“CrossFit won’t just transform your body,” an acquaintance told me, with a glint of fire in her eyes, “it will change everything–who you are, how you view the world, what you think is possible.”
I’m a big believer in the life-changing power of being fit, but she was being a bit too dramatic even for me. I felt like I was being recruited for a crusade or pilgrimage, not a workout program.
This type of talk is common among the CrossFit crowd, which is growing at an exponential rate these days. But is it everything its followers–no, believers–claim it to be? Does it really transform mere “working out” into something transcendent and sublime?
Let’s find out.
In case you somehow don’t already know, CrossFit is a high-intensity exercise program that focuses on performing a variety of strength and aerobic exercises, ranging from push-ups to sprints to clean and jerks.
The exercises are usually combined to “Workouts of the Day,” or “WODs” as the initiated call them, which are often short (about 30 minutes) and extremely demanding. Performance is tracked and ranked to encourage friendly competition and measure progress.
For instance, here’s what a CrossFit workout looks like (this one is called the “Fran”):
Do the following as quickly as possible:
Three rounds, 21-15- and 9 reps of:
But CrossFit is more than just getting in a workout. It’s the culture that has made it so popular. Check it out:
Brilliant marketing, that’s for sure. (I wonder if CrossFit’s founder, Greg Glassman, has read this book?)
But does CrossFit live up to such claims? Does it justify the hype?
I don’t think so. Let me explain.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines fitness as “the condition of being physically fit and healthy.” And fit is defined as “in good health, because of regular physical exercise.”
Using these dictionary definitions, we can measure our fitness level in several ways:
Thus, as we get fitter…
Well, in CrossFit lingo, fitness has a different, much more short-sighted definition–one that Glassman invented, and that he claims is the first “meaningful, measurable way” to define the word:
“Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.”
So basically, according to Glassman, you’re as fit as you can do CrossFit. Clever and convenient. But silly.
You’re not as fit as you can do CrossFit.
Case in point: watch some CrossFit videos online or head into a CrossFit gym and you’ll see a lot of weak, overweight, inflexible people that think they’re Spartans because they can do 30 kipping (fake, stupid) pull-ups or finish the “Murph” and then make a quick visit to Uncle Pukie’s.
These people are not fit.
Now, I don’t say that to rag on people that aren’t in great shape. I respect anyone that puts in work to improve their fitness, regardless of their current condition.
But I AM ragging on the unfit CrossFit snobs that think that because I’m not a part of their “WODSQUAD,” I’m physically inferior in some way.
Wait a second…I can out-lift, out-run, and out-stretch you, and I’m bigger and leaner than you…but you’re elite because you can hit Olympic lifts with poor form and do air squats until you puke?
With that out of the way, let’s talk about actually getting fit, starting with a simple proposition:
An activity is as effective for fitness as it builds strength and aerobic endurance, and improves body composition, flexibility, and metabolic health.
Simple enough, right?
Well, if you’ve ever been pitched on CrossFit, you were probably hit with quite a few buzzwords:
The spiel usually boils down to the claim that performing a wide variety of exercises is the best way to achieve overall fitness and an aesthetic physique. That a traditional exercise program just can’t deliver the goods like CrossFit can.
Well, CrossFit does have its merits. The workouts are tough and involve doing real exercises, and you will see results if you stick to it.
But it isn’t the best way to get fit.
Let’s first look at research on what happens when you combine strength and cardiovascular training.
Researchers from RMIT University worked with well–trained athletes in 2009 and found that “combining resistance exercise and cardio in the same session may disrupt genes for anabolism.” In laymen’s terms, they found that combining endurance and resistance training sends “mixed signals” to the muscles and impairs their ability to adapt to either.
Several other studies, such as those conducted by Children’s National Medical Center, the Waikato Institute of Technology, and the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland), came to same conclusions: training for both endurance and strength simultaneously impairs your gains on both fronts.
Now does this mean CrossFit won’t improve both strength and endurance? No, of course not. But if you want to get big and strong, or if you want to maximize your aerobic capacity, science says that CrossFit isn’t the best way to do either.
Thus, it’s no surprise that most CrossFitters aren’t particularly muscular or strong, and have mediocre cardio. In fact, the only CrossFitters I’ve known that had exceptional strength, size, or cardio were following a traditional weightlifting and cardio program on top of doing CrossFit.
In my experience, both in my own training and in working with hundreds of others, the most effective way to both build strength and improve aerobic endurance is to separate weightlifting and cardiovascular exercise.
That is, follow a traditional approach to improving fitness.
Part of the CrossFit culture is taking “no pain, no gain” to a whole new level. Training to the point of absolute exhaustion makes you a “warrior.” Puking after a workout is a vaunted sacrifice to the gods of gainz.
Well, unless you’re on drugs, this is a fast track to overtraining, which can lead to serious problems. It can become chronic, which is a gradual onset of overtraining symptoms like general fatigue, depression, restlessness, loss of appetite, loss of desire to work out, and more. Or it can be acute, and in extreme cases, deadly.
A man named Makimba Mimms was awarded $300,000 in damages from a local CrossFit gym and his trainer for injuries he sustained during a CrossFit workout in 2005. Those injuries included rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which severely and rapidly damaged muscle tissue is released into the blood stream, which can lead to kidney failure.
The Workout of the Day, or “WOD,” that almost killed Mimms was renamed the “Makimba” and categorized as a children’s workout. Har har. Poor taste in jokes aside, nobody is immune to rhabdo.
For instance, in January 2011, 13 football players at the University of Iowa were hospitalized with rhabdo after doing a workout that included 100 squats with 50% of their one-rep max. It wasn’t a CrossFit workout, but was similar in that it had them performing compound lifts for high reps and under extreme fatigue.
Here’s the simple fact of the matter:
If you’re not on drugs and you’re training to complete physical exhaustion multiple times per week, and especially if your workouts include weightlifting, you’re going to end up overtraining. It’s only a matter of time.
One of the first things I noticed about people I knew doing CrossFit was almost all of them had gotten hurt. Sprains, pulled muscles, even torn ligaments.
I wasn’t surprised. Why? For a couple reasons.
The safety of the CrossFit workouts depends a lot on the coaches. If a newbie is going to perform a compound lift like a deadlift or squat, or an advanced Olympic lift like the snatch, he had better know exactly what he’s doing. If the coach hasn’t taught him perfect form, or pushes him to move a lot of weight or go to absolute failure (which is common in CrossFit classes), the likelihood of injury goes way up.
Unfortunately, however, a good coach can only do so much. CrossFit comes with an increased risk of injury built right into it. How so?
Because CrossFit has you trying to hit heavy Olympic lifts when you’re fatigued, which is a recipe for injury. Research has shown this with the squat: as fatigue sets in, form invariably gets worse. Interestingly enough, our perception of range of motion even changes with fatigue–what feels like the bottom of the squat actually isn’t.
If you’re fatigued, you should not be trying to perform heavy weightlifting exercises, and especially not big compound exercises like deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts.
Don’t believe me?
“The problem has to do with fatigue and going to failure,” says Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. “Some exercises are conducive to this and others are not.” McGill puts Olympic lifts in the “not” category.
“Repeating movements where form is compromised with fatigue really does not fit the philosophy of Olympic lifting to reduce injury risk and enhance performance.”
This is one of the reasons why the American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 3 minutes of rest in between heavy weightlifting sets (1-6 reps).
So, you’re not guaranteed to get hurt doing CrossFit, but you’re at a higher risk of injury if you follow the regular protocols.
Unsurprisingly, the few guys I know that have been doing CrossFit for any meaningful period of time without getting injured are experienced weightlifters and insert proper rest periods in between heavy sets of lifting.
The answer to this question really depends on your goals.
If you’re looking to get fitter and have some fun, then CrossFit isn’t a bad choice if you have a good coach and know how to avoid overtraining and injury. People also love the competitive environments and camaraderie of CrossFit gyms, which is totally understandable.
But if you’re looking to maximize strength or muscle gains, or maximize your aerobic capacity…CrossFit is not the optimal choice. You’ll do better following a proper weightlifting or cardio training program.
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I’m Mike Matthews and I’ve been training for nearly a decade now. I believe that every person can achieve the body of his or her dreams, and I work hard to give everyone that chance by providing workable, proven advice grounded in science, not a desire to sell phony magazines, workout products, or supplements. More about me.