Since its inception almost 20 years ago CrossFit has grown in popularity. Despite the expense of the average CrossFit membership, there are currently hundreds of CrossFit gyms across Australia alone. CrossFit promises to get its members into the best shape of their lives. However, CrossFit is also a sport that is plagued with injuries and has a number of very knowledgeable detractors. So what are the pros and cons of CrossFit? In this week’s post, we’ll help you to understand the benefits and the downsides of CrossFit.
The History of CrossFit
If you have any familiarity with CrossFit, you probably know that as a company it was founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman. Glassman had been a dedicated teenage athlete who discovered early that he could beat his competition by adopting training methods that they weren’t using. An avid cyclist, he found that he could get much better performance by adopting weight training as part of his regimen. Greg competed in other sports as well and used the same principles to win there too. If his competition was limiting themselves to bodyweight training, Greg added resistance training. If they were sticking to endurance training, Glassman added strength training. A strength-based sport – add sprints and other high-intensity endurance exercises.
While the concepts behind cross-training were not new, Glassman was the first to create a widely adopted training regimen that was focused on preparing athletes to be in their best possible overall condition, rather than just focusing on excelling at one event. While few pro athletes adopted CrossFit techniques, this form of training became very popular with amateurs. Former gym rats everywhere discovered the benefits of training for overall conditioning, instead of just strength, endurance, speed or flexibility.
Also, to be totally honest, the masochistic nature of CrossFit appeals to certain of us fitness-obsessed types. If it’s really hard, and it hurts, it must be working!
How CrossFit Works
If you’ve never tried CrossFit you may be wondering how progress is measured. The CrossFit organization has created a wide range of workouts. These workouts have human names, such as Fran, Cindy, Murph, Helen, and Grace.
A popular CrossFit workout is Helen. Here it is:
As quickly as possible, do…
400 meter run
21 Kettlebell Swings
As another example, here’s Murph:
You can do the strength exercises any way you like, but you have to start and finish with the run.
Shortest Possible Time is The Goal
The goal for each workout is to complete the workout in the shortest time possible. Another way of stating this is to say that the goal of any CrossFit workout is to burn as many calories as possible in the shortest amount of time. This doesn’t mean that the goal of CrossFit is weight loss, although it can certainly help with that. Calories are of course simply a unit of energy. Intensity is the key, and intensity can be measured with a simple formula of calories/time.
CrossFit also publishes a WOD (Workout of the Day). CrossFit aficionados can easily access these on the CF website and often combine workouts so that the average CF workout takes about an hour.
As you can see from the examples above, an hour of any of these exercises done at high intensity will be exhausting and if you do them consistently, will result in exceptional conditioning for your body.
The very thing that makes CrossFit a high-intensity workout is what many detractors have a problem with. By attempting to do these exercises in the shortest amount of time possible, poor form inevitably results. This poor form leads to poorer results. For example, in previous articles, I’ve talked about the importance of observing a full range of motion for any exercise. A shortened range of motion means the muscle belly is not being fully engaged. It will be strong in the range in which it is exercised, and weak outside of that range.
Second, doing any exercise quickly with poor form means a very high probability of an eventual injury – usually pulled or torn muscles or repetitive strain injuries. These injuries will force a break from training at the very least, and such injuries as torn muscles or ligaments can even mean surgery and a permanent weakening of the muscle.
And It Doesn’t Do What People Think It Does
Another reason critics of CrossFit have an issue with it is that many people get into CF believing it’s the best way to gain muscle and lose fat. This simply isn’t true. High-intensity endurance exercises, whether they are done with weights or not, don’t build muscle. In fact, just the opposite. Done with high intensity and daily frequency CF is much more likely to result in a loss of muscle mass, as the micro-damage to the muscle that causes muscle growth outstrips the body’s ability to repair and rebuild the muscles.
And while high-intensity endurance exercise can be a great way to burn calories, without a proper understanding of nutrition, muscle loss may equal or even exceed fat loss. This is very bad. As I’ve covered in previous articles, muscle loss is a metabolic disaster to be avoided at all costs.
So What Is It Good For?
By now, you’re probably thinking that I personally have a pretty dim view of CrossFit. Not true. When used responsibly, CF is a great workout that will result in much better overall fitness and endurance. However, I do disagree strongly with the method which CF uses to measure progress. Like some of its detractors, I see the ‘shortest possible time’ goal as being self-defeating. It leads to poor form, which results in poorer conditioning and a high probability of injury. However, if you do CF workouts with a focus on good technique and refuse to use time as your measure of progress (maximum reps to failure is a much better, and safer, measuring method), I would highly recommend CrossFit for anyone who wants to not only get into great shape but prepare their body for any athletic endeavor.