The Good and the Bad of Crossfit

Some topics are definitely polarizing. For example, bring up religion or politics and things can get pretty heated. Some people get uncomfortable and opt out of the discussion for fear of hurting feelings or to avoid a debate.

When it comes to health and fitness there are a few topics which people have strong feelings about as well. The last few weeks has shown us that yoga is a religion for a number of people. And there is another type of fitness which evokes strong emotions as well.

And that is Crossfit.

If you are not familiar with Crossfit here is an interesting overview going back to 2001. One of my favourite parts is the founder of Crossfit claiming that periodization in training is witchcraft.

To put it simply periodization is when a training program cycles through various aspects to be improved upon usually to allow for a peak at a particular period. For example, athletes will follow a periodized training program to allow for peak performance on the day of competition. (obviously I’m not above a little self promotion 🙂

Now what is it about Crossfit that makes it controversial? Well, besides the fact the founder dismisses widely accepted and research proven methods there are a number of unusual rituals and practices.

Below are what I’ll describe as The Good and the Bad of Crossfit. As in life, let’s start with the bad news.

Poor Choice of Mascots

Who doesn’t love a mascot? Many of the best brands in the world are known for the cartoony characters that represent them. Think of Disney without Mickey Mouse. Or McDonald’s without Ronald. Or the Geiko without the gecko.

Well Crossfit (CF) has some mascots as well. What mascots are these you may be wondering?

How about cartoon mascots such as Pukey the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo? It used to be that throwing up during up during a workout or suffering severe post workout discomfort warranted the awarding of a t-shirt with these mascots on them by your local CF gym.

Pukey the Clown.

Pukey the Clown.

rhabdoclown_baeef534Just to be clear rhabdo is short for rhabomyolysis which describes the breakdown of muscle tissue and its release into the bloodstream. And when you don’t follow a periodized training program your option may become doing whatever strikes your fancy on a given day. Maybe you’ll do a Fran which consists of 3 rounds of 21-15-9 reps of barbell thrusters (with 95 lbs) and pull ups. You would do these movements and reps in the least amount of time possible.

In other words, workouts that might allow a newbie to ‘earn’ a t-shirt with one of these clown mascots on them.

But some people will suggest ‘Crossfit has changed. They don’t think that way anymore and follow smarter training principles now.’

That may be. There are situations were CF gyms are starting to include mobility work prior to doing the Workout of the Day (WOD). Not sure you can have a long term plan i.e. periodization but still do whatever workout appeals on a given day i.e. (WOD) but that’s another issue. CF refers to this as planned randomization which to me is as good an example of a paradox in fitness as there is.

Not for Athlete Training

Another source of confusion among lay people is the belief that CF is ideal for training athletes. They will suggest that the intensity, types of movements and power development are all attributes needed by high level athletes. And in some cases they may be right. They may be right if we assumed the coaching was competent, that there was consideration given to the time and length of the competition season, in other periodization matters, and that these abilities are all a means to an ends. In other words we strive to make an athlete stronger, quicker and fitter so they will become better athletes.

And many strength and conditioning professionals understand that you aren’t trying to develop bodybuilders, powerlifters, Olympic lifters or runners. What you are trying to do is use the tools of these disciplines to achieve better performance in whatever sport the athlete plays.

The difference with CF is that the goal is not to become a better hockey, soccer, tennis, basketball (insert whichever sport you like) player. The goal is to do the WOD faster or for more reps.

Putting this another way, a CF athlete will probably never win a powerlifting, Olympic lifting or track competition. They may do very well but would not win. Design a competition where you have to do a number of these elements together and they would probably win. That is their sport. And as you ascend to higher levels of sport you need to specialize rather than generalize. It’s a good idea to play multiple sports as a youngster. However at a certain point in your career you need to make the decision to specialize. If you are playing junior hockey you don’t play another sport at the same time in the hope this leads to the NHL. CF is the other sport.

So athletes that believe CF leads to optimal sports performance are being mislead. They become above average in a number of discplines but never great in any one. Further the energy system demands of their sport are neglected and fitness is developed arbitrarily by doing more reps or the same amount of reps in less time.

Lastly, from a nutritional perspective the Paleo approach might be good idea for weekend warrior types or those athletes that could stand to drop a few pounds. However for athletes that have high energy outputs and or may be ‘hard-gainers’ there may be some benefit to including more calories in the form of complex carbohydrates and for the right athlete dairy products.

Making the Individual Fit the Program

A constant of any quality fitness training business should be that the program should suit the individual, not the other way around. There should be an individualized assessment and a program to address previous injuries and movement dysfunctions. Failure to do so increases the potential for injury and doesn’t allow for maximal results.

Once the individual has been assessed it is important to use the right tools for the job. Olympic lifts and box jumps are great tools, for the right person. But to apply these tools to everyone assumes everyone has the same abilities and goals. How can one program service everyone? The answer is that it can’t. And unfortunately when there is no other option for someone who is not technically proficient in Olympic lifting the issue of injury arises as soon as the goal becomes do as many as you can or go as fast as you can.

As a colleague likes to say ‘if your only tool is a hammer, pretty soon everything starts looking like a nail’.

Risk of Injury

I’ll admit that there is a risk of injury with every type of training. However the difference has to do with how often the injuries occur and how they are happening. Are we seeing one injury for every 1000 training sessions (0.1%)? And are the injuries due to the practice i.e. technique, warm-up, coaching or something else i.e. equipment failure, goofing around.

A soon to be published study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found some positive benefits of doing CF WODs. And I refer to these benefits in the next post. However the biggest observation of this study was that 9 participants could not complete the study due to injury! Only 43 finished the 10 week program. Another 2 dropped out due to time commitments. What does it say about a program where 20% cannot complete and mostly due to injuries? And we’re not talking newbies here folks. These were people already familiar and well versed in the CF workout culture.

Imagine a hockey team of 20 losing 20%, or 4 players, due to injury as a result of training. Forget about the fact they are training as dual sport athletes by training in this way, and thus only average at both sports, but their chance of injury is way too high.

Anytime as a coach an exercise or drill is prescribed it must be with consideration to the risk to reward ratio. A 20% injury rate would mean the exercise would be scrapped. But this isn’t just an exercise but an entire style of training that produces this damage.

Here’s an interesting article written by a CF coach who said ‘Now, I think CrossFit’s ability to hurt is also its most commendable quality’. Wow! Don’t think anything else needs to be said here.

Lowest Common Denominator

I don’t think only good people do one type of training and only bad people do some other type. It’s not as simple as that. And I get the fact that as CF grows it’s going to be under the microscope more than other types of training. As Reggie Jackson was famous for saying ‘fans don’t boo nobodies’.

So yes, CF is trendy and popular. And people tend to notice these things more.

The problem I have is the whiny attitude of many CF people that complain about instances of injuries, poor behaviour, outlandish comments and anything they perceive as an attack on CF. Put it this way, if I were to join an association that was associated with the lowest common denominator than I would severe my affiliation on the spot. If this association were to certify individuals with substandard skills that put out ridiculous training videos I would distance myself as much as possible.

My question is this…why don’t the quality CF coaches severe ties with CF and continue to do the great job they are capable of doing? Their standards are obviously higher than what many practice yet they continue to stay on with something that doesn’t push for the highest standards possible?

Stay tuned for Part II where I’ll address the Good of Crossfit. It’s not as short of an article as you might think.










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6 Responses to The Good and the Bad of Crossfit

  1. Dov says:

    When I did CF it always seemed like it was traumatic to my energy systems, not beneficial. I wasn’t waking up the next day saying “wow that was a great workout” I was just sore in a few concentrated areas and felt like I survived some sort of extreme sport event. Perhaps people grow attached to their accomplishments since it is such a self-competitive sport that it feels like you are in a club when you finish a WoD.
    Psychology has shown that higher entrance costs and rituals make people feel better about themselves after they pay or complete those “exclusive” rituals. The harder it is to be part of something, the more we like it after we invest that energy into it. I feel that people who have gone through crossfit will be protective of it because of how much (hazing) they have gone through.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Dov: Interesting comment about soreness and results. We don’t have to be sore after a workout to be making progress. And the point about rituals is good as well. Could be a reason as you say that CFers will be protective of their sport.

      All the best,


  2. Anny says:

    Hi Chris,

    Interesting topic! In support of a friend I tried the Cross Fit type of workout – mainly because I was wanting to be there for her. My experience was not a pleasant one at all. Very little instruction and what we did get was pretty much “barked” at us. What I really noticed though is the next day. At OPP this past month and bit we have doing some really tough group classes which I absolutely love! I am sometimes sore the next day but that is because I have been encouraged to give my all, do my best and make the most of what we are doing all in a very positive, safe and very fun atmosphere. The next day after the CF class – my knees, ankles, hips, even my elbows were sore – my lower back was so tense that I had difficulty keeping good posture in my work chair. It took a few doses of Tylenol to get thru the next two days. Those of us who know the OPP standards are very hard to please!!! Looking forward to Group next week to see what is in store!!!

    • Chris says:

      Hi Anny: Thanks for your comments.

      Whatever the workout, Crossfit, strength & conditioning, yoga or zumba, there shouldn’t be joint pain as you describe. High levels of discomfort. Sure. DOMS? Maybe. But pain at the joints is an indication of either poor programming, poor coaching or both.


  3. Charlie says:

    Hi Chris,
    Interesting read. I am not going to get in to my personal feelings on CF but I wanted to add something that you touched on that has always frustrated me about the crossfit conversation.

    You stated, “My question is this…why don’t the quality CF coaches severe ties with CF and continue to do the great job they are capable of doing? Their standards are obviously higher than what many practice yet they continue to stay on with something that doesn’t push for the highest standards possible?”

    I agree with this so much. I think we have all seen many of the “this is why crossfit sucks” videos but you know what always bugged me is that never once did I ever see a comment from all the really successful CF gyms or big CF coaches out there in the facebook/youtube world. It’s always the regular joes/janes who come on and act as apologists. Hell, I have even commented saying that while the video shows crap lifting and crap coaching, not all are bad, and I don’t even like CF in general.

    I would like to see the big coaches/athletes/gyms stand up and say “yes there are some bad apples out there but there are a lot of us trying to do it right” rather than let all the “nobodies” out there fight there battles against nay sayers for them.

    • Chris says:

      Hi Charlie: Thanks for weighing in.

      Even if we do get the better CF gyms to stand up and say, and more importantly show, that they are doing a better job they are still associating with the lowest common denominator.

      Personally I don’t want to be grouped with ‘professionals’ that can become certified over a weekend. I don’t want to be a part of system that tries to get the individual to fit the program rather than the other way around. And I don’t want to known as providing the type of service where 20% of people may get injured by using this approach.


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