“Is your gym like CrossFit?”
“What do you think about CrossFit?”
“Would CrossFit work for me?”
As the owner of a Performance Facility, these are amongst the one zillion inquiries I’ve been asked in regards to CrossFit over the last 5 years. For the record, I own and operate Iron Arena in Hoboken, NJ:
Now, before giving you my unbiased opinion about CrossFit, I feel it’s first necessary to distinguish what it is we are talking about.
I view CrossFit in two distinctive ways.
CrossFit as a sport
CrossFit as a training modality used to achieve a variety of individual goals
CrossFit as a Sport
Those who participate in the sport of CrossFit aren’t primarily using Crossfit as training modality to achieve an aesthetic goal or improve their health. These athletes have busted their asses in an effort to perfect various sets of skills just as any other sportsmen would do in their given sport. These “CrossFitters” are the ones that aspire to make it to the Crossfit Games, which you may have seen on ESPN2 this past month.
While I understand only a select few will make it to the actual Crossfit Games (it's analogous to a Track and Field athlete aiming to qualify for the World Championships), I would also group those who go to Regionals or even take part in local competitions as serious CrossFitters. Say what you want - but these athletes are BADASS!!! Many of them are ex-collegiate athletes, drawn from a variety of sports, including but not limited to Gymnastics, Olympic Lifting, Football, Baseball, and Track & Field. These top tier athletes are able to Clean and Jerk 300+, Deadlift 500-550, Squat 400-450, and execute 40+ consecutive repetitions of pullups. These numbers are coming from men that weigh less than 200 lbs.
The women’s side is just as impressive, as it is commonplace to see women under 145 lbs. Cleaning 200+, Deadlifting 300+ and Squatting 250+,executing 20+ consecutive reps of Pullups. Therefore, all of you recreational gym lifters that want to trash CrossFit should have a long hard look in the mirror (or better yet, your training log) and see if you could out-lift these guys/gals. Most of them could execute more muscle ups than you can do pullups! If you can’t beat them, perhaps join them, or at the very least keep your mouths shut and stop trashing CrossFit.
CrossFit as a Training Modality
On the other side of the coin you have CrossFit as a training modality. This is used in affiliated facilities (called "affiliates" in Crossfit jargon) and other commercial gyms around the world. Those individuals who use Crossfit as a training modality include, but are not limited to: both men and women looking to decrease fat and improve their health, pregnant women, seniors, Military Special Forces candidates, along with “weekend warriors” simply looking for a challenge or a way to break up the monotony of daily life. Most of the aforementioned have no desire to compete in any type of organized competition and more often than none enjoy CrossFit for the camaraderie it entails, along with the social aspect.
CrossFit, just like any other activity or training modality has it’s pros and cons. It is up to you to decide if the pros outweigh the cons, and if Crossfit is right for you.
Pros of Crossfit
Crossfit is a system and any system is better than no system. It sure as hell beats going to the gym and meandering through a circuit of selectorized machines haphazardly, with no real rhyme or reason, followed by thirty minutes of hamster-like activity on the treadmill.
It definitely beats infomercial workouts that you receive by mail in a cardboard box such as P90X or the latest one, “Insanity”.
Here are some of the benefits of Crossfit, generally speaking:
- CrossFit uses mutli-joint movements which research has shown to have a positive effect on bone density as we age, along with keeping the central nervous system “sharp”.
- It challenges a variety of bimotor qualities due to the different modalities it uses. CrossFit incorporates the use of one's own bodyweight (gymnastic movements, running, jumping), Barbells, Dumbbells, Kettlebells, Medicine Balls, Olympic Weightlifting along with Strongman Training.
- Due to its high metabolic demand, CrossFit increases EPOC (Exercise Post-Oxygen Consumption), enabling one to burn more calories at rest.
- It may also increase muscle mass and strength in the novice trainee.
Another positive aspect of CrossFit is the fact that each and every workout has potential to be quite different than the last, which some find to be mentally challenging. For many, this tends to keeps things fun/interesting, which may increase one’s motivation giving them the desire to “stick with it”.
Finally, Crossfit appears to be most successful by borrowing from other, established, modalities and drawing on coaches from outside their ranks to teach specific skills. The Crossfit Powerlifting certification is a Westside Barbell class, the Olympic Lifting certification is run by a highly-esteemed United States Weightlifting Association (USAW) coach, and the Crossfit Endurance team combines P.O.S.E. running with a Westside template.
Cons of CrossFit
Up to this point, I’ve made CrossFit sound like a Godsend. I’m now going to get into the major issues with this system, one being the danger it may present. CrossFit presents danger more often than not when unqualified coaches fail to ensure technical mastery of complex movement. With no background in training or coaching (in fact, without ever having picked up a weight previously), you can be certified as a Crossfit Trainer by attending a two day certification and passing a test (the test is a new addition, as previous years did not require this). Once you've been certified, you're free to open up your own affiliate with no quality control enforcement.
This is why we often hear Crossfit coaches gripe about people quitting their box after half a year of training and opening their own establishment up the street - it's because those coaches don't know anything (or at least aren't certified to have learned anything) that can't be learned in a weekend. Contrast this with something like MMA or BJJ, where someone training for six months (or even six years) would never open up their own school (especially down the block from their prior instructor). It's because those MMA or BJJ instructors display a skillset that doesn't scream: "it took me a weekend to learn all of this".
These newly-certified coaches throw less than ready “sportsmen” (and I use this term loosely) into a large group that necessarily reduces individual attention. Each workout becomes a contest, since when executing CrossFit’s “Workout of the Day,” beating your previous time is top priority. Using multi-joint complex movements (high neuromuscular demand) without proper technique, due to improper teaching progressions, is a recipe for disaster.
One of the reasons this danger may present itself, aside from potentially less than rigorous 'coaches' certification (like most other certifications out there), is due to greed. This greed is displayed by affiliates who own these facilities. At the end of the day, CrossFit is a business. In an effort to create more revenue, many of these owners overbook their classes. This “overbooking” is at the expense of new individuals entering the program, who lack the technical mastery to succeed and remain uninjured (*yes, I'm aware of the "on ramp" or introductory courses required at most affiliates).
Another flaw I see in CrossFit is the idea that it is promoted as the "end-all be-all" of training and could accomplish ANY goal no matter what that goal may be. The mainsite actually claims that it is better than bodybuilding-specific training for bodybuilding-oriented (physique) goals. Surely, CrossFit is great for decreasing bodyfat (due to the huge metabolic disturbance it creates), and it may also have potential to illicit hypertrophy and improve absolute and explosive strength in a novice. However, once someone is past the “novice stage” (which I’d qualify as 2 years of serious training), a more specific approach would be necessary to improve specific strength qualities as well as hypertrophy. Crossfit seeks to develop ten areas of fitness simultaneously - but no sport (except Crossfit) actually requires each area in equal proportion.
To borrow an analogy from Dave Tate, these areas of fitness are like the graphic equalizer on a stereo - putting all of the settings at the midline, even with each other, can accommodate all types of music, but it all sounds less than optimal. You need to set the EQ to the type of music you're listening to, for optimal results.
Some Crossfit training can be a part of some of your workouts, but it can't serve as the primary off-field training tool for a serious competitive athlete.
Research has shown that the more advanced of an athlete you are, and the fitter and stronger you begin, the less overall gains you make with Crossfit. There is a study that examined soldiers using Crossfit over six weeks as their training modality; they not only got fitter by US Army standards (were able to perform more situps and pushups), but they also got stronger in traditional lifts (standing press, squat, deadlift). They also got fitter by the standards the Army was using (no surprise there, because they used Crossfit's standards, which improve when you do Crossfit workouts). But the fittest and strongest in the group (the strongest of whom completed a 275lb squat, 185lb press, and a 405lb deadlift, in post-testing) showed the least improvements.
This is why I believe one would be in error to think of CrossFit as a solution to improve one’s performance in actual sports. While it may help improve general conditioning for a brief period of time during the off-season, Crossfit fails to address the true needs of most athletes; goals such as rehabilitation, prehabilitation, maximal strength, linear speed, change of direction, along with sport specific skills.
Bottom line: CrossFit used as a training modality will not make you better at football, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, baseball or track. It may help improve your conditioning and at the end of the day make you significantly better at CROSSFIT.
Although CrossFit ALONE sucks for most athletes, I do feel for some it may be better than others. The athletes included in this group would be those who participate in combat sports, mercenaries, and off-season athletes who have already established a competent level of strength, speed, and power, need more variety in their training, or need to focus primarily on metabolic conditioning.
Crossfit at it’s highest level (as a sport) is great and I absolutely love it. At the lower levels, if executed under the eye of a watchful coach it could also be great for the reasons I’ve stated above. However, when executed incorrectly, in the hands of an unqualified coach and owner who’s primary concern is money, CrossFit could do more harm than good, which is a genuine concern considering the complete lack of oversight and quality control by Crossfit's Headquarters. Unfortunately, a lot of the bad has seemed to overshadow the good. Still, for 99% of the people wandering aimlessly around a Globogym, Crossfit would be a far better use of their time.
Hopefully based on what I have stated above, you will now be able to make an educated decision as to whether or not CrossFit is for you. If you decide Crossfit is for you please choose your facility/coaches wisely. Two of my close friends both own CrossFit facilities in NJ and I’m confident in saying they do things the way they should be done. Scott Paltos of Pump Crossfit & Performance in East Hanover NJ and Dong Kim of Crossfit 08844 in Hillsborough NJ.