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.

Like what you read? Please comment and share below.

Are group fitness classes effective?

I taught two group fitness classes yesterday morning. Back to back. I do this most Saturdays. Out of curiosity, I wore my heart rate monitor this time. First, I wanted to see how high my heart rate got during some of the exercises I selected for the TABATA class. I did not intend for the heart rate to get too high, and it didn’t. Second, I was curious as to how many calories I would burn during two hours of teaching – two classes that I heavily participate in.

When I stopped my heart rate monitor at 2 hours and 2 minutes, I was disappointed: 890 calories. To give you some perspective, my average 45-60 minute workout burns 500-700 calories. Granted, this was not the same intensity, nor designed to be my workout, but it led me to think critically about whether my classes were adequate and appropriate – and about the overall effectiveness of group fitness.

Intended outcome?

Why do most individuals attend group fitness classes? Most have the goal to lose weight. Are group fitness classes targeting that goal? I believe that the answer to this question is complicated – it is both yes and no.

For example, depending on the exercise selection, TABATA can be a effective and efficient workout. I perform this form of high intensity interval training on a regular basis. I design my classes in an equally effective manner (with a lesser degree of intensity). BUT, if a member comes to my Saturday morning class and this is the 8th class she has been to this week, will it be effective? Will the intended outcome be reached? Probably not.

Desired results far too uncommon

I have been in and out of my fair share of gyms. When you are a group fitness instructor, by default you end up filling in at what seems to be every workout facility within a 30-mile radius. And unfortunately, I have seen very few members achieve their desired results. Weight loss. Improved fitness. Very few group fitness programs will get you this results. Even more disheartening, is that I would see the same faces over and over – watching some individuals attend 8-10 hours of classes a week – with no results. Sadly, most of these individuals are overtraining. Some are undernourished due to extending periods of dieting and/or yo-yo dieting. Most are frustrated and at a loss for what else to do.

Solution

It is pretty simple. While I am not a proponent of many group fitness classes, I will not suggest that you forgo the classes. I will recommend the following:

  1. Attend NO MORE than 4 group fitness classes a week. Most group fitness classes target the same muscles, energy systems, etc. and miss the same muscle groups, form, technique, and energy systems.
  2. Research your instructor – ONLY take classes led by degreed and certified professionals. This one may be tough. There are some good instructors out there who do not have degrees, they have been fanatics for years and they bring good energy and great intentions. But generally speaking, you want to work with someone who has been trained to manage situations as they arise – providing variety that is safe, efficient, and effective.
  3. Work with a qualified trainer first. While working with a qualified personal trainer long term is not always financially feasible, it is in your best interest to invest the time and money into a few (3-12) foundational sessions with a trainer. A qualified trainer will teach you form and technique that the group fitness instructor simply is unable to provide in the setting (some know your form is off but are not able to correct form on every person every hour). With this investment, you will gain valuable knowledge that you can bring with you and ensure that you get the most out of your workout.
  4. Wear a heart rate monitor. Sweat is not indicative of a good workout – however most group fitness class attendees use sweat as the measure of whether the workout was good. It is not the only indicator. Neither is soreness the only nor the best indicator of a good workout. What else can you measure? Your heart rate. Target heart rates are highly individual – for more specifics please contact me personally.
  5. Change? If you have been going to the same class for years – it is time for something new!
  6. Give it your all. Some times a group class can become social hour. While this is not all bad, remember why you are there and give it 100%!

The bottomline

Not all group fitness classes are bad. These classes can be a great way to build community support and accountability. But if you are a regular attendee, be honest as to whether you are getting the results for the time and energy you put into the work. If you go to classes every day, and are not getting the results you desire, you may be overtraining – or simply inefficiently training.

I love group fitness classes – that is how I got my start. (It is also the reason I suffered overuse injuries and eventually elected to have surgery.) Follow the 6 recommendations above and you can get the most out of those classes!

Like what you read? Please comment and share below.

What makes a fantastic personal trainer?

photo (32)

I am a personal trainer…

but honestly, I am more than a personal trainer. I am a coach for life. I see more than others see. I see a whole person – looking to be better tomorrow than he/she is today. And I guide individuals to betterment.

What separates a fantastic trainer from the others?

A fantastic trainer is the one with the personality that best matches your needs. I have been doing research on what sets me apart from my colleagues. The responses are heart warming and tear jerking. Some responses relate to my enormous education and love for learning. But more mention my heart.

I am with my client every step of the way.

I am a role model – living what I teach.

I genuinely care about a client – including her spirit, not just her physical being.

I am honest. As this blog is titled: strong, brave, and honest.

Passion

The one aspect that I would add to the meme is passion. I am passionate about my work, and being my best so that I can be the best for my clients. I have the opportunity to live out my dream daily – through this blog and through my teaching and training.

Are you living your passion?

The bottomline

I sometimes feel like a broken record, but not all trainers are created equal. IF you are looking to hire a trainer, do your research and find one with not only the education (please click and read the link) but also the spirit and heart to match yours!

A missing link to weight loss

I talk to dozens of individuals each week who are tired, frustrated, overwhelmed, disappointed – all the consequence of less than desireable weight loss. Unmet goals. Unrewarded efforts. Does any of this sound familiar – past or present?

I frequently address the importance of goals and setting meaningful and realistic goals (just two components of SMART goals). We often miss the aspect of setting positive goals, unknowingly making goals that present themselves with negative connotations. We do not always consider the power of words and the law of attraction.

Another missing link is one-on-one support.

Working with a trainer

I recently had a second session with a new client. We warmed up with basic bodyweight exercises and she commented on how sore she was from our pushups earlier in the week – and how she had been working out and doing classes for years and doing pushups wrong – never feeling it in her chest. This is all too common. She she stated that this soreness alone made her excited and motivated to see me again – despite the pain she endured in the hour while with me. I laughed at her remark about the pain and said I was glad to hear that she saw and felt the benefit of my technique and form corrections.

She had social support – but never that one-on-one feedback specific to her needs and desires. I managed to fill that gap in less than two hours! Further, I am not declaring that you need a personal trainer to attain weight loss. But would you like to increase your success (J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2009)?

Are your form and technique correct? How do you know?

Unfortunately, not all personal trainers and fitness professionals are created equal. Many of us have aspired to increase our knowledge and experience. Others – not so much. Make sure that your fitness professional is qualified before you waste your precious time and money.

The power of support

We hear it. We read it. And we hear it some more. Social support is critical to weight loss. The importance of support has been recently reinstilled in me. I previously worked for a facility at which we staff cultivated an amazing culture of support and growth. This is too uncommon. Gyms have their cliques. Trainers have their aversive methods. It is hard to find a gym or facility that is safe and positive. Is the impersonal group support of classes enough to get results? If you do this, is it working?

I go to great lengths to make my clients feel safe and supported. Most individuals who have hired me to not have a strong support system – and it is part of my job to help them develop one. I am initially the primary component of this system.

One-on-one support

photo (30)Many of us may call the form of support I am referring to a friendship. A one-on-one relationship that provides us with support and encouragement. I am this for many – and they pay me for it. I have noticed recently more than ever that those individuals which I have maintained the greatest amount of contact with over time have seen the greatest, lasting and continued results.

What does this tell me? That we need more deep, meaningful, and positive relationships. Yes, this is anecdotal. I am not citing any research here, but believe me when I say the research exists.

We all need someone at one time or another – even if just for a season. I consider my relationship with my clients seasonal, until they are able to build support within their own life and relationships.

Filling the gap

There is definitely an awareness of the need for one-on-one support – hence the Wellcoaches and similar health coaching certification programs. Unfortunately, these programs fall short. Having completed the Wellcoaches program – I was awestruck by classmates and how unaware they were of health and wellness best practices – and they were about to be ‘certified’ to coach others towards health! While I understand that a coach is not an ‘expert role’ – you need to be able to guide someone and to do this you need to know what you are talking about! Further, why would I spend my money on a coach who does not have the ability to answer my questions about health and wellness and only answers all of my questions with more questions?

The bottomline

This post is my form of thinking out loud. I believe we are missing intimacy. Relationships. Support. Interdependence. The research surrounding the scopes of social support is abundant – I am more concerned with what is happening right in front of me.

Being overweight/obese is a symptom. Is it a symptom of loneliness? A medical condition? The lack of love? Poor time management skills? Exhaustion?

Reference

Supervised exercise versus non-supervised exercise for reducing weight in obese adults. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009 Mar; 49(1):85-90.

A good problem to have?

I like to think that I am humble – but confident. That confidence can be mistaken for arrogance – but I simply know what I know. The key to this is that I also know what I do not know. I know that I am good at what I do. The fitness industry is known for pushy sales. I never sell myself and individuals still find their way to me. Why? I know what I am doing and they can see that. Further, it helps that I look the part!

I recently relocated to Minnesota. I have been training a few clients here and there – keeping one foot in my passion for health and fitness. The problem? Other gym goers see me training and want to train with me. Your average trainer would probably kill for the number of walk up clients I could have. But I do not have the time for these clients. Between a full time job, online clients, in-person clients, and leaving time for this blog – my schedule is booked. (Time to raise my rates!)

A problem with the industry

I have also had a couple of individuals admit that they were happy to see someone they felt they could trust. Awesome? Well, yes and no. I wish I trusted my colleagues, but I do not. I am happy that at least some gym-goers can identify quality trainers when they see them. I wish I could refer my overflow…but I am not sure where to send them. Who can manage bum knees, hips, and shoulders and still achieve weight loss or muscle building? 80% of my colleagues do not know how to build a program (i.e., 4-12 weeks’ worth of workouts that complement one another while working for a common goal) let alone how to successfully work around comorbidities (not to mention that a ‘personal trainer’ is only qualified to work with asymptomatic individuals). I have talked about qualified personal trainers and I will again and again. And again. Because I do not want to see you get hurt. And I do not want I see you fail. I do not want to see you throw your money and time away.

I am not good at saying no – because I want to help. I want individuals to feel and move better. I have conversations and hear pain indicators –

“I have tried everything” or

“I just don’t know what to do” or

“I am tired” or

“I have given up”.

I love the excitement of being able to bring life back to someone’s eyes. I love watching someone MOVE. I love seeing improvements – empowering others to be their best.

The bottomline

I need to practice using my ‘NO’ muscle. I can only take on so many clients. And what happens to the others? Do I let them wander aimlessly? Do I refer them to an unqualified trainer? A bit of a professional ethics dilemma.

 

Response: Why four workouts a week may be better than six

Are you a sedentary woman between the ages of 60 and 74? If not, then the research recently reported in the New York Times does not exactly apply to you. The article, Why Four Workouts a Week May Be Better Than Six, boasts a large picture of a young woman holding a dumbbell – in the online version this is all you see before you scroll down to begin reading. Let us assume that the girl in the picture is 30. Does a 30-year-old female have the same physical needs as a 60-year-old female? Maybe.

And honestly, this research is telling us something that fitness professional already know (or should know). Lifestyle and general health exercise guidelines recommend exercising 4-5 days a week.

Getting the right dose of exercise

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is dedicated to researching (including meta-analyses) human needs for exercise and the benefits associated with exercise. The ACSM designates experts to develop annual position statements – incorporating ALL research into a concise recommendation. These statements are free and available to the public on www.acsm.org. You will notice that Apparently Healthy Adults and Older Adults have different statements and recommendations. This is because of the obvious differences in needs and concerns for contraindications (older adults also have different dietary needs, requiring far fewer calories with age). Further, there is a position specific to weight loss and prevention of regain. Another specific to resistance training. And more.

If you currently work with a fitness professional, ask him/her if they have read these. Seriously! If he/she has not, you may want to consider spending your money more wisely, for example find yourself a new, qualified fitness professional. While these documents are somewhat dense in information, a fitness professional should not have issues reading and applying the recommendations. And it is my opinion that not reading these documents and applying the recommendations to the needs of your clients is professional negligence.

Apparently healthy adults

According to the ACSM, an apparently healthy adult (i.e., asymptomatic) is encouraged to engage in strength or resistance training 2-3 times a week and cardiovascular/aerobic training 2 times a week. Further, a healthy adult should set a goal of 150 total minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. More activity may be required for significant weight loss goals (see the weight loss position statement). More activity may also be required to achieve certain fitness and athletic improvements. NOTE: These recommendations do not include 6 days a week, as the research for the older adults looked at, but to state 4-5 days a week. Interesting? Sure reads to me like the research is adding validity to what we professionals already know!

photo (13)Increasing physical activity

Ideally, in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, we should not have to think so hard about it – “did I get all my exercise in this week?” In the beginning, maybe. But is is important that you work on comfortable increases in activity (i.e., not forced activity). Research shows that doing too much too soon will lead to burnout more quickly. This is often because we do not see the anticipated – often unrealistic – results, therefore the costs do not outweigh the benefits and we quit.

The bottomline

Popular media distorts research and cherry picks information to fit their needs and make it appealing to the audience. While the article does state that the research was performed in older women, they use the image of a younger woman and the author never clarifies that the recommendations based on this research is truly limited to a subpopulation – older, otherwise sedentary women. (Journalistic ethics frustrate me to no end!)

Also, you cannot rely solely one piece of research. You may not know who funded it, what biases exist, what the limitations were, etc. And the ACSM has done the meta-analyses for us in many instances. NOTE: ACSM is just one example of a reputable agency that has done this.

Lastly, I do not expect YOU to read all the position statements, but fitness professionals should. If you are dedicated to developing your own fitness program, GO FOR IT! Read it and apply it. Is it too much information for you to digest? Many fitness professionals will sell you a program to follow (I know I do) and it is much more cost efficient than personal training.

P.S.

My friends are beginning to instigate me by sending me articles (like this one) that they know will aggravate me! You can blame them for feeding my soap box!

How to push yourself in a workout

Working out is hard. In fact, I honestly cannot think of anything that is easy about it. If you think that it is easy for anyone – then the only one you are fooling is yourself. Personally, because I experience a varying degree of pain on any and all days, I need to talk myself into each and every workout. You think I am superhuman? Think again! What I have is mental toughness.

photo (11)

I miss having a trainer. I miss being told what to do. I miss the accountability and the need not to think. Even after becoming a trainer myself, I continued working with my trainer – and I believe that made me an even better trainer for my clients.

I miss having someone screaming at me not to quit. I am the kind of person who does not get much benefit of the supportive cheerleading, “you can do it” feedback. I need the, “get your ____ of the floor!” and “why are you stopping?” feedback. And we all require different feedback – in different tones, intensities, delivery methods, and frequencies – and believe me, I do not scream at my clients (I am NOT Jillian).

After my national travels, I have landed in a small town where I know no one. I workout alone. I observe, looking for equally driven individuals to workout by my side, but I am coming up empty. I watch the trainers – nah, I am not impressed (I know, it does take a lot. I have thus far only been markedly impressed with two trainers I have worked with – David Brown and Aaron Feldman). So, without a trainer and without a workout partner – I must push myself.

Is this so bad?

I am actually learning a lot about myself. I have increased my self-efficacy because I am learning that I do not need to be dependent on someone else. The best part is that I have been making significant progress towards my 2013 goals. The primary means by which I am improving my self-efficacy – setting, tracking, and achieving these goals.

Further, I am increasing my mind-body awareness. This is incredibly important for me, considering my physical limitations and increased risks for injury – I MUST be body smart (we all should!). Over the years, I have gotten good at thought control, ‘ignoring’ the pain and pushing through. And because adrenaline is a natural pain killer – any pain I may have felt often subsides. With that said, I can be known to push myself too far to compete with others around me. By working alone, I am more aware of my bodily cues and working within my safe zones. Working within MY zones and ranges is likely correlated with my significant progress towards my goals!

The downfall

There is a lot to be said about having a great trainer or workout partner. Healthy competition will push you to limits you never knew. The biggest thing that I miss is having a trustworthy spotter. I feel like I have lost some strength because I often lift alone and there is no one there to spot me up – I do not take as many risks. Accountability, reinforcement – the benefits of working out with others are endless and worthy of their own post.

How to push yourself

It is helpful to keep in mind the purpose of your workout. WHY are you here? That motivator is powerful. But there are many ways to push yourself if you find yourself working out alone.

  1. Focus on the now. Do not worry about anything else. Focus on the movements, feel your muscles, feel the ground, and bring your mind to the moment.
  2. Track your progress. Keep a notebook and track your workouts. If you are running or biking, track your distance, speed, duration, incline/resistance. With strength training, track your repetitions, sets, tempo, and weight. Use these numbers to challenge yourself to do just a little more the next time you perform the workout.
  3. Music. Select music that makes you want to move. There are times I use no music at all, but more often than not I find that beat and I get lost in it.
  4. Use progressions. Start with simple and familiar exercises. Setting yourself up for success up front builds confidence and will allow you to take more risks down the road.
  5. Plan your workouts. If you have your plan, you are more likely to work harder. You will spend less time roaming the weight room. Having confidence and knowing what you are doing make the world of a difference.
  6. Ask an expert. I know these are tips to help you push yourself, but I believe that everyone should have at least a few sessions with a qualified fitness professional. This will familiarize yourself with the equipment and exercises – leaving less room for hesitation and uncertainty! And you may have guessed it – this build confidence.
  7. Reward yourself. It is important to reward yourself for all work well done. Every step forward is progress towards your goal. I will work for coffee!

The bottomline

This list is endless and these are just a few tips to get you thinking. We are not always lucky enough to always have a workout partner accessible. Nor can we all afford personal trainers for all our lives! Life is such a personal matter – and working out is a part of this life! I can give you hundreds of ideas, but if they are not meaningful to you are they really going to help? Yes, it requires some thought and preparation, but are you not worth it?

How do YOU push yourself?

References

Martin Ginis, K. A., & Bray, S. R. (2010). Application of the limited strength model of self-regulation to understanding exercise effort, planning and adherence. Psychology & Health 25(10), 1147-1160.

White, S. M., Mailey, E. L., & McAuley, E. (2010) Leading a physically active lifestyle: Effective individual behavior change strategies. ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal, 14(1), 8-15.