Finally, An Intelligent Conversation About CrossFit

The Squad January 27, 2014

Batman-CrossfitCrossFit has been in the news a lot lately, after Kevin Ogar severed his spinal cord while competing in CrossFit games, doing a routine movement.  It’s fueled an ongoing, heated debate over whether CrossFit is a good or bad thing.  And anyone with a Facebook page has, at some point, seen the debate- as the first rule of CrossFit is that you tell everyone about CrossFit.  But is CrossFit actually good for you?

First, what is CrossFit?  CrossFit is a company that was founded in 2000 by gymnast Greg Glassman and has an emphasis on functional fitness and high-intensity training.  From CrossFit:

“CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide.

“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 growth of CrossFit makes it one of the biggest booming areas in health and fitness, with now over 6,000 affiliated gyms- all charging hefty membership dues to workout at the “box.”  There’s a lot of money involved, and as the popularity of CrossFit grows, companies are vying to sponsor the next big stars of the sport.

It’s hard to find people in the health and fitness field who don’t have an opinion about CrossFit.  One side says that CrossFit is the best thing to ever happen to them, and that they’re turning the health industry on its head- and as a result making enemies and ‘haters’ in the process.  The other side accuses CrossFitters of being mindless followers of a workout that goes against the basic principles of health and fitness- with plenty of anecdotal evidence of long lines of CrossFitters at hospitals waiting to be repaired.  My opinion lies somewhere in the middle of the two sides.

It’s surprising that in almost two decades of CrossFit, very little scientific research has been done to test its claims.  The majority of CrossFit science has mostly been conjecture- from BOTH sides.  I’m all about scientific, peer-reviewed studies.  And until recently, none of these existed, putting CrossFit at a wonderful advantage to make whatever claims they wanted.  They even took it a step further and claim that people in the health industry who speak out against CrossFit are only doing so because it threatens their livelihood.

This recent study that I’m talking about, performed by researchers at Ohio State University tested CrossFit claims by assigning 54 healthy participants, both male and female, a five-day per week CrossFit-based program that lasted 10 weeks, closely monitored by certified CrossFit professionals.  Their findings actually leaned in CrossFit’s favor, showing that aerobic capacity grew by 13.6% for men and 11.8% for women.  Also in the 10 weeks, body fat decreased 4% in males, and 3.4% in females.  People of all shapes and sizes saw tremendous physical improvements.


But perhaps the most surprising (to some) finding was something they stumbled upon.  The purpose of the study was to test oxygenation levels during the exercise.  But this inadvertent finding of the study was that of the 54 healthy participants, only 43 of them completed the program.  Two dropped out because of scheduling conflicts, and 9 couldn’t complete the program because of ‘overuse or injuries’- despite the fact that every single injury occurred while each participant was supervised closely by certified professionals.

A seventeen percentage injury rate is high for ANY physical activity. Yes, people get hurt in the gym everyday day. But not 1 in 5 of them, and certainly not while under direct supervision of certified professionals.

CrossFitters have shrugged this off, with CrossFitter Russell Berger calling into question the validity of the high injury rates.  Many other CrossFitters justify the injury rate by comparing it to professional sports like the NFL:  “Even in professional sports people get hurt, but nobody goes around claiming they should stop those sports or declare them unsafe.”  What they fail to recognize is that professional athletes are just that- they make a living with their body.  They aren’t the average gym goer.  And also, their body pays the price with many of these athletes retiring in their mid-thirties because of- wait for it…… overuse and injuries!

In spite of this horrific injury rate, CrossFit’s founder Glassman insists that CrossFit is “universally scalable,” and that the intensity can be adjusted, and exercises simplified for people of all ages and skill levels.  Nevermind that this goes against the entire CrossFit mindset, which encourages people to push themselves to the very limits of their abilities- and frequently beyond that limit.

So the question comes back:  Is CrossFit good for you?  The study shows that if you manage to make it through CrossFit without injury, you’re going to have awesome results.  But we see from the scientific evidence here that if you’re unlucky enough to be part of the 17% who get injured, it doesn’t bode well for you.  Nevermind that when the studies results are held up against the results of any other HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) program, the positive results are the same.  So can you get the same results in a non-risky way?  Absolutely, but not without making enemies of CrossFitters who think you’re just a bitter jerk ruining their good day.

See, ANY basic workout program should follow certain steps.  First, you should focus on stabilizing muscles and joints, and building endurance in them.  Second, continue to focus on endurance while building strength.  Third, focus on building muscle.  Fourth is when you can focus on your maximum strength.  And fifth and finally, you can graduate to power movements- movements that couple velocity and strength.  These steps are CRITICAL to ensuring you remain injury-free.  And the problem with CrossFit, is that on day one you begin with power movements.  Without any stabilization in your joints, and the other steps leading up to CrossFit type movements, you’re bound to get hurt.

So is CrossFit a good workout?  Depends on how you define a good workout.  Yes, your body fat composition will change.  Yes, your cardiovascular health will improve.  But if you don’t like the odds (1 in 5) of injuries still haunting you ten years from now, you’ll get the same results with a basic HIIT program.  The mantra of this blog is to work out smart, not hard.  CrossFit is simply NOT a smart choice.  Period.  Plus, CrossFit ‘box’ memberships cost much more than your basic gyms.  Compared to the cost of monthly access to group workouts at CrossFit, you could have a gym membership AND a one-on-one session with a personal trainer once or twice a month.

Save money.  Save your health.  Avoid CrossFit.

-This post can also be titled “How to make enemies in 5,000 words or less.”

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