In the fitness world, there is always a booming fad. Whether it is a magical new diet pill, something that Dr Oz was payed to say to the moms of America, TV Infomercial items such as bowflex or the shakeweight (ok- fine! This one’s a joke, it never caught anything except for the eye of opportunity from the makers of South Park for a hysterical episode). There is ALWAYS something that seemingly implodes as fast as it explodes. The reason for this to me is obvious. Most of these items are meant to find a shortcut: they allegedly give you a better workout in less time, help you avoid working out all together, etc etc etc. The people who buy these products are often not motivated to continue use once they see that it actually requires working out (motivation is hard to teach, many have it many do not), it doesn’t work, or they go zero-to-sixty with their workouts, and then sixty to zero even faster when they lose the motivation.
Many of these fads however are in fact quite good for you and DO tend to stick around much longer than the “cheat your workout” type. While they may never see the peak popularity they once had again, there is still a loyal following to these and for good reason: they are great for you and if it suits your body and your personality, you are going to stick with it. Plain and simple. Some examples of this that come to mind quickly are yoga, pilates, P90x, Zumba, and CrossFit (CF). The last of these has been subject to huge debate in the fitness community.
With all workout styles, programs, gadgets: there will be good and bad, pros and cons, the obvious and the fine print. I am not going to try and decide for you whether or not you should CrossFit, but I will certainly do my darndest to educate you on it, and let you decide for yourself. When reading this, I certainly may show some bias, however I am at least showing both sides of the story! Before I piss anyone off who reads this who is a die hard Crossfitter, or firmly against it- remember this: There are exceptions to everything. While I will try my best to avoid all-encompassing blanket statements, I may use a few accidentally or just use a few lazily to avoid the repetitive nature of saying “typically” or “usually” a million times. There are going to be times that the opposite is in fact true, but generally speaking is not that way. Stereotypes exist for a reason.
Let’s start on why CF is a great workout and for many, the absolute best choice. Many confuse CF to be a style of workout when really, it is a brand not a style. The style it adheres to is High Intensity Interval Training, HIIT for short. HIIT has been shown to have great benefits such as higher calorie burn per minute than long and slow distance, as well as maintaining an increased metabolism after workout like strength training gives you. What energy expenditure boils down to is how hard you work in the simplest of forms. The lower the intensity, the lower the calorie burn (per minute). This holds true for the opposite also, the higher your intensity, the higher the calorie burn per minute. CF does involve a relatively high intensity in their workouts, as most are for time forcing you to go as hard as you can to beat your previous best, a benchmark, or another individual in a CF competition.
Another great thing about CF is the camaraderie it brings to the table. There are many people who have tried the gadgets and "as soon on TV" gimmicks, but failed. CF is a team atmosphere, where newcomers are welcomed and some extremely strong bonds are formed. The individuals I mentioned above who lack the internal drive to do it alone, are much more likely to stick with it in a CF like environment and see results they typically wouldn't. This is great for helping those less motivated individuals stick with it, working out has to be fun. CF makes it fun. You need to be able to see results, you can easily quantify them. Good programs have to be backed by science, the principle idealogy of CF adheres to basic exercise physiology. Sounds pretty promising, no?
It is great for general fitness and (in my opinion) general fitness goals alone. As for athletes, I feel it does not apply as it is not specific in nature. Untrained individuals as opposed to athletes will get stronger, they will get leaner, and they will get faster/more powerful doing CF. This is uncontested, it will work. Even for new athletes it will work as they have not made the majority of their gains yet. For those new to sports, the most crucial aspect is consistency. You cannot get great at what you do without consistently doing it. Spend your first few years in a sport with no plan, but stick to it, you will still improve. This is why the high school runners I have coached who have been successful are the ones who put in the summer miles and train year round. This is why baseball players from warmer climates typically have a greater ratio of success than those in colder northern climates with limited winter training. This is why football players from Texas, well, nevermind, it’s Texas, no explanation needed.
Now for the not so good side of CF, starting at my last point about it being great for lesser experienced athletes.
For those who are already experienced athletes in sports such as baseball, football, soccer, or endurance sports however, the application is limited. All of these sports while including the same motions, are vastly different in style that needs to be trained and prioritization of movements that need to be included. Even position by position within each sport is so incredibly different that a one size fits all approach will fit some, but the remaining majority who do not luck into a good program, are going to be left hanging dry. While baseball requires large amounts of rotational and multidirectional work, endurance sports do not. While soccer and football both require speed and agility, soccer doesn’t have a need for being able to throw someone to the ground (however they like to pretend they do!).
The reason that it won’t work for these athletes is it doesn’t follow the proven models of periodization. To fail to plan, is to plan to fail. To think otherwise is moronic. Once you reach a certain level of skill and fitness specific to your sport, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. You will need more time for smaller gains. Your workouts have to be specific to your goals, established for you specifically and must be well constructed to ensure that you are gaining what you want to gain, while not losing other aspects of your fitness that you had just previously gained and maintained. CF tends to be more randomized rather than planned, planned randomization if you would. A random whiteboard with some lifts and times can be a killer workout if you put the intensity high enough. Will it be specific to every individual in the facility? Not a chance. Will it hit the weaknesses of every client? Not a chance. Will it ensure you don’t lose other areas of your fitness that your sport may require? Not a chance. Will it work for some? Will it be a good cross training to throw different neuromuscular stimulus at some athletes and keep them mentally sharp? Probably will! Every broken clock is right twice a day and everyone needs a break at some point.
To build a successful program, in the words of elite strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle, you need to think about what you are doing, question can you do it better, and analyze if your new way worked or not. Then you must repeat the entire process again and again and again. This is not something that happens in CF. There is no after thought to which workouts have made the biggest difference, there is no questioning of how this workout can be legitimately improved, why someone got hurt, and the analyzing ends at did our numbers improve.
My main concern with CF is not whether or not it will improve performance even. My main concern also agrees with a statement Mike has made that I firmly believe in. The job of the coach/trainer/specialist needs to first and foremost- reduce the chance of injury in your facility. You need to keep all of your clients or athletes healthy. Secondly, you need to prepare them to not get injured on the field. There will be injuries (such as being hit by a lineman) that you have no control of, but there are many that strength, pillar stability, increased bone and fascia density, and flexibility can decrease the chance of. Movement quality, imbalances, and lack of range of motion all increase risk of injury. This is proven. CF does not look at any of this, nor do they apply it. Thirdly, the last goal of the coach is you need to improve performance. If you improve your performance but cannot stay on the field, you are wasting your time.
Mark Verstegan, founder of Athletes Performance (now EXOS) has written about improving range of motion, stability, strength, and power. These need to be achieved in that order to perform at your highest level. If you have limited range due to tight musculature, tight joint capsule, you cannot strengthen as you are only strengthening a dysfunction. Once maximal range of motion is achieved, you must be able to stabilize the joint. I feel this should go without saying, but if you do not have stability then how are you supposed to stay injury free and strengthen? Once again, skipping past this step will only strengthen a dysfunction, it will not improve your ability to perform. After ROM and stability are achieved, you can now begin to strengthen and improve power.
Where the safety concern with CF lies is that the risk of injury, instead of being priority A and diminished, is in fact greater risk due to many reasons.
***Before you get all grumpy and boycott me, hear me out, I challenge you to comment, challenge me, form a discussion. This section is by no means an attack on CF, as it does not apply to all. I have seen it in many circumstances however and you will be hard pressed to find any individual working in the higher levels of Strength and Conditioning who disagree. Most won't even acknowledge the good that I have pointed out ***
With any field, there are going to be those who do well and those who don’t. A doctor who graduates last in their class, is still a practicing doctor (now THERE is a scary thought, huh?). There are many great CF coaches. There are many more which spent only a weekend learning and getting certified in their first taste of the fitness realm. In the beginning was not even an accredited certification until late 2011 I believe (no certification is immediately certified, but typically a non-accredited certificate holds no weight until becomes accredited). I apply this to personal training also, there is a plethora of trainers who are not knowledgeable on even basic movements, biomechanics, exercise science, and dare I say even common sense or the ability to ask questions. Yet they took an online exam and earned the letters CPT.
The downfall of poor coaching is poor ability to properly recognize faulty movement, poor ability to determine best corrective action, poor ability to know the best coaching cues to correct that movement. Some of the movements I just cannot see enough benefit to be worth the risk. Unfinished Fran comes to mind here… (Warning: Viewer discretion advised).
With faulty movement being a large risk factor for injury, many will be injured. The drive to always improve often will outweigh common sense. The need for speed will often compromise form for the sake of the clock or beating an opponent. This reduced attention to form (in the presence of an inexperienced coach, a topic I will hit next) will increase the risk of injury.
The downside of the camaraderie aspect is sometimes it gets taken to far sometimes. The drive to always improve also inspires many to the point of rhabdomyolisis. "Uncle Rhabdo" had become the unofficial mascot of Crossfit, yet is nothing that should be laughed or joked about. Rhabdo can be fatal, and is a serious disease often requiring a week of hospitalization and dialysis. Essentially the muscle that breaks down during a workout happens so frequently, the muscle doesn't know when to stop and continues breaking down until myoglobin (the protein in muscle responsible for oxygen exchange) overflows into the blood. Myoglobin in the blood is not typical, and a sign of injury. Increase these levels to extreme levels, and it is serious stuff kids, the type of stuff that should have the "do not try this at home" warning from the 90s cartoons I grew up watching.
Just like individuals I have seen in training for an ironman, often CF can become so obsessive that it consumes the individual and becomes their identity. IM training in extreme cases (this is not typical however) has destroyed more than one marriage. While CF is not as time consuming as IM training (and most likely will not destroy family relations like 30+hrs of training/week is capable of), the need to not miss a workout or enjoy that slice of cake at your child’s graduation are small but important aspects of life that will go missed. There are many who will give up much of their social life outside of CF to be the best CF’er that they are capable of. Professional athletes make this sacrifice also. The average individual at CF is not a professional however, and CF is a hobby, means of health/fitness, and not a paid career. This is true in any sport. One of my coaching philosophies is not so far as that less is best, but there needs to be room for mental relaxation, rest, and the ability to still be a human being. Without a million dollar pay check, you need to be a person and not just a triathlete, not just a CF’er, not just a football player. As an athlete myself, I want to be the best. I have aspirations and goals and dreams like anyone, many of which I will hit. Will I let those get in the way of spending time with friends and family? Occasionally, usually not however. There are ways to work everything in, and mold it into your schedule. If this stops happening, and there is no give and take, it is not a good situation for anyone. When your sport is no longer an option due to injury, age, or burnout- you need to still have your support crew intact. Pushing them away to do burpees faster? Just not worth it to me. No one grows old wishing the spent less quality time with friends or family.