CrossFit Benefits and Pitfalls
Variation….From a biological standpoint, variation is defined as marked difference or deviation from the normal or recognized form, function, or structure.
In one word this is what Crossfit workouts deliver, variation.
Variation from the recognized norms that exercise and weight training has been based upon for years, and even deviation within the exercise program itself. No workout is the same, no Crossfit affiliate is the same, no WOD (daily workout) design is the same, no Crossfit instructor introduces or trains new clients the same, nor does a trainee ever know what to expect whenever they enter their local Crossfit facility.
While variation is an extremely necessary and effective tool in any and all PRESCRIBED Exercise Programs, too much variation in training principles and training leadership (from daily workouts, exercises, to the individuals in charge of training new clients) can lead to a laundry list of problems including injury, overtraining, muscle imbalances, and negative physiological adaptations to exercise.
Letâ€™s look at a few of the pluses/benefits you can derive from Crossfit workouts in simple terms.
- You have the potential to get absolutely ripped, build solid power, and increase your conditioning. This is great, if training is approached safely and correctly. Crossfit workouts (known as WODs) are usually designed with one consistent principle in mindâ€”to elevate an individualâ€™s heart rate to extreme levels with the express aim of burning as many calories as quickly as possible. This will in turn boost the individualâ€™s metabolism during and after the workout (Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption plays a major role here) and utilize subcutaneous fat and carbohydrates as major fuel substrates, all while employing a style of training that keeps the individual moving and increasing their work capacity throughout.
All of the combined principles help assist in 3 major aspects: muscle toning, weight loss, and lower body fat percentage.
Simply put, if you execute a Crossfit regimen with discipline and regularity youâ€™re going to get ripped and cut. It is imperative, however, that you pair your Crossfit training with a healthy, clean, well balanced diet that utilizes food as FUEL, but most Crossfit instructors will discuss that with their groups.
BUT it canâ€™t be that simple, right?
- What aspects of Crossfit are being overlooked?
- The answer to this question is poor training principles.
The aspect of Crossfit that takes the most heat from Health and Fitness Professionals is its lack of a set plan of periodization or macrocycling/mesocycling. In laymenâ€™s terms, Crossfit programs do not implement any short or long term planning with regards to the actual workout â€œdesignâ€. Design being in quotations, as Crossfit does not have a set template like other more tested, traditional and proven fitness regimens.
What this translates to is an extreme randomness in planning workouts from a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly perspective. Every single Crossfit Affiliate Site has a different head instructor, and these instructors â€”some of which do not have Industry Standardized PT Certifications or Degrees in the Health and Fitness Fieldâ€”can choose whatever random workout they see fit, usually beginning with a strength training portion followed by a super high intensity WOD.
KEEP IN MIND, not all Crossfit Instructors are this haphazard with their WODs.
An example of one of the top Strength and Conditioning leaders in this industry is a man by the name of Travis Stoetzel who has developed a Tried and True Unbreakable Blueprint that avoids ALL of the below problems associated with poorly led Crossfit Affiliates.
From here most people ask, â€œWhat is the problem with this random style of training and design?â€
One major problem from this that leads to many, many other problems is that without proper planning and periodization in an Exercise Program, the head instructor will simply pick random exercises and pre-setâ€”or randomly conjured upâ€”WODs for the day without planning for the week or month. This means that many individuals in training , especially those new to training, can develop a wide array of muscle imbalances in all the major and minor muscle groups of the human body.
All properly trained and educated Health and Fitness Professionals understand the importance of prescribing workouts and exercise programs that train all major muscle groups, similarly dependent upon the specific goals of the individual in trainingâ€”bolded because Crossfit WODs are not always tailored to specific goals of individuals interested in training. If any athlete or individual in basic fitness training has muscle imbalances in their bodyâ€”be it upper body vs. lower body, hamstrings and surrounding muscles vs. quadriceps femoris and surrounding muscles, or pectoral and surrounding muscles vs. upper/mid back musclesâ€”it can lead to extremely detrimental and serious injuries during sport, during training, or in basic, every day movements and functions â€”which is the category most individuals fall under.
Hereâ€™s a hypothetical example of the randomness that occurs in Crossfit.
Say a WOD is held on a Tuesday. Keep in mind this is a tough WOD consisting of only Clean and Jerk for 15-12-9 Reps. This will be considered an entire workout unless the head instructor conjures up a conditioning WOD to add after that. The very next day there will be another difficult WOD with a 135 Pound Squat Snatch for 9-7-5 Reps. So letâ€™s breakdown all the issues that arise when 2 set WODs are scheduled for back to back days.
Supercompensation is defined as the post-training period in which the body and the muscles have a higher working/functioning potential than they did during the previous state of training. In laymanâ€™s terms, supercompensation means that after you train your body or muscle group, there is a set time frameâ€”dependent upon the style of trainingâ€”in which you should train that muscle group again in order to derive the highest potential benefits. If you wait too long between training sessions, your muscles will revert back to the state they were in during your previous training session or even lower, rendering you unable to make positive progress. If you train the same muscle groups too quickly, overtraining can occur. This can leads to a host of potential injury including muscle imbalances, muscle tears, joint complex overuse (tendinitis), and even much more serious medical problems like Rhabdomyolysis (search that one for a quick scare in which a Crossfit Athlete successfully sued his trainers for in an extreme case of overtraining).
Each training style is different for the time frame related to supercompensation (Endurance vs. Strength vs. Power vs. Mass) with the least amount of time necessary to take off between exercising muscle groups is at least 40 Hours (Endurance). The example WODâ€™s from above clearly violate this principle as they are exercising multiple similar muscle groups in much less time than even the minimum time frame of Supercompensation allows, which is quite common place among Crossfit WODs.
Some successful Crossfit competitors perform their own strength training to ensure they are developing correctly for their goals while adding WODâ€™s to work on the really tough conditioning aspects of Crossfit.
- Muscle Mass: About 1 Week
- Strength: 48-70 Hours
- Endurance: 40-60 Hours
Individual Training Goals:
One great aspect of Crossfit, when it is lead safely and correctly, is that it provides multiple styles of training. These training styles include Mass, Endurance, Power, and Strength, and a Crossfitter can potentially see improvement in all styles as well as his or her overall conditioning. One problem that arises, however, is that a lot of individuals new to Crossfit donâ€™t necessarily adhere to set principles or specific, time framed goals whenever they enter trainingâ€”aside from getting in solid shape, which is a simple but not a bad goal at all! But if an individual strictly wants to work on his or her overall Strengthâ€”which will be focusing around 1-5 Reps per set at 80% of their Individual %1RMâ€”then he will find that some Crossfit WODs have counterintuitive workout designs that fail to mirror the progress and gains he would likely achieve while working in a true strength program with stricter, more scheduled time parameters.
The same principle goes for Endurance training â€”for weight loss and muscle toningâ€”and also Muscle Mass, which is a totally different style of training altogether. However, aside from the aforementioned fact that differing goals and training styles have different Supercompensation principles, the example WODs cross certain training principles in a single workout.
Tuesday has a crossover mix of both Endurance training principles (15 Reps) and Mass training principles (12 and 9 Reps). Wednesday has a crossover mix of both Mass training principles (9 and 7 Reps) and Strength training principles (5 Reps). All of which have no %1RM indicators, so individuals could unknowingly perform too high or too low of a percent 1RM that doesnâ€™t match the amount of reps being performed. This flat out screams inefficient training and potential injury (see more below.)
So what exactly are the workouts trying to accomplish, and could these set frames run counter-intuitive to what an individual in training is truly seeking?
Set Weight Patterns for Male/Female or no % 1RM Indicators:
Another aspect of Crossfit that take a lot of heat is the fact that when the Crossfit organization posts WODâ€™s, the WODs are generally geared toward Crossfit Competitors and are far too ambitious for the novice to intermediate Crossfit participant. In other instances, like our WOD examples, the exercises list the amount of reps you are supposed to perform, but they give you NO guidance on the percent of the INDIVIDUAL 1 Rep Max you should be performing (more below).
The problem that occurs here is that individuals in training become more susceptible to major injuries if they are not performing the exercises at a proper weight, particularly when considering the complexity with which some of the exercises are performed. Since Crossfit utilizes a lot of Olympic Style Lifts (which is absolutely awesome), the liability/risk of injury increases greatly if the individuals in training are not slowly transitioned in and taught the basics and fundamentals of these lifts over and over and over again. The complexities of these Olympic-style lifts are extremely intricate. In fact, there are entire articles based upon the principles and proper execution techniques of SINGLE Olympic lifts such as the Power Clean or a Snatch from the floor. Athletesâ€”usually those at the collegiate levelâ€”are taught these major Olympic Lifts because they are insanely effective, but these lifts and their techniques are literally pounded into their brain. Training schedules start at light weights to prepare them for increasing the intensity of their programs and ready them to match the intensity of their competitors.This does not bode well for Joe Schmo who hops into Crossfit off the street and learns a Power Clean and Press on his first day without first practicing deadlifts, hang cleans, and push presses separately to ensure muscle development and proper form.
ALL OF THIS can lead to both major and minor injuries for individuals in training who perform too much weight on a lift, perform a complicated lift they are not fully developed for, or even a combination of the two! For example, when you have a weaker or new individual walking into a WOD and performing 20 Deadlifts at 225 Pounds because that is the set weight for their gender you automatically have a huge increase in risk for injury. In reality novice lifters should only be performing 50-60% of what their 1 Rep Max is. Keeping in line with 20 reps as Endurance and the correct %1RM for Endurance that may only be 285.
Percent 1 Rep Max Indicators Breakdown:
- Muscle Mass: 60-80% at 6-12 Reps
- Strength: 80-90% at 1-5 Reps
- Endurance: 40-60% at 15-60 Reps
Targeting ALL Major Muscle Groups of the Human Body:
Another potentially troubling aspect of the the Crossfit workout designs, depending upon the training instructors, is that they do NOT target all major muscle groups of the human body on a consistent enough basis to ensure that individuals in training are not developing muscle imbalances. Dependent upon the Training Programâ€™s Goals, all of the major muscle groups of the body should be trained in a similar fashion with similar % 1RMâ€™s and similar set/rep structures. This ensures that individual muscles are being developed at the same rate, which helps to avoid imbalances and potential injuries.
One great test to examine Upper Body vs. Lower Body imbalances is the Front Squat vs. Bench Press Assessment. If your Bench Press and Front Squat 1 Rep Maxes are within +/- 10 Pounds of each other, then you have a good balance of strength between upper body and lower body. If they are not, then your training focus needs to shift in order to balance your strength. While Crossfit has all sorts of great exercises and WODs, they usually do not work a proper balance of upper body vs. lower body strength, and they rarely focus on increasing the strength of the pectoral muscle group (remembering that push ups are purely an endurance exercise and do not develop True Strength). We also discussed in the Supercompensation section the importance of not targeting similar muscle groups on back to back days, a principle that our example WODs do not abide by.
True Injury Example:
A member at my current fitness center trained with Crossfit for about 8 months. She did extremely well, lost a lot of weight, dropped her body fat percentage, and began to dominate lifts and substantially increase her weight amounts. As she began to grow busy with work and in her personal life, she had to take about 3 months off from Crossfit. During this time she was only able to perform sporadic workouts, and as a result she lost a large amount of the muscle mass she had developed. After her 3 months hiatus she hopped right back into Crossfit with the same instructor she had previously. Her first workout back had a WOD with a SET WEIGHT for females performing Back Squats. The set weight for their group that day was 145 Pounds at 8 Reps for 5 Sets, increasing weight each set. Later she performed a WOD after the strength portion that included running. She was clearly not ready for this amount of weight to be used for the sets and reps assigned to the team that day; however, her instructor had her perform the WOD regardless.
Have you guessed what happened next?
This resulted in an extreme pulled upper leg muscle that left her nearly unable to walk for 3 days and knocked her out of training for 2 full weeks. The problem with thisâ€”aside from the obvious injury that occurred from performing a set gender weight and not performing a lift based upon her individual % 1RMâ€”is that her goals were to lose weight and tone up. Weight loss and muscle toning are best reached by performing Endurance Style Training focusing to 15+ Reps, whereas her workout was a pure Muscle Mass style weight lifting session designed to increase lean weight.
To sum up all of the above, Crossfit has the potential to help individuals get in top-notch shape, lose weight, get ripped, and have fun in a group atmosphere.
HOWEVER, the approach and principles to Crossfit blatantly contradict safe and scientifically proven methods that instill effective and efficient Exercise Programs. Variation is a must in all exercise programs, but never at the risk of the individual in training. Crossfit style exercises, WODs, and Olympic Style lifts are great IFâ€”and this is a big IF hereâ€”they are performed with proper direction, development, and training and are lead by educated Health and Fitness Professionals. These individuals are capable of guiding their clients in proper training techniques, and they ensure that training styles are properly introduced and blended in order to derive great results.
The Health and Fitness Industry NEEDS Exercise Programs and Guidance developed by individuals like Travis Stoetzel and us from www.MidwestFit.com Us and others are here to lead you to your goals safely and effectively and GUARANTEE you results that will not back fire on you!
8 thoughts on “CrossFit Benefits and Pitfalls”
As a Hive editor, when I saw this article appear in the pipeline, I knew that it might prove controversial to Crossfit enthusiasts. And as a big fan of Crossfit myself, I was extra careful in judging the criticisms raised by the author.
What I was most interested to see was how Crossfitters would react to the article. Funnily enough, what I thought would happen is exactly what did happen.
We got one Crossfitter who provided an intelligent and open minded response to the article…and another Crossfitter who provided an intelligent and defensive/closed minded response.
And that is one of my biggest problems with Crossfit today. There is a growing group of Crossfitters who believe that Crossfit is a perfect system and have so thoroughly internalized the Crossfit lifestyle into their own personal narrative that when someone criticizes CF (rightly or wrongly), they take it as a personal insult and lash out without first THINKING about what has actually been said.
In the case of this article, the main complaints of CF are a lack of periodization, overtraining of specific muscle groups and movements and the increased risk of injury as a result.
In my personal experience and after numerous discussions with my physio friends, there is a growing pattern of CF injuries. Based on the info I am receiving, this seems to be due to pre-existing muscle imbalances meeting a lack of a customization meeting an atmosphere of high expectations and positive support.
Essentially, you take the criticisms levelled by our author, combine them with some dude who wants to get CF fit but has spent the last 20 years behind a desk and combine that with the explosion of CF boxes and the inevitible dilution of excellent teachers and you have a perfect recipe for that dude’s little nagging scapula pain to bloom into a legitimate injury.
However….for every story of CF hurting a trainee, there are a plethora of stories of CF turning office drones into super-fit uber-humans. But that wasn’t the intention of this article.
And if the percentage of CFers who get their noses out of joint by some honest criticisms continues to grow…I worry about the future of the movement.
If you can’t look at yourself with the eyes of a beginner and see the flaws as well as the strengths, how can you ever expect to improve?
Because within the CF world, there are lots of people who look at CF with a critical eye and try to address potential weaknesses.
There are boxes (like Matt said) which won’t let newbies sacrifice form for weight.
There are boxes which give tons of personal attention and personal training to make sure form is perfect.
There are CFers (google Mobility WOD) which address muscle imbalances and joint mobility.
There are boxes and CFers who realize that some square pegs need to round off some of their edges before than can fully integrate their bodies into the round hole of CF workouts. Fix muscle imbalances and joint mobility issues, etc…
But like every other training modality out there (running, jogging, swimming, yoga, pilates, bodybuilding, spinning, zumba, step fitness, etc…) there ARE going to be aspects of each method that WILL create problems for some of the practitioners.
No training program is perfect.
And through a combination of personal awareness and responsibility, help from experienced and aware teachers and physical therapists as needed…injuries can be avoided, repaired and eliminated.
And if the guys at MidwestFit think that they offer a training method that is superior to CF, why shouldn’t they call attention to it?
But they should also expect for that belief to be analyzed & criticized.
That’s how we grow from children into adults. We try something, fail, improve our performance and move on to greater heights. Or at least we’re supposed to.
I just looked at my comment and realized that I am a real rambling SOB. Must learn to edit myself.
Agree with you here too Doug, but I also have to say there is a counter culture movement against crossfit as well, mostly from personal trainers outside of crossfit (not saying you just saying in general).
For instance my old trainer also bashed crossfit, yet his goals were supposedly the exact same in a lot of regards and he often pulled in movements from WOD’s. He says you need specific training such as personal one on one, and that group training like crossfit doesn’t work, but yet he hosts classes of 4-6 in group training events. He said people get injured because of improper training in crossfit, yet I still strained muscles and my friend jacked his shoulders up doing his exacting, precise, “perfect form” movements. He claimed they burn out their bodies because they don’t use recovery right, yet he was doing longer workouts then 99% of crossfitters out there (and complaining about how tired he felt). He even ran down the Paleo diet saying “be careful its what a lot of crossfitters do and you don’t want to get into that”, yet he promotes Paleo foods in his posts to others. It is like there is an automatic aversion to Crossfit, without any attempt to understand it, and personally I feel a lot of that is financially motivated (he makes more $ off one on one versus groups).
The reality is no plan is perfect, but honestly for me I would rather someone have a learning experience by running into an overuse injury rather then not doing any workouts at all. Pretty much anyone that trains for improvement is going to run into something like this at some point, we all think we are invincible until we aren’t. A good trainer helps you understand your over training when you are, corrects form if its bad, and helps you find other ways to work out to avoid your injuries. Your going to find good people in personal training, crossfit training, sports, endurance running, or whatever you do – you just have to be aware and take some ownership in your activities so you can leave the ones that aren’t.
Agreed – amongst the bodybuilding culture, there is a definite hate-on for Crossfit. Methinks that comes from their own ego being challenged by a new & popular training methodology.
Perhaps it’s my contrarian nature, but whenever anyone tells me that their way is the best way…I smell bullshit.
Personally, I think that I design pretty great training programs….but I still keep looking at other training methods, new science and other un-related physical activities trying to improve my own work. I am happy to borrow/steal from others…it doesn’t diminish me to admit that others know something that I don’t.
The author of this article is simply ignorant of the CrossFit program, and has failed to provide any data for the claims he has made regarding the high risk associated with CrossFit. The only successful critique of CrossFit (which never once spelled correctly) he makes is that CrossFit diverges from the the traditional strength and conditioning protocols that the author holds dear. Unfortunately for MidwestFit, this is also what makes it so effective. In other words, we are hearing the equivalent of a DVD companyâ€™s review of the Apple TV.
Letâ€™s start by looking at how poorly the author appears to understand CrossFit. My guess is he has never attended a L1 course, and he failed to cite any sources from the CrossFit Journal.
He writes: â€œCrossfit workouts (known as WODs) are usually designed with one consistent principle in mindâ€”to elevate an individualâ€™s heart rate to extreme levels with the express aim of burning as many calories as quickly as possible.â€
This is completely false. CrossFit workouts are designed to illicit high-intensity, which is a measurement of average power produced during a given effort. Physiological changes and energy burned are merely correlates to this and have nothing to do with the design of the workout itself.
He goes on to say: â€œIn laymenâ€™s terms, Crossfit programs do not implement any short or long term planning with regards to the actual workout ‘design’.â€
This is also completely false. Many CrossFit coaches program workouts a month in advance, and the variance prescribed by CrossFit is explicitly *not* random, but is an intentional manipulation of training variables to create the greatest overall variance of movement, load, rep, time domain, etc.
The author also fails to mention (and likely fails to understand) the goal of CrossFit, a which is not related to body composition. CrossFit aims to improve fitness, which it defines as work capacity measured across a broad range of time and modal domains. The author also completely avoids talking about scaling and modification of CrossFit workouts, as if the concept doesnâ€™t exist when it is foundational to our program.
CrossFit.com specifically states that the workouts it publishes are designed to challenge the fittest people on earth, and CrossFit trainers learn to appropriately scale and modify these workouts to anyoneâ€™s ability level. He would know this had he done even basic research on this subject.
No one can claim that any program is 100% safe, but this is baseless fear-mongering.If this was an attempt to catch some of the wave of CrossFit popularity by painting Midwest fit as a reasonable alternative to a â€œriskyâ€ program, Iâ€™d say good job. If this was an attempt to engage intellectually on the CrossFit methodology, the author needs to make an attempt to understand it first.
…It should be no surprise that a quick search of the MidwestFit.com website shows that they both distance themselves from CrossFit for not using periodization, and yet market their program as â€œCrossFit-likeâ€ and tag their posts with â€œCrossFitâ€.
I agree with your pitfalls of crossfit, but being on my 6th week of crossfit 2-3x per week I think most of the pitfalls are negated by just properly managing yourself. For example everything is scalable, there are Rx weights/reps etc for workouts but at my gym your always encouraged to back off those if you feel you cannot do them. Yes they want to motivate and push you, but if you say you need 100lbs vs the Rx 135lbs for snatches nobody is going to give you any trouble and in fact they actively try to ensure your doing a weight you can handle. The emphasis is also on proper technique, not weight or reps, you will actually get much more gruff from “muscling” a lift or movement more then not doing the Rx weight.
I also think the missing link for a lot of crossfitters in general is recovery. Some people will do these workouts 6 days a week, I think there are times when you can do this for a period, say maybe 2-4 weeks at a time – but you can’t do this year round at high intensity without breaking down your body. And if you do a period of intensity like this you should probably then schedule a couple of weeks of only doing them 1-2x per week afterwards (to allow recovery but maintain).
You also have to understand your fitness has a shelf life, if you train hard for several months then back off for several, don’t come back in trying to do what you did before – you must work back into it. People need to realize, unless your making $ off your physical abilities day to day, you pretty much have all the time in the world to achieve your goals so why rush into it?
My short period of time has been great, other then the soreness :) But now this is abating and I am making huge gains in my lifts – but not only in lifts as I am also improving my WOD times, becoming more agile, and able to endure higher paces for longer periods.
I think the key here is your level of understanding. CrossFit has become this “fad” and attracts a lot of beginners, not just to CrossFit but to fitness and weight lifting in general. That is where the danger arises. A lot of these people are CLUELESS when it comes to these lifts, rest and recovery, supercompensation, etc. Another big part is the disparity between CF gyms. Your gym could have awesome instructors but some people have had experience where instructors do not udnerstand (or at least teach) these principles. I think the MidwestFit writers did a good job in pointing out both the benefits and concerns.
All valid points, but I have to say it can be just as bad on a one to one trainer basis as well. For example I have also worked with a well known trainer in my area before, now I never did everything he wanted, but he was doing 1.5-2.5hr full body workouts Mon-Friday – that is 7.5-12.5hrs a week of fatigue often hitting similar muscle groups back to back but perhaps in a different way.
Now he was all about technique, in fact to give you an idea of how anal he was on technique he almost had me quit working out entirely because of it (I did stop for about 2 months – I simply didn’t know what I could even do properly without risking injury he had me so worried). For example he never would let me load things up when I worked with him, and he always criticized how I was lifting when I was solo – he was TRYING to help but was doing a lot more damage then good.
You tell me what is worse, an overuse injury or muscle imbalance that can be corrected, OR breaking someone’s entire will to even workout? At some point I would argue overuse injuries and muscle imbalances are the individuals fault – fitness is a constant pursuit that needs evaluation. Evaluation not just from trainers but yourself. Just like your diet and other areas of health, you can’t simply follow cookie cutter methods to get optimal results – you must take some ownership in your successes and failures.
Was I getting results with the trainer? Yes, I did get very strong compared to where I started and fairly fit, but for example in just 6 weeks at crossfit I have added 45lbs to my push press weight. I don’t attribute this to some magical formula they are using with their WOD’s, but simply because I finally got with a trainer that was willing to work with me directly instead of simply offer criticisms and 2 second demos. I think the loading was the key to let me finally “feel my way through” where I wasn’t executing my technique properly, and I simply wasn’t going to “get it” without it no matter how great a trainer was talking to me.