Don't Blame CrossFit; It's All About Coaching

STACK Expert Dalton Oliver says critics of CrossFit should focus on the coaching, not the brand.

Editor's Note: This article is being republished to correct references to CrossFit as a "franchise" (CrossFit gyms are affiliates of CrossFit Inc., not franchises) and references to individuals who complete a CrossFit Level 1 seminar as "certified" (they receive a certificate, but they are not certified in the formal sense of that word as it is used in the strength and conditioning field). Thanks to Derek Fields of CrossFit for calling these misleading references to our attention.

When it comes to your CrossFit program, the coach or trainer matters more than the brand itself.

I've read enough "insights" on this particular brand to make me wish the internet had never been created. Every day, otherwise-enlightened coaches offer shortsighted, and for some reason, emotional, thoughts on CrossFit. They neither work with CrossFit coaches nor witness the process themselves, but they feel the need to clog our news feeds in ignorant attempts to preach their own rationale.

I am not writing an article on this brand to make an uneducated judgment as to whether it is "good" or "bad" as a whole, like so many have done before me. Plenty of those articles exist, and I could honestly care less what they say any more. I'm here to force-feed a simple concept that many have either forgotten, overlooked or downplayed amid the rants and marketing schemes.

I'm considered an independent trainer, strength coach and sports nutritionist with certifications to verify the titles. I apply my best efforts and due diligence to create evidence-based and highly refined programs for my clients on an individualized basis. I do this with six years of formal education, 10 years of experience (often in advanced settings), and a deep rationale to support each and every judgment call I make.

So my question to those who argue so adamantly against CrossFit is: "If I became a CrossFit coach tomorrow, would you call me a bad coach?" With this perspective, you can see why it troubles me when people ask my position on a brand rather than a coach.

In a "box" with ropes, tires, bars and Olympic platforms, I could go to town. Granted, the workouts would be nothing like what you've probably seen for standard WODs, but who's to say many coaches aren't already modifying these workouts accordingly?

Consider the alternatives to these standardized routines. For trainers just starting out, generalized workouts help them become more comfortable with programming by simplifying things (albeit, seemingly a bit too much) and offering direction to the trainer. Some programs preach programming and theory. This one seems to focus on form. You tell me which one leads to more dangerous trainers.

Moreover, if you think CrossFit workouts are ineffective, try three variations of Bicep Curls and some Leg Raises, or whatever else was mentioned in fluff magazines this month, because that's what's happening under many trainers at more gyms than I can count. (Check out these 6 popular exercises that are a waste of time.)

Yes, many brands have standardized their methods with generalized, but scalable, routines that take much of the critical thought out of training, so the trainer can focus on form and motivation. In my opinion, this is better than allowing new trainers to have free rein, but it holds advanced practitioners back a great deal. When we consider the problem plaguing commercial gyms—trainers taking clients through ineffective and unsafe workouts—maybe this is not such a bad thing after all.

To become a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, individuals must only successfully complete a weekend seminar; but most trainers we see at larger franchise gyms don't have a single hour of mentorship under their belts. Many could argue there's more mentorship involved in CrossFit than at most gyms.

On the other hand, I could offer an enlightened position on the safety concerns (and general ineffectiveness) of high-rep Olympic lifting; the need for a system when using multi-modal routines, skill acquisition and refinement of gymnastics movements before employing them to fatigue; and effectiveness of working out  in large groups. However, I refuse to give my opinion on a brand as a whole unless we are specifically talking about branding. This would only downplay the role and importance of the individual coach.

Outstanding coaches create outstanding workouts, regardless of the sign on the door. They can do this in a warehouse gym, a tiny garage-style box, or in the middle of a field. Some might use accelerometers and force plates, while others employ cones and sandbags. I have used GPS tracking software, heart rate monitors, bumper plates, fancy racks, cables and bands, but they are all simply tools in my toolbox. My education (formal and informal), experience and mentorship under great coaches and therapists give these devices value, not vice versa.

Your coach will have more of an impact on how well you learn and implement whatever exercises are called for a given day—random or otherwise.

A great coach knows what limiting factors are involved in each movement, both mechanically and metabolically, to best instruct you on how to enhance your performance. A great coach considers variables such as sleep and diet, and accounts for them in your programming. A great coach walks the line between encouraging optimal effort and setting parameters, instead of the simple-minded "Go-go-go!" approach. A great coach welcomes scrutiny and new, often opposing, perspectives.

Coaching competence and commitment should always be the primary question when discussing the effectiveness of training—no matter the brand.

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