Cross-Fit for Athletes?

Cross-Fit for Athletes?

Cross-Fit for Athletes?
Brett Klika C.S.C.S.

Cross Fit is the latest rage in fitness. Millions tune in to watch Cross-Fit athletes display herculean strength, endurance, and physical adaptability on ESPN. Thousands of Cross Fit gyms are springing up all over the world serving every demographic from beginning exercisers to professional athletes. While this exercise and training approach has exploded with popularity in recent years, it’s random, undefined, and often outright dangerous training methods have drawn just as much criticism as fanaticism, particularly for competitive athletes.

The Cross-Fit “program” is based combining a variety of movement and strength based disciplines including power lifting, gymnastics, martial arts, Olympic Lifting, kettlebells, and other forms of physical overload into a short, intense workout. The program design is intentionally non-specific and random with the argument that they want their participants to “be ready for any challenge” life or sports may throw their way. Each day, the goal is complete physical exhaustion either through maximal reps, maximal weight, maximal speed, or some combination of all three components during the involved exercises.

I’m am often asked what I think about Cross Fit for athletes. My answer? Let me illustrate. I watch an athlete get knocked around at high intensity day after day on the field, diamond, court, or other playing arena for an entire season. They come to me in various states of disarray; injured, immobile, overused, in pain, etc. They also have a bevy of specific physical skills they need to improve to heighten their performance. I also know as an educated professional that there are certain pre-dispositions for injury in thier specific sport. I am familiar with protocols that are widely used to aid in prevention of these injuries. After analyzing all of the specific needs above, why would I support a non-specific program to “do hard stuff till you’re really tired”. In other words, a great way to an injury shortened athletic career is through a Cross-Fit style program.

Now, I’m not completely jumping on the anti Cross- Fit bandwagon. This brand has gotten thousands world wide to get excited about exercise. They have created a brand and an exercise culture second to none. I will actually be putting out an article in support of this culture later this month. As in any arena, there are good practitioners and bad practitioners. When it comes to actual exercise protocols for athletes, however, I just can’t agree with the “train wreck” approach. Actually I would challenge anyone to find an educated, experienced, sports performance specialist who would agree with this model as a long-term approach to athletic development.

It’s important to note that Cross-Fit is not actually a program, it’s a group exercise class. There is no central program design theory other than to use exercises involving large muscle groups for maximal reps, weight, and speed. There is no consideration for individual need, level, or circumstance. Good class instructors take time to teach technique, etc. Bad ones don’t. The problem is, both get their certification from a weekend seminar. When a patron walks through the doors of a Cross-Fit, they don’t know which one they are getting.

The above argument could be made for many other personal training certifications, and I agree, weekend certifications are not a good method of educating “professionals” and giving them license to do wreak whatever physical havoc they want to on a client. However, the Cross- Fit brand of max weight, reps, and speed can cause a lot of damage very quickly to an ill-suited participant.

Cross-Fit has gotten the attention of athletes because well, it’s really hard. They figure if it’s really hard, it must be good. However, after millions of dollars in research and hundreds of thousands of hours of application, our knowledge and understanding of athletic performance and injury prevention goes well beyond “doing a lot of hard stuff until you’re tired”. If Rocky were to come work with me, I’d have to tell him we’ve moved on from punching beef cadavers in a meat locker. In the real world, better training gets better results.

Sports are dangerous. The inherent dangers of an unpredictable environment and unrelenting maximal physical output are what make athletic careers short. Why would you want to maximize these during training? Remember, you train more hours than you compete. If your training program focuses on things that shorten your career, you have a problem.

It comes down to physiological vs. biomechanical costs of training. Random “hard” programs can create a considerable physiological cost. That means they burn a lot of calories, fat, etc. While this can be good, these programs can also create a considerably high biomechanical and structural cost as well. That means repeated, unbalanced, excessive loads on joints, tendons, and ligaments. When these biomechanical costs are controlled through proper program design with varying intensities and volumes with balanced exercise selection, long term negative ramifications are minimized. When they aren’t controlled, favoring an unrelenting increase in biomechanical cost in order to slightly increase physiological costs, it’s a formula for injury.

Athletes need to train hard, but athletes that want successful long term careers need to train smart. Training hard and training smart don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Before entering a Cross- Fit class, or any other program for that matter, athletes should educate themselves as to what they are getting into from a programming and instructor experience and knowledge standpoint. They must consider their specific needs and assess if the program and instructor are going to accommodate those specific needs. We now know a lot more about training athletes than just “doing a lot of hard stuff”.
Athletes need to do hard stuff, but the right hard stuff at the right time is what improves performance and decreases injury, giving way to a long, healthy, successful athletic career.

Brett Klika C.S.C.S., Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10, is a world renowned human performance specialist, motivational speaker, author, and educator. In his 14 year career, Brett has accrued more than 20,000 hours of training with youth, athletes, executives, and every day people. He uses this knowledge and experience to motivate individuals and audiences around the world through his writing, speaking, DVD’s, and personal correspondence. For a copy of his new e-book and exercise program “The Underground Workout Manual- Exercise and Fat Loss in the Real World” visit To contact Brett, send correspondence to

9 Responses to “Cross-Fit for Athletes?”

  1. Awesome explanation Brett. Thank you for wording this so eloquently.

    • bklika says:

      Thanks for your response! Sorry I couldn’t get back sooner. My website was having major problems and I couldn’t reply to anyone. It’s up and going now.

      Take care!

  2. Kathy Young says:

    Excellent post Brett! So many people ask me about Cross Fit and I now love that I can direct them to your site. I think you provide a balance viewpoint on CF.

  3. Dane Thomas says:

    Brett is correct when he states that random, undefined and dangerous training methods should be criticized, but he is wrong to characterize all CrossFit programs and exercises as such.

    The primary objective of CrossFit is to increase work capacity across broad time and modal domains, and the method used to achieve that objective is constantly varied functional exercises done with high intensity. Proper programming and execution of that methodology is neither random, undefined nor dangerous. I’ll address each of those points in turn.

    Specific guidelines presented at each Level 1 seminar detailing how to set up programming in order to provide the variability necessary to adequately address all 10 of the elements of fitness, but ordered enough to prevent overtraining, allow recovery and build in timely benchmarking opportunities. I agree that a weekend seminar is not enough to ensure that those principles have been adequately digested so as to make every certificate holder a master of programming, but there is no shortage of access to expertise (online and otherwise) and additional training that can help those responsible for programming on a local level to put together thoughtful, balanced, ordered and varied programming that may seem random to the uninitiated but that is in fact based on sound principles.

    As far as being undefined is concerned, I would say that CrossFit’s prolonged efforts to bring a specific, balanced and well-reasoned definition of fitness to the masses is unprecedented. The idea that one should identify a baseline for each of the functional aspects of fitness and measure progress towards goals for each area while fine-tuning each individual’s programs of diet and exercise is well defined in the CrossFit literature. This emphasis on functional results for each area with work capacity being the primary priority helps to define CrossFit programming in general. It is true that perhaps not all Level 1 certificate holders are prepared to put these definitions into practice on an ongoing basis, even if they have shown a sufficiently adequate understanding of them to answer the test questions on the certification exam, but the basic goals and methods of CrossFit are at least as well-defined and well-reasoned as many other programs that are available on a broad basis.

    Regarding the relative danger of the exercises and programs promoted by CrossFit, it has been shown that the health risks of not participating in a regular program of exercise are considerably greater than the risks involved with participating in a CrossFit program. The potential health and fitness benefits of high-effort functional exercises such as squats and deadlifts (done with proper form, of course) are incredibly significant, but prior to CrossFit it was very difficult to find fitness facilities that could teach them or that had equipment (bumper plates) that could allow that type of training to be done in a proper and safe manner.

    I’ll agree that there is entirely too much variability in the quality of instruction and programming available in CrossFit gyms worldwide, but I believe that much good can come of taking advantage of all of the positive elements that the CrossFit “movement” has made available on an unprecedented scale and working from within to address the areas of potential improvement.

    CrossFit shows people why prolonged, low intensity cardio while reading a magazine does relatively little for endurance and absolutely nothing for most of the other elements of fitness. It teaches that the scale is perhaps one of the least meaningful measures of fitness progress. It puts kettlebells, medicine balls, pull-up bars, gymnastics rings and olympic bars and some basic instruction within the reach of average people. It inspires and helps millions worldwide to be better than they ever dared imagine that they could be, and it does all of that today despite its many flaws.


    Dane Thomas, PT, CSCS
    (also CF-L1 certified, along with numerous other continuing education seminars, CrossFit and otherwise)

  4. Stacey Ackerman says:

    Great article! I know a ton of people that are really in to Cross-fit. I’ve been on the fringe of wanting to jump on the bandwagon, so I appreciate this honest, thorough perspective of what the program is really about. As a distance runner, I cannot afford the risk of injury, and don’t really feel that it would be worth the expense of the program regimine.

    • bklika says:

      Thanks for the comment! Sorry I didn’t get back sooner, I had some major back end issues on my site. You should try out a Cross-fit class. They are fun and challenging. It’s just that it’s not a good long-term plan and quite a few people get hurt. I hope all is well with your family. Bart just had the first Klika baby! Take care!

  5. Jason says:

    Well said!

    • bklika says:

      Thanks Jason! Sorry my response is a little delayed. I was having some major back-end issues on my blog. Up and going again! Keep up the great work!

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