Crossfit vs. The World, and Some Unbiased Constructive Criticism

A couple of months ago an article entitled “Why I Don’t Do Crossfit” circulated on the internet authored by Erin Simmons, an aspiring fitness model and blogger. As the title indicates, Ms. Simmons (who has a collegiate track and field background with Florida State University) describes her personal experiences with Crossfit and reasons why she discourages people from joining their gyms.

I myself am not a member of Crossfit and while I do have my criticisms of certain Crossfit principles, I was discouraged to find what I felt to be many invalid arguments in Ms. Simmons’ article. This post is not meant to be an attack towards her training principles nor a strong pro or con Crossfit rant, but I feel like there are issues here that I am increasingly encountering in the online fitness community that are worth addressing. I will also conclude with my perspective as both a physical therapist and trainer, including some constructive criticism for both sides of the Crossfit vs. Everyone Else argument.

Crossfit Training vs. Sports Performance

In the article Ms. Simmons describes her background as a successful collegiate track and field athlete at FSU and lists the many accolades that she and her teams have accomplished during her tenure there. I don’t doubt that she is a tremendous athlete and I am sure the training principles that her coaches employed were effective, as the Men’s team won the national NCAA championship for three consecutive years. But she then goes on to contrast those training principles with Crossfit workouts. A problem with this is that one should expect an athlete for a specific sport to train entirely differently than a Crossfitter. A 400m sprinter should spend the majority of his/her training performing activities that are optimally conducive to being a faster sprinter. Olympic weightlifting and lower body strength training are certainly supplemental to that, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that track athletes spend most of their workouts running and not trying to get the strongest clean and jerk. One cannot invalidate Crossfit-style workouts by stating they were never implemented in the training program for an entirely different sport. In sports-specific training, one should train utilizing the same muscle groups and energy systems of that sport and practice under competition-like conditions.


Different Goals

Crossfit may not be the best way to get stronger or faster, but I can certainly understand why it produces results and why it appeals to so many people. It would be hard to get the same kind of workouts through a trainer at a commercial chain gym, and conventional methods of aesthetic bodybuilding-style workouts may not appeal to everyone. Perhaps people aren’t necessarily interested in being the strongest weightlifter, or the most “conditioned” person in the gym. What if they find Crossfit to be simply recreational and empowering? I think Crossfit detractors tend to neglect this positive aspect of the sport--the fact that it has built solidarity amongst its participants and that it’s quite simply fun for a lot of them. It doesn’t have to be the most effective tool in making you the strongest/fastest/most athletic person, which is a big reason why non-Crossfitters seem to criticize it. Sometimes anti-Crossfitters should simply remove themselves from their own frame of reference and try to understand that different exercise philosophies appeal to people with different goals and exercise preferences. Assuming of course if the exercise philosophy is safe--which is a big “if”, but I’ll get into that later.

 

I do agree with several points made in the article:

Olympic lifts should not be prescribed for max reps/time nor AMRAP parameters. These lifts are highly technical and are typically utilized in strengthening and conditioning programs to encourage explosive lower body movement with the goal of enhancing sport performance. This isn’t to say that olympic lifts are only reserved for sports athletes, as I consider competitive olympic weightlifting to be a sport itself, but if the goal is to perform as many repetitions as possible in a certain amount of time the form will break down. Sloppy form on an olympic lift not only increases the risk of injury, but as an exercise it loses its effectiveness as a strengthening or conditioning tool. Explosiveness and efficiency is compromised for getting that one extra rep in, however sloppy it may be.
 

Fatigue and pain are not necessarily valid indicators of effective performance. Neither are how much you make your shirt drenched with sweat or how sore you feel the day following a workout. Additionally, a big misconception about exercise is that more is always better. I understand that there is a huge psychological component to exerting oneself to persevere through a workout--it takes a lot of physical and mental discipline to push yourself to your limits, and it feels great to accomplish something that you weren’t previously able to. For the most part, trainers should continue to encourage their clients to push hard but not in the absence of quality movement. The issue of efficiency also comes into play with exercise prescription. Performing 20 burpees in a row can certainly cause someone’s heart rate to elevate, but is this truly the best way to increase cardiovascular endurance? At what point in that set of 20 does one start jumping a fraction of an inch off the ground with flexed posture and minimal gluteal activation?

This is just one example, but I can understand the frustration that others in the S&C field have when criticizing Crossfit exercise selection and prescription. Overprescribing volume in attempts to induce feelings of pain or excessive exertion is not the optimal way to produce strength adaptations or increase performance.
 

Plyometrics are an effective neuromuscular training tool to increase explosive movement and should not be mis-prescribed as conditioning. There are specific quantities of plyometric jumps that when prescribed correctly can contribute to greater velocity of athletic movement. A box jump loses its effectiveness as such when included in circuits with non-plyometric strength exercises.


Suggested Ways to Improve Crossfit:

  • Eliminate technically demanding movements from AMRAP WODs such as olympic lifts or overhead presses.

  • Incorporate more evidence-based strengthening and conditioning principles and research and less so on Paleo diets.

  • Increase partnership with more physical therapists in a movement to rebrand Crossfit as safe and rehabilitative (highly dependent on bulletpoint #1)

  • Include PTs or chiropractors in the Crossfit business model to perform movement and injury screenings before being cleared to participate in WODs

  • Greater emphasis of periodized strength training in the Big 3 lifts, less metabolic conditioning

  • Increased dialogue between Crossfitters and established figures of traditional strength and conditioning

To conclude, I was discouraged to read this final parting statement from Ms. Simmons in her article:

“Boxes have attempted to combat the bad reputation of CrossFit by saying that other gyms do bad stuff but their gym is different, their coaches know good form, their gym focuses on safety. This is simply not true and every single thing that I’ve posted in this article refers to EVERY SINGLE GYM THAT FOLLOWS CROSSFIT. There are no exceptions, if you’re following the WODs, it’s not good for you, it’s not safe, and you’re putting your health in danger. Take it for what it’s worth, but please believe that your box is NOT different, no matter what your coach says.”

It is difficult for me to read statements like these and to believe that the author is writing from an unbiased, objective perspective. Unless she has visited “every single gym that follows Crossfit” she has no right in making this claim whatsoever. I almost laughed when I read this because it’s as if she’s attempting to preemptively remove pro-Crossfitters’ ability to defend their viewpoints before they have a chance. I think there are some bad Crossfit coaches and boxes out there, but certainly not all of them. But stereotyping all of them through hyperbolic statements like these won’t improve the current rift between Crossfitters and non-Crossfitters.