DISCLAIMER: This post may come across as libel or belittlement to the Crossfit community as whole. I want to make it clear that this is not the intent of my writing. I am simply critiquing certain dispositions of (some members/affiliates of) the Crossfit community I’ve seen. What I’ve seen, as well as my experiences with this program in particular, appears to match what some others see and have experienced with the program as well. With that said, I’m aware of numerous coaches and affiliates who implement the principles of Crossfit through a safe, effective, and results-producing manner. Also, their Journal and forums are great sources of knowledge.
Anyone involved in the fields of exercise and athletics who hasn’t lived under a rock these past few years has heard of Crossfit. Starting out with only a handful of affiliated gyms in the early 2000s, it has grown to well over 5000 affiliates in 2012 and is still growing steadily.
What is Crossfit? Well, here’s an excerpt from their website, answering the very exact question…
“CrossFit begins with a belief in fitness. The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness. We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable. After looking at all sport and physical tasks collectively, we asked what physical skills and adaptations would most universally lend themselves to performance advantage. Capacity culled from the intersection of all sports demands would quite logically lend itself well to all sport. In sum, our specialty is not specializing.
CrossFit is many things. Primarily, it’s a fitness regimen developed by Coach Greg Glassman over several decades. He was the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way (increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains). CrossFit itself is defined as that which optimizes fitness (constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity). CrossFit is also the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together. In fact, the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it’s so effective.“
Summary: it is about developing proficiency with certain movements and skills, improving work capacity (or cardiovascular conditioning, or endurance, or metabolic conditioning) with these movements/skills, and being part of a community who shares the same goals. This approach intends to prepare one for the unknown, and is highly popular with those in the military and with law-enforcement, first responders, and firefighters.
Certainly, this is a concept I have no qualms with. It sounds like the ideal fitness regimen. And check out the physique of a Crossfitter I found through Google…
That’s nothing to laugh at.
I still have my issues with Crossfit, however… Wanna know why?
Mastery vs.Versatility (or Lack of)
First and foremost, I disagree with Crossfit’s approach on becoming a “jack of all trades”. Yes, I believe people should encompass numerous physical abilities and skills, which is what their program preaches, but let me tell you how I’ve seen Crossfit affiliates go about teaching new movements to clients…
1. The client is taught the movement using bodyweight-, simplified-, or scaled-versions (e.g., using a PVC pipe for an overhead squat, performing burpees while omitting the pushup-portion, doing pushups with assistance bands).
2. The client will then use a handful of learned movements, as scaled down as possible, to participate in a WOD (workout of the day). These WODs typically use high reps and back-to-back movements to produce a highly-elevated heart-rate. The aim is either to complete as many rounds as possible in a time-frame, or perform the workout in the fastest time possible.
3. Once the client is no longer challenged by the movement, he/she will progress into a harder/heavier version of the movement.
This is all fine and dandy, but there is less effort dedicated to actually perfecting each movement. I understand the importance of being able to perform many movements, but what’s the point if there’s a sub-par level of competence with each motion? What’s the point of doing chin-to-bar kipping pullups and push-presses with an dumbbells for reps, if neither provide the baseline strength or ability to, let’s say, climb over a wall or load luggage on top of a vehicle. Certainly, being capable of performing strict dead-hang pullups and heavy push-presses would help with either of those two tasks.
Also, without perfecting the movements, the risk of injury is increased while performing them. Tell me, which scenario would be more likely to injure me? a) Doing kettlebell swings starting with a light weight, and using a heavier kettlebell when I feel comfortable with the current weight, or b) Perfecting the “hip-hinge” movement with minimal or zero weight, using various methods to ensure flawless technique (video-recording, 3rd-part coaching, placing PVC pipe along back for postural awareness), move on to light weight, ensure flawless technique, add more weight, repeat.
I not only think scenario B would reduce the risk of injury, I believe it would help develop one’s proprioception and kinesthetic-sense (AKA knowing the position of your body’s various parts without seeing them) and produce the higher level of competence with the movement. Sure, scenario B will take longer and prevent one form learning more movements in less time, but look at the benefits.
Conditioning, Conditioning, Conditioning
Second, I’m not a huge fan of Crossfit’s take on metabolic conditioning. The Crossfit Journal defines metabolic conditioning as”[increasing] the storage and delivery of energy for any activity.” Simply, doing things faster, more efficiently, and longer. The program claims to increase “work capacity” efficiently by working certain metabolic pathways. The three pathways consist of phosphagenic (short, anaerobic), glycolytic (mid-distance), and oxidative (long, aerobic). The emphasized metabolic pathways are phosphagenic and glycolytic, as the program claims leads to the most efficient conditioning. And I’m not one to disagree with efficiency.
What I disagree with is the Crossfit workouts’ tendency to push one into fatigue for every workout, and require one to push even harder while fatigued. Crossfitters may also perform these WODs up to 5 days a week. Looking at the posted times (ranging from 15 minutes to 40 minutes) for one the the workouts on the Crossfit website, one may assume that the metabolic pathway being used is mainly the glycolytic pathway. Another workout had shorter times (from 5 minutes to 20 minutes), but the slower times would still constitute as glycolytic.
Glycolytic pathway, numerous times a week…
For any readers that follow Mark Sisson on marksdailyapple.com, I’m sure by now that you’re thinking this situation would fall under the “chronic cardio” label. For those who are unsure of what I’m referring to, read this. In short, Mark Sisson says that mid-duration exercise performed day-after-day eventually produces negative effects on the body, thus dubbing the name “chronic cardio”. High cortisol, numerous injuries, compromised immune system.. Sounds like overtraining, pretty much.
I’d much rather follow Mark Sisson’s guidelines of conditioning, performing as much low-level (oxidative) exercise as possible, such as walking, along with high-intensity (phosphagenic) strength and conditioning a handful of times per week.
Sloppy Technique Combined with Excessive Fatigue
Finally, What turns me off from Crossfit is the combination of the previous two reasons. Performing risky movements for a length of time in a fatigued state, multiple times a week, is a death-sentence for one’s musculoskeletal-system. The risk for injury either acute or chronic, is pretty much amplified when you combine improper technique with fatigue.
For acute injury – you’re screwing yourself by moving improperly under a load, but screwing yourself twice by decreasing your joints’ stability by fatiguing your muscles and then moving improperly under a load.
For chronic injury – you’re screwing yourself by compromising your body’s ability to heal the daily wear-and-tear from exercise, but you’re screwing yourself twice by adding in additional wear-and-tear by moving improperly.
In closing… movement is a skill. It isn’t something to be taken for granted, just so you can bust your ass and get a tough workout. Just as a guitarist won’t make a living as a musician if he doesn’t practice, movement won’t serve you any use unless you practice it. You need to be up to par with a skill in order to rely on it without something bad happening. Whose surgical skills are up to par: the American doctor, or the Zimbabwean doctor? Whose skill skill is up to par?
At least the doctor from Zimbabwe kinda knows what he’s doing, right? Don’t kid yourself…
That’s all I’ve got to say today, folks. Oh yeah, and don’t be like these guys.