Saturday, February 1, 2014

This is My Crossfit Post

For as long as I have had exposure to Crossfit  I have had a love/hate relationship with it. Additionally, as a strength and conditioning coach, people frequently ask my opinions on Crossfit. This has become even more commonplace now that I work at a Crossfit affiliate. To be clear, I do not coach Crossfit. I teach a strength and conditioning class, as well as some bootcamp/conditioning classes, and do some private and team training. I write all of the programming using my own methods that I have found to be successful in my coaching career. With that said, I am constantly exposed to Crossfit and everything it entails so I feel like I am in a position to write about all of its pro’s and con’s (and there are a handful of both)

What is Crossfit and what are it’s goals?

We will start with the basics. Crossfit is a fitness and exercise format created by Greg Glassman [1]. The methods were developed [2] in the early 90’s with the first gym being opened in 1995. The popularity began to increase exponentially after the turn of the century, and particularly when they successfully tapped into a wider audience with a simple to use website. There are now over 7,000 Crossfit affiliates worldwide and the growth doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon.

An important note before we continue: Every affiliate is run slightly differently. This makes it hard to make broad generalizations. So what I am criticizing, or complimenting in many cases, may not apply to any one “box” in particular. These are my thoughts on overall Crossfit philosophy as preached on their main site and as executed in the majority of their affiliates. You may find yourself saying “Hey, I work out at a Crossfit and we don’t do any stuff like that” That’s cool. Crossfit is evolving and more educated coaches are becoming involved and recognizing certain flaws in the model and adjusting their business and their programming accordingly. Disclaimer over. Please continue.

A typical day in a CF box would usually have a workout that looks like this [3]

Mobility 5 minutes

Dynamic warmup 5 minutes
Skill work 5-10 minutes (muscle ups, pistol squats, etc)
Strength work 15 minutes (Back Squat, Press etc. This is usually one exercise per day)
Metabolic component 15-20 minutes
Cooldown and stretch with remaining time

The general Crossfit philosophy as stated on their own website it to provide “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains”. That translates roughly to: we do a lot of good stuff and we do it really fast. Some aspects of this philosophy are great and others not so great.

The good

-          Varied: most gym goers (myself included) have a tendency to perform a lot of exercise that fall under domains they are already good at. IE. Men with a big chest like to bench, flexible girls like to do yoga, skinny dudes that are good at running like to run. Crossfit makes that girl deadlift, and makes that bodybuilder do some circuit training and if you’re a cardio junkie then they will have a yoga/mobility class for you [4]
-          Functional: Crossfit has put barbells into more people’s hands than any other fitness movement ever. And lifting heavy barbells is awesome. Mark Rippetoe discusses that as well as some of the long term shortcoming that he has seen here.
-          Movements – Crossfit has encouraged people to exercise who likely never would have exercised before. Regardless of your feelings on the programming or the Zone diet you can’t deny that Crossfit has gotten people off of their asses and living a healthier lifestyle.

The gray area

-          Executed at high intensity: High intensity is great. There are dozens of studies showing the benefits of high intensity interval training on fat loss and general cardiovascular health. With that said, not everyone is ready for high intensity. Clients need to demonstrate strong movement patterns at moderate intensity before advancing to high intensity. Otherwise we end up with squats like this:

-           Additionally some exercises lend themselves well to being executed under a fatigued state (mb throws, monostructural activites like running and rowing, pushups, heavy carries) and some do not (Olympic lifts, plyometrics, high load compound movements, most overhead movements)
-          Across broad time and modal domains: developing multiple energy system qualities of an athlete is fantastic. Aerobic, lactic and alactic energy systems are all important and all receive attention in Crossfit programming. However when all are done simultaneously no system receives optimal gains. Energy systems training is something I am still trying to learn more about but I know enough to know that you can’t do it all at once.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned above but accounts for a huge part of why they are successful is the team/family atmosphere they have built. I have trained in a number of different health clubs and worked for high school and college sports teams. I have never been around a group of athletes more invested in each other’s training than the people that I see in Crossfit. Just last weekend two of the athletes at my gym competed in a local Olympic lifting meet and a handful of coaches went to attend. That doesn’t happen at LA fitness. Knowing that there are coaches and a handful of other athletes waiting for you, makes you accountable for your fitness. That alone makes Crossfit more likely to produce results than the routine being executed by most gym goers.

Does it work?

I have already addressed this briefly above but I want to dive in a little deeper. Whether or not it works is really dependent on what you are looking to gain. Crossfit is admittedly a general fitness program. It describes itself as “a deliberate attempt to optimize physical competence in each of 10 recognized fitness domains. These domains are cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy”

So if your goal is to seek general fitness improvements Crossfit can provide that. You will become a jack of all trades and master of none, which is great for most people. Not mentioned in their above goals is fat loss. Crossfit pushes performance first and aesthetics almost never. That is one of the things that I love about Crossfit and something I have been preaching for years. If you train like an athlete you will look like an athlete. If you try to train like a model you will probably look the same way you do now until you wise up and grab some heavy weights.
Crossfit is great for body composition
Crossfit works especially well for beginners. That doesn’t necessarily mean people who are out of shape. It could mean bodybuilders (who are beginners at using multiple muscles at the same time) or powerlifters (who are beginners at anything over 5 reps) or cross country runners (who are beginners at lifting anything heavier than their shoes). However, there comes a point at which a new athlete will reach competency at all of the aspects of fitness. Eventually a certain level of general fitness is achieved and random workouts are no longer sufficient to produce gains in any area of fitness (body composition goals included).

This is simple physiology. The adaptations required for greater aerobic endurance and those required for strength and power are different and training them at the same time is like telling your body to go two different directions at once. Only in a novice can training all of the systems together have a positive adaptation.

At a certain point random programming is no longer sufficient. Some boxes have figured this out and they program accordingly by having different tier classes and sound long term weightlifting/energy system planning. Some boxes have not figured it out at all but I really think that this is a problem that will be solved with time.

CF and Injury risk

In spite of all of the points I have made thus far ultimately your thoughts on this issue  probably come down to this section of the article. This is the elephant in the room and there is no way to avoid it. Crossfit style training is high risk when compared to other training modalities. This risk exists for a variety of reasons most of which can be managed and minimized

-          The group dynamic. Group exercise is a gift and a curse. It motivates and helps people accomplish things that otherwise may have seemed impossible. The trouble is that the more people that are involved in a class the harder it becomes for a coach to monitor all of the athletes. This is particularly concerning when the day’s workout calls for highly technical lifts, like the snatch and clean. For this reason in my own classes if I see that more than 7 people have signed up all Olympic lifting is dropped from the day’s programming for simple plyometrics or additional work on other areas.
-          Coaching. The requirement to open a box and lead classes is completion of a CF level 1 certification course. This is a one weekend course. I have heard mixed reviews on the course content but have not attended so I can’t speak about it directly. I am skeptical of the ability to become a good coach over the course of a weekend but again, I can’t speak to the specifics of what is being taught.I hope to learn more about the certification process and perhaps even get certified one day.
-          Programming. Ok this is where I reveal how big of a nerd I am. When I see a great program it’s like seeing a great painting. It’s magnificent to me because I know how much thought goes into doing it right. All of the joint actions are balanced. Volume and intensity coalesce in a way that provides just enough stimulus for the desired response. Energy system development is overlapped over time to provide optimal benefit for the sport. When I see Crossfit programming it looks like a finger painting. It might look cool and it might be fun but it's totally all over the place and sloppy. When I wrote this the main site WOD was the CF total (1 rep max back squat, deadlift and press. So basically a modified powerlifting meet) followed the next day by 30 muscle ups, 21 clean and jerks and a 2k row. Let’s see if we can figure this out. You fatigue every muscle in the body and really fry the nervous system too with the CF total. The next day would be a great opportunity for some rest, some light aerobic work, or some technique and mobility work. Instead we are given this shoulder destroying monstrosity of a workout. Muscle ups followed by clean and jerks is one of the most irresponsible combinations of exercises I can think of. I wouldn’t program those two exercises within the same 48 hours because of the degree of shoulder stability required. Putting them back to back with a time component is reckless and the reason that a lot of people sustain shoulder injuries doing Crossfit. Examples like this can be found almost weekly on the main site and in many affiliate locations. Using a simple strength template like Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 can help spread out training stress to some degree, although it’s that’s really just putting down the first piece of the puzzle with regard to intelligent programming.

Should I join a CF?
Crossfit has the potential to be great. It also has the potential to be very dangerous. If you are playing a sport and want to prepare for your sport find a legitimate strength coach who knows how to program something specific to your sport. You may be able to find such a coach in a CF gym, but please don’t think the WOD is going to be optimal for making you better at your sport.

If you are just a regular gym goer looking to get fit you should consider CF for many of the reasons above but how do you know if you are getting a quality gym membership or not?

-          Check the credentials of the coaches and owners of the gym. Do they have anything other than a L1 cert. (look for CSCS, USAW, some form of degree in a related field, specialty certifications etc.)

-          When you sign up what is the process you go through before doing a full workout? Are you taught all of the movements multiple times before being asked to perform them at maximal intensity and under fatigue?

-          What, if any, assessments are you given as a new member? Hopefully something more than just a waiver is involved [5]

-          Watch a class. Does it look like chaos and a disaster waiting to happen or is it a room full of people accomplishing amazing things and having a good time. (Most CF gyms are somewhere in the middle)

-          Watch the coaches. Do they seem to be able to help the athletes that are struggling or are they just cheerleaders?

Hopefully this article hasn’t ruffled too many feathers. My goal is not to bash CF or send people running to their local affiliate. It is simply my experience that people have a lot of misunderstandings about what CF is and is not and after reading this piece you should have a better idea of what goes on inside the box. I like CF and hop in on the occasional WOD. As the CF movement grows it seems evident that it is here to stay. Thankfully as Crossfit grows people are exposing its flaws and it is growing into a better, safer system.

[1] A very brief bio for those interested
[2] saying he developed these methods is a little misleading because people have been doing circuit/ anaerobic threshold training forever but that’s a different topic altogether.
[3] The fact that this is the workout for everyone who enters the gym is also an issue and one that will be addressed later in the piece
[4] Most CF affiliates offer at minimum a once/week yoga or restorative mobility type of class
[5] I spent over a year working at Equinox here in Chicago and my favorite thing about that gym was the way that every member was encouraged to do a fitness assessment upon joining. Every gym should do this.

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