Thursday, December 11, 2014


Unless you've been living under a kettlebell for the last several years you would have heard of CrossFit. Actually, if you have been under a kettlebell then chances are you are already part of the CrossFit CULT movement. 

I was first introduced to CrossFit in 2009 through a good mate of mine who also introduced me to Paleo. Five years later I'm still living the Paleo lifestyle but CrossFit (in the strictest sense) is not a part of it. This article explains why. 

Firstly, let me preface by saying that to my knowledge there isn't any sound science on CrossFit at this time. That means that we have to be skeptical about any claims both for and against CrossFit - ranging from claims that it is either the best form of exercise on earth or the most likely way to tear a rotator cuff or fry your adrenals. Any claims on either side are merely conjecture. 

This also means that everything I am about to say is purely anecdotal and completely biased towards my own personal experience. So before all you CrossFit die-hards out there start bombarding me with ad hominem attacks let me say this: I don't care if you agree with me or not. There are some generalizations here and your own experience will probably differ from mine.

My experience is limited to just a handful of CrossFit affiliates in Melbourne, London, Miami and New York over a couple of years. My knowledge of CrossFit and the institution is by no means extensive. I did, however, learn a lot in my CrossFitting days and I am actually grateful for all I learned. I have continued to explore the foundations of gymnastics, Olympic lifting and mobility that I touched on through CrossFit and my training has benefitted greatly.

I think the original foundations of CrossFit are sound and if done with proper coaching and appropriate intensty it still remains the best form of functional training widely available to the public.

However, I think somewhere along the line of it’s market domination and popularization those solid foundations have been overshadowed by the “sport” of CrossFit and the overzealousness of CrossFit die-hards.

We silly humans have a tendency to take a great new idea or movement and turn it into an uncontrollable monster through our over-enthusiasm and extremism. It’s a mob mentality where people get swept up in the movement and caught up in the dogma. It happens with religion. It happens with politics. It happens with corporations. I believe it is happening with CrossFit.

The concept that more is better is etched into our social fabric. Especially here in the USA where we worship competition and sport, where spectacle is everything, hard work and physical pain are honored and people strive to push themselves beyond their physical limits.

A lot of my issues with CrossFit are to do with my perception that it is too intense and too extreme for the average, non-elite person, and at the dogmatic attitude of CrossFitters in general.

This is my personal issue. If I were a stronger person who could resist the heat of competition and use self-restraint to limit my intensity then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with CrossFit. The problem is, like most humans, I’m very susceptible to getting swept up in the mob mentality and ingesting the dogma. Like an alcoholic at a Christmas party I get a little bit carried away and it seems the best way to avoid a bad outcome is to remove myself from the situation.

I found myself overdoing it in WODs and pushing myself beyond my capacity for work. Fortunately I didn’t get injured but I’m pretty sure I would have given how bad my form became when my heart rate regularly got up over 170bmp in those killer workouts.

In the end I decided it was simply better for me to take on the foundations and tenets of CrossFit and practice them myself – free from hype and competition. 

I am not here to bash CrossFit or claim that it is inherently "bad", only to communicate to people why I personally chose not to do it anymore and why I wouldn't recommend it to most of my friends. For whatever reason people seem to be very interested in my opinion on this particular subject, which is why I’m taking the time to write this post.

Ultimately we have to use a "cost versus benefit" approach to something like CrossFit, running marathons or going vegan. Either you determine that CrossFit is worth it for you, or it isn’t. And this can change over time. After a couple of years I determined that CrossFit, in the traditional sense of training at a box, just wasn’t worth it for me anymore.  


WHAT IS CROSSFIT?

CrossFit defines itself as "a regimen of constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity in a communal environment.” 

The types of movements most often practiced in CrossFit include Olympic lifting (snatch, clean and jerk), rowing (on the Ergometer), running, calisthenics (push ups, lunges, burpees), barbell weight training (deadlift, overhead press, squats), kettlebell training and basic gymnastics (rope climbs, muscle ups, handstands). 

Proper programming attempts to schedule various combinations of the above exercises in seemingly random but planned series so that you can achieve constant improvement. 

CrossFit is about being very good at many modes of fitness, without necessarily specializing in any. 

You are encouraged to train three days on, one day off (i.e. 23 days a month) and a Paleo diet is sometimes suggested as a template for nutrition. In reality many hardcore CrossFitters I know eat like binging pregnant women with fetishes for peanut butter, Ben & Jerry’s and Oreo’s… sometimes all mixed together!

FORMAT

CrossFit generally consists of one-hour group classes typically starting with a brief warm up and then some strength training (e.g. work up to 3-rep-max barbell front squat) and/or skill training (e.g. learning the progression for handstand push ups). 

This is followed by a grueling, high intensity Workout of the Day (WOD) - typically a circuit of two or more exercises done for rounds of multiple sets. Everyone completes the WOD simultaneously in a competitive fashion, typically for time or maximum repetitions. 

WODs can be as short as a couple of minutes or as long as, say, 60 minutes. You are encouraged to scale the exercises to suit your capability. For example, the prescribed weight on deadlifts for a WOD may be 155lb for men and 115lb for women. In that sense a small woman could do better than a big man in certain strength WOD given she finishes first or does more reps. Likewise, an absolute machine of a CrossFitter may finish last if he did the full prescribed weight where others scaled by reducing their weight used.

Either way the underlying goal is to push your limits to the absolute extreme in order to get the best time or most reps on the whiteboard, which is often beyond the realm of reasonable form. It doesn’t have to be this way – proper coaching and self-restraint should come in here to prevent people from pushing themselves into risky territory. The problem is that in my experience, proper coaching and self-restraint are often shrugged aside in the heat of the competition.

Basically, the common perception is that if you don’t collapse on the floor in a panting mess, throw up, or feel shaky for at least 30 minutes after the WOD you probably aren’t doing it right. (I’m only half joking).

At the end of the class your results are written on a whiteboard for all to see and you can compare yourself to other members who have worked out that day or to your past performances on the same WOD. Don’t underestimate the motivational power of the whiteboard.

CROSSFIT’S EXPONENTIAL GROWTH

Sometimes called 'the sport of fitness', CrossFit has exploded in popularity in the last few years. There are over 10,000 affiliates - or Box gyms - across the world now, with over 35,000 accredited (Level 1) trainers. It's growing so fast that I'm sure these statistics are already outdated. If you live in a metropolitan city these days in Australia or America, chances are there is a Box near you. 

When I first heard about CrossFit there were less than five boxes in Melbourne. As of October 2014 there are now this many:


Clearly the movement has caught on Down Under. 

WHY CROSSFIT IS AWESOME

1. CrossFit is immensely effective at getting average, non-elite people to commit to a rigorous, elite training schedule. 

CrossFit has absolutely nailed the motivational aspect of training. The combination of the competitive nature, sense of community and camaraderie, exclusivity (it's expensive) and even the way they leverage military motifs and dedicate certain WODs to fallen soldiers all comes together to form a close-knit web of dedication and commitment. It is very clever really. 

And here is where the cult-like devotion of CrossFitters actually pays dividends. It is difficult to just dip your toes into Crossfit at a box gym. Damn, if you're paying $200 a month or more you better be using it!

But more than that, the rigid structure and accountability make it easy for the undisciplined to get motivated. The often charismatic coaches yelling support while your fellow CrossFitters cheer you on to finish that final set give you so much encouragement that it would simply be rude not to be a committed member of the team. No one wants to let the team down. Maslow's need for belonging is a strong human desire. 

Being a CrossFitter gives you access to an exclusive club of like-minded individuals who share an experience of overcoming physical pain, working together, competing and improving. I have no doubt that the mental toughness gained through physical training can be life-changing for some individuals. 

2. The results are impressive

I was already in reasonably good condition when I joined CrossFit. I've been consistently training in the gym in many different modalities for over 15 years. Back in my Army Reserve days I even won the 'Best at Physical Training' Award in my platoon on graduating recruit training - the real "boot camp". But I have never felt stronger and fitter than when I was really focusing on CrossFit. 

With the level of volume and intensity that CrossFit demands the initial strength, mobility, skill and general conditioning gains are truly remarkable. It is not uncommon to see slight women who walk in to a box not being able to do a three proper push ups being able to clean and jerk their bodyweight in less than a year. It is basically impossible to do CrossFit consistently without seeing vast improvements in CrossFit-specific "skills" and conditioning. 

Most of the CrossFit trainers themselves that I've come across are insanely ripped and strong. Although being ripped does not necessarily mean being healthy, as 10 years in the modeling industry has shown me first hand. 

3. The 'sport of fitness' is a global phenomenon that has some merit

I am a big supporter of anything that gets people motivated to get moving and improve their lives. 

I have many concerns surrounding CrossFit as an individual practice, which I will cover in detail soon, but as a collective movement I must admit that it is a step in the right direction. 

As one who has studied commerce and economics I am a big believer in free markets and have a lot of faith in consumer choice. In this sense CrossFit deserves its stratospheric rise in popularity and success. There was clearly a gap in the market for an exercise movement for average people striving for elite fitness and CrossFit fills that gap as the most accessible form of functional training available today.

The participation in the CrossFit Games has almost doubled year-on-year. Last year 138,000 competed in the CrossFit open. Money continues to flow in from sponsors such as Reebok, who were early to jump on the CF bandwagon. ESPN even picked up the coverage of the Games. This year's winners, Rich Froning and Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, took home a cool $275,000 each for their superhuman winning performances. 


WHY CROSSFIT IS NOT SO AWESOME

1. CrossFit acts like a cult

If you’re a CrossFit devotee and this subheading makes you defensive, you are merely proving my point. There is nothing wrong with exclusive clubs, or even employing a sort of ‘us versus them’ ethos in order to increase dedication and loyalty to a certain community. 

What makes CrossFit seem like a cult - and I’m talking here in a relatively benign sense of the word, say, something more cultish than ‘cult' film but less cultish than Scientology - is that there are certain dogmas, attitudes and a defensive manner inherent in CrossFit that stem all the way down to the very core of the institution and possibly to the founder Greg Glassman himself. The CrossFit juggernaut seems to be quite cagey about their methodology, very pugnacious towards any criticism or detractors and it sounds like Glassman has fallen out with many people over the years. But anyway, I’m not here to talk about individual personalities and hearsay.

What I do hear though, is plenty of dogma surrounding CrossFit. Dogma is ‘a set of principles laid down by an authority as an incontrovertible truth’. For example, CrossFit teaches you that efficiency in a movement is crucial to be able to complete a high volume of work, quickly. Using this logic, kipping pull-ups, where you use a type of circular (butterfly kipping) or swinging momentum (kipping) to be able to do far more pull-ups than you could do with strict form, are the taught as the way to do pull-ups. 

And CrossFitters accept this and love it without really questioning whether it is a best practice. Kipping pull-ups are a mainstay of CrossFit. When I started CrossFit I could do around 12 strict pull-ups. After a few months I could do 25 unbroken kipping pull ups. I stopped doing strict pull ups-all together. Kipping pull-ups were the bomb! Look how many pull ups I can do now, I thought. Basically I had ingested the dogma that kipping pull-ups were great and made complete sense and that strict pull ups were for losers.

I should mention here that some coaches will still program strict pull ups into strength training but kipping is the mainstay for most WODs and butterfly kipping is essential to be competitive at the higher levels of the CrossFit games.

The problem is that kipping pull-ups are a terrible idea from a sports physiology standpoint, and only make sense in the realm of CrossFit. The harsh jerking movement at the bottom of the kipping pull-up - where you have the force of roughly three times your bodyweight bearing down on your connective tissue - is a dangerous movement for those who do not have the strength and conditioning on those joints and tendons to be able to get away with that kind of force (Sommers, 2014). 

Sure, gymnasts can safely do movements that place up to ten times their bodyweight on connective tissue but only after years of very specific gymnastic strength work. 

Anecdotally, shoulder injuries are rife in CrossFit and it seems that kipping pull-ups are a major culprit. But even though many CrossFitters realize that kipping is a quirky, initially awkward and often painful way to do pull-ups, they’ve drank the Cool-Aide and ignore these gut feelings. I know, I was one of them! 


2. CrossFit is "extreme" for the average person

I think CrossFit is an extreme level of exercise for the average person. 

What do I mean by extreme? Well I think that if you combine the volume (total work load), frequency (almost daily) and intensity (competition level effort) of fully committing to CrossFit then this is above and beyond the level of exercise that THE AVERAGE human needs in order to thrive. Furthermore, by training beyond their capacity with highly complex motor patterns such as Olympic lifting some people may be putting themselves at risk of overtraining and/or injury. 

Obviously this is relative. Proper coaching and the self-restraint to limit volume, frequency or intensity to your personal capacity are of course the intended means to reduce the risks of overtraining and injury. Yet in my experience the proper coaching and self-restraint were lacking.

The big caveat in claiming that CrossFit is “extreme” is that I'm talking about normal people who just want to get fit, strong and look good naked. If you need to be in superhuman condition for your job, or if being awesome at CrossFit is really that important to you and it is worth the risk then that's great - power to you. 

But for mere mortals like me and most of my friends who do (or did) CrossFit we probably don't need to be doing five to six WODs a week to be fit and healthy.

Some people have the work and recovery capacity to get away with it. Others don't. 

Especially for those who don't have their lifestyle dialed in with adequate sleep, stress management and good nutrition, jumping headlong into CrossFit might not be the best way to achieve your long-term health and happiness goals. 

I think the person who can really delve into CrossFit for the long-term, without overtraining or getting injured is quite rare. Of course there are probably some people who have been doing CrossFit for 10 years, have never been injured and couldn't live without CrossFit... but these are probably the outliers. 

I know far more people who jumped into CrossFit for a couple of years and have since turned away from it, either through injury or just not being able to maintain it with their busy lifestyle. In this sense I just don't think CrossFit is a sustainable form of exercise for most people in its current state. 

3. CrossFit can be risky 

I've been to some fantastic CrossFit boxes around the world and met some incredibly talented and sensible coaches. Unfortunately I've also been to some sub-par affiliates and received some rubbish instruction from people who really aren't qualified to teach any movement - let along the highly technical nuances of Olympic lifting. 

I have since sought out Olympic lifting coaching from proper Olympic lifting coaches and I absolutely love my Oly lifting practice but I don't think it is for everyone.

Traditional weightlifting programs in Eastern Europe and Asia demand years of progression before young athletes are allowed to even pick up a barbell. CrossFit, on the other hand, often throws people into the main lifts within just weeks of starting, and in a largely uncontrolled environment that demands multiple reps for time. It is not uncommon to see classes of 30+ people with just one or two coaches. I think this is madness. Once again, proper coaching and programming should prevent this but in my experience many affiliates are keen to get their clients under the bar as quickly as possible.

If you ask me the risk of completing 30 snatches or 30 clean-and-jerks for time far outweighs any possible benefit of doing so. 

Getting a sedentary adult with no athletic background and just a few weeks of CrossFit training to perform Olympic lifting movements in timed workouts is about as irresponsible as giving a person who has never driven before a Lamborghini and telling them to race five laps of Nürburgring. 

Of course not all affiliates do this and many have excellent coaches and very good "on-ramp" training schedule for novices but as a general rule the intensity of CrossFit combined with the complexity of movements and a competitive environment all feed into a relatively risky endeavor for your average, non-elite person. 

4. CrossFit is probably not optimal for health and longevity

If you've read a lot of my work here on The Paleo Model you'll be familiar with my holistic approach to lifestyle and how I always warn against extremism. When it comes to exercise I think less can be more. I think the minimal effective dose of exercise is actually quite small and going too far beyond that is really not necessary and may even hinder achieving a healthy body composition and overall wellbeing. 

High intensity training is fantastic, but not at high volume and frequency. Intervals, tabatas, sprints and circuits are very effective ways to train but only as a short, sporadic or acute (hormetic) stress. If done too much and too often then there is a risk of your training becoming a chronic stress that may actually do more harm than good. 

Just as I think running marathons is not a great way to get healthy, I don't think doing CrossFit is the best path to choose if overall health and wellbeing are more important to you than performance. 

Athletic performance and health are definitely correlated, and some training is always better than none, but I think focusing too much on performance can potentially hinder your health and longevity if you exceed your capacity to adequately recover and thereby create a state of chronic systemic inflation. 

CrossFit has the potential characteristics – volume, frequency and intensity – to constitute a regimen that may lead to overtraining and chronic inflammation.

Chronic systemic inflammation can result in a host of metabolic issues such as adrenal fatigue, endocrine disfunction, mood disorders, poor sleep, fatigue, irritability, low libido, chronic infections and a host of other ailments. 

CrossFit is a physically demanding regimen that is also addictive and dogmatic. When you're swept up in the CrossFit mindset it is very difficult to take your foot off the gas pedal and take it easy - especially if you are a competitive type-A personality (like me) who thrives on punishment and adrenalin. More often than not CrossFit attracts people such as this and filters out those who can't cut it. 

Now please remember that exercise is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to a "healthy lifestyle". I believe that nutrition is more important exercise, as is sleep and stress-management. 

Exercise is extremely important, but it doesn't need to be extreme. Unless performance is crucial to your job or livelihood then I really don't think your training should be so extreme that it constitutes a chronic stressor to your body that could potentially harm your health in the long term. 

I'm not saying that CrossFit constitutes overtraining or a chronic stress to everyone. As I said some people have the capacity to train like this, others don't. Some people have the self-restraint to limit their volume, frequency and intensity to reasonable levels. It is all relative.

MY CONCLUSION 

As a general rule and erring on the side of caution, I think that the potential for injury and overtraining in CrossFit for the average person merely looking to "get in shape and be healthy" tilts the cost/benefit analysis towards the "probably not worth it" side of the scales. 

This is my opinion. You need to decide for yourself. But if you do try CrossFit just sip the Cool-Aide... don't skull it! Always remind yourself that CrossFit is not a religion so please don't preach to your friends about it incessantly or think less of people who don't CrossFit! 

Conversely, if you're a professional athlete, in the armed forces, a first responder or just really, really want to attain an elite level of fitness and are willing to put up with the risks then CrossFit might be great for you. Interestingly, in 2011, the U.S. military, in conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine, advised soldiers to avoid CrossFit, citing "disproportionate musculo-skeletal injury risk" (Davis, 2013). 

Ultimately, (like the U.S. military) I decided that CrossFit wasn't worth it for me. But I am very grateful for my time in CrossFit. I met some amazing people, had a lot of fun and learnt a great deal about my physical limitations.

I saw how CrossFit can really help people – motivating them and empowering them to take control of their fitness and physicality. But I still believe that there are other less risky, less dogmatic and more sustainable ways to approach fitness, which I why I still wouldn’t recommend CrossFit to most of my friends.

But I’m not a hater! I really loved CrossFit and I still incorporate many of its methodologies in my training today. My WODs just don't include kipping pull-ups or snatch reps for time! 

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PS - If you guys liked this post it would really be great if you shared it with your friends on Facebook or Twitter. I do this blog for free because I am passionate about nutrition and fitness and my reward is reaching as many people as possible. Thanks!


References:

Chris Sommers, 2014: The Paleo Solution Podcast - Episode 213. http://robbwolf.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Paleo-Solution-213.pdf

Grant Davis, 2013: 'Is CrossFit Killing Us?' Outside Magazine. http://www.outsideonline.com/fitness/strength-and-power-training/Growing-Pains-CrossFit-Injuries-On-the-Rise.html

Image Source 1: http://www.team-andro.com/
Image Source 2: http://imgkid.com/crossfit-camille-leblanc-bazinet.shtml

10 comments:

  1. Great post David, my sentiments/experience almost exactly.

    6 days a week for a year at 1.5 hrs a session (inlc warm up/cool down) is 468 hours or 20 full days. It got to the stage where I would rather being outside doing what I loved and not indoors training for it.

    I'd never argue against crossfit as being a really great tool, but it would seem that with the rise of the competitions that the tail is wagging the dog.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Dave. And thanks for introducing me to CrossFit in the first place! I don't regret my run with CrossFit at all and as I said am really grateful for all I learnt. I just realized that for my purposes (looking good and feeling good) it was too much for me. I think our outdoor WODs with kettle-bells at your place were just about perfect. Do that twice a week with some beach sprints, commuter cycling and odd yoga session thrown in and you'll be in top shape, given your nutrition and sleep are decent. And I don't know about you but I quite like my hands not bleeding from ripped calluses several times a week!

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  3. I agree with your point of views completely.completely. Crossfit is definitely for fitness but its not for all. It can be risky for many if they are not fit for it. best cross training shoes

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  4. Excellent article!! I come from a Bodybuilding background and Crossfit to me was something new which I wanted to try because regular workouts were getting to be a bore. I did Crossfit for a month and quit. First, it was too taxing on my heart and I simply couldn't keep up. Second, everyone is so competitive. Hold on we are only doing WODs... TOGETHER. I couldn't stand the crap so I quit.

    What I did learn is basically it is a Circuit type of training which incorporates Olympic lifts. I do such when I do Supersets or Triple sets in my workouts but at least there I can take a breather, Crossfit is non stop bash up till you drop. It really isn't one for those who are just starting out.

    And what the heck are Kiplings?!? Looks like a fish right out of the water. I would not do those and so my Coaches would throw a fit and blow air my ass. I could care less.

    Im glad IM done with it. The only good part I did enjoy was properly learning how to execute the Olympic lifts. I now incorporate those in my regular training.

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  5. I agree with this article wholeheartedly. I love Crossfit, but it left my body broken and was causing more problems than it was worth. My mind was willing but my body couldn't handle it.

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  6. Thank you for this post. Recent studies have debunked the long standing myth that coffee is not good for you as it can cause spikes in blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It’s also been said to cause insomnia, stunt growth in growing children and has been linked to dehydration too. See more http://3daysmilitarydiet.com/faq/coffee-during-diet.html

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  7. Does Firstly, let me preface by saying that to my knowledge there isn't any sound science on CrossFit at this time. That means that we have to be skeptical about any claims both for and against CrossFit - ranging from claims that it is either the best form of exercise on earth or the most likely way to tear a rotator cuff or fry your adrenals. Any claims on either side are merely conjecture?

    Joe T. Daniel

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  8. I was initially acquainted with CrossFit in 2009 through a decent mate of mine who additionally acquainted me with Paleo. After five years despite everything i'm carrying on with the Paleo way of life however CrossFit (in the strictest sense) is not a piece of it. This article clarifies why.

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  9. Unfortunately way too many people have paired Crossfit with a "Paleo" lifestyle/diet. While Paleo is an effective weight loss strategy, particularly for those who are inactive to moderately active, it's not adequate to fuel athletic performance and therefore doesn't pair well with Crossfit, unless you are only going to train crossfit 2-3X/week. Even still, you will likely see limited improvement in performance and likely peak/plateau fairly quickly.

    The exceptions to this would be those that can afford to commit to a significant increase in "Paleo approved" carbohydrate sources. Unfortunately, this is extremely expensive, and requires eating a much higher quantity than people are prepared for.

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  10. Interesting take on crossfit. I had a similar experience and still use many of the principals but I didn't like the expense or nursing shoulders and back. We had a great oly program and I switched almost entirely to that. Now I don't belong to a box or go to an oly gym as I've moved and had a baby. To do crossfit well, I needed an inordinate amount of time to get to a great gym. Now, I focus more on mobility, calisthenics, weightlifting and a lot of different combinations of cardio exercises that help me mountain bike and ski better. I never get board working out thanks in part to what I learned doing crossfit. I think I would recommend at least a stint with crossfit to most people, but it does take a special kind of dicipline to use it for health and well being and not get caught up in doing it for speed and reps. Doing the technical exercises well can take years of practice for mear mortal so don't expect to head in and do it all right away. I would focus on learning the basics and priciples at the best gym you can find and then decide if it is worth it.

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