On one end of the spectrum, there is an army of CrossFitters who swear by the benefits and could never imagine another method of working out. On the other end is a massive collection of people who scoff at the never ending burpees and injuries that seem to accompany this method of training.
But is there a middle ground?
Or is CrossFit the joke bodybuilders often make it out to be?
Some people that look down on CrossFit do so simply because of the negative connotations associated with it. Before making a judgment on anything it’s important to fully understand it, so what exactly is CrossFit?
Put simply the goal of CrossFit is to increase your workload capacity. This is the ability to do the same amount of work in a shorter time or a larger amount of work in the same time. This is accomplished through 10 principles of physical fitness that are incorporated in all CrossFit workouts:
To incorporate all these areas in workouts will include a variety of free weight compound movements, Olympic lifts, bodyweight exercises, plyometrics, and aerobics. This methodology of training applies to many different goals which is one of the appealing factors of CrossFit. You can apply its principles as an athlete, weekend warrior, or even as someone just looking to gain some functional strength and mobility. The focus of CrossFit is on improving the system as a whole versus training for specific adaptations like bodybuilders and powerlifters.
Here are a couple sample WODs:
Repeat this circuit as many times as possible in 15-20 minutes. Alternatively you can aim to complete 3-5 rounds as fast as possible.
|Hang Clean and Press||10|
Perform 3 rounds with a rest time of 30 seconds in between rounds. Your goal is to accomplish the WOD in a shorter time in subsequent attempts.
|Exercise||Round 1 Reps||Round 2 Reps||Round 3 Reps|
To become CrossFit certified it only requires a two-day course of covering fundamentals and basic movements. There are no prerequisites or qualifications needed. While there are plenty of well-qualified and skilled CrossFit coaches all over the world, the ease with which one can become certified can lead to less than stellar coaches entering the field with little to no experience. If you are considering CrossFit, make sure the coach or team you are working with has experience and other qualifications such as formal education or other training credentials.
The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of CrossFitters will experience injuries ranging from minor to quite severe. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that there is such an emphasis on time and speed that form is often sacrificed. Add to this the fact that it is typically done in a competitive group environment and it easy to see how one may over exert themselves leading to a breakdown of form.
Injuries also occur often in CrossFit because the movements can be very complex and require a large amount of mobility and motor control. It is argued by many that these Olympic lifts are not meant to be done in a fast tempo/high rep manner and should not be used for conditioning. Sometimes people start attempting these complex movements before they have the required range of motion leading to compensations and ultimately injury. One study from 2013 found an incidence of injury in 73.5% of CrossFitters.(1) In another 10 week study examining the health benefits of CrossFit, 16% of the participants were not able to finish the program due to injuries despite all the workouts being performed under professional supervision.(2)
Though very rare, CrossFit can induce rhabdomyolysis. This is a very serious condition that causes the breakdown of muscle tissue leading to the release of muscle fiber contents into the blood. These substances are harmful to the kidney and often cause kidney damage or failure.
Symptoms include muscle pain, tenderness, weakness and swelling of the affected muscles, nausea, vomiting, confusion, coma, abnormal heart rhythm, and dark coca cola colored urine due to the presence of myoglobin. Rhabdomyolysis can happen after prolonged and frequent bouts of extreme physical exertion such as ultra marathons or intense long and repeated CrossFit WODs. CrossFit has even adopted a mascot to help spread awareness on the dangers of this condition, Uncle Rhabdo, the clown.
The goal of CrossFit is not to make you the biggest, strongest, or fastest. Instead, this methodology of training focuses on improving the overall health and general fitness level by focusing on the 10 principles listed earlier. This is fine for the average person just looking to stay fit, but it limits the ability to become extremely proficient in one area. Does a bodybuilder really need to spend that much time focusing to improve their coordination or balance or would their time be better spent focusing on strength and muscular endurance?
While the typical CrossFit layout is focused on improving overall fitness and conditioning, you can modify the WODs and strength training portion to fit your goals. If you’re a powerlifter, start your workout with a full body strength program keeping the reps in the 1-3 range. For your WOD, you would include some power building plyometrics like box jumps and pick powerlifting exercises keeping the reps and total volume low. Similarly, there are many bodybuilders and other athletes who have programmed CrossFit in a way to help them reach their sport specific goals.
Wait what? Doesn’t this contradict our earlier statement of over 70% of CrossFitters experiencing injury?
While that 70% will experience injuries due to improper form, the other 30% who use correct form will have much-improved mobility. This is because of the movement selection of a CrossFit workout. Exercises like the snatch force your shoulders to move freely in the joint capsule obtaining a full range of motion. A hang clean requires excellent mobility in the hips, back, and downstream arm. If these movements are done properly, functional full-body integrated movement is encouraged, and your body’s tissues will adjust by becoming less restrictive. Also, CrossFit workouts tend to be very balanced between pulls, presses, squats, and hinge movements thus preventing muscular imbalances that can occur in the typical bodybuilder program.
According to stats collected from all the CrossFit affiliates in America, about 60% of members are women. CrossFit has found a new home in women’s fitness for those looking to incorporate resistance training into their workouts. “Strong is the new skinny” and similar slogans can often be seen on their workout apparel as they launch heavy barbells overhead with calloused chalky hands. And they look good doing it. CrossFit deserves credit for making heavy weightlifting mainstream with women and getting them off the endless cycle of cardio machines.
CrossFit is great for the person looking to achieve a higher level of “general” fitness.” This means they want to be faster, stronger, more mobile, better conditioned, leaner or more muscular. But not at the expense of one another. Unfortunately, most people do get injured so make sure to have a qualified professional spend the required time with you mastering the movements and the ability to maintain form before starting a program.
For the bodybuilder or powerlifter – elements of CrossFit can be implemented in your programming to help with your goals. Perhaps incorporate a WOD 1-2x a week to accomplish a HIIT session. The movements will enhance muscular endurance and hypertrophy much more than a simple sprinting session. Make sure to supplement with Creatine and BCAA’s to ensure that you have the proper fuel for your workout and to prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue after it’s over. Don’t be a blind follower or complete “hater”. You should never follow any dogma blindly so give CrossFit a try and decide for yourself.
Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.
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