CrossFit: Friend or Foe?

Due to the number of questions I’ve received – both in person and via email – regarding my thoughts on CrossFit, I thought it’d be best to briefly touch on this in a blog post. CrossFit has been rapidly growing in popularity among athletes and general fitness enthusiasts alike, and there’s no doubt the training philosophy/method of CrossFit is a hot topic on the internet, largely due to the fact of how controversial it is.

Before I continue, it’s important I make a couple clarifying statements:

  1. I do not personally “do CrossFit,” but the purpose of this post is not to bash another approach to training. I think it’s about time we cease getting our underwear up in a bunch because someone has a different way of training than we do (this goes for CrossFitters and non-CrossFitters alike). Also, I feel quite strongly against putting someone (or, I guess in this case, something else) down in order to build myself up. If you’re so insecure about your beliefs, values, methods, etc. that your first instinct is to berate someone else in order to make yourself look good, then you have many other problems to worry about other than the fact that someone else believes something different than you do. Let’s save the bad-mouthing and finger pointing for the politicians, shall we?
  2. The concerns I’m going to address are exclusively related to the CrossFit main site, NOT every CrossFit coach/gym/affiliate out there. I am well aware that there are some VERY qualified coaches running CrossFit gyms, and more power to them. For instance, Kelly Starrett of the Mobility Project is preaching a fantastic message by encouraging everyone improve their movement quality via specific mobility drills. John McBrien advocates the prioritization of technique over volume, which is something that CrossFitters are often accused of ignoring. Similarly, there are countless other instructors out there that ensure safe and effective programming/teaching of their clients.

Moving on, I’ll do my best to answer the question as succinctly as possible. Understand that my thoughts are largely based off the population I work with (primarily high school and college athletes), and, again, I’m addressing concerns specifically related to what is publicly posted on the main site, not at everyone who works under the CrossFit umbrella.

Were I to coach within a CrossFit affiliate, here are a few “tweaks” I would make in my own programming, compared to the main site “WOD:”

1. Individualize the Programs

Taken directly from the website, everyone performing the WOD (or “Workout of the Day”) does the exact same thing, albeit with different loads/intensities:

Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.

The CrossFit program is designed for universal scalability making it the perfect application for any committed individual regardless of experience. We’ve used our same routines for elderly individuals with heart disease and cage fighters one month out from televised bouts. We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.

The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree not kind. Our terrorist hunters, skiers, mountain bike riders and housewives have found their best fitness from the same regimen.

This, right here, is the largest red flag. Maybe it’s because I worked as a physical therapist aid, completed rotations in cardiac rehab clinics, and now work as a performance coach, but I can confidently say that I would train an elite athlete far differently than I would train an elderly individual whose heart is on the brink of failing. To do otherwise would be inconsiderate and downright dangerous.

Should most people squat? Yes. Should most people learn to pick heavy things off the ground? Yes. I can see where they’re coming from there. However, I don’t think there’s any denying that each and every person has a unique training history, medical history, training goals, etc. that warrant an individual program written for that specific person.

Using just one example, throughout this Summer we (SAPT) have been working with a Division 1, national-level sprinter who is pretty darn close to his genetic potential. During his particular hour of training, we also work with a 41-year old man who sits at a desk 40+ hours per week. To give these individuals the exact same program (even with different loads/intensities), would be ignoring the fact that safe and effective programming is a precise course of action centered around the unique needs, deficiencies, and goals of each person under our watch.

Furthermore, many of the routines place tremendous stress on the shoulder girdle (ex. high volume of overhead pressing, muscle-ups, ring dips, etc.). Not that this is always unwarranted (remember: there’s no such thing as contraindicated exercises, just contraindicated lifters), but – for the overhead athletes I work with – these routines could quickly lead down the road of surgery and PT rather than championship titles.

Again, I realize that many CrossFit instructors don’t operate under the exact wording of the quote on the website, and I’m not sure how literal the authors intended their statement to be, so I can’t completely judge. I would just personally choose to take a different approach to programming.

2. Incorporate Unilateral Work

Every main site WOD I’ve looked at is composed of bilateral lifts, exclusively. While there’s no denying that squats and deadlifts should be a staple of most programs, there is still a training effect that can only be attained by working one limb at a time.

Given that the majority of athletics involve planting one foot on ground at a time (read: running), unilateral work can be a fantastic tool for physical preparation of sport. Single-leg (and single-arm) exercises simply address asymmetries, injury risk reduction, and key muscular stabilizers in a manner that bilateral movements do not. Not to mention, single-leg variations can also be extremely practical for someone who is not meant to squat (due to injury or biomechanical make-up).

3. Form Should Never Be Compromised In Training. Ever.

My number one goal as a strength coach is to keep my athletes and general fitness clients free of injury. As Dan John recently wrote:

It is “almost” okay to get injured in competition, but it’s insane to get hurt in preparation

Due to the incredibly high volume, and low/zero rest periods, in most of the main site WODs, I would feel very uncomfortable programming those workouts for the majority of the clientele at SAPT. It would be near impossible to maintain good form, and thus reduce risk of injury, while performing heavy compound lifts during a high state of fatigue.

4. Limit the Volume of the Olympic Lifts, as well as the Squats and Deadlifts (most of the time).

Scrolling through the website, I found multiple workouts prescribing power cleans, snatches, overhead squats, etc. for upwards of fifteen reps in a row. Again, I understand many CrossFit coaches don’t approve of this, but still, why even have them up there?

The O-lifts require a TREMENDOUS amount of skill and practice to perform safely and effectively, and are intended to be used in a manner that develop power/rate of force development, not aerobic capacity.

I’m not saying to avoid thinking outside the box, but at the same time I believe there should be a certain reverence held for the big lifts (squats/deads) and the olympic lifts. When utilizing these lifts for reps of 10+, you’re no longer working on power augmentation but aerobic adaptations. I would personally prefer to choose one of the countless other means of improving aerobic capacity over the olympic lifts, due to the risk of ingraining poor technique (or even worse, injury) involved.

5. Develop a Progressive Plan for Each Individual, Rather than Focus on Constant Variance.

One of the site’s pride and joy seems to center around the fact that each workout is “constantly varied.” While I can imagine the creators of the site can back this up with an argument (which is great, and I respect that), I’d personally avoid variance just for the sake of having variance.

If working with a general fitness population that only wants the gym to be an outlet to experience fun, learn new things, and be around like-minded people, this is great! However, when preparing an athlete for a competitive season or a particular competition day, it’s necessary to put together a progressive and thought-out plan, and this requires more than just throwing a bunch of play dough at the wall to see what sticks.

Summary

Again, the purpose of this post isn’t to point out “flaws” in another training system.In reality, any coach could walk into a gym or performance center (mine included) and point at happenings they don’t agree with and/or feel are “wrong.” It doesn’t really take an intelligent person to do this. That’s one of the beauties of the training industry, and I personally think this can make for many thought-provoking and healthy debates.

Also, realize that CrossFit is a sport! The CrossFit games now take place each year. As such, if you’re training to compete in the CrossFit games, then it’d probably be best to utilize this system. But, for the athletes I work with who compete in multiple other sports, it’s prudent for me to take a different approach to help them with their sport.

I once had a friend who told me that CrossFit was the best thing that gets him into the gym everyday. If this is the case for you, and you’re having fun and remaining injury-free, then by all means continue to go. I’d hope I’m not to arrogant and tunnel-visioned not to acknowledge when someone else in the industry is providing a positive experience for someone. I also believe CrossFit is doing some solid things through the following:

  • Encouraging people to learn the basic movements (squat, push, pull, carry)
  • To train in an environment that provides camaraderie and accountability. I’ve heard awesome tales about the general CrossFit training environment/atmosphere, and given this is a key element lacking in many gyms I encourage everyone to find a place (CrossFit or elsewhere) that can “pick you up when you’re down.”
  • CrossFit tends to be insanely popular amongst the female population. Considering that many of us in the training industry have to fight tooth and nail to smite the myriad damaging myths the media puts out to women regarding their bodies and roles in the gym, I think this is fantastic.

While this topic could be debated for hours on end, I hope I didn’t lose most of you and/or cause you to begin your first draft of hate mail.

Here’s to lifting heavy things. *holds glass up*