When incorporated safely and properly, CrossFit is a great strength and conditioning program for athletes who want to play sports at their highest potential. But it can be tough to find a CrossFit affiliate suited for the athlete. Below, I offer advice on how to get started.
The Program vs. The Sport
The first thing to understand is the two sides to CrossFit: 1) the strength and conditioning program; and 2) "The Sport of Fitness." If you have Googled CrossFit, seen the new Reebok commercials or watched last year's CrossFit Games on ESPN, you have witnessed "The Sport." But if you are a practicing athlete in a specific sport (or multiple sports), using "The Sport" side of CrossFit will not help you much. You need a strength and conditioning program that helps you to become the best athlete possible.
Intelligently programmed—that is, focused on helping you become more athletic overall—CrossFit can be very beneficial. The more athletic you become, the easier it will be to translate that athleticism to meet the demands of your sport. It's hard to become better at the skills of your sport in the gym—but you can definitely become more athletic. This will, in turn, make it easier to perform the skills you need—throwing, catching, hitting, shooting, climbing, swimming or skating.
Here's a checklist to use when contacting and visiting CrossFit affiliates:
Background of Coach/Trainer
Does the coach have only a CrossFit certification, or does he/she also have one or more certifications from other established organizations? Does the coach have a sports background? Although plenty of great coaches have not played sports, it is usually a good sign if they have. Knowing what you actually need on the field or court helps ensure you get the workout you need in the gym.
Group Size and Dynamic
Some CrossFit affiliates run classes of 20, 30 or more people at a time. As someone using the program to get better at sports, you would probably benefit from more focused attention. Even if the program itself is not personalized, you will need individual attention to achieve proper form and reduce the risk of injury. Try to find an affiliate that hosts smaller groups so that you can actually get trained.
Programming is always hit or miss, but it can still be fun. If you are training for a specific sport, good programming is the most important aspect of your training. Most affiliates post daily workouts on their websites, so it's easy to see their programming style. If they don't post it, just give them a call and ask. Below are some guidelines for weeding out programs that are bad for athletes.
Avoid gyms that use the following exercises and/or sequences in their programs:
- Kipping/Butterfly Pull-Ups
- Sumo Deadlift High Pulls
- High rep Olympic lifts (Cleans and Snatches in the 12+ range)
- High rep heavy lifts (e.g., Bodyweight Deadlifts for 21 reps)
- Metabolic conditioning or Workouts of the Day (WODs) that last longer than 12 minutes more than once a week
- Daily weighted and/or overuse of the shoulder
I write in detail on my site about the negative aspects of many common CrossFit exercises that I think athletes should avoid, but here are the main points:
- Kipping and high rep dynamic shoulder movements put excess stress on that area, while doing nothing to actually strengthen the muscles that support the shoulder girdle. As an athlete, you want strong, supportive shoulders that engage in the proper sequence when activated.
- Olympic lifts should be used to translate directly to dynamic strength (literally, power). Because of their technical qualities, they should be used as power and coordination builders, not in high rep workouts that will degrade your form and potentially lead to injury.
- Heavy lifts like Squats, Deadlifts and Presses should be used exclusively for strength building. In higher rep workouts, form will inevitably break down, and your risk of injury becomes greater than the net positive effects of the workout.
- Longer WODs not only force the body to use energy pathways that are rarely used in most sports, they also cause a dramatic breakdown in form. Although they are a great periodic fat burner, they should not be a common occurrence throughout the week.
Please note: I'm not saying CrossFit affiliates that put these exercises and sequences into their programming are bad affiliates. They are simply places I would not recommend to a high school athlete. If you want to be a college level athlete, you want CrossFit to help strengthen and condition you—not just follow "The Sport." When you find the right affiliate with the right coaches, you will be shocked at how well CrossFit works.
Josh Courage is a certified personal trainer, sports conditioning specialist and CrossFit coach. He owns Courage Performance in Bethesda, Md. With a diverse background that includes professional baseball, ultramarathons, triathlons, adventuring and CrossFit, Courage has become a highly sought-after coach in the greater Washington, D.C. area. His unique training methods and programming won him Best Personal Trainer in D.C. in 2009 by washingtoncitypaper.com. Visit CouragePerformance.com for more information.