is a far better use of their time than a half-hearted workout at their local gym. And this lack of specific goals in CrossFit can also be an extremely beneficial thing for those attendants that, when asked by a trainer for their goals, gesture vaguely at at a nearby magazine and say, I want to look like that. CrossFit becomes a goal in itself – getting through each workout and seeing your times chalked up in comparison to others. The competitiveness distracts from their staring critically into the mirror, and will often produce better results for it.
You cannot deny the aesthetic that many CrossFit athletes achieve. Their body’s are functional and beautiful for it, lean and powerful and forged from sinew and muscle. Their physiques are earned, as one CrossFit Journal put it, not by using machines, but by treating the human body as a machine, and it shows. It is certainly a tribute to the beauty of the human form.
However, CrossFit is an all inclusive sport, and the range of body shapes and types present at a box one any one night is gladdening to see. There are doughy endomorphs standing along side Amazon like women, and all are equally welcome. Being judged solely on your improvement is a refreshing and healthy attitude; they are in essence competing against themselves. Greg Glassman puts it as - “the needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind”. And as such each person can work at their own intensity.
This is not to say that it isn’t a contending environment. With loud, pumping music and members shouting and yelling encouragement, its hard not to adopt that competitive mindset to an almost inappropriate level of zeal. It is this that keeps members coming back – there’s almost nothing like the high that’s achieved from walking into one of those warehouses. Knowing that everyone is willing you to do better than you did before keeps many people going, and prevents them from losing their motivation. No one is allowed to quit a workout, and no one could face the shame of doing so either. That is almost an exhilaration in itself – no matter what happens, they have to drag their body through the entirety of the exercise.
The intense workout that CrossFit provides people with is something that can prove particularly addictive. That feeling of being completely wrecked after a workout is something many athletes crave, and feel accomplished by afterward. CrossFit can provide a source of this unique challenge. The emphasis on mental strength is also especially focused on with this sport, highlighted by the support and clapping and yelled affirmations that occur during each person’s attempt at the WOD. Pushing people to be stronger mentally helps them not only improve their CrossFit scores but their attitude towards life in general.
It is this that CrossFit is focused on, and is most beneficial for. The idea that they are preparing their body’s to live a full and active life, to be able to take on harder and harder challenges. And yes, in life, people face situations where they must get the job done no matter what it takes, and that technique suffers in deference to achieving the results. Outside of the gym, that is what the human body is used for – accomplishing the task its been given.
The CrossFit founder exemplifies this point by pointing out that those that can run a 4-minute mile have such reduced body mass they’re no longer strong by anyone’s standards. And that someone who can squat 900 pounds can barely run a block. Whilst this is true, I wouldn’t diminish their strength as athletes, and they have worked hard and long to accomplish these goals. What I can’t disagree with, though, is that they are no longer ‘functionally fit’ - they are exceptional at doing one thing. What CrossFit aims to do is produce people are as fit as possible across as wide an area as possible, and for those looking for that, it does it well.
The workouts can be done at home and are freely available on the internet for anyone to try. There is no expensive equipment and a home gym can easily be created to complete most of the workouts on the website. The length of the workouts is also a massive bonus. Most take only 15 to 20 minutes to complete, but are done at the highest level your body can stand. So those who are busy, get bored, have time constraints, children, all the general life issues that get in the way, can make sure they can still gain exceptional fitness. And as bad as they feel halfway through, in only 5 to 10 minutes they can stop. This is again a huge motivational boost to keep trying your best.
CrossFit for Bodybuilders
Any sport needs to focus on training their specific needs from their body, and CrossFit is not a way to accomplish this. The ten areas of fitness that they focus on are required in equal amounts only by CrossFit, other sports require different levels of each. Training at CrossFit will make you better at CrossFit, it won’t help you accomplish specific competitive goals, and shouldn’t be the main training tool of any athlete. However, variety is the spice of life, and in the off-season training CrossFit can provide some interest and a taste of something different.
CrossFit has swept across the world for a reason, and that reason is that it is very good at what it does. Are CrossFit athletes, as they so often claim, the fittest men and women in the world? Yes, if you use the definition that the company itself has so helpfully provided. But it is not the be-all and end-all of training, and won’t achieve results in other areas. Taken as it is, CrossFit is a fun and competitive sport, but I would be wary of the unfounded claims and obsessive nature found at the extreme ends of the community.
Without buying into the premise that being a specialist represents ‘a compromised position’, I can see the benefit for improving your skills and fitness over a broad area for a general member of the public and hobby athletes. As for the injury rates? For a strong and healthy person, the dangers are minimal. It is those individuals who are unfit or push themselves too quickly that are at risk. If you wish to start, look for a box that has been around for a while, has highly qualified trainers (ask for credentials) that will keep a watchful eye on you, and has an inclusive and natural feel to it. Start at your own pace, and know your limits.
Even a flawed system is better than no system, and any fitness craze that will get people up and moving and living healthier lives for me is a positive.