CrossFit: The good, the bad, and the ugly

I have been avoiding this post. The thought and energy that I have put into this is exhausting. But time and time again:

Is CrossFit a good choice for me?

99% of the time my answer is NO! My intent is to educate and inform – including the good, the bad, and the ugly.

My need for answers and information

I am a person who needs answers. I need to approach a topic from all perspectives and angles before I make a decision. (I come across as highly opinionated, but I am also highly informed and I therefore have great confidence in my opinion.)

Given my need for information, I decided that I needed to seek out scholarly and scientific support for CrossFit – as if I wanted to promote it. I spent endless hours searching for anything peer-reviewed. I was searching for legitimate research for the CrossFit model. I sought the input of colleagues and exercise physiologists – do they know of any research?

Nothing.

I did come across a study that measured the energy expenditure of CrossFit workouts versus other high intensity workouts. I do not question that you expend energy, so this study was less than helpful (not to mention had only 40 participants). Beyond this, there was nothing scholarly. The health and fitness journals will not publish anything that lacks validity and reliability.

My thirst for reliable data and research was unfulfilled.

Been there, done that

I also participate before I draw a conclusion. I have been to a half a dozen CrossFit gyms – some in large metros and others in small town nowhere. Only one had reasonably qualified staff (St. Louis Park, MN). At each location, I was able to experience their ‘introductory’ class. Each class was taught a little different. At one location, we performed rowing, air squats, pushups, situps, and pullups. At another, the same workout but without the pullups. Each facility had large groups of prospects – there was no health history, no experience questionnaire, no technique instruction. You just went at it and completed the workout for time.

THE GOOD

I want to start with the good – because there are some good aspects. CrossFit thrives on building a community. Many joke about CrossFitters who have “drank the Kool-Aid” and the reality is that they have bonded with others. These social bonds – developed during times of vulnerability (most everyone has a certain level of vulnerability when trying to completely, physically exhaust themselves) – are meaningful and difficult to match. The support, accountability, and empowerment cultivated by the group dynamics is the #1 reason many individuals are attracted to CrossFit.

I must commend CrossFit, as many do require fundamental classes prior to graduating to full WODs. The only draw back to something like that is someone like me – new to CrossFit but not new to working out or the exercises – would be forced into those courses without the opportunity to bypass or test out if I can prove I have the ability and know-how.

Another good aspect is the use of workouts to measure improvements. This provides something tangible and quantitative to work towards. It is important to direct individuals away from weight-specific goals, so a goal to improve the time it takes to complete a workout is ideal. I do something similar – but different – for myself and my clients.

THE BAD

Not based on science

CrossFit is not based on the basic scientific principles established and continually tested by exercise physiologists. I did a scholar article search, looking for research that supports CrossFit – and I came up empty. The majority of articles that support CrossFit are written by Greg Glassman – who by the way quotes himself (big no-no).

I have asked CrossFit trainers and enthusiasts time and time again to show me the science from which the CrossFit model was designed – or the science that it follows. No one has been able to do this. Is it new science that has yet to be proven? The human body has not changed in over a hundred years – there is nothing new and the same principles apply today as they did then, and 50 years ago, and 10 years ago.

Wait a minute!

An interesting side note: Glassman – CrossFit founder – does not do CrossFit WODs. (Most say he suffered an injury that prevents him from participating. He does have a limp.)

I could not find a biography for Glassman. As far as the general public knows, he has no education nor credentials. If I had to guess, I would say that he has a marketing degree because he has done well in that respect.

Not ACSM’s Top 20

Here is food for thought, brought to my attention by a fellow exercise physiologists: CrossFit has never made it onto American College of Sports Medicine’s Top 20 Fitness Trends – a list they publish annually.

Why?

Because ACSM would never promote a program that so blatantly contradicts science and research.

THE UGLY

So there is good and there is bad. The same can be said for anything, right? But what is the ugly?

Injuries

SERIOUS and non-serious injuries persists. Yes, there is an inherent risk of injury to all physical activity. Yes, weight lifting has some of the lowest risk of any sport or activity – WHEN DONE PROPERLY. CrossFit is not known for proper form and technique – and watching it makes most professionals cringe.

Watch the CrossFit Games on ESPN – all of the top competitors are wearing kinesiology tape (a tool developed for physical therapist to use with clients through the therapeutic process). Kinesiology tape IS NOT something that makes you look cool. I used kinesiology tape after my knee surgery and through physical therapy to aid with the reduction of inflammation. It worked, I did my therapy, and I stopped wearing it. The use of kinesiology tape is indicative of impaired movement, muscular imbalances and weaknesses, poor quality of movement or mobility, etc.

You could argue that this is not a serious injury. Let’s think critically. How many of these athletes will compete for the rest of their lives? How many will have to give up some exercises completely because they lose mobility in their shoulder after working through this ‘non-serious’ injury?

Pain is NOT good and it is NOT something to work through. Pain is your body’s way of telling you something is wrong, “STOP.”

Threatens lifelong health and fitness

As mentioned above – how many athletes can sustain this level of training for a year? Two? Twenty? If an exercise causes injuries – whether it be traumatic or overuse – then it does not promote lifelong health and fitness – nor longevity.

Ask yourself, can you sustain this for the long term?

If an activity results in a chronic ailment that prevents you from living pain free – then it has negatively influenced your quality of life. Is that the goal of working out?

The bottomline

CrossFit is a workout for athletes. It claims to build athletes – but it does not train individuals to athletic fitness or using the basic scientific principles known to work – and known to reduce risk of injury along the way.

Is CrossFit all bad? No. Does the good outweigh the bad and the ugly? In my educated opinion – no. Plus, you can get a similar workout – with health and fitness benefits and greater concern for safety – from a functional fitness training facility with qualified trainers and staff.

p.s. Not one of my colleagues – most with master’s degrees, PhDs, and endless certifications – would workout at a CrossFit facility themselves. We are some of the fittest and most athletic individuals I know. We see the scientific flaws and prefer to train in safe, effective, and efficient manners. One has been a CrossFit Competition Champion 3 years running – never training ‘CrossFit.’ Something to think about.

p.p.s. Ask a medical professional – such as a chiropractor or orthopaedic surgeon – if he recommends CrossFit. Most will avoid a direct answer, he knows the inherent risks but it puts more money in his pocket.

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