Is CrossFit any good?

Seems like everyone has an opinion of CrossFit these days, so here’s mine.  Let me preface by saying I’ve never actually been to a box to “do” CrossFit.  I’ve done some CrossFit workouts (e.g. Grace sub 2:30 and Fran sub 5:00 without kip) and have an extensive background in weightlifting and strongman which I feel is enough to have an informed opinion.  To cut to the chase, I give CrossFit one thumb up and would not recommend it without some modifications.

The Good:

  • Awesome exercises – Olympic lifts, front and back squats, deadlifts, pull ups, dips, rope climbs, carries, box jumps, jump rope, ball tosses, thrusters, hand stand pushups, hanging leg raises, etc. are all fantastic exercises with an athletic component to them which I love. You can build a great physique and a ton of strength and fitness with those exercises, and they require minimal equipment.
  • The workouts are challenging – Assuming that you push yourself as intended, the workouts are tough, brutal even. Effort is good and the main ingredient for producing results as well as building toughness that carries over into other aspects of your life.
  • Develops all components of fitness in a time efficient manner – I love that CrossFit builds strength, cardio endurance, coordination, balance, … the whole shebang of fitness, and the workouts are practically nonstop so there’s little wasting of time during the workouts.
  • Community aspect – strong bonds are formed among CrossFitters who suffer through the workouts together and encourage one another.

The Bad:

  • Dangerous – high skill, high risk exercises like Olympics lifts, squats, deadlifts, and box jumps should not be done while fatigued. Doing so is a recipe for disaster, and CrossFit is baking it up every day by incorporating them into circuits done as quickly as possible.  It’s very easy under those conditions to start rounding the lower back when squatting and herniate a disc or have a clean slide off your shoulders and damage your wrist.  The danger is high even for an athlete with a good strength base and good technique.  Now consider a 40 year-old out of shape business man or woman attempting squat cleans with poor form while fatigued from just finishing an 800 meter run – scary thought!
  • Corrupted form – I’m talking about the kipping/kicking/whatever you prefer to call it that CrossFitters do on pull ups, dips, hand stand pushups, etc. Let’s be clear that kipping is a skill or technique and is not “cheating” per se.  However, when you kip on those exercises, you are taking fantastic upper body exercises and turning them into mediocre full body exercises for the sake of getting more reps in less time which is counterproductive.  For an intermediate or advanced strength athlete, bodyweight exercises are light enough as it is, and modifying them to make them easier is going to build less strength, not more.  You should only be kipping if you’re unable to do strict reps, and even then it would be safer to use a band or machine for assistance.
  • Unnecessarily difficult – When pushed, CrossFit workouts can be extremely grueling, to the point where one wonders whether they are designed to be difficult for its own sake. If you’re training for an Olympic team or trying to reach a Herculean goal like squat 400×20, then yes you are probably going to lose your lunch or speak to Jesus on occasion during your workouts.  But for general fitness, workouts do not need to suck that bad.
  • Lack of periodization – Essentially all high level strength and endurance athletes use some form of planned periodization in their workouts. Periodization maximizes long term results by alternating periods of varied intensity and volume in a systematic way.  While some CrossFit coaches may use periodization, CrossFit’s official published WOD can’t accommodate each individual with respect to periodization and instead involves seemingly random selections of exercises and intensities.  It’s a decent plan for getting a large number of people into good shape but not a great plan for the individual.
  • Elitism – CrossFitters have a reputation for carrying around an attitude of superiority which is really unnecessary. What’s funny is that Rich Froning and many other high level CrossFitters come across as some of the nicest and most humble people you’ll ever meet, yet there are all these intermediate level CrossFitters who try to disparage those of us who go to commercial gyms.  So, to be clear, I’m definitely not saying that all CrossFitters are jerks, but there are some bad apples to avoid, and one bad apple can spoil the bunch.
  • Cost of Entry – For a sport that utilizes relatively basic and inexpensive equipment, the cost of attending a CrossFit box is pretty ridiculous, upwards of 10 times more expensive than a membership at a commercial gym. It can be argued that the cost is justified by the expertise of the coaches, but in many cases the cost/value of that transaction is questionable to say the least.  Coaching quality aside, many people simply don’t have the money for it.

So what’s the conclusion?  The best analogy I can think of is that CrossFit is like taking a 5 course gourmet meal and throwing it into a blender with some water and chugging it down.  You’re consuming great food in an efficient manner, but in doing so you’ve ruined the meal.

I don’t do CrossFit, and don’t recommend it to others due to the Cons I listed above, but I would recommend it with some minor modifications.  First, I’d take the high skill high risk exercises from CrossFit (power lifts, Olympic lifts, and jumps) and do them first in the workout with adequate rest between sets and exercises.  Doing so will be much safer and will allow you to master the lifts and get stronger and build muscle more quickly.  Second, I’d finish the workout using CrossFit style circuits incorporating lower risk movements like pull ups, pushups, dips, burpees, running, jump rope, or (gasp!) machines.  Third, ditch the kipping.

Lastly, I recommend avoiding the elitism and high cost of CrossFit by finding a local commercial gym that has the space and equipment to do cleans, snatches, muscle ups, etc., without the exorbitant CrossFit prices.  Find a few buddies to train with and ask an experienced lifter to get you started on the more technical lifts, and you’re on your way.  If you’re really serious, find an Olympic lifting coach or join a box with experienced coaches for a month to get some instruction, and then return to sanity.

So what’s the future of CrossFit?  Is it a fad or is it here to stay?

CrossFit in its current form will most almost certainly fade away.  In my opinion, CrossFit exploded in popularity largely because top CrossFit athletes look amazing and are obviously fit and can do really cool athletic stuff.  To most of us, they represent the ideal physical form much more so than freaky bodybuilders or overweight powerlifters.  However, it’s only a matter of time before CrossFit injuries start to catch up with the participants, the newness fades, and people begin to realize that there are better, easier, safer, and cheaper ways to achieve the same results.  Either CrossFit will evolve in that direction or it will die.

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