Be careful who you talk to about CROSSFIT…

posted in: Miscellaneous, Uncategorized | 15

Not too long ago, I received a comment that was held for moderation on my blogpost about CrossFit. Here is the comment word-for-word:

Quit hating on Crossfit!!!!…you are not objective and you’re followers are mis-informed. Honestly, I don’t want to take the time to educate you….

wrong

Let me paraphrase that for you…

Quit hating on CrossFit!!!! You’re an idiot and so is everyone that listens to you. I am enlightened, but won’t share my secrets with you because I don’t want you to beat me on today’s WOD, Fran!

All joking aside, and in my defense, I think I offered a well-balanced perspective on CrossFit. I mentioned the pros and cons of the system from a non-biased perspective, and even concluded with a suggestion to attend a CrossFit seminar (with some precautions in mind). I definitely wasn’t hating on the system at all.

I am a strong critic and an eternal skeptic, and some significant aspects of CrossFit concern me greatly. For instance, the founder Greg Glassman admits that “[CrossFit] can kill you” (NY Times article here) Things like that tend to raise a warning flag in my book, among many others.

Needless to say, I didn’t publish the comment because it offered nothing of value to the discussion, but it got me thinking…

Isn’t this the kind of blind following that CrossFit is renowned for (not every CrossFit trainee, but many of the ones I’ve encountered)? It’s this attitude of we-are-holier-than-thou. We are the enlightened ones, and all who oppose us are nonobjective and misinformed. It sounds like a cult-following to me!

Well, excuse me if I don’t bite the hook, line, and sinker on the CrossFit method. I’d rather sit back and make a thoughtful analysis of the system before I commit my entire training program over to it, no questions asked. I happen to see several things about CrossFit that worry me, and I have yet to receive any proof that my suspicions are unfounded.

For instance, I have yet to find proof that CrossFit is a safe, healthy, and sustainable activity. In fact, I’ve found plenty of anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Read some of the comments in the CrossFit Q+A to get started collecting some evidence of its risks and dangers. The more people I talk to about CrossFit, the more I realize that it does have a “dark side” – usually injury and pain, or worse.

You don’t even have to be a fitness professional to realize this. Just take a peek at any one of the CrossFit workout videos (this one is a doosie!) that they post regularly on CrossFit.com. One of the most common problems with CrossFit training is that most of the athletes compromise on technique to achieve higher intensity, and it’s very obvious. Sure, you can get away with this for a little while, but using poor technique in any exercise will condition you to repeat that activity poorly – leading to overuse and/or repetitive stress injuries down the road. The process usually goes like this: first diminishing returns, then a plateau in progress, regress, pain, injury, illness and eventually death. I guess that’s what Glassman was talking about.

Now, I’ve got nothing against the people who willingly and knowingly decide to go this route – free will is not the issue here. I just need to make sure that people know the costs of CrossFit before they choose to blindly participate without someone telling them that they WILL GET INJURED. I know too many people who have tried CrossFit on a whim, and gotten hurt, sometimes severely.

Conclusion

Now, hear me out on this. I want CrossFit to succeed. I want them to continue to do what they’re doing, and especially to focus on how to better serve their clientele. I think it’s safe to say that CrossFit is growing rapidly (maybe too fast!), and there are some people involved with it that legitimately want to help others rediscover vibrant health and natural athleticism, irregardless of private interests or potential for personal gain. I’ve met some very nice CrossFitters who are objective and smart about their training, and who are willing to talk about both the strengths and weaknesses of their system. Some of them have great ideas for how to improve the quality of their coaching.

However, I see some very strong dogmatic views being expressed and followed, and that worries me because it leaves little room for freethinking, questioning convention, and asking “is this really the best way to accomplish our goals?”

I would hope that CrossFit, fast becoming one of the worlds most popular fitness systems, would be open to change if it were presented logically. Instead, I see a business giant growing too fast for its own good, sacrificing quality control for profit.

And before the hate mail starts pouring, let me stress again that there are many things about CrossFit that I like, and I would encourage anyone to attend a seminar to evaluate for themselves if CrossFit is right for them. My goal is to be transparent, and to talk about the things that seem to be overlooked by others.

Now, if you like Crossfit, but don’t want to get injured, kill yourself, (etc.), then allow me to recommend the TACFIT system, which is a comparable health-first alternative that has some similarities to Crossfit – without many of the downsides. I’ve been to TACFIT seminars and used many of the programs over the past several years, and I can say that TACFIT is a far superior alternative to Crossfit in many ways. You can learn more about it here, if you’re interested: Interview with Scott Sonnon about TACFIT – The Premier “Tactical Fitness” System.

To your health and success,

CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT
Fitness Professional

P.S. I think there are better alternatives out there for those whom are interested well-rounded fitness. For example, I would recommend the TACFIT program to anyone that recognizes the obvious risks involved with CrossFit and wants something that will pack as much punch in terms of effectiveness, but is rooted in health-first strength and conditioning practices. If you want all that CrossFit has to offer in terms of conditioning (and then some, IMO), and you want to stay injury-free for life, then I highly recommend TACFIT, which has proven injury-prevention methods directly programmed into the sessions. Plus, each workout is comprised of 4 different levels of difficulty, meaning you have the option to customize the program to your needs and conditioning level (no general WOD’s). You can learn more about it here: Interview with Scott Sonnon about TACFIT – The Premier “Tactical Fitness” System.

P.P.S. If you’d like to read my brief analysis of the CrossFit system, check out this post. And be sure to check out the follow-up to this post here: CrossFit at its Worst: Don’t Try This at Home!

15 Responses

  1. Personally, I thought your original article was balanced and written with an open mind. As someone who’s been doing CrossFit (among other things) for several years (I hold a Level 1 and various specialty certifications), I’ve seen a lot of good and bad in the approach.

    I will say that many of the bad things stem from poor training, misconceptions or substandard affiliates. I’ve been to CF gyms where they turn a blind eye to form in the name of intensity, and others who are almost dictatorial when it comes to proper movements and achieving full range of motion. The latter examples use level assessments and scale workouts accordingly.

    Unfortunately, correct form and technique doesn’t make for killer Youtube videos. Thus, you see a lot of stupidness…

  2. Thanks for your comment, Greg. It’s great to have your experience here.

  3. Hi John,

    Good post. I encounter this in many areas of my life on a daily basis. Trainers are often just as (if not, at times, more) guilty of “cult-following” as any trainee. Trainers in the cults of Chek, Verstegen, Sonnon (no offense intended!), Pavel, etc., only look at training through the lens of their leader’s viewpoints.

    I think the bottom line with these cults harkens back to the definition of the word. Cult means “religion,” in Latin, and, as such, a cult is a “community of like-minded individuals.”

    By the very nature of this type of structure, it is exclusive, and exclusionary – it seeks to pit itself over/above/against any other group.

    Does that make it right?

    Not at all. But for the people in the cult, all they see is their cult-ure. Their fellow cultists are constantly there to back them up.

    It’s kind of a useless battle to fight.

    Instead, I’m always interested in the background for the cult’s beliefs. What is/are the need/s that is/are being fulfilled by/through the cult, through membership in it, and also through the exclusivity of the cult?

    When I look at it from that perspective, I become more empathetic. I understand that the person is trying to feel connected to something, they want to achieve an image of themselves that they feel the cult offers, they want to belong to something that supports them, etc.

    If I can offer them those feelings from my own heart, then we can have a meaningful dialogue about it. Till then, though, we just butt heads.

    Josh

  4. Josh,

    No offense taken. Thanks for your comment.

    You do have a point that many fitness groups and communities are exclusive, and sometimes quite snobby about it.

    However, I disagree that all followers of popular fitness gurus only see training through the lens of their particular group. Sure, some coaches get blinded by the awe and “magic” behind their leaders system, but good coaches will be able to view a training system objectively.

    Every system has pros and cons, benefits and dangers. What CrossFit cannot provide, CST does, what CST cannot provide, MovNat does, what MovNat cannot provide, Exuberant Animal does, and so on. This isn’t to say that one system is better than the other, rather that one system may be better suited to providing for very specific needs that people have.

    An over-quoted line from Bruce Lee is “absorb what is useful, reject what is useless.” Now, a good coach knows that the various areas of specialty can be drawn on collectively to meet the needs of his clients. A poor coach will say “CrossFit (or whatever modality) will help you with ANY training goal.”

    That’s why I use CST, but am vigilant in exploring alternative training methods. If I find a better solution for health-first fitness, you better believe I’ll adopt some new training practices. But until then, I’ll keep going with what I know is working best.

    Also keep in mind, that even though there are some downfalls to exclusive fitness groups, there are also many advantages that shouldn’t be disregarded.

    Thanks again for your well-thought out comment.

  5. Mr. Sifferman,

    I quite enjoyed this post because when taking on various WODs or just some of their preferred exercise regimes the load was quite tough. I couldn’t quite get my mind around how weak hours of physical labor and martial arts must have left me, I mean, I couldn’t muster the power for what seemed an average feat in their methodology. It’s been years now and I consult Tsatsouline, Sonnon, Mantak Chia, Yang, Jwing-Ming….all sorts because each does what they do extremely well. Crossfit….I just don’t look them up much anymore, I want to learn and have fun and I love practicing….but not to time and I just hate running. That is a style of training that is not for me…like Shotokan…not my bag, just to pick at random honestly, what works for people should make it fun. Enjoying living is health, so practice should have an enjoyable quality or else it is just…unhealthy.

    Your initial web log was perfectly gentlemanly and fair, plus there seemed an obvious indication that you are prepared to offer specific examples from your experience on top of what you pointed out. ‘Fair play’ is my call.

  6. Thanks for the kind words Donovan. You bring up a very important point about training. It shouldn’t leave us utterly exhausted all the time – or technically disabled due to muscle soreness the next day.

    I’ve been there in my own training – working so hard for 1-2 hours that you’re just DONE by the end of it. Sometimes, you can barely walk after a grueling session, and the next day you’ll be in constant pain as shredded muscles can’t keep up with the repair process needed. And don’t stand up too fast, or those legs will light on fire!

    What’s the point of training if you only perform well during your planned workouts, but don’t have the ability to perform well afterwards?

    Training should leave you feeling fresh and prepared, not beaten and drained.

  7. Hey.

    I don’t do CrossFit, but I have absorbed some stuff of the kind that they do into my training. I have been toying with the Idea and have been reading a lot about CrossFit in general.

    Personally I feel that some of the reservations here and in your original post are, maybe, a little generalist.

    First off, the “randomisation” element. I regularly look at (rather pointless I suppose but I find it interesting) Crossfit.com and my local (i.e. closest) crossfit affiliate.

    While the workouts do appear random, on the “Mainsite” they are programmed by the Glassmans, presumably, with some structure. I presume this because my local affiliate has a very strong element of programming involved. Often I see the WOD being based around either a skill, a lift or an approach to a lift. Followed by a conditioning session.

    Also the “Mainsite WOD” seems to be a higher level pursuit, it should be pointed out that an affiliate is probably the best place to start and a good affiliate will not let you plunge into the mainsite WOD. Most of them will operate their own WOD. In my local crossfit, they help scale WOD’s for individuals.

    Further more, many Affiliates have Beginner programmes, which will involve (precisely as you suggested above) training lifts with broomsticks or PVC pipes. Many giving totally seperate WOD’s to allow beginners to ramp up their intensity before hitting the affiliate WOD. My Local Affiliate has a programme such as this, and they (like many other affiliates) are very keen on strong form.

    Also here I could point out the ever useful BrandX crossfit forum. Which supplies 4 grades of scaled versions of the Mainsite WOD every day. It also proposes substitutions in case a particular exercise is beyond a trainees capabilities.

    In addition Crossfit puts out a huge amount of information and training guidance, using some very well qualified trainers and experts. The journal is an immense resource. With many articles which could as useful to trainer outside Crossfit as those within.
    Many of these articles are about form and ensuring good form.

    I suppose what it boils down to is crossfit is a system of training.
    Any system, is only as good as the trainer that administers it.

    On the cult thing, I see it. It seems silly to me.
    However there are many users who do not buy into it.
    Who use it Crossfit as a open source general fitness programme.
    There are affiliates who do things differently.

    A good example is a piece I read on Pullups. Much is made of the “Default Pullup” of crossfit being the kipping pullup. Some people doing crossfit do kipping pullups and couldnt do a strict pullup.
    I have read of at least one affiliate who will not let trainees kip untill they can manage a certain number of dead hang strict pullups.

    Finally I think specificity is great, if you have something specific to train for. But if you don’t (like me) Crossfit is a really attractive proposition.

    By the way this is a really good conversation on Crossfit that you have here. It makes a pleasant change from the usual “GREG GLASSMAN IS TEH FATZ” malarky. I like your site.

  8. Hi Moose,

    Thanks for your comment – I’m glad you like the site.

    You’re right, my analysis of CrossFit is a little generalized. By your own admission, the CrossFit method varies from coach to coach, affiliate to affiliate, and from HQ to the actual trainees performing the work. So, it’s naturally difficult to make sweeping conclusions about the CrossFit system, being that affiliates sometimes don’t even teach the same methods that CrossFit HQ officially endorses. Like I said in the article above, it’s an issue of quality control.

    And I completely agree that the best thing to do is to meet with a local affiliate before attempting any of the WOD’s. My advice is to seek out only the highest level trainers, since all it takes is a weekend seminar to become a CrossFit level 1 trainer – everyone passes, even someone with no past training experience, poor conditioning, and zero coaching experience = a recipe for disaster. So, you have to be careful who you learn from.

    No doubt, there are some excellent S&C coaches using the CrossFit system. I just wouldn’t use a CrossFit qualification to determine who is actually qualified to instruct.

    Concerning the random nature of the WOD’s… I’m sure there is a method behind Glassman’s madness. I just don’t think the madness is what people really need, even if they don’t have laser-focused goals. And I have a hard time accepting the notion of general workouts for any goal. Everything we do is specifically conditioning us for something, whether we like it or not. This concerns me… :)

  9. Hi,

    I will try not to repeat things that have already been said but would like to add a couple points. As someone who has been training competitively for as long as she can remember with various coaches and trainers along the way (eventually becoming one myself), I can honestly say that crossfit is one of the most enjoyable and challenging methodologies I’ve subscribed to. Having said that, I fully agree that it can be dangerous IF done incorrectly. The point I’d like to make is that ANYthing can be dangerous if performed incorrectly, to varying degrees. Running has killed more people in the last decade from hyponitremia and rhabdomyolysis than crossfit has. The “problem” with Crossfit’s danger is that it’s more acute than a lot of training styles. Anyone who thinks they can learn what is needed off the mainpage videos or youtube, WILL hurt themselves. Someone who doesn’t realize that you shouldn’t be doing the mainpage WOD as rx’d if you’re not an expert WILL hurt themselves. This point was addressed at my level 1 cert: the weights posted are the “ambitious” weights and not ones that are expected of new or your average crossfitter. Creating a conditioning phase within the crossfit regime is something every self-respecting trainer does for their clients. I don’t believe anyone could expect the mainpage to provide a personalized approach for thousands of people and, as such, don’t see that it should be criticized for it’s “generalized” approach.

    There are some treacherous videos on youtube that I hate to see out there because it’s well understood that a plethora of inexperienced and untrained people will attempt to replicate what they see. Unfortunately there were even a couple brutal affiliate videos. At the end of the day I think what crossfit has to offer as far as results, overall fitness, and a positive community is huge. I’ve been practicing crossfit for two years now and it’s the longest time I’ve been injury free since the age of 12. I know there are very unsafe ways of “crossfitting”…but that’s usually a result of impatience for learning proper technique before trying to improve your Fran time. Technique dictates intensity and most fit people know from experience that pushing things a little TOO far (i.e no longer finding an 80/20 technique split) is what injured them…not the “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity”. To quote glassman “unsound mechanics at submaximal loads = injury”. Everyone wants to jump in and run with the big kids before learning how to walk. Being patient and removing ego from the equation eliminates a lot of problems unrelated to any of the “madness” in Crossfit programming.

    Understandably there is the argument that Crossfit grew too quickly to properly monitor quality. The only point I’d like to provide on this is that they’ve been working on changing the system. The level 2 is now far more challenging to pass, with an over 70% failure rate(“level 2” used to require simply completing another level 1 cert), and opening an affiliate is going to require having a level 2 cert. Having said that, they also encourage trainers and crossfitters alike to do other certification courses and not stop at the level one. Ex: Rippetoe O-lift cert, Agatsu Kettlebell certs, Robb Wolf nutrition cert . To fully criticize something I think it’s important to understand the ins and outs as well as to give it an honest try. That’s how I started with Crossfit (said I’d “try it” for two weeks). If you never try then everything comes down to speculation, though I agree Crossfit is not for everyone. As much as it can be seen as a cult-like community…I’ve been on two varsity teams and felt far more “cultish” than in being involved in Crossfit. I don’t actually see anything wrong as long as they’re out enjoying themselves, being fit, and staying safe while doing it. And finally, critiquing whatever method of training you favor is the only way you can make it better.

    I only recently discovered your site and am so far enjoying what you have to say.
    Cheers,
    E

  10. I feel that some of the reservations here and in your original post are, maybe, a little generalist.

  11. JamesMarine0341

    I just tried to make a simple point about proper burpees and proper push-up form on the crossfit main site. Having seen many in and out of the Marine Corps who have sustained injuries due to improper form and harmful “intensity” irregardless of one’s limitations and good common sense. I tried to make this point in a friendly and constructive manner but was virtually attacked by some who claimed to be former marines and such and then subsequently had my posts completely deleted. Mind you, there was nothing incendiary in those posts aside from a gentle questioning of the WOD in the youtube video above and why the burpees and push-ups were counted despite what can only be described as atrocious form. A few members agreed with me but not sure what happened to them. Also, I have taken the elements course a few years back and have been training in and out of the military for many years so I’m not exactly a newbie. I have been training in CF for over 3 years. I liked crossfit and most of its training philosphies but this kind of turned me off to their leadership and has me questioning the validity of some of their teachings. I’m also not quite sure what posting “an awesome time” on Fran really does in the real world. Too many members of CF like to brag about their WOD times while doing absolutely nothing in the real world that utilizes their alleged newfound “athleticism”. By the way, they apparently banned me completely from posting.

  12. Bravo… well written, mature and responsible.. Both articles. I own a training studio surrounded by 6 (yes 6) crossfit gyms within 2 miles. I have been here for 6 years, they started popping up 1 year ago. i will be here for 50 more. I sense most of these will pop up and fad out just like spinning, just like jazzercise and many other (perfectly legitimate) but over-hyped fitness fads. You have to constantly change your workout, if you become a fanatic of one movement system it will ultimately lead to burnout, boredom and at worst over use injuries.

  13. Awesome article! I’ve done tons of personal reading and research and participated in many different training methods, and I’ve been impressed with Crossfit but also a little wary of it. I think you make some really good points and you are absolutely correct. Sometimes I ask myself, “How long can the human body sustain the Crossfit style at the high intensity that crossfit demands?” It seems to me that someone can’t possibly do olympic lifting and kipping pullups fromage 20 to age 60 year after year after year. Tissue just breaks down, joints get old, etc etc…..

    Good job John!

  14. Although your posts treat Crossfit fairly, it is apparent to me you have not trained Crossfit for any real length of time, if at all. It is also suspect whether you have had instruction from a quality Crossfit trainer. You can find the bad in any group. If you have please let us know for how long you have trained and who with (if they are okay with it).

    I merely want to point this out because although your opinion is valued and your credentials valued it isn’t coming from a place of direct experience. It was pointed out your posts are bit general and I would agree. You are providing a balanced opinion on the matter, but not an expert opinion coming from direct experience within Crossfit itself.

    Having been avidly involved with Crossfit for three years, certified CF level 1 and licensed as a chiropractor for 13 years I can say Crossfit has some extremely beneficial effects.

    @John sorry to say, but your assessment isn’t correct. Muscles don’t just arbitrarily break down as you describe. Please feel free to review the video from this years Crossfit games featuring the Masters competitors to see how Crossfit affects age.

    I only wish I had the opportunity to do Crossfit the last 20 years instead of three.

    The fundamental problem is the phrase “I’ve tried Crossfit” is bantered around as condemnation against the programming. If you aren’t training at a good to excellent affiliate then you are not really doing Crossfit. If you are not continually committed to excellence and seeking to expand your knowledge and understanding in Crossfit (including nutrition, recovery/stretch, mastery of 10 fitness domains, O-lifting – commonly ignored, etc), then you aren’t really doing Crossfit.

    @JamesMarine0341 I’m sorry you had that experience. But there are apparently a-holes everywhere. I could share stories of my experiences at CF affiliates as well as Globo gyms where ego’s reign high. I hope you stick with it because of the merits of the concepts and not let others fragile ego’s hold you back.

    Detractors point to the flaws within Crossfit either in training protocol or personality conflict. The athletes that competed this year at the Crossfit games all expanded on their training protocol to include recovery, stretching and many other modalities common in the fitness arena today. The real test to any other GPP training protocol is to match up against Crossfit. Pick some stuff your program is great at, pick some stuff that is neutral (ie. a random sport), then pick some stuff Crossfit is great at. Establish a scoring criteria and see what happens. This is one way to measure one program against another. Crossfit welcomes others to prove their protocol superior.

    Some people miss the point that Crossfit is the “sport” of fitness. And in sport their is ego. C’mon have you seen how pro ball players act. And they get paid big bucks to play and they still act like idiots sometimes. If you don’t like Crossfit, fine, remove the name. But, be sure to check out Olympic lifting, basic gymnastics, plyometrics, powerlifting and the slew of other training modalities that comprise Crossfit. They will help round out your fitness experience and help you grow.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Thanks for the posts, I’ll keep reading.

    • Hi Joseph,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. You bring up an important point, and I want to be very clear with my readers. My experience with CrossFit is somewhat limited. I followed the WOD as-is for 3 months several years ago. After that, I deliberately stopped all CrossFit-style training, and I’ve never gone back. Some may argue that this is not long enough to truly understand the system. I think it was plenty of time to experience what I needed. Apart from that, I worked with a few CrossFit trainers back in 2006, but never with someone who was ONLY CrossFit certified and who ONLY uses CrossFit training protocol. In my experience, the best CrossFit coaches are the ones who blend their own knowledge and experience with some of the CrossFit system strengths – not coaches whom are only only CrossFit certified.

      you wrote:
      “You are providing a balanced opinion on the matter, but not an expert opinion coming from direct experience within Crossfit itself.”

      This is exactly why I published these posts on CrossFit, because I can offer an unbiased review for my readers.

      you wrote:
      Crossfit has some extremely beneficial effects.

      I partially agree. CrossFit does have some benefits as I’ve noted above, but also some drawbacks. One of them is that any performance-first fitness system, puts performance before health. Therefore, some aspects of health will deteriorate because of the priority that performance holds in the training programs.

      you wrote:
      “@John sorry to say, but your assessment isn’t correct. Muscles don’t just arbitrarily break down as you describe.”

      I never said that in either of my CrossFit reviews, nor would I ever say that muscles just arbitrarily break down. May I ask what you are referring to?

      you wrote:
      “Please feel free to review the video from this years Crossfit games featuring the Masters competitors to see how Crossfit affects age.”

      I’ve reviewed enough CrossFit videos :)

      But seriously, appearance is only one indicator of health, and you can only understand a fraction of what makes up our health from looking at a person, and especially from watching a video. Our culture has created an artificial image of what good health should look like anyways.

      you wrote:
      “The fundamental problem is the phrase “I’ve tried Crossfit” is bantered around as condemnation against the programming. If you aren’t training at a good to excellent affiliate then you are not really doing Crossfit. If you are not continually committed to excellence and seeking to expand your knowledge and understanding in Crossfit (including nutrition, recovery/stretch, mastery of 10 fitness domains, O-lifting – commonly ignored, etc), then you aren’t really doing Crossfit.”

      I agree, and like I said in one comment above, it’s an issue of quality control.

      Thanks again for your comment, Joseph.