CrossFit is one of the biggest training fads ever to sweep the nation. But since the company was first founded in 2000, it’s been surrounded by controversy in a seemingly endless debate between its legion of followers and its critics. Believers argue that CrossFit is the best and most challenging exercise routine. Doubters say that the program recklessly pushes people beyond their capabilities, harming themselves in the process.
Which side should you believe, and is CrossFit right for you? Let’s break it down.
Promotes barbell training. Most of CrossFit workouts involve complex, multi-joint movements using a barbell. It is well documented that such compound movements are much more effective in building muscle and shredding fat, as well as having a positive effect on bone density.
Promotes healthy living. CrossFit encourages many people who otherwise would not exercise to get off the couch and into the gym. It also stresses the importance of nutrition and healthy eating to living a balanced lifestyle.
Burns calories. Due to its high metabolic demand from High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), CrossFit increases Exercise Post-Oxygen Consumption (EPOC), allowing you to burn more calories while at rest. Studies have also shown participation in CrossFit can improve VO2 max and decrease body fat percentage.
It’s fun. There are a wide range of CrossFit workouts. Your next workout is always different from the last, which keeps things interesting and fun.
Strong community. CrossFit does a great job in building community and making its members feel welcome. The peer support encourages you to maintain your consistent workout schedule and helps you push yourself to your limits.
High injury rates. CrossFit’s workouts are designed in a way that encourages you to train to failure, as you’re racing against the clock to do as many repetitions as possible in the allotted timeframe. There is nothing wrong with training to failure once in a while, but when you do so multiple times in a week, it can lead to muscular overexertion. In fact, numerous cases of Rhabdomyolysis – the breakdown of muscle tissue – have been linked to CrossFit, to the point where the campaign’s official mascot is known as “Uncle Rhabdo.”
Misuse of Techniques. CrossFit regimes are based largely around Olympic lifts and powerlifting moves, such as the Snatch, Clean & Jerk, and Deadlift. However, these moves are traditionally used to increase one’s explosiveness and power, and are meant to be done in few repetitions with large breaks in between. Doing these highly technical lifts for 20+ repetitions in a row for cardio inevitably leads to form breakdown, and defeats the purpose of the movements.
Inadequate coaching. Olympic lifts often take years, even decades, of coaching and training to perfect. And when you’re pushing hundreds of pounds overhead explosively, form is absolutely essential to ensure your own safety. However, CrossFit coaches are often inadequately trained themselves to help others with their form, and workouts begin before participants understand how to perform the lifts properly.
Peer Pressure. CrossFit in theory could be scaled to any level of fitness, but when you put people together in a group situation and encourage them to compete with others in the group, that scaling goes out the window. This leads to form breakdown, overexertion, and overtraining. Injured former CrossFit athlete Jason Kessler, “In a culture that drives you to go as hard and fast as possible, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the hype. You’re supposed to push yourself to the limit, but when you hit the limit and pay the price, you’re the idiot who went too far.”
“Us versus them” mentality. In line with this peer pressure is a culture that seems to promote an “us vs. them” mentality, which promotes that CrossFit is the be-all and end-all of workouts. “Normal people don’t get it,” CrossFit athlete Jennifer Wielgus says. “It’s like being in the mafia. You can’t understand what it’s like unless you’re on the inside.” Some believe the elitist, push yourself to the limit culture of the discipline has increased in light of commercial interests taking hold.
CrossFit deserves credit for motivating people to exercise and strength train. But while CrossFit’s intentions are largely good, its model does have its flaws. The combination of complex, technical movements, high load, high reps, high speed, and peer pressure could spell inevitable disaster, if precautions aren’t taken.
It’s definitely not for everyone, and beginners ought to understand their personal limitations before diving in. Many people new to working out can have a hard time telling the difference between muscle failure and simply getting a good workout.
If you do decide to do CrossFit, and you want the community support and motivation, spend some extra time to find a good CrossFit coach and gym. Start slow, and progressively increase the difficulty of your workouts.
At the end of the day, the CrossFit controversy may simply be blown out of proportion. Like any workout regime, it has its merits and its downsides. Ultimately, if it helps you achieve your fitness goals, that’s all that really matters.