• Ana Bailoni

CrossFit Explored: the good, the bad, and what it means to you

Updated: Mar 23, 2018

You know about CrossFit. You meet people who sing its praises and confidently say they have never been fitter, stronger, or leaner. You’ve also met the protesters – indignant about its over-the-top workouts and absurd injury rates, mocking its cult-like following.

Like all sports and activities, CrossFit has some good, some bad, and some downright ugly. The question is, is it right for you?

Always looking for a new challenge, I sought to answer that question for myself. Three years and 5 different boxes later (that's what they call CrossFit gyms), I’m pretty confident that what I have to say is both professional and informed.

What is it?

It’s a training style that incorporates strength training, Olympic weight lifting, gymnastics, running, rowing, cycling, kettlebell training, and more into high-intensity, time-measured workouts.

CrossFit officially started as a company in 2000. Since then it has become officially recognized as a sport and grown into hundreds of thousands of affiliates, games, and competitions world-wide.

Why it became so popular

Like most things in fitness and nutrition, it became popular because it drove results, and it did so quickly! People were getting fitter, leaner, stronger.

People who had never lifted a barbell before were suddenly boasting about their "Clean & Jerk PRs." And they were doing it with their new friends.

The community that spontaneously arises from doing the kinds of hardcore, high-intensity workouts together is undeniably powerful, and it gave CrossFit the momentum for explosive growth.

In short, CrossFit made people fit - and they were having fun doing it!

What it seems to have gotten right.

CrossFit did a lot of great things for individuals and for the fitness industry as a whole.

One of the main feats of CrossFit is that it got an unfit population moving and loving it.

Community: There is something special about doing hard things with other people. CrossFit brings people together under a common goal – to suffer through a really tough work out and come out alive. It makes hard exercise fun.

The insider lingo with it's acronyms and weird sounding names - AMRAP, EMOMs, jerks, and snatches - make you feel like you're part of this super cool and hardcore secret society.

Strength Training: This is one of my favorites - it brought strength training to the every-day Joe and Jane, and got people interested in barbell training.

The fact is that strength training – lifting and moving progressively heavy weight through space – changes your muscle fibers and the actual structures of your cells. It makes you younger biologically and aesthetically, and it increases your metabolism for a healthier functioning system. No other type of physical activity can ever do that at the same efficiency as strength training.

It brought that style of training to the masses. To people who would never go to the gym and start fiddling with free weights on their own accord. Thank you, CrossFit!

High-intesity: You can take long walks and get healthier, but you’ll never get lean and strong that way. Only high-intensity activity does that, and CrossFit is the master of high-intensity interval training.

CrossFit is the master of high-intensity interval training.

Their WODs (Work Out of the Day) is designed around a specific number of reps of specific loads in a specific amount of time.

  • In an AMRAP you do As Many Rounds As Possible of 2-4 movements in a window of 8, 10, 12, whatever minutes.

  • In an EMOM, Every Minute On the Minute, you perform a number of reps of the exercise within one minute, and whatever is left of the 60 seconds, you rest until the next minute.

  • In a WOD for time, you perform X number of rounds or reps as fast as you can.

Whatever the format, it’s using what we call a variable work to rest ratio – the heart rate spikes and recovers over and over again, making your heart stronger, your respiratory system more capable, and your metabolism more efficient.

Variability: by incorporating elements from different sports and activities, there’s always something new to learn, and no workout looks like another. If you’ve mastered pull ups, there are double-unders to conquer. If you’ve PRed your cleans (a Personal Record - the most you've ever done), you still have to get stronger on your snatches. The challenges are never over, and you’re never bored.

The challenges are never over, and you're never bored.

Gamification: there are dozens of competitions and games throughout the year that everyone, from the novice to the competitive athlete, can test their athleticism on. This gives people a reason to continually work out when “because it’s good for me” isn’t motivation enough.

Not to mention the internal competition that pushes you forward daily in every WOD, and even the friendly external competition - if she can do it, I can too!

Functionality: Every workout works your body as a whole. Unlike classic body building style of strength training where muscle groups are pushed to exhaustion in isolation, a functional training scheme like CrossFit's works multiple muscle groups synergistically - the way your body was designed to move and function.

It got people fit: undoubtedly, CrossFit delivers results. Participants build muscle, burn fat, get faster, stronger, leaner - no doubt about it.

Ok. Now that we've looked at the benefits, let's explore some of its flaws.

The Bad (and sometimes downright ugly)

The biggest criticism against CrossFit is it's injury rate. This one study reported a 74% injury rate, with 97 out of 132 CrossFit participants reporting having sustained an injury during CrossFit training.

Every sports and activity has a risk for injury. You can’t push your physical and mental self to its limits without some aches and pains. But CrossFit is the king of repetitive and acute injuries, and these are some of the factors that drive that.

CrossFit is the king of repetitive and acute injuries.

Volume: The workouts ask you to string together dozens of repetitions of very complex movements that require a lot of technique and attention to form. The Olympic lifts, for example – cleans, jerks, and snatches – can take years to master and require a tremendous amount of coordination, strength, and mobility that the novice trainer may not be prepared to undertake.

This week’s workout for the CrossFit Open Games (18.4) is a perfect example of potentinally dangerous volume. It asks participants to perform a total of 90 heavy deadlifts and 90 handstand movements in under 9 minutes. Yikes!

Deadlifts are an excellent movement when done appropriately, but if not done haphazardly, under pressure for time and fatigue, it can cause serious injury to the lower back.

Heavy and complex movements under time pressure: To ensure the intensity, the WODs are under a time constraint, which creates the problem of speeding through these complex movements with little regards to form and technique.

The whole class isn't at high intensity speed however. Instruction and teaching are usually done in the first half of the class, when one or two major compound movements are slowed down and dissected. A coach will often work on specific drills to improve a lift, or ask participants to work with 1-3 repetitions at a time, gradually adding weight to allow for practice and continual assessment.

During the high-intensity WODs, however, there is little opportunity for coaching and detailed correction with the music is blaring and everyone focused on just "getting it done." This is often where the injuries happen from fatigue, unpreparedness, volume, and overload.

High-intensity… ALL the time: In CrossFit, you go hard every. Single. Workout. And because every workout hits all major muscle groups, it's not uncommon to work through sore and fatigued muscles from the previous workout. That type of training schedule doesn’t allow for the recovery the body needs to get stronger and healthier. Athletes can easily go into overtraining, creating potential for injury.

No set progression for beginners: This depends a lot on the box you go to, but generally speaking, many CrossFit boxes lack the appropriate structure to provide the attention and progression beginners need to move well and lift safely.

People who are new to weight training and with little experience with fitness in general require time to adapt both physically and mentally. Oftentimes, the large muscles can handle the work, but smaller structures like tendons and ligaments need more time and progression to get stronger.

And there is a logical progression of more basic movements to complex and explosive variations of that same movement. For example, most people need to fully understand the squat and deadlift movements before adding the explosiveness required for a clean or a snatch. Otherwise, you're skipping steps and adding potential for injury.

Again, this is in general terms. Some boxes have done a great job at integrating beginner programs into their training.

It also depends on box sizes. You’re more likely to get lost in the crowd and not receive the proper coaching and progression sequence in a larger box than you would a smaller box with fewer participants where the coach can give you the attention you need.

Loosely regulated professionals: sadly, this is true of the industry. Physical trainers and coaches in general aren’t tightly regulated, which makes it easy for clients to get stuck with an inexperienced coach.

It’s even more disconcerting in CrossFit, however, considering the complexity of the movements and intensity of the workouts. Pretty much anyone can become a Level 1 CrossFit coach – there is no formal education or experience required. The only requirements are the $1,000 course fee, attendance at a weekend workshop, and satisfactorily passing the test at the end of the 2 days. Those who attend and pass the test are now certified to coach CrossFit at any box, with or without coaching experience.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen more than my fair share of unqualified instructors leading classes of upwards of 20 people of different abilities simply because they’re great athletes and passed a test.

Putting it all together

Whether CrossFit is good or bad for you will depend on many factors: your lifting experience, the context, the coach, the box, etc.

Whether CrossFit is good or bad for you will depend on many factors.

I personally love CrossFit – but only about for 5-8 months at a time. My body clearly tells me when too much is too much, and I’ve learned to oblige, back off, and do a different type of training for a while.

I’ve had great CrossFit coaches that have helped me reach new levels of fitness, break through personal fears, and work outside a comfort zone I’d been in for a long time. I learned new skills and made great friends.

Most importantly, as a coach, I learned a lot from what CrossFit has gotten right, and have applied some of those principles to our methodology here at Rio.

All extreme views on any topic will have some truth to it, so take the time to consider the pros and the cons, and before you come up with a conclusion, try things out for yourself!

How does Rio Fitness compare to CrossFit?

Rio is not a CrossFit affiliate. Our methodology brings together effective principles from many different areas, including classic body building, Olympic weight lifting, and high-intensity interval training to create a well-rounded 60 minute work out that are guaranteed to improve all levels of fitness.

We’re similar to CrossFit in a few ways.

  1. We use the same equipment – at first glance Rio looks a lot like a box.

  2. We work on many of the same movements you’d see in CrossFit – the strength training lifts, Olympic lifts, gymnastics, rowing, running, cycling, etc.

  3. Every workout has a high-intensity conditioning "finisher" that is reminiscent of a WOD, in addition to heavy compound movements and accessory work.

But we're different where it counts:

· Class sizes: there will never be more than 8 participants per class to ensure quality of coaching and individual attention to specific needs

· Our Conditioning pieces don’t include complex barbell movements or any heavily-loaded movements in high volume. Our version of the WOD incorporates cardio-strength exercises like rowing, bike sprints, running sprints, jump rope and plyometrics with body weight exercises like push ups and burpees.

· We teach progression of complex barbell movements: For example, a new member first has to get comfortable with the strict press, to learn the push press, then the push jerk, to only then learn the split jerk. Similarly, a new member has to first demonstrate good movement patterns of body weight squats to then progress to the goblet squat and finally the barbell back squat. This allows the smaller, stabilizing tissue to catch up to the big prime mover muscles. Depending on the trainee, this progression may take just a few weeks to a few months.

Consider Rio Fitness your private trainer in a small group setting. You get the best of all worlds: the individual attention of qualified professionals, the fun and motivation of a group, and the affordable cost of a membership!

But talk is cheap. Come see for yourself. Try us out for FREE for a whole week and see for yourself!

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