CrossFit Review for Athletes & Bodybuilders
The overwhelming impression this writer received whilst researching this article was one of dichotomy – two extreme opinions, and very little in between. It seems that just mentioning the word CrossFit in close proximity to a group of people even remotely related to the fitness industry will spark such intensity of feeling, one can’t help but worry about someone losing a limb in the fray. So what is CrossFit, and what is it about it that causes such extreme beliefs?
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What is CrossFit?
Put simply, CrossFit is essentially extremely high intensity, whole body movement done for relatively short periods of time. It utilises a huge number of exercises, pulled from many different sports and training techniques, including Olympic weightlifting, gymnastic training exercises, rowing and sprinting. It also involves a number of un-categorisable exercises that use equipment not found in a usual gym, including rope climbing and movements involving a kettle ball.
But it seems there is a whole lot more to it than that. CrossFit is centred around an online community. The CrossFit home website features blogs, articles, forums, training tips, motivation, as well as all the exercises demonstrated in videos. Perhaps most crucially, on the main page each day is posted the ‘Workout of the Day’, or WOD (pronounced phonetically). It is this that is the key to the CrossFit organisation – across the world, every crossfitter will be performing those three or four exercises. They can vary hugely day to day, with a mile timed run one day and a dead-lift performed to ‘as many reps as possible’ the next.
It is this randomness that their philosophy stems from – as the founder, Greg Glassman, put its: “We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency, - not only for the unknown, but the unknowable ... in sum, our specialty is in not specialising.” He bases the program upon what humans would naturally need to overcome in order to survive as hunter gatherers – an ever changing series of challenges to the body’s stamina, strength, power, agility and many other factors. As such, they seek to improve overall fitness in as many areas as possible, in fact, have produced their own definition of fitness - “increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains”.
This ever so vague definition is then explained in further detail by being broken down into ten parameters, those based on health – cardiorespiratory endurance or aerobic capacity, stamina or muscular endurance, strength, and flexibility, and those based on skill – agility, balance, coordination, speed, power and accuracy. They bring these together to imply that true fitness is the ability to perform as many physical tasks as possible to an efficient and effective degree. In short, be able to cope with whatever life throws at you.
They can be done alone, through following the daily posts on the homepage, or at a CrossFit centre. Their gyms are called ‘boxes’, and it is easy to see why. Nothing like a usual gym, they are extremely bare, usually located in warehouses or building with high ceilings. There are no mirrors and no emphasis on aesthetics; and so you won’t see TVs, magazines or expensive products advertised in the entrance. Equipment is stripped down to the bare basics – barbells and plates, kettle and medicine balls, jump ropes and a few rowing machines. From the ceiling hangs climbing ropes, gymnastic rings and pull up bars. If you want to run you do it outside; no stationary bikes or hamster wheel-like treadmills will grace the interior of a ‘box’.
CrossFit cultivates this tough culture quite specifically through its marketing, and is one of the reasons they have so many followers. “Nature will punish the specialist” is an oft-repeated mantra within the community, furthering the idea of their athletes training themselves to cope with some hostile, competitive world. It is often stenciled on the walls of boxes along with other motivational type phrases from the founder. He himself personifies the culture in his interviews, saying “if you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign, then we don’t want you in our ranks.” They revel in the idea that they are faster, better, fitter, stronger, to the exclusion of all other types of training. This single-mindedness is evident across the CrossFit culture; CrossFit is seen as the be all and end all of human fitness.
It is this that has led to some talk about the ‘cult-like’ nature of the sport. Using their own techniques, equipment, training areas, clothes, diet and even specified language, it creates a group of people with one thing in common. Even the workouts are named after men and women – hearing someone complain about completing a ‘Cindy’ or a particularly intense ‘Murph’ is routine practice. Greg Glassman’s use of the word ‘ranks’ in the previous paragraph, as if the community were an actual military unit, exemplifies this further. Even within the CrossFit community the obsessive nature of the sport is acknowledged. ‘Drinking the KoolAid’ refers to people becoming hooked on the sport, a reference to the People’s Temple incident. Usually proclaimed with some pride, “I’m a serious KoolAid drinker”, this aspect is one of the more distasteful aspects considering its relation to tragic loss of human life.
However, this fostering of a community is also one of CrossFit’s greatest strengths. In general people are inclusive, supportive and help each other through the program. It creates a strong sense of being part of a bigger movement, across different countries and time zones, through its internet base. Times are posted, tips are given, and the gyms themselves become the centre of a social group that forges friendships, all based in an atmosphere of self-improvement and fitness. Which is no bad thing, considering the state of most First World country’s health and obesity statistics.
The workouts are without doubt an intense experience. They are designed to push the body to its maximum, and it feels like it. The workouts are based on one of three layouts – a set number of reps as fast as possible, a set time to complete as many reps as possible, or lastly what is known as AMRAP, or ‘ as many reps as possible’. Basically the circuit is completed as many times as the body can stand. As an example, the ‘Murph’ WOD consists of a mile run, followed by 100 pull ups, 200 push ups, 300 body weight squats, and then another mile run, all timed individually with a 3 minute break between each exercise.
The fast, explosive nature of the workouts certainly burn calories and reduce body fat, as they create a massive metabolic disturbance and empty the muscle of glycogen. In terms of other areas of fitness, it is harder to say. The company themselves claim it is more effective than traditional weight-lifting at gaining the physique bodybuilders are striving for. This seems unlikely, but the athletes the sport produces speak for themselves in terms of its effectiveness at creating useful, powerful bodies.
More on CrossFit...
To read more about the different sides, both positive and negative, of CrossFit, continue on to part 2 of this article.