Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tired of the Crossfit Argument?

I know that I am.  I'm tired of people asking what I think about it, and then when I give an opinion it raises a whole whack of arguments for and against that almost inevitably becomes heated.

That being said, recently a colleague of mine (Dr. Ben Stevens) wrote an extremely well thought-out series of articles based on his experience with Crossfit.  Dr. Stevens himself is not actually a "Crossfitter" per se, but he works closely with a couple of the local facilities and will sometimes train out of them (if you want to read his posts, which I strongly encourage, start here).  He asked for  thoughts from a wide variety of individuals, and I was flattered to be included in the group.

I didn't want to write a quick (and possibly glib) response, and decided to read the three articles in their entirety first.  Then, a number of other items came across my metaphorical "desk" that seemed to be worth consideration in regard to my response as well - one was what I'll call "The Crossfit Study" for lack of an expeditious title (you can see the abstract here), and a review of Crossfit from an academic standpoint on one of my favorite podcasts, "The Strength of Evidence" (look for them on Facebook).

I will lead off my thoughts after reading/listening to the above with the following disclaimers:
  • I am going to be uncharacteristically serious - please note the above picture to see how serious I'm being.
  • I am going to do my very best to be sincere, unbiased and gracious - if I come across as inflammatory, sarcastic or like a douchebag, it is truly by accident.
  • I am not writing this to get into a fight with anyone - if you've had success with Crossfit and swear by it, all the power to you.  If you're offended by all things Crossfit, I'm not looking to make you a fan.  This is simply a collection of my thoughts after some recent, careful reflection of a few articles.

Firstly, the community they've created, the hype and the marketing they've managed to elicit, are extraordinary.  Getting away from machine-based, isolation movements and back to the raw, simple strength and conditioning is a good thing, as is the move towards achievement as opposed to aesthetics.  Finally, as the study (albeit a small one) and the anecdotes show - it seems to work.

The issues arise with the method itself, in my eyes, rather than the results.  As Dr. Stevens points out in his second article - there are a lot of things that are staples in the Crossfit "programming" that are, put nicely, ill-advised.  Some of the exercises are never good (high pulls, overhead swings and ballistically repetitive box jumps), some are not good in an escalating density-type format or fatigued state (Olympic lifts), and some are only good/useful/appropriate with a very small segment of well-trained individuals (handstand push-ups).  Also, while I appreciate variety for the sake of enjoyment as well as creating a broad range of skills - if there isn't some degree of repetitive, quality practice and periodization, then the sticking at certain plateaus that individuals reach (which will be different for everyone) are inescapable.  Finally, as both the study above shows in a(n admittedly) small segment, but which anecdote (and innumerable YouTube videos) demonstrate as well - I personally find the injury rate to be unacceptably high (and for the sake of this post, I use the term "injury" to refer to both acute as well as chronic/overtraining injury).

Dr. Stevens finished off his series by making suggestions to improve the Crossfit program; and one of the most common defenses of Crossfit's participants is that "we don't do x or y at our box, and the instructors adjust/modify/periodize/scale everything for each individual".  To which I ask: if you remove and/or change all of the items listed above and those suggested by Dr. Stevens, then what, exactly, are you left with that differentiates Crossfit from any other high quality strength and conditioning facility or high intensity circuit training?

As I said before, this is a general summation of my takeaways from various reviews, articles and analyses of the Crossfit phenomenon, and hardly in-depth.  My suggestion is, if you take issue with anything I've said above, simply read the references I've listed and consider your opinion again.  I'm not saying it will change your mind, nor will arguing on a blog post back and forth change mine. 

In the end, whether you take up running, cycling, mixed-martial arts, Crossfit, powerlifting, Kettlebells or even Zumba - what matters is that you are being guided and coached responsibly, that you are getting results, and that you are having fun.

In the words of Astar, the robot - "Play safe."


Smith, MM, AJ Sommer, BE Starkoff, and ST Devor. "Crossfit-based High Intensity Power Training Improves Maximal Aerobic Fitness and Body Composition." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research (Epub Ahead of Print)
Stevens, Ben, Dr. "The CrossFit Chronicles." Valeo Health Clinic. Valeo Health Clinic, 11 Mar. 2013. Web.

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