Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Realities of Crossfit - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

I stumbled across CrossFit about five years ago. I was taking Krav Maga classes at this run down warehouse gym in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Turns out it was also a CrossFit Box. One day when I showed up for class a little early I saw this group of people plowing through a hellish workout that involved kettle bells and gymnastics rings. The participants varied in size and appearance but it was pretty clear they were all in sick shape. Not to mention the fact that the instructor looked like a greek statue that had just finished it's fourth cycle of growth hormone. I was immediately intrigued.

I was also pretty heavily involved at MMA at the time and as it turned out a lot of the pro fighters were starting to use CrossFit for their strength and conditioning programs. The more research I did the more my curiosity was piqued. As I've said before, intensity is king and when it comes to intensity you would be pretty hard pressed to find a fitness philosophy more intense than CrossFit.

A lot has changed in the last five years. CrossFit has gone from an underground movement for fitness fanatics to borderline mainstream. They have their own sponsors, their own clothing line and their own televised national championships (If you've never heard of the CrossFit Games they're coming up soon, regionals are this weekend. Keep an eye's like a combination of strong man and the olympics, pretty wild stuff.)  The number of CrossFit boxes has increased exponentially to the point that there's almost one in every neighborhood of every major metropolitan area and suburb.

As with anything as popular as CrossFit there is a gigantic amount of hype surrounding it coupled with a fair amount of misinformation. I am not personally associated or affiliated with the organization in any capacity, professional or otherwise. I just happen to be a huge fan of their training methodology and an occasional frequenter of a few of the boxes in my area. I'm going to do my best to give you an unbiased perspective on the reality of CrossFit in the hopes of helping you to decide if it's for you.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: CrossFit Edition

The Good

-INTENSITY - As I mentioned there are really only a few types of training that come close to CrossFit's level of intensity. They focus on keeping their workouts short and fast, typically involving a great deal of maximal or close to maximal effort bouts of exercise. There's all sorts of research relating to the benefits and efficacy of this kind of exercise from improving your anaerobic threshold and improving your cardiovascular system to burning fat and building muscle. Yea, it's really that good.

-FOCUS ON TECHNIQUE- One of my favorite things about CrossFit is that they build their programs around movements rather than muscles. They use a decent sized pool of exercises but when it comes down to it they are all variations of  upper body pushes and pulls; squats, lunges and deadlifts. They do a lot of olympic lifting and a lot of gymnastic/calisthenic movements. This might be my favorite aspect of CrossFit. I know I'm repeating myself but the foundation of fitness is proper technique and healthy movement patterns. CrossFit emulates and reinforces this principle in a way I've never seen in any similar fitness "trend."

-VARIETY OF EXERCISE - We all know (or at least we should at this point) that when it comes to fitness, repetition is bad. That's how you plateau and kiss your gains goodbye. While most of CrossFit's movements do come from a small-ish pool (the organization claims to use 9 foundational movements) the number of ways in which you can combine these movements is enormous. Then throw in varied loading schemes and time intervals and you have the basis for an almost infinite number of possibilities. Workouts rarely repeat themselves within the course of six months unless they are done so intentionally.

-COMPETITION & PROGRESSION- One of the largest arguments against CrossFit is that they don't have particularly strict loading paramaters and as such it makes it difficult to scientifically gauge progress. Frankly, this is kind of crap. While the loading parameters are not quite as specific as a bodybuilding or sports performance program might be, workouts are scaled to the athlete performing them.

Most workouts are done with the aim of hitting as many repetitions or rounds of a circuit as you can within a certain time interval or accomplishing a set repetition/circuit scheme in the shortest amount of time possible. They also do olympic/powerlifting which has pretty standard weight progressions.

So, how do they measure progress? It's pretty simple. There's a bunch of benchmark workouts. You do them when you start and then you just keep working out. Every few months you try one of the benchmark workouts again and you compare scores. You are competing with yourself on a daily basis with the idea of pushing yourself to go further and harder. One of the cool things about the standardized workouts, however, is that you can meet someone from the other side of the state, country or even world and you might be able to compare a scored workout with theirs. It's always fun to put a little competitive spin on working out and CrossFit seems to have found a pretty brilliant way of doing so. Which brings me to my next point...

-COMMUNITY- This is probably one of the greatest aspects of the CrossFit Community - it's a community. When CrossFitters meet other CrossFitters its a unique (and at times humorous) bond. In my experience the vast majority of the community is incredibly positive, friendly, motivating and welcoming to quite literally everyone. In some way they are the hyperbole of the stereotypical fitness nut, always happy and smiling and full of energy and looking for new physically challenging tasks to accomplish. They're kind of like a bunch of golden retrievers...only instead of chasing tennis balls they work out. They can be annoying when you don't want to play, but it's kind of hard to not be engaged by how friendly they are towards everyone. Additionally the community is full of all sorts of experts in just about every athletic field from professional athletes and gymnasts to self defense and sports/orthopedic rehab clinicians. It is an incredibly diverse, wildly passionate and highly educated group of people. If your goal is extreme fitness, they are some great friends to have.

The Bad

-NOT FOR EVERYONE- Contrary to what the organization would have you believe, CrossFit is absolutely not for everyone. It's a nice idea, kind of like Communism, but in reality it just isn't practical. This image, my friends, is Pukey The Clown, one of CrossFit's unofficial mascots. He was created by the community as a bit of a joke due to how frequently athletes retch during their daily excursion to the box. That should tell you something about these people. They think it's funny to vomit from working out, and not just like, kinda sorta funny; they think it's f*cking hysterical.

 Personally I agree. I've vomited and made myself bleed from working out on more than one occasion and every time it has elicited borderline maniacal laughter from me and somewhat concerned but mostly frightened looks from the other patrons in the vicinity. When I said CrossFit was all about intensity I meant it. Go hard or go home is not just a saying to them, it is quite literally the epicenter of their training philosophy. If you are not trying as hard as you possibly can through every workout, you are doing it wrong.

I appreciate this level of dedication and intensity but the reality is that not everyone wants to push themselves like this nor do they have to. You can get fairly significant benefits from exercise without killing yourself every time you go to the gym. It's just fun for some of us.

-INCIDENCE OF INJURY- People get hurt doing CrossFit. Some of them get hurt pretty badly, like, surgically badly.  It's unfortunate but true. This is one of the most frequently referenced "problems" with CrossFit. Here's the reality, this isn't so much an issue with the philosophy as it is with the practitioners. Everything done is CrossFit is not only safe, but capable of being rehabilitative and useful for creating healthier movement patterns for everything you do. Here's the crux of it - it's all about proper technique.

The CrossFit certification gets trashed a lot by the wider fitness community as being a bullsh*t ploy to make money. Honestly it's one of only a handful of certifications I'm aware of that actually physically requires you to learn and demonstrate every lift used in the system. Even the NSCA-CSCS, which is the gold standard strength cert and what most college strength coaches have, doesn't require anything more than a computer based multiple choice test.

What I'm saying is that the professionals in the community know proper form and teach proper form. Unfortunately, at some point, the individual athletes need to become accountable for ensuring that this proper form is maintained throughout the workout. Even the best instructors in the world can't keep track of a twenty five person class. You could argue that the classes should be smaller or there should be more coaches which is kind of valid. Honestly though, it is my firm opinion that if you are performing any movement it is YOUR responsibility to make sure you do it properly. The whole point of training functional movements and creating proper movement patterns is that the benefits extend beyond the training floor, and your coach isn't going to follow you everywhere you go.

When you combine a competitive nature/atmosphere with high intensity and technical movements, one could say you are creating a recipe to have people sacrificing form to get those new personal bests. That's bullsh*t and we should all know better. If you are sacrificing form for the sake of a number you don't deserve, that's your fault and so is the injury. Don't blame the methodology because you couldn't swallow your pride. However, if you are not someone who thinks they can maintain proper form or cares to learn how to do it in the first place, then no, CrossFit probably isn't for you.

-COST- While in a lot of ways CrossFit is a philosophy, the organization is a business with a bottom line. In my experience the average membership is between $120-$175/month which is not completely outlandish but compared to the average full service gym that charges $20-$50/month, the difference is pretty steep. If you are motivated and educated enough you can follow a lot of the CrossFit workouts which they give away on their website for free daily, but the problem is that if you aren't experienced you might not know how to scale the workouts for your individual fitness level. Sometimes it's as simple as lowering a weight, sometimes it's a bit more complex.

 Personally, I think if you have the money to blow it is absolutely worth the investment hands down. That being said, it is a fair amount of money to spend every month for a gym membership when the entire movements philosophy is to get away from all the frilly extras and bullsh*t offered by big corporate gyms.

The Ugly

-LACK OF SPECIFICITY- Ultimately one of CrossFit's biggest pluses is simultaneously it's largest flaw. CrossFit is excellent for overall fitness because of how varied the workouts are. That being said, if your goal is just to get more fit and look better in general, CrossFit is perfect. The problem starts as soon as you have a goal any more specific than that. CrossFit is not the best way to accomplish anything, other than becoming better at CrossFit. That might sound stupid, but it is something the vast majority of the community frequently forgets, unfortunately.

What I'm saying is that if you are an athlete looking to improve athletic performance, you are going to need some sport specific work. CrossFit would provide an excellent foundation, but if CrossFit was the best way to get in shape for everything it would be the only workout used by professional athletes and guys like me would be out of a job. Luckily it isn't. Remember when I said a lot of MMA guys were doing it a few years ago? Very few of them are still doing it now because it has pretty much been demonstrated to be inferior to more sport specific conditioning programs.

Sometimes the community forgets that ultimately CrossFit is glorified cross training. I mean, come on, it's part of the freaking name. What was the purpose of cross training when it first came about? To increase performance in a certain sport or event by utilizing training methods from other sports and events. Did this mean that the athletes no longer performed their sport specific training? No, it just meant they did other things as well. CrossFit can certainly be a part of an athletes sports training regimen, but it should not be the only component.

This also applies to the average every day gym goer. If your goal is that you specifically want to change the shape of a certain part of your body, bodybuilding might be the best way to do it. Not everyone wants to look like a CrossFit athlete. If all you want is to be thinner, then maybe running is what you should go for. Every different type of exercise is a different tool and they all serve specific functions. CrossFit is kind of like the bastard child of a swiss army knife that banged a multi-attachment power screwdriver. It's versatile as f*ck, but you still can't use it to paint a wall.

-FANATICISM- Now this is something that you may or may not care for because with I'm sure you will find that this exists with just about anything. One of my biggest pet peeves about CrossFit is the random dbags in the community who forget or refuse to acknowledge all of the negative aspects that I just brought up. They go around proclaiming they are the fittest people on earth and the fittest people in history and someone needs to smack all of them because they're making the rest of us look bad. CrossFit is amazing for the right group of people and it is certainly one of the most positive trends in fitness in a very long time. That doesn't make it the ultimate of ultimates, and it sure as sh*t doesn't make you intrinsically better than anyone for doing it. One of the mainstays of the community is supposed to be humility, not condescension.

So, there you have it. Sorry for the wall of text but this isn't really a simple subject. I could probably go on about CrossFit for another couple of pages but I'll spare you the pontification. Time to go outside and enjoy some of this gorgeous weather. Hope you guys are doing the same, wherever you may be.

Good luck and good lifting.


Today's Workout:
Dynamic Warm Up - 10m
TRX Circuit - Row-Squat-PushUp-Bridge
1 of each 1st round, 2 of each 2nd round, 3 of each 3rd round etc. for 10 rounds

TRX Tabata Workout
Tabata Intervals of(20s on 10s off 8 rounds)
Squats - 144
TRX Row - 108
Burpees 86
TRX Suspended Chest Press 113
(Full 8 Rounds Each - AMRAP ea. round)

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