Crossfit: Is it really the Holy Grail of fitness?

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Crossfit is all the rage amongst many in the police and military community. For those of you who are not familiar with Crossfit, let me explain what all the hype’s about.

On the Crossfit website is posted the following definition of “World-Class fitness”:

Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.
Hey, you’ll get few arguments from me on this. It’s pretty much what I’ve done and advocated for years. Crossfit posts daily WODs, (Workout of the Day) on their site. The WODs are very intense and can take incorporate virtually any type of training, from Olympic weightlifting, to a 10k run. Most of the workouts keep the training in brief and intense, highlighting the awesome advantages of circuit training and sprint intervals. Again, no problem here.
Here’s a couple example WODs”
“Nancy” (Many of the WODs are named after the people who created them):

Five rounds for time of:
400 meter run
95 pound Overhead squat, 15 reps

“Helen”

Three rounds for time:
Run 400 meters
1 1/2 pood KettlebellX 21 swings (or 55 pound dumbbell swing)
12 Pull-ups

So in the case of Nancy, a person would do a 400 meter sprint, then 15 reps of overhead squats, competing this circuit five times. He would keep tabs on how long it took him to complete this WOD and try to improve on it the next time the same WOD came up.

On some days, the WOD may be deadlift singles, training a person for raw power.

There are tons of different exercises in Crossfit and the website has videos that demonstrate most of the more esoteric movements. All of the workouts, due to their intense nature and ability to generate monumentalloads of lactic acid, will stimulate Growth Hormone release. This is a great thing.

But I’ve got some problems with it. My first problem is the intensity, day in, day out perscribed by Crossfitt. I believe this level of intensity will lead to over training and in the end, result in sub-par performances. Though changing the exercises daily does have the effect of acting as a “rest”, it is not enough to make up for the fact that virtually every Crossfit workout–five times a week–are pushing your body to the max. Can humans withstand this type of work load? Sure, as can be witnessed by ultra-marathoners. But it is not really the road to heath and happiness–or ultimate performance in sport. This amount of trianing will lead to muscle breakdown, and all the other things that come with overtraining, like sleep problems and mood disorders.

My second probelm with Crossfit is the compromise of strength that will occur should someone adopt this form of training as an everyday practice.

As noted in the article written by Andrew Burne at Curtin University’s School of Physiotherapy:

 Sale et al (1990) suggested that resistance training performed on the same day as endurance training may impede strength development when compared to training for either on separate days.

And… Dudley and Fleck (1987) suggested that individuals performing concurrent strength and endurance training may become over-trained relative to subjects who perform strength or endurance training alone. I have found this to be the case for myself. Every so often, I’ll have a day when i do both cardio and stregth trianing, but it’s infrequent–and I always pay the price.

Most imprortantly: Residual fatigue has been suggested to occur following the endurance component of a concurrent program, which may compromise the ability of muscles to develop tension during the strength element of concurrent training (Hennessyand Watson 1994). If sufficient tension cannot be generated during the strength component of a concurrent program, optimal strength development and adaptations may not occur. It has been suggested by Craig et al(1991), that if the endurance trainingis performed prior to the strength training, residual fatigue may impair muscular force out-put and thus impair strength development. Sale et al(1990) also found that concurrent strength and endurance trainingperformed on alternate days produced larger strength gains than concurrent training performed on the same day, which indicates that residual fatigue from endurance training is a possible mechanism responsible for the observed inhibition in strength development.

Even Greg Glassman admits that too much mixing of endurance and strength training results in poorer results in both areas. He believes though, that the Crossfitway of training better simulates actual sport activities and real-life events such as grappling or fighting, because those events incorporate stregnth and endurance at the same time. Glassman says that while Crossfit athletes may not be able to lift as much as power-lifters or run a 15K as fast as a dedictated runner, they perform better in a wider variety of events and are healthier. He uses rather extreme examples, such as a power-lifter who can deadlift 900 lbs. I agree that someone who can deadlift 900 lbs is probably not that healthy, as they are over-specialized. I would also remind Glassman though, that someone who can lift 900 lbs is probably using illegal anabolic steroids.

The primary problem is the volumn of the Crossfit workouts. While a couple of two or three mile runs a week are unlikely to have much of a negative affect on strength training, smoking yourself everyday certainly will. Also know that while strength is compromised by excessive endurance training, endurance athletes actually gain an advantage from strength trianing, (Paavolainen L, Hakkinen K, Hamalainen I, Nummela A, Rusko H. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J Appl Physiol. 1999 May;86).

But I would not do the strength and endurance training on the same day–every day. Your results can be far better if you separate your training.

Next–a cult-like mentality. Cults are poison and cause people to lose their ability to think for themselves. Many people will ruthlessly follow the appointed WOD, regardless of how they feel or how they are performing. Crossfit has T-Shirts, and the people on the airbase here in Weisbaden Germany who do Crossfit walk around sporting the clothing as if they were declaring tribal affiliation. Many of the Crossfitters around here and online will hear nothing of other training methodologies. Anything else is pure heresy.

There’s health concerns too. Reports of exercise induced death. There’s something called rhabdomyolysis. It’s as bad as it sounds. When a person overdoes exercise, that is a person’s body is not adequately adapted to intense work, his or her muscle tissue can break down and leak into the bloodstream, causing death or permanent disability. Crossfit is intense, to say the least.

Besides mixed-martial artists, there are no professional athletes that I know of who use Crossfit as their primary conditioning program. And, I question in an anecdotal sense,  Crossfit’s effectiveness. Anything is better than nothing, but the system I use, which relies heavily on intuitive training, is more effective it seems. There’s no Crossfitter around here outdoing me. Do I randomize my training? Yes. But I also allow time for recovery and don’t blast myself day in, day out. My section sergeant does Crossfit and on many days he’s limpingaround here, sore and tired. I think a training regimen should leave me more prepared, not less. Excessive fatigue, soreness and other symptoms of over training compromise soldier readiness.

In the end, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to throw a Crossfit WOD into your training once in a while. But there are better ways. Healthier ways. Crossfit asks too much and returns too little. It over-randomizes training, resulting is athletes who are not nearly strong enough. And it’ll burn you out, too.

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10 thoughts on “Crossfit: Is it really the Holy Grail of fitness?

    Crossfit: Is it really the Holy Grail of fitness? said:
    April 15, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    […] Original post by magus71 […]

    kernunos said:
    April 15, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Crossfit reduces man mad Global Warming! How could you be against that?!?! Any other exercise and you will be charged a carbon tax. I guess you should have thought it through before you walked away from the Crossfit family. Don’t worry, Crossfit will accept you back; it is all forgiving.

    ..wow, I need to slow down on the coffee.

    Amos Volante said:
    April 15, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    People like the Mage don’t need no steenking Crossfit!

    Still, crossfit is the best idea I have seen. Putting all your fitness coins in one thing never works.

    How many arguments have I had over the years with personal trainer types while politely trying to ignore their big bellies?

    Rita Benavidez said:
    April 15, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Indeed over training and ego ridden people “usually men” tend to do more harm than good. With the Crossfit programming however it is a three days on one day off system. The rest is intended and implemented in the programing. The biggest downfalls in the CrossFit community are the ignorant and often times negligent trainers as well as the people who use YouTube as a resource to learn the movements, resulting in injury. Considering that CF is still in it’s infancy it’s not all that surprising that these issues occur, but understand, it is not the actual programing that does the damage. Note, you wouldn’t want to jump out of an airplane to skydive after watching a quick 1 minute tutorial. Good trainers make sure that athletes scale and also educate those that they train on subjects such as Rhabdo. Good trainers have their athletes check their ego at the door, meaning if someone is hurt, they need to either scale, settle for a doable WOD, or take a rest day despite the programming. Unfortunately, quality trainers are not in abundance, but many will be up and coming.

    The cult-mentality concept is laughable just as it is understandable. However, it is not unhealthy. It doesn’t lead to over training, reckless behavior, or the like. Instead it keeps people in our community coming in for their three days on, one day off. This “cult mentality” is what keeps people on track with their, what I like to call, New years resolution.

    I will agree that many CrossFitters will throw out all other fitness related programs and genres. But this is just the same as runners who think they are super fit simply because they run, power lifter simply because they are powerful, the list goes on. Overall, all sports are bias. But to understand what many are biased about you have the keep in mind that CrossFit is a program that focuses on functional fitness. Every movement translates into physical encounters that happen in daily life.

    I could go on all day, I just want you to know that not all Crossfit men and women are like the ones you encounter. Research all you want, but step into a quality CrossFit gym and it will help you to really understand what it is all about.

    Cheers

    magus71 responded:
    April 16, 2009 at 7:28 am

    Rita,

    Thanks for reading and writing.

    Some who observe me in the gym may actually believe that I’m doing some form of Crossfit. For instance, yesterday I alternated 55 lb dumbell snatches with pushups, lattering down on the PU 50, 40, 30 etc and doing 10 DB snatches per hand after each set of pushups.

    It also depends what you’re trianing for. If I were involved in power sports, such as football, I would not use Crossfit. Mixed martial arts, sure.

    Sometimes I’ll “smoke” myself. But most I edge myself into slight discomfort and I play it by ear. This takes experiece I admit. I’ve been working out since I was 18 and I’ve made pleanty of mistakes. I think most great athletes and cometitors tend to over-train. But now, I want something left in my tank for the real thing. And I want to err on the side of strength, not cardio-endurance.

    I think people ought to do what makes them happy and healthy. Self-honesty is needed. People who love training, such as myself, have to constantly monitor their intents. Am I training and making my life better, or is this like a bad relationship that I can’t get out of despite being miserable? Obsession or healthy choice?

    If Crossfit’s your thing, I say keep at it.

    Rita Benavidez said:
    April 17, 2009 at 10:38 pm

    I agree, happiness should be the key goal in any fitness program. If you aren’t happy about doing it, get out! Thanks for reading my novel of a reply. And don’t worry, the guys at your airbase will eventually get the air knocked out of their heads! Cheers!

    ~Rita

    Amos Volante said:
    April 18, 2009 at 4:35 am

    Benavidez,

    Good point about Youtube as a resource for proper form.

    Thanks for the effort of the novel reply, good stuff.

    David said:
    February 22, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Hey Magus, thanks for linking me this article. Some questions for you:

    1. You wrote this article almost a year ago now. Do you still stand by your assessment of crossfit? Are there any amendments you would make to this article if written today?

    2. I read on another one of your posts that you are a fan of alternating hard and easy days to allow time for recovery. Is this a requirement even when completing circuits that focus a primary muscle group and then alternating which days you hit which muscle groups?

    Really enjoy your content, particularly your insights into fitness. Thanks!

    magus71 responded:
    February 24, 2010 at 7:28 am

    Dave,

    1. My assessment of Crossfit remains, with a caveat. I always encourage people to do whatever type of exercise they enjoy, as almost anything is better than nothing. I believe that soemone who used a standard weight training protocol and threw in some distance runs and sprints would do better than Crossfit. Crossfit is too random. Cross-training is very valuable and almost all professional athletes do it, but Crossfit over-randomizes training. Whatever domain you prefer, say running or weight training, I would do that 75% of the time, and than cross train the rest.

    Another problem I have is the constant intensity. We know that training is to prepare us for real life. It should allow us to function better in our time that we are not training. I think Croassfit will keep someone so fatigued that their actual performance in competition may be stunted. As a soldier I cannot afford to feel tired every day–I need to feel energized.

    But like I said, if you like Crossfit–do it. It can give you a good baseline for fitness. Just keep an open mind.

    2. When I say easy and hard, I mean perceived effort. Intensity can be measured in several ways–weight, time, reps, sets etc. So a hard day could be two different protocols. For instance if I ran 5 miles one day, I would consider that hard. Same if I did Tabada sprints. And easy day may be walking, light calisthenics or nothing at all.

    If you did 10 sets of bench press in one workout and felt smoked at the end, that would be a hard day. If you did one set and didn’t feel tired, you could probably do that for several days, even weeks before you needed a change or rest. Anothe rthing I do is my 300 Rep calisthenics routine. That’s hard. 100 reps would be easy. Sometimes I’ll give myself two hard days in a row–three at the most. But mostly I train between 3-4 times per week and soemtimes only 2 and alternate hard, easy.

    So let “perceived effort”–how hard something feels be your guide.

    magus71 responded:
    February 24, 2010 at 7:32 am

    And Dave, take a look at this article on periodization:

    https://soldiercitizen.wordpress.com/2009/05/15/the-basics-of-periodization/

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