The fitness industry has seen huge changes in the last decade, with boutique fitness gyms, spinning studios, yoga + Pilates studios and CrossFit boxes (to name just a few) popping up everywhere.
CrossFit burst onto the scene about ten years ago and from day one has been one of the most polarizing exercise modalities. CrossFit has a huge and very loyal following, but it also receives a lot of criticism.
Is this criticism warranted?
With this article we hope to provide a balanced and unbiased account of CrossFit. I will assess the pros and cons and delve into who can benefit most from this style of training.
CrossFit, to the unexperienced, can seem like a cult movement. There are daily workouts, the gym is referred to as a box, members adopt their own language and form part of this new community.
What Exactly Is CrossFit?
CrossFit is a high-intensity exercise program that combines elements of Olympic Weightlifting, Gymnastics and metabolic conditioning. Typically exercises from these modalities will be combined into what is known as a “Workout of the Day” (or WOD for the initiated).
For a concise definition of CrossFit, it is best to go to the source. According to the CrossFit website:
CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more.
CrossFit have not reinvented the wheel, however there are a couple of things worth observing from this definition. One is the term functional.
What Does “Functional” Actually Mean?
Functional training has become a real buzzword in past years, but what do we actually mean by functional?
Functional training is typically defined as a style of training with a focus on movement patterns that have a purpose. This purpose can be related to simple everyday activities – walking, sitting, squatting to pick up something heavy, carrying a baby, or alternatively preparing to participate in a sport such as football or tennis. Functional training develops strength, flexibility and agility with a specific goal in mind. For most, the practical application of functional training is to make everyday activities easier to complete.
Functional workouts are usually composed of compound exercises, such as squats, lunges, push-ups deadlifts. A compound exercises requires more than one group of muscles to work together. These compound movements translate into everyday movement patterns – pulling, pushing, squatting, hinging, rotating- in a more effective way than exercises that isolate one muscle group such as a bicep curl.
CrossFit includes a lot of functional movements but is not solely defined as functional training. Functional fitness as a concept grew out of the CrossFit movement.
What Are The Benefits Of CrossFit?
CrossFit is a high-intensity conditioning program, the workouts are intense, and their website doesn’t try and sugarcoat this!
It must be understood that [CrossFit] workouts are extremely demanding and will tax the capacities of even the world’s best athletes.
CrossFit keeps you entertained, the exercises vary enormously (fantastic if you like to change things up or get bored easily). A CrossFit workout is typically a combination of: HIIT (high-intensity interval training) weight training, and body weight exercises in a strong workout that can last anywhere from 10 minutes to 45.
The physical benefits of CrossFit are clear for all to see:
Improved overall physical performance
- You will get stronger – one of the foundations of CrossFit is strength training. The program is designed to help people get toned and strong. CrossFit workouts include both free weights and weightlifting techniques. There is often a fear of bulking up but weightlifting in moderation can be extremely beneficial for everyone. Its benefits include improved posture, better sleep, weight loss, boosting metabolism, lowering inflammation and even staving off chronic disease.
- You will get fitter – CrossFit is not all about lifting weights. A lot of workouts include HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). HIIT training involves working hard (at high intensity) for short periods of time interspersed with rest. This challenges your cardiovascular fitness and leads to big improvements in overall fitness levels. CrossFit prides itself on mixing the cardio benefits of interval training with strength work for maximum results.
- You will get more flexible – A typical CrossFit class will have a dedicated warm up and cool down with an emphasis on mobility and flexibility drills required for the workout. Some boxes even offer dedicated mobility classes. Additionally, a number of CrossFit movements are focused on gymnastic movements which overtime will inevitably improve your body’s flexibility.
- Workouts are fun and you can measure progress – CrossFit has a different WOD (Workout of the Day) every day, meaning that you will never get bored. This is not the kind of programming where you go and do a very similar workout every time. There are also a number of so-called benchmark workouts in CrossFit that allow you to test your progress overtime.
- It’s time efficient – Classes are all designed to be fully completed (warm up and cool down) within one hour.
Benefits of CrossFit That Go Beyond Exercise
- You become part of a community – In a CrossFit box, workouts are often completed with a partner, or as part of a team. Even if the WOD is an individual workout, everyone is working through the same motions, towards the same goal. CrossFit fosters a community of encouragement. Working out with a group of people (whether an individual workout or a team workout) helps with accountability.
- Boosted Motivation – The environment created by training with a team continually pushes you to be a better version of yourself. Additionally, the concept of working out as a part of a community often spills out of the gym – possibly to go and eat some food together after training!
- You will overcome mental barriers – Again, going back to the team environment, encourages us to push ourselves to not give up. This feeling is particularly strong in a team workout where we don’t want to let our team mates down.
- CrossFit promotes a healthy diet – Diet and nutrition are an integral part of CrossFit. They offer simple but effective nutritional advice: “Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”
Criticisms of CrossFit
While CrossFit boasts a number of benefits, a quick internet search will also find plenty of criticism. We cannot have a clear view on things without looking at both sides.
- Price – This is a major criticism of the CrossFit industry. CrossFit memberships tend to be significantly more expensive than regular gyms.
- Quality of coaches – The CrossFit coaching courses are very short and do not require any previous experience. This means that some trainers will be a lot better than others and there is no real industry standard. This is of course a risk that you take with any physical activity.
- Challenging Techniques – Correct exercise form is hard to master. CrossFit’s predominant movements come from gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting; two sports that take years to perfect. Workouts are usually timed which makes it even more important to perform movements correctly. This naturally increases the risk of injury.
- Cult-ish Atmosphere – What some perceive as community others may perceive as cultish. CrossFitters for the most part are incredibly dedicated, and for some this solidarity may feel a little clique-ish as opposed to warm.
- Frequent Injury – This is the biggest criticism that CrossFit faces, and it is not unsubstantiated. CrossFit injury rates are considerably higher than most other fitness programs. These injuries range from low-back pain to more severe issues such as Rhabdomyolysis.
Weightlifting is a fantastic way to build up strength and muscle. Regrettably CrossFit markets these lifts to absolute beginners. People new to sport or new to weightlifting for the most part, have not built up a sufficient strength base or familiarity with these movements, which often leads to injuries related to poor form.
Another cause of injury often stems from competition. When it comes to competition, there is a fine line between it being a great motivation tool and a space for inflated egos. Once it crosses this line and people push themselves too far, over train, miscalculate weights, injuries become rife.
Similarly, the timed nature of CrossFit workouts can lead to injury. CrossFit workouts often involve heavy lifting and complex movements in a timed environment. There is a constant desire to go heavier and faster and technique often suffers here leading to poor form and eventually injury.
Defining CrossFit Workouts
What does a workout entail? Who can do it?
In theory anyone and everyone can do CrossFit. Whether you are a serious sofa surfer or an absolute fitness fanatic the workouts can be scaled for you. In other words, CrossFit workouts are designed with enough flexibility to give participants at varying fitness levels the opportunity to modify a similar training regime or workout of the day.
CrossFit can conjure up an image of an extremely strong guy lifting crazy amounts of weights, but pretty much every movement that is part of CrossFit programming can be scaled accordingly. For example, if you haven’t yet conquered a push-up, you can modify the exercise by shifting to your knees.
Some CrossFit boxes now include children’s classes, teen classes and even a senior class for those who do not feel at ease working out in a mixed group.
What does a CrossFit Class Look Like?
Most CrossFit gyms will divide their classes into three or four sections:
- Dynamic warm up – There may be a gentle jog to kickstart the hour, but a traditional CrossFit warm up includes a lot more than a 5-minute jog. Jumping jacks, skipping, squats, lunges could all be included. Functional movement and mobility drills will also be included, typically movements that complement the program of the day (i.e. if there are weighted squats in the workout, a bodyweight squat would be a good way to warm up for this).
- Skill/Strength work – Many boxes alternate between teaching a skill (such as handstand walks, or double unders), and strength work where you work on a pure strength movement in a more controlled environment (e.g. deadlifts or back squats).
- WOD – the workout of the day. This can centre around weightlifting, gymnastics, metabolic conditioning or any combination of the above.
- Cool down and stretching – it is important after a high intensity workout to calm down both the body and the nervous system.
Getting Started with CrossFit
Perhaps you are feeling a little bored of your current workout routine, craving a new challenge, or you just want to see what all the fuss is actually about. You can search the CrossFit database of worldwide affiliates to find your nearest box, with over 13,000 worldwide you should be able to find something near you.
Once you have located your nearest box, contact them and find out when they offer introductory classes. Most boxes offer the first class for free that introduces you to the basics of CrossFit programming.
If you are totally new to CrossFit it is advised to take part in a program for beginners so that you can learn the basic fundamentals and start getting accustomed to the language (there are a lot of acronyms!).
This is how CrossFit classes are usually structured:
- Introduction class – As mentioned above many gyms will have an intro class for people who are completely new. These classes offer a quick overview followed by a basic bodyweight workout. These classes are usually free.
- On Ramp/Elements – Some gyms have regular beginner classes where all movements will be scaled, others offer a beginner’s course (often known as on ramp or elements) that runs anywhere from 6 classes to 6 weeks of programming. The goal of this course is to teach participants the foundational movements of CrossFit.
- Regular classes – Once you have completed a beginner’s course or feel comfortable to move on from the beginner’s classes you can join in the regular classes.
One basic rule for beginners: Build into CrossFit gradually.
If you are new to CrossFit (or any sport/exercise program) be sure to go at your own pace, don’t life more weight than you are comfortable with. Easing into the program and familiarizing your body with new movement patterns will decrease your risk of injuries.
It goes without saying that CrossFit is a high-impact form of fitness and you must check with your doctor before, particularly if you are new to exercise or live with a health condition.
A Basic CrossFit Glossary to Get You Started
Let’s have a look at a few of the most popular acronyms used in CrossFit. (These are the ones that give people the perception that CrossFitters speak another language!)
- WOD: Workout of the Day.
- AMRAP: A time-oriented workout. “As Many Reps/Rounds as Possible,” meaning that athletes should complete as many rounds and/or repetitions of a sequence of movements in the allocated time.
- Metcon: Short for Metabolic Conditioning or simply cardiovascular exercise.
- For Time: A task orientated workout. The goal is to complete the prescribed workout as quickly as possible while maintaining correct form.
- RX: As Prescribed. Every workout will have suggested weights for you to use during the workout, this is known as the RX weight. Workouts can then be scaled accordingly.
- EMOM: Every Minute on the Minute. This is a style of interval training, where you perform a set exercise the start of every minute.
Strategies to Optimize CrossFit
CrossFit is a great training tool, but in order to garner the most benefits from it you also need to focus on what you do outside of the gym. Doing CrossFit three or four times a week but ignoring other pillars of a healthy lifestyle will only get you so far on your journey. Follow these four approaches below to complement your workouts and to allow you to enjoy long-term results.
1. Find a nutrition plan that is best suited to you
Diet plays a key role for both performance and recovery. There is no way of out-exercising bad nutrition. This might be the Zone Diet, the Paleo Diet or something completely different, what is important is that it works for you and is a diet plan that you can follow.
TAKE REST DAYS!! This does not just apply to beginners. Everyone needs to take a day off to let their bodies (and minds) take a little breather, allowing for recovery. This is crucial both for success and injury prevention.
A lack of sleep can translate into decreased performance and recovery for athletes and can lead to a higher risk of injury.
4. Add some active recovery into your routine
Balancing high-intensity training like CrossFit with lower intensity activities such as gentle hikes, swimming or restorative yoga will help to prevent injury and burnout.