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Seems like everyone is doing CrossFit. Athletes, regular Joes and Janes, meatheads, your old Little League coach. Everyone.
And that's a good thing. Well, sort of.
I understand why CrossFit would be a logical draw for a baseball player—or any athlete for that matter. The workouts are quick, challenging and are typically done in a team environment.
That being said, as someone who trains a lot of elite baseball players, I have a unique perspective on the demands of the sport, and I think CrossFit is not a good fit for baseball.
To be honest, in the past I've written my share of "choice words" about CrossFit. There are many things about it I don't agree with or advocate. But then again, I think veganism is weird, and some people out there think Justin Bieber makes good music. So, who am I to judge?
What I Like About CrossFit
To keep things fair and balanced, here's what I like about CrossFit:
- They've done a superb job of making exercise—particularly lifting weights—cool.
- More importantly, they've put barbells into people's hands. They generally place a premium on free weights and stick to compound movements, which I love.
- It gets people to work hard. Many people—athletes included—have no idea what it's actually like to train with some semblance of intensity.
- There's an unprecedented sense of camaraderie among CrossFitters. It's hard to knock anything that gets people that excited to train.
What I Don't Like About CrossFit
This list could rival a Tolkien novel in length, but here's a cut down version:
- I'm not a fan of the low barrier to entry. From what I've gathered, all someone has to do to become "certified" is to take a weekend course and pay a franchise fee. BAM, they're in.
- CrossFit's one-size-fits-all programming model is playing with fire, considering that their classes include people from all walks of life on a daily basis. That someone who's never lifted a weight in his life, is 25 pounds overweight, has two herniated discs, and suffers from Type 1 diabetes should be doing the same workout as a former collegiate athlete is downright absurd.
- There's a legitimate lack of assessment taking place, with no proper system for progression and regression. This varies from box to box, but it's a widespread problem.
Why This is a Problem for Baseball Players
The issues I have with CrossFit apply universally to anyone who participates, but they are particularly problematic for baseball players. (Learn about CrossFit's injury rates.)
The problem comes down to laxity, or hypermobility. Baseball players are notorious for being loose, which has its benefits and pitfalls.
On the one hand, laxity helps players throw hard. A perfect example is former major league closer Billy Wagner. His laxity allowed him to have a crazy layback, or external rotation, in his arm, which helped him throw over 100 mph.
Billy Wagner. Photo via AP Images
On the other hand, this amount of mobility must be controlled safely. If it's not, the athlete risks an injury.
This is why at Cressey Performance, we're fans of using the Beighton Laxity Scale. It helps us "screen" our athletes to determine if they are lax or stiff. If someone scores between a six and nine on the test, it's a safe bet they're hypermobile and may need more attention to detail on their programming. Unfortunately, this is something CrossFit rarely—if ever—offers.
Something else to consider are the unique demands placed on the body when throwing a baseball, as noted in my article Why Baseball Players Shouldn't Bench Press: Baseball pitching is the single-fastest motion in all of sports, as the humerus (the upper arm bone) internally rotates at velocities in excess of 7,000 degrees per second. Worse, the amount of stress placed on the elbow is equivalent to hanging a 40-pound dumbbell on a string from your hand to the ground. So, the shoulder has to deal with some significant forces during baseball games. Adding stress to it in the weight room can exacerbate any issues and accelerate a potential overuse injury.
Taking an athlete who is hypermobile and under stress from throwing, and asking him to participate in workouts that call for high-rep Olympic lifts and kipping Pull-Ups (among other questionable methods) is not a wise use of training time.
Ask any competent strength or weightlifting coach his or her opinion regarding high-rep Olympic lifting, and you're bound to get everything from incessant eye rolling to heads pounding against a brick wall. It's just not what Olympic lifts were designed for.
Cleans, Snatches and everything else that falls under the Olympic "umbrella" are highly technical movements. Performing them in an excessively fatigued state is not ideal and may cause technique failure.
In addition, Olympic lifts place tremendous stress on the elbows and shoulders, further compounding the stress of performing baseball skills. And it becomes even more problematic when you toss in a dose of hypermobility into the picture.
At the risk of tossing another CrossFit "sacred cow" under the bus, I have to say that kipping Pull-Ups are no good for baseball players.
I understand that kipping Pull-Ups and traditional Pull-Ups are two different movements. But, to say that a kipping Pull-Up is even a Pull-Up is comical. It's a swing. There's very little "pulling" involved.
No doubt kipping Pull-Ups are a technical move, and I am impressed that some people out there can bust out more than 50 reps without blinking an eye. But let's not delude ourselves into thinking they're something they're not.
Funny enough, I remember a conversation I had last year with Boston University head strength coach Glenn Harris, during which he mentioned a conversation he had with a family friend. When asked his thoughts on kipping Pull-Ups, he replied, "Well, they're a way to cheat." To which she replied, "Yeah but, they allow you to do more!"
All kidding aside, similar to Olympic lifts, kipping Pull-Ups place great amounts of force and stress on the shoulders. This is particularly evident at the bottom of the swing. Baseball players should avoid them.
In a sport where shoulder stability is sacrificed for more mobility, CrossFit is not a risk worth taking in my opinion. Many others options exist that can provide a similar training effect.
In the end, CrossFit does have many benefits, and it's an OK fit for some people. However, given the unique demands of baseball, it's not a good fit for baseball players.