Depending on whom you ask, CrossFit is either the greatest innovation in fitness, a dangerous risk to humanity or an expensive waste of time.
By now, everyone has seen photos of the ridiculously fit bodies athletes have developed "in the box," or has heard about the scary results of CrossFitters who pushed themselves too hard. If there's one thing I've learned from working in fitness, it's this: When it comes to training, you can knock it until you try it. That's why I signed up for a three-month membership at a box in New York City.
I regularly attended classes three to four times per week. I squatted and pressed way more than I expected to. I finally started running again. I (sorta) learned how to do a handstand. At the end of it, I left the box more toned and muscular than when I entered, but shaking my head at some of the stuff we did.
Oddly enough, the things that make CrossFit great are also what make it somewhat awful and a little dangerous. And also kinda weird. Read on.
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Attend the same classes week in and week out, and you become familiar with the other folks in your group doing the Workout of the Day (WOD). You become very much like a team. The individuals who had wrapped up their WODs before I did took the time to cheer me on as I churned through the last few reps. The atmosphere was very similar to weight training sessions I had with my crew team in college. It was great. The support system helped me stick to my guns when I felt like quitting on a workout.
Just like my time in crew, I was competing against other athletes in the box for a score. Yes, CrossFit encourages you to scale the weight and work at your own pace, but any CrossFitter will tell you that "Rx-ing" (meaning you performed the WOD as prescribed, not scaled down) is a point of pride. It's that sense of competition that pushes people past their comfort zones and can result in injury.
This may not be an issue in boxes outside of New York City, but there was not a whole lot of room on the gym floor during my classes. Barbells slammed to the ground after just about every rep during a WOD, and they dropped precariously close to my feet on more than a few occasions. No one ever seemed to mind, but it struck me as strange.
CrossFit puts barbells in the hands of people who would otherwise never use them, and introduces veteran lifters to new exercises. I've been training with barbells for about seven years, but during that time, I'd never really worked on Snatches, Overhead Squats or Clean-and-Jerks. In CrossFit, these movements are essential. Learning to perform them properly can make anyone a better overall athlete.
New CrossFitters have to undergo an "on-ramp" or "fundamentals" class (two different names they use for the same thing), which teaches the basics of the movements performed in WODs. At my box, fundamentals consisted of a pair of two-hour sessions during which a coach walked us through the mechanics of barbell lifts like Deadlifts, Cleans, Presses and Squats using a PVC pipe. We also learned how to do bodyweight moves like Kipping Pull-Ups and Dips. After those classes, we were free to jump into WODs with the rest of the members.
This is not adequate preparation.
During workouts, the coach encourages you to scale the weight to your ability and always use proper form. But in the WODs I attended, the coach was responsible for watching a dozen people or more at a time. There's no way he could tell whether each person was performing every rep correctly. And it only takes one bad rep to hurt yourself.
In CrossFit workouts, Power Cleans and Snatches aren't always just Power Cleans and Snatches. There were Squat-Cleans and Squat-Snatches—Cleans or Snatches in which you hit a full-depth Squat to receive the weight, as opposed to hitting a full-depth Squat only when you can't power the weight high enough to receive it on your shoulders. I understand the need to explain the workouts clearly, but renaming exercises unnecessarily confused me when I first entered the program.
If there is one thing that CrossFit preaches above all, it's intensity. Many workouts challenge CrossFitters to perform as many reps as possible (AMRAP) during a set time. Nobody goes to a box and expects to just go through the motions. You train, and you train hard.
There's intense, and then there's stupid. An AMRAP workout can blur the line between the two, and it's really easy to cross over from the safe "pushing yourself a little harder" to the risky "stubborn determination to gut out one more rep, form be damned." It's a lot easier to make a (painful) mistake when you're tired.
CrossFit actually has a de facto mascot called Pukie the Clown, representing a CrossFitter who worked out so hard that he vomited. That's gross, right?
I went into each day not knowing what the workout would be. I liked that. It reminded me of how practice was when I was training with a team. I knew I'd be practicing rowing, but the exact parameters of the workout were unknown until I actually got on the water and started moving. We could kick off the week with a strongman circuit and end it on Friday with a sprint-based workout. It was a refreshing departure from the constant rotation of Push, Pull, Legs that I had been doing during my personal training.
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Those in the anti-CrossFit camp say the programming is built from a randomly thrown together assortment of workouts. That may or may not be true. In the February 2003 issue of the CrossFit Journal, founder Greg Glassman laid out a "theoretical template" for CrossFit programming, which mixes blocks of cardio, strength training and bodyweight training on a five-days-on, two-days-off schedule.
There is no workout template (at least not one that I've found) that CrossFit affiliates are required to follow, so it seems like the workouts are indeed just designed to be as hard as possible. Coaches vaguely referenced programming while I was at the box, but the theory behind it was never explained, which made its existence sound dubious to me.
Since when are Handstands and Muscle-Ups considered measurements of fitness? These moves seem to have been selected because they're challenging, not because they're things you actually need to be able to do. The ability to throw a fastball, shoot a free throw or drive home a penalty kick (or carrying an egg on a spoon or hopping on one leg) are skills that require a modicum of fitness, too, but they aren't being written into WODs.
Some Other Stuff That Didn't Make Sense
The Inexplicably High Price Tag
Membership at a CrossFit box is generally much more expensive than at a "globo" gym. My box charged $185 per month for a three-month stint. My "globo" gym costs $55 dollars per month.
CrossFitters will argue (like on this CrossFit.com discussion board) that you pay for the coach and the program: the former requires a two-day course, and the latter is given away free online each day (here's an example). I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out what that money actually goes toward.
The "Us versus Them" Mentality
CrossFitters talk about "Globo-gyms" a lot, referring to oft-ridiculed general fitness centers like Planet Fitness, which don't allow "hardcore" training. The idea is that "globos" are big, commercial gyms that simply want you to sign up and take your money.
Here's the thing: CrossFit is a big, commercial gym. Check out the affiliate locator and you'll see there are nearly 10,000 gyms worldwide. Even if the actual boxes are all independently owned and operated, CrossFit's corporate headquarters certainly is a big company. As mentioned above, CrossFit definitely wants your money.
For a former athlete, CrossFit offers the opportunity to work out with like-minded individuals in a challenging team setting. You get stronger and leaner, but not as quickly as you would if you focused your training on things designed to get you stronger and leaner. Doing CrossFit tends to make you better at CrossFit, just like playing basketball tends to make you a better basketball player. The physical results are a byproduct of the training.
I didn't join my crew team to get in shape, nor did I play basketball for "ripped abs." I did those things because I enjoyed the challenge, the camaraderie and the competition. If that's what you're looking for, then join CrossFit. If you're interested in looking like Arnold, then CrossFit isn't for you.
As for me? For the moment, I'm done with it. My decision has nothing to do with the training, intensity or community—it simply comes down to the extraordinary price. That being said, I'm certainly going to add elements of CrossFit to my "globo" workouts: Burpees, Double Unders and Kettlebell Swings deserve the attention of people outside of CrossFit boxes.
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