Is CrossFit Bad?
Brett Klika C.S.C.S.
“What do you think about CrossFit?” If you’re within a 100-mile radius of the fitness industry, it’s nearly guaranteed that this will be a question posed to you. The answer to the question usually depends greatly on one’s personal experience and relationship with the brand.
For personal trainers whose paychecks don’t depend on the CrossFit brand, it can be a client-stealing pariah. It’s viewed as an unregulated license to train people like they’re high school football players in Texas in the 70′s. For trainers and clients associated with the brand, it’s an exciting, high intensity exercise culture that provides an answer to “I’m bored with my workouts”.
My opinion? I’ve written before and I stand by my assertion that it is not a good program for most competitive athletes. The lack of specificity and un-abated volume and intensity of CrossFit type workouts is damaging to performance. Particularly, long term performance. From my experience though, it’s not the brand that causes the damage. It’s the individual interpretation of the brand.
Most of the exercises used in CrossFit can be great exercises for an athlete. However when a quickly and poorly certified coach puts them together in a context that makes little or no scientific sense for an athlete with existing movement or pain disparages, there arises a problem. This happens in every brand of training, but the hard-core, high intensity, “no holds barred” culture of CrossFit can amplify the problem quickly.
While I’m essentially “against” this type of workout for athletes, I have somewhat of a different perspective when talking about fitness populations. The problem with fitness in our country is not that people are choosing the wrong program. It’s that they are slowly killing themselves by doing nothing at all. That is the true definition of “bad”.
In our nation’s current state of health, if someone put in a hard 15 minutes with the Shake-Weight every day, they’d be ahead of the curve. When speaking to masses, I would be hard-pressed to call any program that gets people excited about exercise “bad”.
What is “bad” about CrossFit for fitness populations? It’s a program that uses movements from gymnastics, power lifting, Olympic lifting, kettle bell training, track, and other exercise disciplines. Exercises are put together in high intensity circuits. Participants are “benchmarked” or tested for maximal weight, reps, reps in time, and other criteria. Is that bad?
If a program falls under the above description, it significantly increases the likelihood of injury, frustration, and program cessation. Then it’s back to the couch. That’s bad.
The loose certification and licensing of CrossFit coaches compounded with the generalized “group exercise” program design with high level exercises pre-disposes this brand to some of the above criteria. However, any brand of exercise is vulnerable to the same shortcomings. It comes down the competency and commitment of the individual coach or instructor.
A program’s fate for safety and effectiveness lies in the hands of the instructor. Teaching or ignoring improper movement is bad coaching, not necessarily bad programming. Unfortunately, the former usually precedes the latter. Judging by many YouTube exploits (check out Charles Barkley “learning” power cleans) there are quite a few bad CrossFit instructors putting together bad programs.
There are also quite a few bad personal training, Pilates, Yoga, Strength and Conditioning, and “functional training” instructors. For every back-breaking horror show of an pseudo Olympic Lift, there’s someone having an out of shape 60 year old jump around on a balance balls. As with any distribution, competency across the field follows a bell curve. Using the criteria outlined above, there are instructors in all fields that are great, mediocre, and poor.
Doing multi-joint exercises in a circuit with a prepared individual utilizing correct technique in a high-energy social class environment designed to get participants excited about fitness while getting results is a good thing no matter what you call the class. Even if the instructor is slightly closer to the middle of the bell curve, they are guiding people towards a better way of life.
Note: ATTENTION INSTRUCTORS IN EVERY FIELD: DON’T ACCEPT THE MIDDLE OF THE BELL CURVE!
The injury rates in CrossFit are high, however, nowhere near that of adult league sports. I have never advised a fitness enthusiast to “stop playing the adult league version of the sport you enjoy”. I play men’s league soccer and it’s a bone yard. These guys love the game though. It speaks to their soul. They know the risks, and would rather go out in a blaze of glory than stare at the ceiling of their living room.
I would rather someone have aches and pains from a less than ideal program than lead a defeated, sedentary life. That’s just the reality of it all. I’ve been around the world and seen what complete inactivity does to people physically, mentally, and emotionally. Trust me, aches and pains pale in comparison.
If the question were “Brett, what exercise program should I chose with the least likelihood of injury?” I’d have to omit team sports, endurance sports, and other types of activities where the absolute magnitude of performance is the benchmark. I would recommend a carefully designed personal training program culminating assessment, pre-hab, and individualized exercise prescription focusing more on qualitative than quantitative measures. Intensity would be carefully monitored.
While the above is what revs my engine as a trainer, it’s sometimes difficult to get people excited to exercise when qualitative criteria is the foundation of the program. The real question people ask whether it’s direct or indirect is: “What do you recommend so I don’t dread working out so much?”
I’ve worked out at a few CrossFit gyms in my travels. The workouts are really hard and a lot of fun. If I didn’t have years of experience and knowledge with exercise programming and relied on acute intuition (like nearly 100% of the general public), I’d say the CrossFit workout is harder and more fun than a more “regulated’ program. Harder and funner must equal better, right? Knock yourself out trying to explain the intricacies of why I’m wrong. I feel, therefore, I am.
Intuitively, the carefully designed program may not answer a need to let loose from an indentured, rigidly structured life of all work and no play. Most of our clients’ “lion” that used to roar has been domesticated and now only utters carefully prepared grunts every now and then. They are sick of domestication. For a few hours a week, they want to go feral.
If someone finds his or her roar through any type of exercise, is that bad? If you workout too hard you’ll get some unpleasant aches, pains, or in some cases, worse. If you don’t do anything, you’ll suffer and die. Ladies and gentlemen, this is true ultimatum we are facing when it comes to impacting the nation’s health and wellness.
If an individual consults with me or if I’m advising personal trainers on program design, I would advise against a “one size fits all”, generalized, high volume and intensity plan that a client or carelessly certified instructor may or may not be ready for. Plain and simple, the likelihood of injury skyrockets with such a program. If a previously inactive individual were gushing to me about how a program like this has positively impacted their lives however, I’d say, “Keep doing it for the rest of your life!!!”
If you are a personal trainer that likes to use modern science and knowledge to create individualized plans, realize that fun, challenging workouts and careful program design are not mutually exclusive. I attribute any success I’ve had in the personal training industry to a balance of the two.
Proper movement and improved health are my primary goals with a client. I align these with their goals, both stated and implied (stated= lose weight, implied= find my roar). I’ve had most of my clients for more than 10 years despite the economy, fitness fads, and every other excuse people use for losing clients.
Why should it be impossible to apply the appealing aspects of the CrossFit culture to the more intelligent program design of modern personal training? Combine excitement, raw challenge, and group comradery with proper assessment, progression, and movement training? It’s not impossible. Again, it comes down the individual instructor.
To impact the health and wellness of our nation, we have to overcome our partisanship and give our clients what they want and need.
Whether you are a personal trainer or an exercise enthusiast, realize that sometimes movement can’t just speak to the body, it has to speak to the soul. Even in the most carefully designed program, the lion needs to roar.
So what do I think about CrossFit? If it causes more good than harm and can put a smile on the face and sweat on the brow of a previously doomed life, it can’t be bad.
For more information and video on exercises, programs, and any other information on losing fat and creating the body you have always wanted, check out The Underground Workout Manual – Exercise and Fat Loss in the Real World at www.undergroundworkoutmanual.com.
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.