CrossFit: Is it Really Forging Elite Fitness?

CrossFit: Is it Really Forging Elite Fitness?

 We have all seen it. The commercials, the YouTube videos, The Games. Over the past decade CrossFit and its many “offspring” have taken the fitness scene by storm with the tagline of “Forging Elite Fitness”. In essence, the real of CrossFit promises to turn you one into a physical badass. My question and the topic of this post is whether CrossFit delivers on their promise.

Where does one even begin when addressing this question? Do we begin with the modalities or the programming? The individual workouts or the progression? The individual exercises and skill development or the “broad domain” of fitness it offers? These are all important questions but I argue that we first need to look at what exactly is CrossFit?

WHAT IS CROSSFIT?

Before I give you my opinion on what Crossfit is, I will give you a description of CrossFit straight from the source.

“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 defines fitness as 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.” (1)

At the end of the post I will revisit this description and address it again but lets continue on with my analysis of Crossfit.  First I wish to tackle the parts of the description I have highlighted.

The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness

In my opinion this is one of the great ideas behind the concept of CrossFit. Far too many “non-athletes” silo themselves in one specific modality of exercise (I know I will get hate mail for this but I am labeling anyone who is not currently playing a specific sport at a highly competitive level, i.e., college or professional sport, a non-athlete). For example, how many of you runners only run, or lifters only lift, or cyclists only cycle? My guess would be that most of us fall within that realm.  CrossFit aims to include a wide range of modalities in their programming including powerlifts, Olympic lifts, sprints, cycling, plyometrics, etc. In that respect, I feel CrossFit does indeed “forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness”.

Training for the unknowable.

Unfortunately, I disagree with the notion that as individuals we ought to train for the unknowable. There are several reasons for my stance on this issue but I feel the first one is the most important. If we are to train for the unknowable, how can we set goals? A tremendous body of research has shown that setting goals is critical in success, especially when it comes to adherence to exercise programs. The next reason is due to the principle of “progressive overload”. Once again, research has shown that the human body shows improvement when we are systematically exposed to a stress and then allowed to respond to it, and the stress we are exposed to must be progressive in order to have the appropriate physiological response. Then it stands if we are “training for the unknowable”, we will not be submitting ourselves to progressive, systematically designed stresses that our body can properly respond to. Sorry CrossFit, here I must disagree with you.

CrossFit defines fitness in a meaningful, measurable way as increased work capacity across broad time and modal domain.

Is this an appropriate definition of fitness? This argument could spawn an entire novel on the philosophy of fitness, and while I would enjoy writing that novel, I will keep it succinct for my blog readers. This definition of fitness is excellent when considered in the “light of CrossFit”, but fails in many other regards. This definition is dependent on work capacity and does not take physiological fitness into account, something I would argue is extremely salient in today’s world.  For example I may “increase my fitness” by this definition if I can improve the distance I can carry 200 lbs from 30 feet to 40 feet, but what exactly am I improving? Is it my hand strength? Is it the endurance in my trapezius muscles? Have I improved my cardiovascular fitness? Ultimately, although an excellent definition to promote CrossFit, I feel this definition of fitness needs to be reworked before I can consider it a proper definition of what “fitness” really is.

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.”

 

This is where CrossFit has found its home, changed the game in the fitness world, and in my mind is its greatest strength. The CrossFit scene inspires people, instills a competitive spirit, builds camaraderie, and motivates many who would otherwise fall short of their goals. I tip my hat to the CrossFit community in this regard. You have indeed changed the game and made a tremendous impact in bringing awareness and a competitive spirit back into the world of exercise, fitness, and allowed the “Paleo Diet” a platform to thrive upon.

 

MY VIEW ON CROSSFIT

I just finished analyzing CrossFit from their own perspective, now let me introduce my own perspective on the issue, and go back to the questions I posed at the beginning.

The Modalities

If you have dabbled in CrossFit or even looked at their website you have seen workouts that include powerlifts, Olympic lifts, sprints, cycling, plyometrics, and even gymnastics. Do I have any issue with any of these when taken by themselves or even combining them? Absolutely not, each of these modalities of exercise has incredible benefits. However, as I will discuss in a moment, some are inappropriate in certain circumstances.

The Individual Workouts

This issue is nebulous, for some of the CrossFit WOD’s (Workouts of the Day) are genius, while some are downright dangerous. For example, the workout on the CrossFit.com site for this past Wednesday as a well designed metabolically demanding workout: Five rounds for time of row 1000 meters, 200 meter Farmer carry with 45 pounds, and 50 meter Waiter walk with 45 pounds. In contrast, look at the Linda workout (click here for a description), in the Linda workout we are performing a high number of reps of Olympic lifts in a highly metabolically demanding situation. This type of workout can put even the strongest of athletes in a dangerous situation where one is completing highly technical lifts with a large amount of weight in a fatigued state.   I think CrossFit hits some workouts out of the park in terms of thoughtful design, where some really need to be taken back to the drawing board.

Periodized Programming

 In my opinion, this is where CrossFit receives its lowest grade. From my own personal experience, my experience consulting with other “CrossFitters”, and a careful read through their workouts over the past 4-5 years, I have come to the conclusion that the long-term goals of CrossFit are non existent.  The mainsite WOD’s display no linear progression, any notion of where supercompensation occurs, or the implementation of thoughtful recovery periods.

For me, as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist, and Exercise Physiologist (in the making) this is of a great concern. The lack of thoughtful periodization can easily lead to overtraining, especially in a culture that promotes the notion of beating yourself into oblivion day in or day out (See Evidence A).

Overtraining can cause a host of issues ranging from rhabdomyolysis  depression, to “adrenal fatigue”, to compromised immune function.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

CrossFit has taken the world by storm. It is here to stay and that is not in question. I am of the opinion that the idea of CrossFit is brilliant. It promotes a wider range of fitness and brings a competitive spirit to what can often be a mundane task (lets be honest, no one really likes a treadmill). It has created a sense of community and belonging for many individuals and promoted a healthy lifestyle in terms of both exercise and nutrition. It has also, for better or worse, commercialized intense, extreme exercise.

CrossFit has an incredible amount of potential but it has fallen short of its promises in the last few years, and that is what frustrates me the most about it. What began as a quest for an all-encompassing, competitive approach to fitness for the everyday individual, has turned into a “battle-of-beatdowns”, where the goal of the programming is to break you down each and every day. I personally would love to see CrossFit continue to blossom, for as I mentioned, it has the potential to do amazing things; however, I think specific key aspects of the philosophy need to be revisited and tweaked to improve its efficacy, universilizability, and to keep it a safe form of exercise for more individuals. So to all you “CrossFitters”, I admire the hardwork you put in each and everyday, your innovative approach, and your ability to tackle physical feats most individuals dare to dream of, and I would love to see CrossFit continue to grow and flourish and to continue to adapt and change to better itself over the next few years!

(1) http://community.crossfit.com/what-is-crossfit

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