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Pros and Cons of CrossFit – Part 1/2

If you are interested in fitness and human performance of any sort, you must have now heard of CrossFit. If you haven’t heard of CrossFit or barely know what it’s about, then read on and I’ll explain. It’s had a huge influence over the last several years on the fitness industry at large and is now an industry within itself worldwide, especially within the United States from where it originated around 10 years ago. It’s an extremely intense, demanding form of fitness, which is now a sport in it’s own right. Here’s an in depth analysis of my experience of it, so buckle up and get ready for the ride :-). It’s definitely the longest blog I’ve written!

My industry experience and what I know about CrossFit

– I’ve been working in Fitness Industry since 1996 as a Personal Trainer and a CHEK Practitioner since 2006.

– My first knowledge of CrossFit was due to an ‘affiliate’ or ‘box’ (what a CrossFit gym is called) that was directly below my former CHEK Studio I owned. I had several ‘fit’ walk-in clients that came from this CrossFit looking for rehab, as they’d hurt their shoulders, back and other body parts, due to what they were being prescribed/forced to do during each days W.O.D. (workout of the day). So my first association with it was not good. Nothing seemed to be scaled down to meet the levels of beginner participants.

– I’ve been working as a CHEK Practitioner within a Crossfit facility called CrossFit Athletic Brookvale, since September 2013. I heard a lot better reports about this place from a former client that joined them, so decided to contact the owner when my former Personal Training facility closed down, and luckily enough he was looking for people like me to come and subcontract out of the place, so after checking it out and making a deal, I moved my clientele over and have now been working here ever since.

– I’ve been CrossFitting myself at least twice a week since then.

– I’ve read the Crossfit Level 1 manual 🙂

 

So what is CrossFit?

www.crossfit.com


CrossFit promotional video

The CrossFit equation: CVFM @ HI + Communal Environment = Health

(A regimen of constantly varied (CV), functional movements (FM) performed at high intensity (@HI) in a communal environment leads to health and fitness) (2).

To the untrained eye, CrossFit is an enigma. Most people, including myself initially, can’t understand why and how the exercises are being done the way they are! It looks like ‘cardio gymnastics’ or ‘cardio Olympic lifting’. Large volume, explosive movements with substandard technique, less adherant to typical strict technique taught for conventional strength movements in conventional gyms. From my experience now, I define CrossFit as:

“A method of exercise programming using a large variety of different exercise methods to achieve ultimate fitness that can be used functionally within many areas of life and sport”

Some quotes from the level 1 manual (1):
– “The Crossfit prescription is: constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement”.
– “It’s specialty is to not specialise”.
– “In CrossFit there is no ideal routine.  The CrossFit ideal is to train for any contingency”.
– “CrossFit doesn’t subscribe to high reps, low reps, long rests, or short rests, but strives for variance”.
– “CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning program designed to develop fitness that is foundational to all other athletic needs. It is a deliberate attempt to optimise physical competence in 10 recognised fitness domains. The 10 recognised fitness domains of CrossFit: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, accuracy”.

A unique part of CrossFit is the open source charter on the Internet, where WOD’s are posted for the world to tackle and participants can posts their PB’s (Personal Best) / PR (Personal Record) for the prescribed workout and therefore create a unique community in which to challenge people worldwide. As observed by marine Jeff Cooper: “The fear of sporting failure is worse than the fear of death” (1). CrossFit has definitely created a very competitive way to work out.

Crossfit is now a sport within itself. Since 2007 it has become a mini-olympics of sorts with an open, regional and world games taking place each year. Anyone can participate.

What is a fit person?

At this point, I think it makes sense to actually discuss what makes someone fit in the first place.

Crossfit definition:

“a person who is trained or skilled in strength, power, balance and agility, flexibility and endurance”. Fringe athletes: examples include sumo wrestling, triathlon, marathon running, powerlifting”.

I like it.This certainly lends itself to the Primal philosophies about movement we encourage people to uphold. In other words, I feel any person that has the ability to be able to manage whatever form of movement is thrown at them, is truly ‘fit’. Typically, the common person defines ‘fit’ as someone that has high cardiovascular fitness like a marathon runner or a triathlete. How about a decathlete? Wouldn’t you think someone that has the ability to excel at 10 events would be considered fitter than a triathlete? A decathlete would rarely even get a mention in a conversation from my experience. The bottom line is that fitness is relative to everyone. Your own personal needs will influence your own definition of fitness. I think CrossFit is certainly recreating the stereotype of what a ‘fit’ person entails. Especially now from I can see in the ‘CrossFit World Games’, they are now adding in things like swimming, which takes it to another level once again. Check out this video showing what world CrossFit champ Rich Froning is capable of.


A day/week in the life of Rich Froning, 3 x World Champ

A typical CrossFit workout

There is no real typical CrossFit workout. That’s the entire idea. There are however, typical movement patterns and methods of conditioning that are used a lot of the time (at least at my ‘box’).

Program A: 3 to 10 sets of 3 to 5 reps of a fundamental lift at a moderately comfortable place
Program B: 10 minutes circuit of gymnastics elements at the blistering pace
Program C: 2 to 10 minutes of high-intensity metabolic conditioning

As a clearer example, here’s what I did today in around 50-60min. Breaks do exist between each program!

Program A: 2 x TNG (Touch and Go) Power Snatch every 45 sec x 10 rounds (Note: moderate weight with good technique)
Program B: 6 rounds with no break. Done for time.
– 5 Bar Muscle Up
– 10 Pistol Squats (5 each leg)
Program C: 15 Min AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible)
– 50 Wall Ball
– 3 Rope Climbs
– 500m Run

Typical CrossFit movements: Olympic lifts (snatch, clean and jerk), squat, deadlift, barbell and dumbell presses of all sorts. Gymnastics movements like: pullups, rope climb, push-ups, situps, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Typical cardio choices are: Airdyne (type of bike), run, swim, rowing and skipping (in particular ‘double-unders’). Interval training is the preferred CrossFit method used to develop aerobic conditioning using anaerobic efforts.

Crossfit Athletic - Wayne - Kettlebells

Plenty of Kettle bell work

Crossfit Athletic - Rings - Kipping

Mid flight – Kipping pullups and muscle ups

Crossfit Athletic - Rope Climbs

Rope Climbs

Crossfit Athletic - Overhead Squats

Overhead Squats – Essential strength for Snatch

Pros and Cons of CrossFit

Lets start with the cons I feel CrossFit has. This is definitely not an exhaustive or exclusive list either. Just my initial thoughts:

Cons

– Huge volumes of work leading to injury and exhaustion
If you are a beginner, you are prone to injure yourself doing CrossFit, unless you find a place that does a good job of scaling back the exercise complexity and intensity for you. If you are just starting a new journey into health, the importance of learning how to create balance in your Primal 6 should take precedence over slaughtering yourself with CrossFit. CrossFit has the propensity to create Adrenal Fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, constant pain and strain, and long term chronic injuries faster than other sports (my opinion). Listen to your body, don’t be a hero, and take your time to progress. This is not the latest ‘bootcamp’ method to get in shape! It’s intense serious stuff that can cause more harm than good if you don’t listen to it. The good thing that can come from this though, is that it forces you to put your nutritional habits higher up your total pole of importance!

– 2 day CrossFit course graduates / Inferior CrossFit affiliates
People are definitely getting injured because of this and in the process, giving the sport of CrossFit a terrible reputation to boot. This video below is simply the worst example I’ve ever seen. Admittedly the female lifters are actually trying to do a proper lifting movement, i.e. an axle grip barbell clean. This movement though is just simply is way beyond their skill level! This problem can certainly exist with coaching in any sport though.


This is not what CrossFit is all about!

– CrossFit being touted as the best solution to improve performance for every sport
CrossFit movement patterns tend to be very dominant in the sagittal plane (forward-backward movements e.g. chinups, pushups, Olympic lifts, squats, deadlifts, box jumps, rows etc). Crossfit’s reasoning: “powerful hip extension alone is necessary and nearly sufficient for elite athletic performance. No one without powerful extension enjoys great athletic prowess” (1). As a bodyboarder and stand-up surfer, the main movement planes I tend to use are the transverse and frontal planes when doing 360’s and rolls on my bodyboard and transverse plane when doing turns on a surfboard. In other words, CrossFit does not have a very high functional carry over for me with the main movement patterns of my chosen sports, based on the typical movement patterns prescribed in a WOD.

One WOD fits all approach
The idea here being that guys are prescribed one things, and girls another without acknowledgement of their skill level. This is what I knew CrossFit to be a year or so ago, and what i see on a lot of sites on the web. This is NOT the case where I work at CrossFit Athletic (CFA), and from what I can now see in research for writing this article, a trend taking off with lots of different affiliates. This a great thing to make CrossFit more accessible to people by allowing more comfortable weights and descended movement patterns for people as they progress. CFA in particular have an ‘on-ramp’ beginners program,  ladies program, then 3 scaled version of each days WOD called base, climb and peak which I think is excellent.

– One diet fits all approach
Unless things have changed since the CrossFit level one manual was published, CrossFit recommends a one size fits all approach to nutrition. 40% carbohydrate 30% protein and 30% fat. More akin to Dr Barry Sears Zone diet. Across online CrossFit groups, Paleo is now more the more the focus. By now you would know our Primal stance. We are more about understanding how your DNA and genetics have been influenced through thousands of years of your own individual ancestry. We’re big fan’s of Dr. Weston A Price’s work. We just can’t argue with his research. A Fijian and an Eskimo doing CrossFit should be eating completely different diets that work best for their own unique selves. Whether you choose to eat foods that are fau paux to the masses these days like soy, gluten containing grains, dairy etc, eat them prepared as Primal / raw / traditionally prepared / organic as possible then work out your own best ratios throughout the seasons.

Pros

– Overall effectiveness to improve function in life and sport
“Compound or functional movements and high-intensity or anaerobic cardio is radically more effective and eliciting nearly any desired fitness result” (1). Even after mentioning how CrossFit is not effectively functional for me as a surfer, the heart and lung conditioning I’ve gained from it has definitely improved my surfing paddle ability and lung capacity. From training people for so many years myself, compound / functional movements I feel are better fun, more challenging and more relevant to life. You won’t see bicep curls and tricep push downs at CrossFit.

– Cardiovascular conditioning like no other
CrossFit has a heavy reliance on interval training whether you’re using your legs, a dumbbell, a ball, bar or box. They have based on their methods on the work of Dr Stephen Seiler. In particular an article called ‘The time course of training adaptations’. Their interpretation of his material prompted them to advocate “regular high intensity training in as many training modalities as possible through largely anaerobic efforts and intervals while deliberately and specifically avoiding the efficiency that accompanies mastery of a single modality” (1). Based on Dr Seilers work they also push home the power of interval training to improve total cardiovascular benefit without the loss of strength speed and power. In other words more interval training will improve your pure aerobic work. I can definitely vouch for this. As I’ve mentioned, my surfing endurance has improved immensely since starting CrossFit. I agree with the way that they use the term cardio. I’ve been a big advocate over the years of getting people to look at anything and everything they do as being a cardio workout. After all, when you lift weights, your heart doesn’t stop working! Essentially when something is over three minutes consistently in duration it can be technically called an aerobic program or cardio exercise. Instead of just going for a long run, use different movements using your own body weight, weights to lift, water to swim in etc to create a more funny enjoyable cardio work out that’s less repetitive on your joints and body.

– Competitive, community, addictive
There is no denying that CrossFit has brought people at gyms back into Tribes. Primal tribes that grunt, sweat, swear and scream together. It brings people back to our roots, with a super competitive element to boot! I can totally see why so many people are addicted to it. I’m slowly getting there. It certainly puts you in your place and makes you want to come back as soon as possible to improve on what you did the last time. Butterfly kipping chin-ups, kipping handstand pushups, handstand walks, Olympic lifts and muscle ups for example, are all movements that were fairly new to me from being in the conventional gym environment for so long. These exercises have challenged me to no end and got me hooked to master them with ease, so I can then combine them in a WOD and power through faster than before.

Crossfit Athletic - Post WOD

Community is a huge part of CrossFit

Crossfit Athletic - Rowing

Rowing interval training

– The importance of nutrition

CrossFit Theoretical Hierarchy of Development PyramidSee CrossFit’s ‘theoretical hierarchy of development’ pyramid above. If you have a deficiency at any level of the pyramid the components above suffer. Even though I mentioned in the cons, that CrossFit has a one size fits all approach to diet, I like that they have NUTRITION as the foundation in this pyramid and therefore acknowledge that it’s the most important part of a CrossFitters success before any type of MOVEMENT.

CrossFit confusion

– CrossFit causes rhabdomyolosis OR ‘muscle meltdown’
This is a medical condition that may arise when muscle tissue breaks down and the contents of the muscle cells are released into the bloodstream. One molecule in particular, myoglobin, is toxic to the kidneys and cause kidney failure, and most severe cases, death. Based on the intensity of CrossFit, this is proported to be a common problem with CrossFit. The truth is from my experience and what I’ve researched, it’s a potential risk with any sport. My fellow workmate at CFA and elite Crossfitter Jarrod Smith (see Part 2 of this article), has had ‘rhabdo’ twice! NOT from CrossFit though. From triathlon!! He used to be an ironman triathlete before adrenal fatigue and digestive issues set in, and before he became addicted to CrossFit.

– CrossFit is encouraging weird and terrible technique
This is certainly the case if you talk to traditional strength training advocates. What you have to understand about CrossFit though, is that it’s a SPORT that is time driven. Programs are created then the challenge is to perform it against the clock and against your competitors in your group. This is NOT bodybuilding where exercises are done with strict technique in only one plane of motion for the goal of creating an increase in muscle size and/or strength improvement in a particular plane of motion. The CrossFit goal is usually to perform movements as fast as possible (in methods deemed OK by CrossFit according to competitive games rules). Hence momentum is used exclusively. Of course it already is used in things like Olympic lifting and gymnastics, but for example, ‘normal’ chin-ups are rarely done in CrossFit. In order to increase speed, gymnastic ‘kipping chin-ups’ are the norm. They have now morphed into a faster way of getting the chin above the bar again called a ‘butterfly kipping chin-up’.  The goal with Crossfit is NOT perfect technique. It’s performing to a clock! Check out the CrossFit workout named ‘Fran’ below and you’ll see what I mean.


Fran in 2:38. Fast!

In conclusion

I applaud CrossFit creator, Coach Greg Glassman, for bringing such awesome sports and movements all into one method/arena. The days of movements in a gym like Romanian Deadlifts being considered contraindicated or dangerous are long gone. They were first challenged by Paul Chek with the introduction of ‘functional movement’ paradigm, encouraging people to get off machines they were sitting on and use their body as the machine. CrossFit has now taken this to the next level.

I have to be completely honest and say that CrossFit has re-inspired my excitement for training again, just as ‘functional training’ did for me after years training and teaching machine based bodybuilding methods. I’m definitely feeling the pinch though, with extended days of soreness, tiredness and sometimes injury, hence why I thought I’d better write something like this to educate people more about it.

I believe CrossFit is awesome for people like me. People that have years of varied gym training under their belt, good movement patterns, and know how to look after their body with proper recovery. I think it has the ability to cause lots of problems with people that have little experience and that don’t have the sensibility to know when to stop or schedule their training each week properly.

Since I’ve been Cross Fitting, my body has been happy with a max of three times per week. There are some people I work with and members at my affiliate that train six days a week. My body would feel shattered if I did that currently. It certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t do it, or that anyone else is capable of successfully doing it. For example, the world champ, Rich Froning trains several times a day, every day! Many other people are taking levels to extremes in other sports too. Not just CrossFit. Check out this video and article about two 60yr + Australians that just ran around Australia! 365 marathons in 365 days! In Vibram five fingers too! Watch video here.

Running Around Australia - Vibram Five Fingers

Couple run 365 marathons in a year around Australia

I look forward to seeing where CrossFit evolves to and will be looking forward to watch the World Games coming up in 2014!

 

Next, learn about CrossFit from an elite CrossFitter, in ‘The Pros and Cons of Crossfit – Part 2/2

 

References

1/ CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide {Internet}. Location: http://journal.crossfit.com/2010/05/crossfit-level-1-training-guide.tpl Accessed: 8 January, 2013, 13:00pm.

2/ What is CrossFit? {Internet}. Location: http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/what-is-crossfit.html . Accessed: 8 January, 2013, 13:30pm.

 

Are you a member of a CrossFit affiliate? Share your experiences!

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