Updated Thoughts on CrossFit

I’m going to marry Julie Foucher.  You’re invited.

We haven’t planned the wedding yet, but I’ve been saving oodles of cool ideas on my “future wedding” Pinterest page in anticipation for Julie calling me and saying, “I can’t wait to make this happen, Harold.”  I’ll have to tell her we should wait until she finishes medical school, because her career is important.  See how nice I am?

Before that happens though, I have to worry about the first-date hurdle.  I’m not sure what will be more awkward:  Me insisting on an FMS while our paleo-approved dinner is cooked, or her asking about my Fran time.  Julie, I’ve never done Fran, and I probably never will.Well this is awkward…that’s the end of that dream.  She’s already running away, and we haven’t even met.

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I genuinely appreciate the concept behind CrossFit, but vehemently stand against the implementation of those concepts.  Those concepts can be summarized as “World-Class Fitness in 100 Words“:

  •  Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.
  • Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds.  Bike, run, swim, row row, etc, hard and fast.
  •  Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense.
  •  Regularly learn and play new sports.

High-five, we agree.  In fact, I’d bet that most educated fitness professionals would agree that a variety of compound movements with external load and manipulating body weight lead to the greatest improvements in general physical preparedness.   CrossFit is becoming hugely popular, and has exposed people to “old school” tenets of strength training, including the powerlifts, Olympic lifts, and a variety of gymnastics/bodyweight movements.  Of all the mass-market training programs, it may be the one that includes the most “functional training” in preparation for life.  My question is this:

What are you preparing for?

In 2011, more than 26,000 athletes signed up to compete in the CrossFit Games Open.  In 2012, that number rose to 69,240 competitors.  The 2012 games were hugely popular, and I won’t be surprised if the number of those who enter in 2013 games followed that same growth rate.  Even if the numbers reached 250,000 this year, that’s still a miniscule percentage point of the population who’s competing in CrossFit; everyone else is a specialist.

CrossFit promotes the notion that they “punish the specialist”.  The whole strategy of the programming is to adapt multiple areas of fitness at once, so that everything improves in tandem.  This doesn’t mean, “Become the best in the world at X”, this means, “Minimize mediocrity, so you’re decent at everything.”  Participants in the CrossFit Games have put up impressive numbers in standards of strength training as well as endurance; we’ve seen heavy deadlifts and fast mile or 5k times, yes,  but not the best.

Based on most training goals, CrossFit is not the ideal training program.  Let me detour and note that I’m referring to the daily “main site programming”.  This doesn’t account for the CrossFit Affiliates that deviate from the main site WOD and implement their own programming, for better or for worse.  Some of them are far better, most of them are far worse.  When you consider those who are training specifically for the CrossFit games, very few if any of them are using the prescribed training from CrossFit HQ; they’re using training that’s specifically geared towards preparing for the benchmark workouts of the Open.  One could argue that doing “CrossFit” isn’t even the best option for getting good at CrossFit.  Instead, let’s take CrossFit On Its Own.

In the February/March issue of The Box Magazine, Bob LeFavi, wrote an article that notes that most of the time, the underlying question about CrossFit is, “What are you using CrossFit for?”

“The assumption here is that CrossFit is a means to an end, and non-practitioners would understand it better if they could just see what that end is.  What if CrossFit is not a means used to achieve a specific end but is rather an end in itself?”

He notes what I discussed earlier, that elite level Crossfitters are “very impressive in their individual performance (1RM snatch, mile time.)” but asks, “Can you be elite at CrossFit and at the same time elite at powerlifting or the marathon? Probably not.”  Dr. LeFavi concludes that the adaptation, that the ‘end’ goal of CrossFit, is either physical performance in CrossFit events, or the physical adaptations of participants.

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Taking CrossFit On Its Own simplifies the analysis of the activity.  It was marketed by Reebok as The Sport of Fitness.  Why don’t we just consider it that?  CrossFit is a sport.

If CrossFit is a sport, then sport-specific training is doing CrossFit, whatever the hell that may be on any given day.  It changes on the whim of The Programmers.  Some folks are using CrossFit as a general physical preparedness (GPP) program, while others are using it to adjust body composition.  The one thing that CrossFit is not, is strength and conditioning.

There is little evidence to support the efficacy of CrossFit (or P90X), and their certification program is not recognized by the NCCA.  Programming can violate the unsworn Hippocratic oath of the strength coach, to do no harm.  This includes during any given training session, along with reducing injury risk in the long term as well.  I don’t believe that the typical CrossFit program does that.

Recently a friend sent me a link to one of Dave Tate’s training logs that included a screen capture of a quote from Greg Glassman, the creator of the activity/sport/training system:

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Umm…. What?  Welp, I guess if we’re all guessing about what we’re doing, CrossFit would be a pretty good combination of guesses.  Barbells seem to work; we should do some things with those.  Gymnasts seem strong; let’s do some of that.  Boxers jump rope; we should do that too.  Boxes are good to jump on to, so we should jump on to them and off of them!  Let’s combine all of the the training and hope that it works!

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Except it isn’t all a guess.  On PubMed, there are 250,655 hits for “Exercise“, 16,812 hits for “Strength Training“, and 9,568 hits for “Resistance Training.”  There are 3 hits for CrossFit, and only one of them discusses the activity.  There are certainly guesses in the fitness world, from the most open ended physical activity programs to the most detailed strength and conditioning programs.  However, those ‘guesses’ are far more limited than one would presume from the statement above.  Further, these ‘guesses’ are typically contained to single variables that allow coaches to determine slight changes in programming, and not make broad assumptions or implementing complete overhauls.  To assume that all strength and conditioning is a complete fraud makes an ass out of you and me, Mr. Glassman.

It’s presumptuous to assume that every coach or trainer in the world pulls randomized programming out of thin air and makes it up as they go along, just as it’s naïve to ignore CrossFit.  The training system is here to stay, and the concepts are well-respected and rooted in science.  The competitive factor is adored by participants who are able to set personal records in the widely varied workouts, and then race against their teammates in benchmark workouts.  The problem is,  I think the CrossFit “Girls”, or named workouts, are silly.  That’s being reserved; I think most of them are stupid and dangerous.  Very few people have the need to walk into the gym and complete highly technical lifts at rapid speeds.  Exercise speed and technique are usually inversely proportionate, and high-speed technical movements are a recipe for injury.  The thing is, nobody who is in the middle of a WOD thinks, “Hey, this may be dangerous.”  They’re all thinking, “I feel like I’m going to die, and this is awesome.”

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I’ve gotten after my fair share of conditioning, and I enjoy that feeling of, “Alright, any harder and I’m going to puke, but don’t slow down.”  I get it.  I don’t necessarily recommend it, but I enjoy it.  The thing is, it doesn’t necessarily make you better at anything.  You’re working hard just to work hard.  If that’s the goal, then by all means, do that.  If you want to get better at Fran, then go bust your ass and do Fran.  If you want to improve your half marathon, or become a better swimmer, or increase your powerlifting total, then there are options that are safer, focus on progression, and are rooted in physiology, and not creativity.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Instead, let’s make sure the size of the bathtub is appropriate, that the water is of an appropriate temperature and cleanliness, that the soap we’re using is strong enough to clean but is not abrasive.  We’re setting limits so that it’s not a free-for-all.  You wouldn’t drop a 1 year old in the middle of the North Atlantic with a Clorox product, so don’t go into the gym, throw a barbell over your head, and then set a PR on day one.  There’s a difference between scripting a training plan so that beginners can master movements before aggressive loading, and “scaling it” and setting them loose.

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Setting aside the flaws in execution of training, I think that CrossFit is a damn good idea.  There is a variety of compound movements that emphasize strength development and power production. It’s made Olympic lifting sexy, and rings are no longer just an event at gymnastics events.  Most workouts include dedicated time to improve range of motion and quality of movement, then focus on strength or power, then include a metabolic conditioning period, or MetCon.

That’s strength and conditioning if we were to define each of those terms individually, but that’s not best-practices in the field.  Don’t get it twisted; CrossFit is not a strength and conditioning program.  If you’re competing, it’s a sport. If you’re participating, it’s a general physical preparedness program that will prepare you for a variety of activities, not excellence at any given one.  This doesn’t align with the goals of most people, and they’re more likely to accomplish their goals with other programming.

However, if CrossFit is your sport, and it’s your new competitive activity, then get out there and own the shit out of CrossFit. If you make it to any events, tell Julie that I say Hi, and I’d love to take her out to dinner.

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5 Replies to “Updated Thoughts on CrossFit”

  1. “Exercise speed and technique are usually inversely proportionate, and high-speed technical movements are a recipe for injury.”
    This has truth written all over it.
    I wrote something similar but used a video broken down into frames to show it nice and slow if you wanted to take a look. post is called quality over quantity.

    As a sport Crossfit is perfectly acceptable. as a long term wellness program….pretty flawed.

      1. I am also a fan. You put out awesome content. And i thinnk you have now is it 2 potential wives awaiting proposal if the opportunity to meet them is there?
        That’s exactly it. “competitive sports” have inherit risk…in all disciplines. Wellness programs should not have that same risk, simply because it is literally the opposite of having/attaining wellness. If you run run marathons, powerlift, bodybuild and keep injuring yourself that is not attaining wellness or increased well-being/health same goes for Crossfitting for wellness. Thank you for posting a link!

      2. I love how you put that! We (the public) tend to take performance or physique activities and apply them to general health and wellness, when they’re usually not the best option for improving health/fitness in the long run.

        I hope my two potential wives “get it” when we start doing those annoyingly cute couples workouts together.

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