CrossFit Review: The Cautions Against “CrossFit” Training

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What follows is a “flip side” discussion my recent post:  The Brilliance of CrossFit.

Crossfit is big business right now.  It’s tough to page through a fitness magazine or online fitness resource without coming across something pertaining to Crossfit.  It’s becoming big business, attracting a lot of clients and opening gyms in new locations at a feverish pace.

But with all of the buzz about Crossfit, I have to admit that there are things that I admire about it, and things that I flat-out disagree with.  Part of my ongoing personal development as a writer is to avoid letting my emotions take control of the keyboard.  Just because I am sitting behind the computer screen doesn’t mean that I should hide behind it.

What I believe to be best right now is what I believe to be best right now… not what I will believe in five years or even five weeks.  So before you think that this post is pure hatred toward the fitness giant we all know as Crossfit, please take the time to visit the link provided in the first sentence of this post.

Here.  We.  Go.

It wasn’t that long ago that mixing handstands and rowing into a training session was a novel idea for me.  I didn’t fully grasp it, but it looked cool.  I had just start poking my nose deeper into the rabbit hole of fitness, and had decided that I wanted to go deeper.  It was pure curiosity.  Coming out of college, I knew the basics of physical development but not nearly enough to take a stance for one method or another.  It’s like politics, you’ve got to spend some time learning about what each party stands for and then decide what you stand for (or vice versa).

I’ll admit it, I was a traditionalist with fitness at that point.  I was primarily familiar with straight bars, dumbbell work and occasionally throwing in some cable movements.  The idea was that you should lift some weight, rest, towel off, change the track on your iPOD, set up, lift again.  Rinse and repeat.  This was my idea of how we were to build fitness.

My education in fitness and nutrition consisted of what was being taught in the University Kinesiology program, which was “ok” I suppose.  Once I left school for the real world, I soon figured out that the teachings in college were great for building a foundational base of knowledge, but they were holding on to methods of the past.

Standard protocols.  Ancient protocols.  I think that the program was timid to move off the grid and explore concepts like movement screening, functional strength training and more effective methods for developing cardiovascular performance.  My education in effective plyometric training consisted of bunny hops on a rubber mat that had colored dots.

Like I said, it was pretty basic, and outdated.

The first major book of impact came when it was recommended that I read work from Mike Boyle (Functional Training for Sports) and Mark Verstegen’s landmark work (Core Performance).  These two books, among a whole bunch of other works, changed the landscape of how I approached training athletes, Mom’s and Dad’s, working professionals of all ages, kids, etc.  Heck, it changed the way that I approached building physical fitness myself.

It wasn’t all for good.  Some of it, yes.  All of it, no.

I got caught up in that world also.  The world of strength coaches.  Sucked in.  I share this with you because I have become aware that my significance and purpose to my reading audience has got to be one that avoids harsh negativity toward methods.  If you dive deep enough into the archives of this blog, you’ll find some aggressive lash outs.  I won’t remove them, because I would like readers to see my progression as a writer.

It’s important to realize that we are all human, and as humans we have the right to change our tune.  Especially if it moves you closer to your Right Mind.  Right mind is something worth pursuing in my opinion.

While I may not believe in everything, I can certainly discuss methods that I express caution to in such a way that will allow you to formulate your own opinions.  Because at the end of the day, you shouldn’t join a Cross-Fit gym because I tell you too, or avoid a Cross-Fit gym because I tell you to.  Crossfit is not the saviour to mankind, nor is it the modern-day Black Plague of fitness.

My hope is that I can provide simple information about a few topics that can serve to help guide your decision-making one way or the other.

Hopefully, the path that you choose is one that serves you best, you thoroughly enjoy and will last a lifetime.

 

—>  The Cautions of Cross-Fit

Far and wide, tiny little gyms that are commonly referred to as “boxes” are popping up like dandelions in Summer.

If you’ve got a valid credit card and a weekend to learn a few simple ideas on physical fitness, you… yes YOU could own one of these “boxes” almost overnight.  Talk about a career transition!  I know that the growth of CrossFit is seeing “box” owners rake in income hand over fist.

In my recent post, The Brilliance of Cross-Fit, I touched on a few key points that I really do admire about CrossFit and the community that it has built.  At the end of the day, it’s all about getting people moving and they are doing that in their own way.

Getting people off of the couch and out of their downward spiraling daily routine is a tough task.  Breaking habit and routine and then reforming improved habits and routine can be quite a challenge.  I come face to face with it frequently when writing.

Getting folks excited about being active and maintaining that activity level over the span of a lifetime should be a foundational goal of anyone who gives a rip about the health crisis of our nation.

Less lethargic humans would change a lot of things for the better.

Here come my cautionary words…

But I do have my cautions about Cross-Fit, even 7-8 years after I first came across a their website on the internet.  At the time, I didn’t know what the heck CrossFit was, so I can’t say that I took the time to learn much about it.  The website was pretty raw, with a few videos here and there, and workouts posted about doing hand stands, rowing, etc.  There was a significant amount of bragging about puking during workouts and “battle” injuries during METCON’s, and even a few badges of honor sent out to individuals who sent themselves to the hospital from accumulated fatigue which led to something called Rhabdomyolysis.

Please click on the link above and read what Rhabdomyolysis is.  Or if you want the summarized version, see the snapshot below:

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Here’s a t-shirt print that is handed out (still to this day if I’m not mistaken) to “hardcore” Crossfitter’s who “earn” it:

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Photo credit:  Crossfit Southbay

The general theme of Crossfit in the early days, which a lot of people don’t know about now, was this idea that if you worked out and you failed to torch yourself, feel dizzy and fall over from exhaustion, then you weren’t working hard enough.  It was disturbing to say the least.

Now put yourself in my shoes.  Imagine the first impression that you’d receive from reading something like that?  They say that first impressions are everything, and well, my views on Crossfit were tarnished before I ever made it to the methodology behind its existence.

It flew in the face of my beliefs, about the responsibility that personal trainers and strength coaches have with taking care of their clients.  Clients were handing us their hard-earned money with the thought that they were going to be taught/instructed/coached, reshaped and taken care of in a responsible manner.  What I initially saw from Crossfit, were a bunch of randomized workouts thrown together with the sole intent of burning out a client.

They were leveraging the idea that so many people have with fitness… that soreness, fatigue to the point of exhaustion and “extreme” is how the best bodies are built.

Soon after, it became obvious that Crossfit was tugging on the heart-strings of the military.  The hardcore and “extreme” training attitude was appealing to this sector.  I’ve never had to fight in war or been stationed in a war zone,  but I know many who have.  It’s a hard knock existence in these environments.  It’s hardcore, especially when compared to most of us watching our favorite sitcom on Sunday night with a bowl of popcorn.  The soldier is praying to endure the extreme physical demands and mental emotions (not to mention gunfire and explosives) long enough to see their loved ones again.

That is hardcore in my world, and that is partly the appeal of Crossfit to individuals who have been in those situations.  At least that is how I see it.

*** First let me say that I fully support and value anyone who has served our country.  We owe you everything for the freedoms that we enjoy daily, so don’t let this piece of this post rub you the wrong way.

What follows are topics and brief points about those topics which I always caution people of when considering Crossfit.

Olympic lifting for cardio.

This is the first thought that crosses my mind when people ask me what I “think” about Crossfit.  I cannot support olympic lifting as a vehicle to develop work capacity or cardiovascular resilience.  I have read a few of their articles on their site where they attempt to make the justification for such practices, but to me, I feel like I am trying to be convinced (or “sold”) on the idea every time I read it.  The articles lack support and quite honestly seem like a bunch of jargonistic (is that a word?) paragraphs that few people will ever really understand, but these people back it up because it seems like a brilliant reasoning for using olympic lifts to create a work capacity  training effect.

Olympic lifting is highly technical.  A few of the lifts are in the Olympics themselves.  Athletes train for YEARS to perfect their form, timing, mobility, stability, etc… in hopes of winning a gold medal at the highest level of sport competition.

Now, take a 35-year-old de-conditioned working professional who sits all day and can hardly run 1-2 miles without feeling faint.  Ask them to clean a barbell (of a standard protocol weight) for 30+ repetitions.  Tack on 50 box jumps (maybe 50 pull ups) and return to that barbell for 30+ more hang cleans and you’re putting that person at risk for a MASSIVE injury.

In my experience, fatigue while under load (along with asymmetries and muscular timing/firing) is the greatest predictor of an injury.  When a person gets tired, technique and form go out the window in an effort to maintain output.  

Humans are survivalist at heart.  Our bodies will continue to push through physical adversity through any means possible, even if that means that we are moving weight with the wrong muscles and mechanics.  Especially if the mind is conditioned to withstand physical stress.  I am telling you, when you mix fatigue with weight and poor technique, whether you are aware of it while it is happening or not, you are dangerously close to the bomb going off (injury).

And trust me, it will only take one massive blow out of a shoulder, back, knee, ankle or hip to understand the point that I am attempting to make.  We fail to realize that these injuries are lifelong injuries.  We aren’t Adrian Peterson.  We won’t blow out our lower back and be the same afterwards.  We won’t tear our rotator cuff moving weight overhead or jerking our body around on a the 30th rep of a set of kipping pull-ups and return to action without being constantly reminded (via chronic pain, poor performance or range of motion) that it happened in the first place.

At this point, I also don’t buy two other arguments for these practices:

1)  High rep olympic lifting is primarily performed using sub maximal weight.

2)  It’s an evolution in fitness.

Response to #1:  It doesn’t matter to me.  It still goes back to poor technique when tired.  You can’t even make a legitimate excuse for high rep olympic lifting to have great carry over into every day activities.  When was the last time you had to clean a common daily object 30+ times in a day.  How about in a week?  Month?  Year?  Lifetime?  When you’re not in the gym, you rarely clean anything.  I watched a Crossfit video some years back where they were making the point that if you can clean a barbell, you can clean a log, a rock, a sack of potatoes… and on and on.  They have tools that helps us do these things.  If you can’t find a tool to move pick something from a resting floor position to a standing carrying position, just simply ask someone who is stronger than you.  If you don’t know anyone that is strong enough to move the object, use your common sense and get a tool.

Response to #2:  Many are preaching this, but I will say this.  We thought that Nautilus machines were a godsend until some smart folks realized that trapping your joints into a machine’s fixed range of motion was not healthy for your joints.  It wasn’t natural in the least bit and actually shutting down valuable stabilizing muscles in the process.  Now most machines are rendered useless.  We also thought the earth was flat at one point.  I could say that brushing your teeth with motor oil is an evolution for whitening and cavity prevention.

There will be many evolutions in fitness.  It is a constantly evolving industry.  Much of the evolutions we see in fitness are efforts to attract business and revenue while selling new products.  Very few ideas or products ever stick for the long-term.  They come and go.  I can’t say that using olympic lifting for a work capacity training effect is going to extinguish itself any time soon (I am not a fortune teller), but you should know that it is an “evolution” that the jury is still out on.  It’s more like a small shift with a select group of people.

Kipping pull-ups.

I recently slowed down and analyzed the motion of a kipping pull-up from a Crossfitter who I was told is a “beast”.  I attempted to replicate this motion without kipping, but instead receiving what I believe is an adequate amount of assistance from a jump stretch band.  I pulled the band down around my feet and performed strict pull-ups.  All of the way up, pause, all of the way down, pause.  The assistance made me feel like a hero.  I could have down 20+ this way no problem.

In the kipping pull-up, the momentum of the leg kick transfers force up through the body to the arms where only a slight pull is needed to finish the movement.  Nothing like a strict pull-up.  I actually see a variation of a cheating inverted row during the kipping pull-up, pictured below…

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Inverted row… looks similar to kipping pull-ups doesn’t it?

Kicking the legs forward for a body whip-lash makes pull-ups easier.  Some people would say that it’s cheating.  I would agree.  I do see a technique to it, but again, the problem is that most people have awful technique and the stress that is being placed on the shoulder region with poor form has to cause some damage over time.  Crossfit, in my experience with talking to clients who are regular attendees, rarely assesses their clients for past injuries or movement restrictions.  If you put a person on a pull-up bar that walked into the Crossfit gym with slight shoulder dysfunction, past injuries or poor mobility in surround joints that will affect shoulder range of motion and stability… boom goes the dynamite.  

A person very close to me experienced a re-tear of an old biceps injury because he was instructed to rip out some kipping pull-ups.  Total disregard for the past injury.  Now this gentleman is back in the same boat that he was in when he initially tore his biceps.  You could make the argument that it wasn’t kipping pull-ups that are at fault here, and I would largely say that it is the neglect of the owner of the gym, but for giggles, I blame both.

Now I also understand that my friend with the biceps tear could have easily gone a non-affiliated Crossfit gym and experience the same injury.  I am aware of that.  No reminders needed.

No ramp up.

If you’re de-conditioned or new to Crossfit style workouts, you’ve got to prepare yourself.  There is no ramp up for a new person.  There is a set protocol of lifts and workouts that are performed (with variations from gym to gym) regardless of your fitness level.  If you haven’t jumped in the past year, it doesn’t matter because baby… you’re going to be jumping for reps on boxes today.  And probably to a box that is too high, causing poor landing mechanics and increased stress to your joints when you’re asked to repeat that jump for high reps as fast as possible.  The impact forces during jumping, and particularly landing are extremely high.

There is also very little ramp up for the intensity of the WOD’s (as they are referred).  Sure, some gyms conduct baseline tests for your ability to perform a circuit of movements in a set amount of time, row a distance for time or run a distance for time, but to start someone on a work capacity based workout is too much.  Especially when the lifts incorporated are loaded movement like cleans, squats, overhead presses, snatches and pull-ups.  You can argue with me that a pull-up is a bodyweight movement just like a squat, but I will argue with you that they are nothing alike.

Perform a bodyweight squat.  Now perform a pull-up.  Seriously, go and do it, because it will help make my point here.  Which one did you successfully complete with ease and good form?  Probably the squat.  Most people cannot perform a smooth rep of a pull-up.  The legs are the dominant extremities of our bodies and they should be since we rely on them for daily movement.

Asking a de-conditioned client to flail around on the pull-up bar and referring their flopping action as “pull-ups”, is bogus.

I guess the summarized version of my point is that while some Crossfitters have outstanding technique during these WOD’s, the rest of the folks are just engaging in a mess of poorly performed exercises to induce sweat and fatigue, referring to it “forging”.

Battle scars.

I alluded to my dislike for how Crossfit projects injury while pursuing fitness.  I have heard multiple Kool-Aid drinkers express in videos that “shit happens when you train hard like we do”.

It does?  Or does it just happen to you because of the choices that you are making?  Does it have to happen to the 40-year-old Mom with two young children?  What about the 50-year-old mailman?

Primum non nocere… First do no harm.  That’s one of the primary teachings of the Hippocratic Oath, which covers basic medical ethics that all medical students are taught in medical school, around the world.

Cutting some skin on the plyometric box happens.  It happen to me and some of my clients/athletes in the past.  You occasionally lose focus and miss your footing.  But it wasn’t because I was barking at them to perform 50 consecutive box jumps “unbroken” without rest.  It was because an innocent accident happened and they lost their footing.

I didn’t ask my client to wear their shin scrapes like a badge of honor, or demand that they suck it up and stop acting like a pussy.  That would have been weird and completely out of line.  First do no harm.

Bleeding, puking, dizziness, fainting are not things to be proud of while working out, in my humble opinion.  Do people become dizzy or faint while training hard?  Yes, it does happen.  But it shouldn’t be a common occurrence nor should it be promoted as the sign of a successful workout.  But this sort of goes back to the militaristic vibe that Crossfit projects.

Finish the workout at the cost of anything, including your body.

Intensity doesn’t cure all.

High intensity training has nothing to quality training.

I will leave that right there.  Think about that.

The wrap up…

Let’s be clear about what this post represents.

This is the Ying to the Yang of my previous post, which I link to multiple times above and once again link to down below.

In no way am I telling you NOT to join a CrossFit gym.  I am informing you about my opinion as I have them at this very moment in time.  Crossfit has come a long way to clean up its image from the early days, but as I mentioned, I may always have distaste for it because of how they projected themselves early on.  You just don’t forget things like that.  It’s like when go into a local restaurant for the first time and you witness the owner tell a nice young family with a crying baby, “Shut that kid up because it’s pissing off the rest of my paying customers”.

I would consider never patronizing that restaurant again.

Again, I encourage you to hop over to my previous Crossfit post where I praise many things about the fitness giant…

Feel me?  🙂

Cheers to having the right to choose…

KG

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