Monday, October 17, 2011

Should You Hop Aboard the Crossfit Bus?

Those of you that have known me a while know I have mixed feelings about Crossfit.  While my wife and I practice it, we do so for different reasons.  She wants to just be generally fit and athletic, and feeds off the social support.  I participate for the competition with others, as I no longer devote time to just powerlifting or MMA competitions.  Crossfit allows me to compete against other strong and fast athletes, without the large time commitment required to excel in MMA and powerlifting.

In a little over a decade, CrossFit has gone from obscurity to prominence as arguably the most well-known event in the iron calendar—the Arnold Classic Sports Festival. This system has become a near global phenomenon, racking up thousands of affiliated gyms worldwide and acquiring an army of devoted and unmistakable aficionados (kipping pull-ups anyone?). However, popularity doesn’t equal good. Britney Spears has taught us this much. A great divide exists between critics as to the value of the CrossFit system. To some, it is a “one size fits all” solution to training, offering total body conditioning, muscle gain, strength, and more. Yet to others, it’s a poorly thought out exercise in masochism that turns men into women and women into men (not my words).

Plenty of critics from either side of the debate have already written at length about the value of CrossFit. What I will try to add to the argument is what makes the system good or bad and why that is the case. I’ve tried to sit on the fence for the sake of neutrality, but I invite you to use the information below to form your own opinion and decide if CrossFit is right for you.

In a nutshell
The philosophy of CrossFit in a nutshell is this—train for everything to develop balanced performance and appearance. The end result is typically trainees who have pretty good general fitness. They display levels of strength, endurance, and power that would be the envy of the average guy. So far so good.

I can tell you for sure that Crossfit will quickly push you outside your comfort zone. Most WODs (Workout of the Day) are against the clock, so I find the training system lends itself to competitive group environments. Toss in a good nutrition program and you have one hell of a template for personal training, where the average client wants fat loss and general fitness and where group training is smart business.

This generalized approach to training may not just serve general population clients though. CrossFit style training (albeit with some modifications) may be a great introduction to physical preparation for young athletes. Early on in their careers, young athletes require exposure to a wide range of physical training stimuli in order to develop a broad base of athletic ability. Being largely free weight and body weight based, the “functional” nature of the system has also earned CrossFit the adoration of large sectors of the military, martial artists, and the emergency services world—physical endeavors where the unpredictable nature of the task requires a kitchen sink approach to preparation.

The downsides
So CrossFit definitely has some value. I certainly won’t bash a system that promotes physical activity and well-roundedness. However, this value doesn’t extend to the realm of athletic training. In recent years, sites have popped up promoting CrossFit as the ideal solution to prepare for football, lacrosse, rugby, and other sports. Far from being the secret weapon in an athlete’s arsenal, this is competitive suicide. While valuing all round performance is admirable, “balance” shouldn’t be on the lips of elite athletes but “specialization.”

Top Olympic lifters don’t give a damn how fast they can row 2000 meters. Elite marathon runners couldn’t care less about how many muscle-ups they can perform. They would both probably suck at CrossFit and here’s why—as an athlete, you have a finite capacity to train and recover. Perform any training that doesn’t directly contribute or support your event/sport and you have just wasted an opportunity to train, adapt, and become better physically prepared for your sport. At the elite level of preparation, such intense training stimuli (volume and intensity) is required to elicit training adaptations and dedicating training time to all but essential activities becomes inappropriate.

So while certain CrossFitters thumb their nose at the poor powerlifter who squats a grand but get’s gassed climbing some stairs, it comes at the price of being unable to excel at a given event or sport. Achieving elite qualification in sport—particularly individual, non-combat sports where a narrow band of physical qualities typically underpin performance—requires laser like focus of training resources.

Unfortunately for CrossFit, the criticisms don’t end there. Consider also that effective physical training entails identifying and then addressing individual weaknesses. Trying to remedy this with a cookie-cutter WOD will prove inefficient at best or even damaging if certain exercises/techniques are contraindicated for an individual. And that’s even before you’ve started the WOD. Once you get going, you have to worry about the astronomical volume of some sessions. Crazy high volume just isn’t necessary to elicit desirable adaptations in all but the most experienced trainees. In fact, it poses an increased risk of musculoskeletal injury or even muscle damage in novices.

High volume by itself is a small worry but combining it with CrossFit’s use of Olympic lifting becomes a worry. Coached properly, the lifts are a great tool for developing explosive strength and triple extension mechanics. Trying to get a group of people with mixed abilities to perform them properly with low coaching numbers and time is tough. Getting the same group to perform them properly as part of a high rep, fatiguing circuit is nigh on impossible and asking for injury.

The CrossFit trend for sloppy form in the name of “power output” is potentially injurious and not necessarily appropriate. While power output is desirable, stricter form should be the other order of the day for strength, lean body mass, and neural efficiency development and only allowed to be loosened in the hands of expert trainees. The current teaching of new trainees to use loose form on kipping pull-ups, air squats, and other exercises is simply bad coaching. At least learn the motor pattern correctly before you murder it!

So is it good or bad!?
As with much in life, I don’t think CrossFit is all good or all bad. The issue is one of appropriateness. In the hands of an accomplished coach, the CrossFit system can produce a decent program that ticks a lot of boxes and lends itself well to weekend warriors and young athletes. In the hands of a macho, underqualified coach who earned his Level 1 certification over a weekend, it can leave trainees butchering form and breaking bodies.

Maybe this says more about the coaches implementing CrossFit than the system itself? Maybe that is precisely how things should be? Physical training can be a complex and dynamic process requiring the use of the right methods at the right time with a high degree of individualization. It isn’t as easy as chucking crap at a wall and seeing what sticks.

The innovators of CrossFit are certainly right when they assert that sprinters are the fastest athletes on the planet, powerlifters are the strongest, Olympic lifters are extraordinarily powerful, and rowers have unreal endurance. That’s because they focus almost completely on their respective disciplines. But the logic that combining the training of all these athletes will lead to similar results across the board is simply incorrect. You can’t ride two or even five saddles with one ass. The question is, are you happy to be above average at a bunch of stuff or really good at a few things? In my experience, the overwhelming majority of clients and athletes fall into the latter camp and should train accordingly.

So CrossFit doesn’t cure cancer, nor is it the second coming of Jesus. It is just a well meaning, if practically flawed, philosophy of training. And a good coach will get around those flaws anyway. So live and let live. Just quit looking like you’ve been tasered in the ass when you do a pull-up!

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