Why I’m neither a lover, nor a hater of CrossFit

Why I’m neither a lover, nor a hater of CrossFit

By Robbie Gallaugher: An article written for www.clubawesome.ca discussing CrossFit.

 

It’s no secret that CrossFit has gained notable popularity in the fitness scene over recent years. It’s now difficult to go a day without being exposed to some mention of the fitness program whether it is on social media or in conversation. The success of it’s business model is impressive, and while many argue that it won’t last, there is no question in my mind that it will be around for at least the foreseeable future.

As someone who holds a degree in exercise science I’ve always been curious as to what the CrossFit craze was all about. I would speak with friends who joined it and were addicted, and then I would turn around and speak with my colleagues who would bad mouth everything to do with it. I had formed my own opinion, but withheld writing about it because I had never gone in and experienced a CrossFit workout for myself.

So a little over a week ago I signed up for a free intro workout, and after completing it my opinion has stayed the same; I’m neither a lover, nor a hater of CrossFit.

 

The Experience

As I walked through the doors I viewed a bustling gym full of 20 and 30 somethings doing deadlifts and looking determined. I was greeted by the owner and given directions to the back change rooms. Slowly some more newbies arrived and as the preceding class cleared out, 8 of us gathered around to hear what the hour-long morning session had in store for us.

We were told that our workout would consist of four sections; warm-up, mobility, metabolic conditioning and cool-down. We would be skipping the strength section and focusing on less-skilled movements since it was our first time.

Our warm up involved us breaking up into two teams where were would compete in a relay race. The race was compiled of sprints, push-ups, air-squats and burpees. These were followed by partner piggybacks and sandbag carries in a non-race format. Teams then had to perform a bonus set of an exercise (burpees or push-ups) depending on whether they had won or lost.

Our mobility section mainly focused on the hips by slowly stretching while holding a deep lunge position. As we got to our lowest point small circular motions were introduced. We then stretched our calves at the request of a participant, after the instructor asked if there was anything in particular we wanted to focus on.

The metabolic conditioning section was next and paired us off into four teams of two. We had eight minutes to attempt to perform eight sets of burpees and wall balls. The key was that we alternated the exercises with our partner, so we couldn’t move onto our next set until we had both finished. We kept track of how many we had completed by setting aside little stones each time a set was finished. Teams then had to perform bonus sets based on their ranking at the end of the 8 minutes.

To finish off we cooled down with a light row on the erg for 3 minutes.

Overall, we all had a good sweat on by the end of the hour and the experience was pretty much what I expected, but here is why I am not a lover, nor a hater of CrossFit.

 

Not a Lover

As a fitness trainer some key red flags went up for me throughout the hour. They were:

1. The warm-up was quite inappropriate. A proper warm-up should be slow and focus mainly on raising the heart rate just enough that the muscles are warm and loose for activity without posing a threat for injury. A typical warm-up should be a slow 5-10 minute cardio activity and some dynamic stretching.

This particular warm-up had us performing full-on power and ballistic movements from the get-go where speed was encouraged because we were in a race. We also had to carry other people on our backs where I (at 5’7) had to carry a guy that was roughly 6ft tall and well over my own weight. The one female in the group also had to carry a male well beyond her own weight.

 

2. Our mobility section mainly focused on leg strength and static stretching. While stretching our hips we held a deep static lunge for a lengthy period of time, switching the focus away from flexibility and more toward leg and core stability. Typically your muscles should be as relaxed as possible during stretching and holding this position for such a long period of time forced our entire bodies to tense up.

Although minimal circular motions were performed at one point, the bulk of the stretching was static. Research shows that static stretching prior to exercise is less than ideal as it actually inhibits our muscular and nervous systems from working efficiently together.

 

3. It was clear that our instructor lacked knowledge in exercise science. This was demonstrated by the inappropriate warm-up and his comments regarding static and dynamic stretching, where he explained that different bodies react differently to each type of stretch so it’s just a personal preference as to which one you choose.

I researched all trainers’ credentials on their website afterward to find that they only hold CrossFit training certifications. My experience, paired with my research, tell me that these certifications are likely lacking in a science-backed curriculum. The CrossFit training certifications were created by Founder Greg Glassman; a former gymnastics coach with no formal exercise science education (that could be found in my research), and a trainer who eventually started his own gym after being let go from other gyms due to his unconventional training methods. Glassman also no longer does CrossFit himself due to a knee injury (the cause is unknown).

 

4. CrossFit has created modified techniques for some (not all) exercises in an attempt to focus on speed. While I’m a fan of modifying exercises based on the participants, situations and desired focus and effects, it’s important that biomechanical safety is still demonstrated. The push-ups and burpees in this particular class taught a modified technique that diminished the role of the core muscles and as a result put our spines in compromising positions at high speeds.

 

5. Although the light row on the erg was an appropriate cool-down activity, it should have been followed by some static stretching to finish off the workout. Static stretching not only helps improve flexibility, but it also helps remove lactic acid build up that is produced during the high-intensity training found in CrossFit. This would have helped decrease muscle soreness in the days following the workout.

 

6. This last criticism is partially covered in a few of the previous points, however it does deserve its own statement as it is what I believe to be the biggest risk of CrossFit, and that is the risk of injury. The technique modifications, need for speed and lack of properly structured workouts and program intensity puts the participants at a high risk for both acute and long-term injuries. Things such as the improper warm-ups and techniques are obvious risks for injury, however the constant high intensity of power moves and the “work until you die” mentality places significant stress on the body’s joints and muscles that can have negative long-term effects.

If you look at any periodization program for an elite athlete you will find that it has many different cycles that vary across low, moderate and high intensities each day, week and month. This ensures optimal performance gains without the risk of injury or burnout over both the short and long term.

 

Not a Hater

On the plus side, there were some great things that were evident during my CrossFit experience:

1. There is a focus on compound exercises – ones that use multiple joints to perform an action. Compound movements tend to show results faster and have multiple benefits such as keeping your heart rate up, burning more calories and building functional strength.

 

2. If you are a competitive person, you’ll love the fact that CrossFit is very competition based. Safety aside, the racing and comparing performances to others in your class can be a huge motivator.

 

3. There is an incredible sense of community within CrossFit. A strong sense of community is proven to be instrumental in increasing the likelihood of participants sticking with activities. Teamwork and motivational support among participants are also heavily promoted during the workouts.

 

4. I was impressed to learn that CrossFit has an OnRamp program which is a series of one-on-one training sessions. Each session covers a particular movement skill and introduces the new CrossFitter to the techniques and terminology needed to step into a CrossFit class. Although I question some of the techniques, I do appreciate the effort being made to educate the participant before they start regular CrossFit workouts.

 

I do recognize that this was one experience, at one particular gym, on one particular day and it’s important to keep that in perspective. However, CrossFit is a business and program model that has its own business and instruction certifications, so like any type of franchise or unified affiliate your experience should be similar across all CrossFit locations.

 

How I Would Do It

If I was put in charge of structuring an intro CrossFit session here’s what I would do:

1. I would ask the participants at the beginning what their previous fitness experience was and if they had any past or current injury or condition that I should be aware of so that I could modify activities appropriately.

 

2. I would combine the warm-up and mobility sections and start with 5 minutes of light rowing, followed by 5 minutes of dynamic stretching and low intensity movements for the entire body in a non-competitive format. At the end of this section I would add a 5-minute competitive component such as a relay race, but would not include carrying people on each other’s backs.

 

3. I would increase the metabolic conditioning section from 8 minutes to 30 (with instruction time). I would keep the commonly used CrossFit compound exercises included, but focus on technique over speed to ensure that the core muscles were actively engaged and the spine and lower back were never put in compromising positions. I would incorporate competitions into this section, but only use non-technical and non-weight-bearing exercises such as running, jumping, skipping, hopping, etc. I would save the more technical and weight-bearing exercise for the non-competitive portions.

 

4. Given that this is the first high intensity workout for the participants I would increase the cool-down from 3 minutes to 15. I would keep the original 3-5 minutes on the rowing erg to bring the heart rate down and help remove lactic acid from the muscles, but I would also add 10 minutes of static stretching to remove additional lactic acid, improve flexibility and loosen the muscles that have just spent the past hour contracting.

 

The Takeaway

If you choose to join CrossFit know that your risk for acute and long-term injuries is higher than other programs, but you can partially lower this risk by arriving early and staying late to do proper warm-ups and cool-downs by yourself outside of regular class time.

As you’ve just read, I believe there are both pros and cons to doing CrossFit. I also believe there are fully accessible ways to committing yourself to similar high intensity workouts and seeing similar results without the high risk of injury.

As in any field there are people who are outstanding and people who are less than outstanding at their jobs, regardless of their previous experience or education. It’s up to you to do your research and make an informed decision that you are comfortable with. Talk with people you know who do CrossFit, people who don’t do CrossFit, people who work with trainers, people who play sports and give something a try that you think you will have the best chance at sticking with over the long term.

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