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.
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.
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. Editorial note: not everything you don't understand is stupid. Stupid is a high risk exercise for results that are better obtained using different means, like weighted squats on a bosu ball.
- 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.
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.