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Crossfit - good for all, or only for the trained?

Written By

Jeremy Boyd


Business and Marketing, General Group Exercise, Personal Training, Programming

Posted On

16 March 2016

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Anytime we talk about Crossfit, who’s listening will largely depend on what’s heard. The proponents of Crossfit will often hear any criticism as the views of a ‘hater’ and the critics will often listen for anything that supports their beliefs and ignore anything else.

In order to keep this post as open as possible and in the interests of full disclosure, I don’t do Crossfit, nor is it likely that I ever will. This is not anything to do with Crossfit per se. I actually like many of the exercises they use and I find the atmosphere at many boxes motivating. My issue is that, as a former competitive athlete, I have an unhealthy desire to win; sometimes disproportionate to my abilities. Because of this, whilst my left brain recognises that I should work within my limits and adjust any workout according to my specific needs, the right, more ego driven, side of my brain just wants to win. When more blood is flowing towards my muscles than my brain, guess which side wins out?

Additionally, it’s important to understand that the term Crossfit represents a number of different concepts:

The Brand

The Training Methodology

The Education

The Culture

Crossfit as a brand is great. It tells us that everyone can get on the path to elite fitness, whatever our age, experience or physical state. It encourages predominantly healthy eating practices and progressively challenging training approaches. I think it’s genius and laughable at the same time though as for me the Crossfit brand is similar in concept to the idea of branding eating meat and vegetables and calling it Crosseat. I’ve cross-trained for almost 40 years and that someone’s managed to brand it is both impressive and bizarre. That said, as a brand, I think Crossfit is great.

The problems start to show up when we assess Crossfit’s training methodology. One of the most important principles we learn as trainers is the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) principle. The high level of variability in Crossfit’s programming means there is potentially very little specificity other than the workout itself.

At the time of writing, the Workout of the Day (WOD) on Crossfit’s main site is as follows:

For time:

1 round of:

100 double-unders

50 squats

95-lb. push press, 25 reps

Then, 2 rounds of:

60 double-unders

30 squats

95-lb. push press, 15 reps

Then, 3 rounds of:

40 double-unders

20 squats

95-lb. push press, 10 reps

Having been a coach for almost 25 years, I can see little rationale for this other than to exhaust someone and maybe develop overall cardiovascular fitness. Not only that, but good technique on Double-unders will potentially fatigue the scapular retractors and tighten the ankles, both of which could negatively impact squat mechanics. To then follow this with high volume Push Presses could potentially irritate the shoulders and lower back. The problem is that plenty of people will be able to tolerate this amount of work and they’ll get touted as examples of how great the workout is, rather than recognised as outliers. The other issue I have is the repetitions which are particularly high. Anytime I see high repetitions in a programme I assume that the client is highly skilled in that particular exercise. Otherwise, as fatigue kicks in, technique will degrade quickly and the risk of injury will increase.

Because of this, I’d argue that Crossfit as prescribed by their head office is not for everyone, nor should it be viewed as such. Again, in order to remain as unbiased as possible, I simply took the WOD that was posted on the day I wrote this article. It may be a particularly poor example of the Crossfit programming approach.

According to an interview in 2013 with Dave Castro, Co-director of Training and Director of the Crossfit Games, less than 15% of all the people who’ve completed their Level 1 training actually become affiliates. He maintains that this is because many people certify out of interest rather than professional development. However, when you look at the Level 1 course, it’s a whopping two days and has no pre-requisites. While this may not be a problem, it’s feasible that someone could walk in with no professional experience whatsoever and walk out with the ability to set up a Crossfit gym. Provided they apply the training methodologies taught in the course and prescribe the WODs created by Crossfit HQ, from a business perspective Crossfit are ok with that. Whilst many if not most Crossfit boxes are probably run by trained, qualified professionals, some won’t be and for me that’s a concern that no-one at Crossfit HQ seems to have addressed.

Most of the time, when you talk to someone about Crossfit what you’re actually discussing is the culture. The subject of much lampooning and ridicule, it is often likened to a cult (College Humour’s videos on this are perfect examples). If Crossfit works for you, you’ll likely become passionate about it and want to share its merits with everyone. Unfortunately, this may make you a pariah at parties and generally annoying, just like anyone that becomes overly evangelical or preachy. I don’t mind this too much as there’s lots to encourage, such as hard work, predominantly whole food based diets, strong community and an enthusiasm for varied physical activity. What I’m cautious of is those that feel Crossfit is the way, rather than, a way. I’ve also seen a few people get swept up by the enthusiasm and pushed past the point of common sense. One of the worst being a young woman deadlifting in high heels before a night out. Her ankle folded to at least 90 degrees as it gave way underneath her. The Crossfit community’s response? It was a dumb thing to do and she won’t be doing anything that stupid again for a while? No. The general response was that the lady in question is so hard-core that she was in the gym the following morning in her class to complete the WOD as usual! Now, no-one’s saying that what she did was Crossfit. Obviously not, but maybe the invincible mentality that Crossfit can sometimes impart is, for some people, a bad thing.

So overall, if you’re psychologically healthy, injury free, fairly fit and active, then I think Crossfit is definitely worth a look, provided that your local box is run by appropriately trained and qualified staff, rather than someone who’s been professionally trained for a total of 18 hours.

If, however, you’re overly competitive to the point that you can lose sight of common sense, are a beginner with minimal to basic reflexes, co-ordination, agility and joint health, I’d start somewhere else.

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