A Non-CrossFit Coach’s Thoughts on CrossFit

Those of you who read the articles on this site and talk to me in public might know I have a small distaste for CrossFit. You might be asking why I’m so hard on CrossFit, which by all rights has a stranglehold on the fitness industry these days. For those of you who don’t get to see me and talk to me every day, let’s set the record straight.

I want to start off by stating that I’m not here to bash CrossFit. Consider this a celebration of all the things CrossFit does well and a bluntly-worded critique of things that CrossFit can drastically improve upon. There’s a lot of things about the fitness industry I get asked about on a daily basis. The only reason I’m even bringing CrossFit up is because of how often it seems to come up.

THE GOOD

Let’s start with the good, shall we? Not everything written in here is bad news for CrossFit. In fact, there’s an awful lot of good that comes from it. For instance, I’m a big fan of any form of training that puts a barbell in people’s hands. For decades, men and women who were afraid to get bulky shied away from the weight room and “jogged” for endless miles daily to stay fit. Not only is that type of training rough on the joints, but you hit a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly due to the body’s ability to adapt to a particular stress. Enter CrossFit. They’ve made lifting weights cool again. They’ve gotten more people to pick up a barbell in the last decade than any other form of training and as a result, proven once again that you can lift weights and not grow into the Hulk.

They get results. Assuming a healthy diet, CrossFitters lose weight and build endurance. Studies have shown statistically significant fat loss and VO² improvements for the people participating in this type of exercise and you can’t ignore results like that.

CrossFit has also reminded the world that making progress in fitness is hard work and that’s something to be celebrated. You have to get your hands dirty to lose weight. You have to get tired and sweaty to increase your endurance. If your training program doesn’t force you to overcome hurdles on the way to success, you’re missing out on half the war. CrossFit does an excellent job of building passion for the struggle.

In addition to getting results and getting more people to work out, CrossFit has also gotten more people interested in the coaching side of things. With passion for exercise comes passion to spread the knowledge about it and CrossFit has built up one of the largest networks of coaches in the world. It’s a cycle that increases exponentially. Increases in passionate CrossFitters begets increases in passionate coaches begets greater increases in passionate Crossfitters, and so on and so forth. It’s an impressive machine.

CrossFit fosters a sense of community within it’s gyms (I’m still not ready to call a gym a box). People build relationships with folks they never would have come into contact with if not for the fact that they “do CrossFit” together. These relationships lead to camaraderie during workouts and a healthy support system for when the going get’s tough. It’s something sports performance coaches have done with teams since forever and something that all coaches in the private industry should aspire to do.

THE BAD

I’ve seen some good, but I’ve also found a few red flags pertaining to CrossFit. Let’s start with the coaches. Disclaimer: I’m tough on all coaches, CrossFit and otherwise, for better or worse, including myself. Every day we, as coaches and trainers, meet with people who place themselves, their time, their goals, and their safety in our hands. They trust us to do right by them and as coaches and trainers, it’s our responsibility to ensure that said trust doesn’t go unrewarded. Whether you’re a personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, group fitness instructor, etc, if you’re not keeping up with the ever-evolving science of fitness and athletics to deliver safe, efficient, effective, and timely results to your clients, you’re just not up to snuff. Sorry.

This brings us to CrossFit coaches. Full disclosure, I’m going to do some profiling. CrossFit has been able to bring affordable fitness to a wide variety of people because it has been able to draw a lot of interest from new coaches and increase its ever-expanding reach. This is a double-edge sword. While I’ve met some intelligent, capable, and qualified CrossFit coaches, a large percentage of the CrossFit coaching population fall below the mean. They have no exercise science-related degree, no accredited certification, and are usually as green as the clients they’re coaching. I’m not necessarily stating that degrees and certifications are the dividing line between good coaches and bad coaches, but it’s definitely a decent filter. Besides, you’d think that some prior knowledge of biomechanics and physiology might increase their ceiling a bit. While CrossFit has beefed up their game by increasing the difficulty of their exam and requiring continuing education credits to maintain the certification (neither of which were required a few years ago, mind you), there just isn’t enough of a roadblock on the path to becoming a Level 1 CrossFit Trainer to filter out the good from the bad. One non-accredited certification exam is the barrier between you the client and a lengthy rehab stint. Any idiot can pass an exam. There’s book smarts and there’s street smarts and it takes a healthy combination of both to survive and excel as a coach that teaches large groups of people at a time. CrossFit or not, I wouldn’t put my money on the guy that just learned these exercises a year ago to effectively teach 20 strangers how to do them safely. Again, I admit that I’m painting with a broad brush. There’s plenty of unqualified strength and conditioning coaches at all levels of athletics but CrossFit awards its own certifications and sets its own requirements. By sticking your neck out like that you have to take some scrutiny.

My next issue lies with the “programming”. When I mention CrossFit programs, I’m speaking strictly about WODs (or workout of the day if you’re not into the whole brevity thing).WODs are the heart and soul of CrossFit. They are also strung together seemingly at random without any regard for the previous day’s workout or the user’s fitness and skill level. While the randomness of the training style fits nicely with Glassman’s vision of building all the pillars of fitness evenly, it just doesn’t fit for those of us who have specific goals in mind. In other words, CrossFitters become average at everything and excellent at nothing. There’s no periodization of any kind, no progressive overload, and no endgame. Are they tough workouts? For sure, but a tough workout doesn’t correlate to achievement. Without direction, it’s just exercise. There’s no inherent problem with exercise. It’s great until you hit your first set of plateaus. From there you have to train to get better. That doesn’t mean you can’t WOD it up once in awhile but when the loads are random, you can’t progress in strength past the newbie stage. But what about the strong guys and gals competing at the CrossFit games? They’re not doing WODs. They are on a hyper-specific periodized training program with progressive overload and a distinct goal in mind. Now, if you’re lucky enough to be at a CrossFit gym run by a good coach who knows how to program, you might be able to do things that are a little more specific but like I mentioned in the previous paragraph, the odds aren’t likely in your favor.

This issue has some crossover with the previous two points. I have a huge problem with any coach or program that over-prescribes high load, high velocity lifts like the Olympic lifts, particularly without taking individuals into account. Think like a coach for a second. I have a group of people with little-to-no skill in the weight room and I’m going to run them through a one or two quick progressions of the clean before turning them loose? I’d have to be out of my mind. These are highly technical lifts involving multiple joints and muscle groups coordinated to fire at different times and velocities. As a coach, I’d be praying no one gets injured. Not to sound like an elitist. I think the Oly lifts are a great tool to have as a coach, but they certainly aren’t a beginner’s exercise. It takes Olympic and CrossFit games competitors years of fine-tuning to perfect these movements. The ability to progress/ regress these exercises might come easily for more experienced and qualified CrossFit coaches, however, for the typical Level 1 coach, they’re going to have a tough time recognizing and correcting faulty mechanics in an Oly lift, let alone be able to pull an appropriate regression our of their hats. CrossFit coaches (and whoever is programming the WODs) have also seen fit to over-prescribe volume. As I said before, these are technical, high-load, high-velocity lifts. Their primary purpose is to increase the lifters power output, not burn fat. To increase power, you have to stimulate the rate of action potentials along an axon (neural drive) and increase the number of motor units recruited each rep. It takes specific load. Take a look at the Force-Velocity curve:

figure-3-300x244

As the load (force) increases, the speed with which the load can be moved decreases. On the flip side, as the load decreases, the speed can increase. The sweet spot for the Oly lifts is right smack dab in the middle. Too much load means a missed lift. Too little load means you’re not training at a level you’re capable of. A good sample Oly lift would be programmed as follows:

Clean: 3 build-up sets toward day’s best 3RM, then 3 work sets of 3 reps at 70% day’s best, 3 min rest between sets.
Rest of workout (squats, RDL, etc.)

Notice how that’s the only exercise programmed for that portion of the workout? It isn’t paired with any other exercise. All focus is on the clean. Check out a bad one straight from the CrossFit website:

3 handstand push-ups
3 cleans
6 handstand push-ups
3 cleans
9 handstand push-ups
3 cleans
12 handstand push-ups
6 cleans
15 handstand push-ups
6 cleans
18 handstand push-ups
6 cleans
21 handstand push-ups
9 cleans

Aside from the fact that this workout consists only of sagittal plane movements (handstand push-ups could be turned into frontal plane movements if you don’t care about shoulder health), it defeats the purpose from the standpoint of the clean. There’s no real rest/recovery and the volume increases toward the end of the workout. Their idea here is that performing x reps of an upper body lift will allow enough time for the lower body to recover to perform the cleans ably. This line of thinking is fine for antagonistic muscle relationships (think push/ pull). However, after the first pull of the clean, the second pull largely involves recruitment of the the upper body musculature in conjunction with continued lower body recruitment. The lifter’s fatigue will force him/her into inefficient technique causing greater energy expenditure and an over-reliance on passive structures (ligaments) to stabilize the moving joints rather than active structures (muscles). While this type of programming is counterproductive to building an efficient, possibly dangerous clean, it’s not a bad thing if you’re squatting and the goal is fat loss. The massive volume (36 reps compared to our sample of 9 in the work sets) dictates that a lighter than optimal load is used, resulting in a best case of less than optimal neural drive/ motor unit recruitment and a worst case of chronic overuse injury. There’s an inherent risk of injury in all forms of training, but these seem avoidable and potentially problematic.

THE END

Those are my main complaints about CrossFit. I admit they’re doozies but I feel they’re valid. If you think I’m wrong, I’m open to a civilized debate. I said it before and I’m saying it again: this is my view of CrossFit as a whole. I have no intention of offending anyone personally because there are a lot of good CrossFit coaches out there who go beyond the WOD to train their clients with evidence-based methods that they think will yield the best results. Side note, unless it’s from a marketing standpoint I don’t understand the need for a good coach to align himself with a polarizing organization if he’s not even bought into the methodology, but that’s just me.

That said, they do a lot of things well. From building a CrossFit family at each gym to providing exposure to training modalities previously only found in athletic strength and conditioning facilities, CrossFit has built a promising foundation and a solid model for future facilities. CrossFit has reminded people that exercise should be tough because anything worth having doesn’t come easily. they’ve also reminded people that the journey is the most rewarding part.  While CrossFit still has a ways to go in order to become inclusive to a more goal-oriented population, the impact that CrossFit has on the fitness industry cannot be denied.

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