A Critical Review of CrossFit

CrossFit boasts a high intensity random circuit-like training program that “forges elite fitness”.  The hype and bravado of the crossfit cult is not just obnoxious but also defies all sensibility in the approach to training.  No doubt the intensity of CrossFit is high enough to improve cardiovascular, muscular fitness and body composition in most individuals.  The lifts CrossFit employs are structural, to train large muscle groups, coordinate movement patterns and stimulate an acute anabolic hormonal response (i.e: squats, pullups, pushups, burpees, cleans, snatches etc)… these are much more efficient exercises for total body conditioning provided they are PERFORMED CORRECTLY than the variable resistance machine based and isolation body building routines.

The only place I can see the efficacy of a  crossfit style workout would be in the training of advanced tactical athletes during a heavy volume phase of their training cycle.  Tactical athletes encompass military, firefighters, police, and SWAT.   The demands of these individuals are wide and encompass all facets of human exertion and must be performed in all environmental conditions.  And for the tactical athlete any day could be “game day”, which poses a challenge to planning a training year.  The high intensity and randomness of CrossFit may have its place PERIODICALLY in the training of tactical athlete.  However, this is where my agreement with CrossFit methodology ends.

I do not believe the randomness of CrossFit is a safe or effective fitness program for the general population.   The intensity of CrossFit, the exercise selections and exercise order do not stand up to the well-established strength and conditioning training modalities because it blatantly defies the well established principles of exercise physiology: the principle of individual differences, progressive overload, and specificity of training.  In addition, CrossFit ignores the correct usage of the technical Olympic lifts (clean/jerk and snatch). Finally, CrossFit ignores human physiologic response to acute exercise and recovery.

Individual Differences:

CrossFit does not consider individual needs or differences.  A “workout of the day” (WoD) is posted on the web daily and this is the workout prescribed for every participant of CrossFit programs.  Moreover CrossFit “coaches”  do not conduct a specific needs analysis of their participants.  Just because one person responded well to one type of exercise doesn’t mean the next person will.  It doesn’t take a PhD to scratch your head at this one-size-fits-all approach and question the efficacy of CrossFit’s tenets.  And as I understand it, most CrossFit “coaches” do not follow any of the principles in exercise training as outlined by the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength & Conditioning Association, USA Weightlifting, any Human Physiology or Exercise Physiology text, and any peer-reviewed research paper published EVER.  As I see it this carelessness would be analagous to rejecting all the life-saving discoveries of modern medicine.

Lack of Specificity and Progressive Overload:

The WoDs are a hodgepodge of difficult exercises that require very high levels of skill mixed in with HIT aerobic intervals with no focus on specificity of the fitness attribute.  Although high intensity is one of the most important aspects of fitness training, it must be done with gradual systematic progressive overload based on the individual’s needs.  CrossFit insists you do multiple rounds of a these exercises at maximal effort to exhaustion in order to benefit from them.  This is completely counterproductive and harmful because it WILL end in either an acute or chronic injury at some point.

In order to optimize a fitness attribute (strength, endurance, agility…etc) the training program must use the SAID principle which is Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.  The body will adapt and respond to a stress that is specific to the desired outcome.  For example, if you really want stronger legs, then you must do a variety of core structural exercises that focus on the lower kinetic chain and perform these exercises with heavy loads, multiple sets, less than 6 repetitions and sufficient recovery between sets.  In order to improve in strength over time you must gradually overload the body, not shock it.

Lack of appreciation for the Olympic Lifts (Clean/Jerk and Snatch):

During a CrossFit WoD the Olympic lifts are performed in a pre-fatigued state and at the equal loads among all participants.  This is completely the opposite to the purpose of the explosive power lifts (what is the efficacy of 25 snatches????).  When you are already fatigued you no longer training the ATP-CP system or explosive power.  Those who have true competitive experience learning, performing, and teaching the Olympic lifts understand how technical they are. And to be competent in performing let alone instructing these lifts requires years of practice in technique.  Therefore to expect the general non-athlete population who have little or no background in any weight lifting program to perform the Olympic lifts in a pre-fatigued state is deplorable!  The use of the Olympic lifts in this reckless manner is blatantly against the recommendations of USAW and NSCA.

Lack of concern for safety:

There have been multiple reports of crossfitters developing a condition of rhabdomyalysis.  This is a life threatening condition which occurs when deconditioned individuals overexert themselves to the point where muscle fibers tear and spill contractile protein content into the blood, which leads to kidney failure.  To say, “I developed ‘rhabdo'” as if it where a badge of honor is truly twisted!  Before CrossFit came onto the scene, rhabdo generally occurred in overweight deconditioned males who were overexerting themselves in a hot and humid environment such as Army boot camps (REAL tactical boot camps) and during pre-season football practices.

The risks of participating in CrossFit surely outweigh the benefits of it.  I conclude there are many more appropriate and efficient fitness programs people can take part in to achieve fitness and improve health.

I am not alone in my opinion on CrossFit, for more thoughts please read Michael Boyle: http://strengthcoachblog.com/2012/11/12/why-crossfit-may-not-be-good-for-you/

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4 Responses to A Critical Review of CrossFit

  1. Ashwin says:

    I’m a cross fit injury statistic.

    I loved it at first. The camaraderie and ‘shared misery’ was infectious. The difficulty of the workouts create an incredible sense of accomplishment for an hour’s investment. It was great, to just walk in and not have to think. Just follow the workout and you’d be guaranteed to work hard. We were supposed to have self awareness and work within our limits. I’ve worked out for years, and know my body well, yet any self control went completely out the door with everyone working hard, the sweat running, breathing hard, and muscles burning.

    I would come home destroyed, and happy to get such a bang for the amount of time. I looked good, yet felt fairly drained all the time. The interesting thing was that if I missed more than 2 days my body felt terrible. I also never seemed to realize significant benefit to my mountain biking fitness or skills.

    There was no sense of coordination workout to workout. In looking back trying to track the steps that lead to my injury, it became clear that the high reps and emphasis on overhead movements, pushups, and kipping pullups killed my shoulders .I ended up with Distal Clavicle Osteolysis, aka weight lifter’s shoulder or AC osteolysis. This is where the end of the clavicle degenerates and does not remineralize.

    Over the course of three days, the number of overhead movements I did and motions that place stress on the AC was a recipe for disaster. I did wall balls, power snatch, overhead squats, kipping pullups, pushups, ring dips, push press. burpees and god knows what else. My AC was shot.

    It’s been more than a year, and my right shoulder has improved but now the left one is acting up. I know I’ve always had some impingement issues, but the sheer volume of overhead work did me in.

    • Thanks for you insight Ashwin. That truly sucks! Hopefully your story can be helpful to others who are considering trying Crossfit. I think the “suffering” we feel during mountain bike racing is just as infectious but A LOT healthier and MUCH MORE FUN!

  2. Megan says:

    Great post Molly! I see many patients coming into physical therapy with injuries incurred from crossfit- typically shoulders and low back. I also take the liberty to educate patients about the inherent dangers of crossfit, namely the lack of proper lifting technique and spotting, and as a precautionary measure if they are thinking about crossfit. In my opinion, crossfit can have a place in a highly-trained athlete’s regimine, but for the majority of untrained average fitness enthusiasts, the lack of base training, idividualization and appropriate exercise progression is akin to jumping into a pool filled with sharks. It’s not a matter of if an injury occurs, but rather when.

    I enjoy reading your blog- you provide some excellent insight! Cheers from CO and good Mtn biking to you!

    • Thanks for the response! I’m so glad to hear from medical professionals who are educating their patients on safe and unsafe exercise practices. -Molly …PS: I’m also happy to say I’ve permanently relocated back to BOULDER!!! 🙂

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