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Background Information

When I started exercising a few months ago, I started with P90X and Insanity (Insanity for the mornings and P90X for the evenings). As a result, I'm getting used to high intensity exercises.

During researches on exercises to perform, I came across the CrossFit program and it seemed to be a huge trend. Checking the exercises, I saw that a lot of the exercises have already been implemented in the videos that I used.

I also noticed that a lot of articles on CrossFit declared it to be a horrible exercise program. These articles were written by either former CrossFitters or non-CrossFitters. Many of the complaints were

  • Monthly fee is exorbitant.
  • It's a cult.
  • The exercises are performed wrong.
  • It can result in a disease called Rhabdomyolysis.

All the arguments I've read against the program revolve around those 4. Also, many of these articles are on fitness/exercise websites. So, I can't assume that these authors simply hated exercising.

On the flip side, many articles were read defending the program. These articles were written by current CrossFitters.

I haven't been able to find an article that provides the pros and cons of the program in such a rational, clear-headed way.

Questions

I don't plan to join CrossFit (or any conventional gym); however, I like a lot of the exercises and plan to incorporate them into my workout routine.

As a result, I need to know the following:

  • Does anyone know of any articles that highlight the pros and cons of the program? I would like an article that's not hate-based or fan-based.
  • What exactly is wrong with the program? The exercises? The intensity? The Rhabdomyolysis issue? The performers' forms? I have a problem with the cost (all the articles indicated members pay upwards of USD150 monthly).
  • Given that all exercises have inherent risks and everyone has their preferences, what makes this program receive more vitriol than programs such as Insanity/P90X?

The goal of the question isn't to create tensions based on opinions; rather, it's for me to obtain enough information and experience to determine if it's worth my time. I believe it is, but maybe those more experienced than I am see issues that newcomers can't easily see.

Thanks.

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This is a really good question, and has attracted some really good answers that have called out some issues that I've suspected but not been able to put a finger on as I investigate CrossFit. –  alesplin Apr 10 at 6:00
    
@alesplin Thanks. Yeah, I've learned a lot from these answers too. They provide me more information than many of the pro/anti articles on the Internet. Especially when I heard on the radio that some couples break up because of CrossFit, it really made the topic more prominent in my mind. –  Kneel-Before-ZOD Apr 10 at 6:21
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3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The biggest problem with Crossfit really isn't Crossfit. It's the licensing model, and how quickly someone with no prior experience training people can open up their own Crossfit gym (or box as they like to call it). However, more on that later as it pertains to selecting a particular Crossfit gym.

Exercise Selection

With Crossfit you will experience a large variety of exercises and training. You will never attain expert status in any of them, as that's not the point of Crossfit. The point is becoming a general athlete that can engage in just about any physical activity at a moment's notice.

If you have only had experience with body weight exercise or aerobic training classes (P90X applies here), then you'll quickly find out how challenging a Crossfit class can be.

Crossfit has done more to introduce the barbell to gym goers than any other sport or activity before it. Thanks to Crossfit, you can easily get a good pair of weightlifting shoes, and a good pair of Powerlifting shoes both by Rebock. It's made the barbell mainstream and I think that's a good thing.

Programming and Coaching

You will find quite the range of experience from one Crossfit gym to another depending on the real experience of the trainers present. This is where the largest body of criticism is laid against Crossfit. Some of it is simply unfair, but some is also warranted. The more real life experience the Crossfit trainers have, the more likely your programming (exercise selection over time) is going to help you keep progressing as an athlete. Unfortunately, you never know what you are going to get until you show up and start doing it.

The cases where Crossfitters contracted rhabdomyolysis are due in large part to the inexperience of the trainers who didn't catch the early warning signs and bar the person from exercising. Another contributing factor is the culture in many Crossfit gyms is one where everyone is very encouraging and tries to push each other to do more. In most cases that's a good thing, however when someone is pushing past severe fatigue it becomes dangerous. A good coach will be able to control the culture enough so that someone who needs to take it easy can actually do so.

Some Crossfit gyms have very good reputations, even from people who don't do Crossfit. Some gyms are both Crossfit gyms and Starting Strength certified gyms. The Starting Strength certification is much more stringent than the Crossfit certifications, so these are going to be a pretty good bet that they have good coaches and trainers.

Cost

When you pay a monthly fee to a Crossfit gym, you aren't just getting access to a top notch training facility. Most of these gyms have some great equipment you will never see in a commercial gym ranging from strongman implements to olympic lifting tools to gymnastic exercise equipment. You are also getting access to the group training. In a typical commercial gym both of those are two different levels of payment. If you don't want the class you can choose to just pay for access to the commercial gym. In a Crossfit gym, they are one and the same.

If a crossfit gym has some good trainers, you might get some personal training/coaching so that you can learn a new technique. For example, a local Crossfit gym to me has a decent Olympic lifting coach. The personal training/coaching includes access to the gym for the time you are getting trained in most cases.

However, because there is a wide variety of gyms, it doesn't hurt to ask a Crossfit gym if they have a different price if you just want to use their facilities.

Where does the bad rep come from?

It comes from a number of sources:

  • People who train in a more traditional strength sport are sometimes resentful of the attention that Crossfit gets.
  • There are examples of trainers having well meaning people do stupid things. Not all Crossfit gyms are the same.
  • Crossfitters in general seem a little more susceptible to fitness hype and they enthusiastically share it.

The Crossfit games have gone a long way toward legitimizing Crossfit both in the minds of strength athletes and in the minds of the general populous. The looseness of the certification process has done two things: made Crossfit much more easily available do to the lower barrier of entry, and made it more likely for inexperienced coaches to try to train people.

Bottom Line

Crossfit gyms are a mixed bag. There are a number of really good gyms and a number of really bad gyms. What makes them good or bad is the staff that is training the crossfitters or providing their programming. The more certifications the staff that run a Crossfit gym have the more likely it's going to be a good place to train.

Most gyms have a "try before you buy" package. You might have to purchase a day pass or two, but that is well worth the investment when you are trying to figure out if a particular gym is a good one or a bad one.

If you have a good gym, the trainers will educate you on what is fitness hype and fitness fact. Whether you have a good gym or not, you owe it to yourself to learn how to detect what is hype and what is real.

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Thank you for the answers. I've learned a few things about the issue and will build up on those. –  Kneel-Before-ZOD Apr 7 at 14:34
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In short: An emphasis on optimising reps over time for long periods, with lower emphaisis on correct form.

Crossfit isn't inherintly bad because of the exercises it emphasises.

There are plenty of questions here that cover the idea that there is no one best way to exercise. People can have preferences, there are programs that are good at reaching goals with an otpimum approach, but exercise is by and large a personal thing. If someone enjoys one-legged pistol squats and tireflipping more than other exercises then that isn't a problem.

However, some exercises are problematic and good form is always important

However, exercises can be done with correct and incorrect form, and this is something that can be backed up with biomedical sciences. Performing a back squat or deadlift with an overly rounded back will but excess stress on parts of the spine and its discs and risk long term or even immediate damage.

Additionally, without a slow buildup some exercises can put too much stress on the body. The classic example from crossfit is the kip pullup - while an exercise in its own right, it is different to a strict deadhang pull-up. This requires additional stress on the shoulder joints through an explosive movement that is more than some peoples shoulders are capable of handling. While some people can perform these exercises safely, some can work up to them, some never can. What is true is that some exercises can, without appropraite training, be dangerous for some bodies.

Form will breakdown as reps increase

As your body works harder without rest, it does get more sloppy. Muscle fibers are no longer able to fire correctly and as such, the body get weak in some areas and compensates in ways that can lead to poor form. For example, as people approach their 4th rep in the 3rd set of a 5 max rep weighted squat their back may not be as strong as on the first rep, and will need additional support. The squatter may then decide to stop at the 4th rep rather than complete a final rep with poor form.

Crossfit encourages long, intense uniform workouts

While workouts are different everyday, they are performed in a group setting, where people are encouraged to work at the same pace and harder than they would under other conditions. This leads to people lifting heavier weights for longer times and leads to break down of form. In the extreme if they continue to push their bodies muscular breakdown leading to rhabdomyolysis can occur.

Group pressure encourages people has been shown to push people beyond their potential. Sometimes this can be helpful to push people beyond a mental barrier, sometimes however it pushes people beyond this into dangerous territory. Rather being encouraged to identify people who are physically struggling and stop them, "boxes" are taught to see this as a "mental' weakness that the practitioner needs to push through.

Poor training for boxes in general

The certification for Crossfit is a very short requirement, and covers the brand and the "workout-of-the-day" programs over biomechanical safety. It doesn't cover identifying client needs, and covers little of the health, safety and risks of exercise. There are very good "boxes" out there, but often these are run by qualfied trainers who have been running gyms and personal training studios long before crossfit existed.

Most of the good boxes are good because of prior training and development, and are getting visibility because of the Crossfit brand.

Conclusion

If you find a Crossfit box that has good trainers, and you enjoy the workouts. Crossfit will work for you. But that is very dependant on finding a "good" box.

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Thanks for the reply. So, if I simply check out the exercises I like, read articles about their proper forms, and perform them, they should be beneficial to me. Although I must say that it's like a religious war out there on the matter (on most of the articles/videos I've seen) . –  Kneel-Before-ZOD Apr 4 at 13:19
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The reason it's a religious war kind of atmosphere is because the proponents of crossfit claim all kinds of weird things, like you can run a sub 3:00 marathon on crossfit alone. Crossfit by itself is not inherently bad, it's the implementation and outlandish claims that give it such a bad rap. –  JohnP Apr 4 at 14:38
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Thank you all for all the answers. I've learned a few things about the issue and will build up on those. –  Kneel-Before-ZOD Apr 7 at 14:34
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Another issue, which hasn't been discussed above, but which is the reason why I stopped doing crossfit, is the fact that cross fit focuses on exercise and not on goal-oriented training.

This lack of emphasis on goal oriented training makes it hard for beginners to learn and work up to the more difficult and complex movements, potentially leading to injury. It also makes it hard for more advanced practitioners to make consistent improvement once they've mastered the movements. I can recall having both problems simultaneously. I was unable to do a pistol squat and had no idea how to progress towards one. On the other hand, i had good snatch form but was having a hard time increasing weight due to the randomness of the workout of the day and the sparse appearance of snatching.

Mark rippetoe goes into more detail here:

http://www.t-nation.com/training/crossfit-the-good-bad-and-the-ugly

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Thanks for the link; it's very good. Coincidentally, one of the radio channels I listen to discuss about Crossfit today. Apparently, some couples break up over Crossfit, especially if one's involved and the other isn't. That's really weird. This is a topic I'll like to consider again and again. –  Kneel-Before-ZOD Apr 8 at 2:52
    
That is crazy, but I suppose supports the point that Crossfit can get a little cultish. –  brentlance Apr 8 at 14:29
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