They don't call it Cultfit for nothing!
Crossfitters get a lot of crap for their methods. I've heard folks call Crossfit everything from the best thing to happen to fitness since sports bras (you gotta admit, that was pretty awesome), to ineffective to downright dangerous. Some of those criticisms are BS, and some is well-deserved. My opinion is that Crossfit is an incredibly effective system of exercise, if used correctly. I wouldn't be getting certified to train using its methods if I didn't believe in it.
That being said, I think that the Crossfit, like any fitness system, has its good and bad parts. I thought I would use this post to illustrate those points to help my readers decide if it's the right system for them. First...the good. Enjoy!
Good: You're only as good as your diet
Of course, you can go about any fitness routine with whatever diet you want. But everyone should realize that the greatest limiting factor in any fitness program is your diet. If you want to lose weight, it doesn't matter how many miles you're running or weights you're lifting if you go out and eat a bucket of fried chicken right afterwards. Similarly, you're not going to perform as well if you eat that bucket of chicken before you work out as you would if you ate...say, a salad. Crossfit recognizes this, and puts nutrition into proper focus in its programming.
This is the Crossfit fitness pyramid. You'll notice that nutrition is at the base. As in...without good nutrition, you can't really do much of anything in health and fitness. And vice versa...good nutrition will help you achieve success in all areas important to the program.
Good: The Paleo Diet
I don't just like that Crossfit puts diet where it belongs in the scheme of things. I also like that they promote one of the best diets for the type of training they use. The official diets of Crossfit are the Paleo Diet and/or the Zone Diet. They didn't just do that because these are fad diets, or because the Zone Diet wanted to put its products in Crossfit gyms. These diets are recommended because a good portion of the exercises done during a Crossfit workout involve some manner of strength training. And anyone who knows anything about strength training knows that in order to make muscle and strength gains, you need protein...protein...protein, and calories...calories...calories. The standard recommendation for the amount of protein needed to sustain muscle growth is 1-2 grams per pound of bodyweight, and around 3000-4000 calories for an 180lb male. You also need to limit your carbohydrate intake so that all of those calories you consume don't go on your body as fat.
Sound like any diet you know? How about one that allows unlimited consumption of meat, veggies, fruit, and nuts, but forbids consumption of starchy carbs and processed foods (and one...by the way, that will make you really, really hungry for calorie dense food all the time)? Whatever your opinion of the paleo diet, you can't deny that it resembles the diets of most strength athletes. Of course they usually have also do more complicated things and take supplements. But as a quick, down and dirty intro to strength training nutrition, you can't beat the paleo diet in terms of simplicity and effectiveness.
Good: Defining fitness as more than "aerobics"
When I posted this picture in my "You Run Too Much Bro" article, I was surprised at the comments I received about it. Putting aside the fact that the sprinter on the right used performance enhancers, I found it interesting how many of my readers defended the marathon runner on the left as a better model of health and fitness than the sprinter. I wasn't surprised though. In our modern fitness culture, we've come to look at aerobic conditioning as the ultimate test of fitness. How else do you explain the crowning of Mark Allen, the triathlete, as the world's fittest man at one point?
While I agree that Mark Allen is certainly one of the world's fastest endurance athletes, I disagree that this makes him the "fittest". Maybe I'd agree if in addition to a fast Ironman time, he also had impressive bench press numbers, a huge vertical leap, and a killer 40m sprint. Since he's a fan of the Maffetone Method (on which anaerobic work like weightlifting is a no-no), I'm guessing they ain't that great.
Crossfit would view a guy like Joe Decker as far more fit than Mark Allen. Someone who might not be able to go as far or as fast, but is more well-rounded. There's a lot more to fitness than just endurance. There's speed, stamina, strength, power, and balance just to name a few. A good Crossfit athlete has decent stats in every category of fitness, though he may not excel in any particular one.
Whether or not being an athlete that "specializes by not specializing" makes you good at everything or good at nothing is another question. What's important here is that Crossfit has done a great job pointing out that fitness isn't one-dimensional.
Good: Fitness takes hard work
Whatever your background, be you an elite or an amateur, you can expect one thing about your first Crossfit workout. Unless you're used to high intensity interval training, it's going to be the toughest thing you've ever done. You will be sucking wind. It might even hurt. Maybe a lot.
I'm not saying that because I'm cocky about Crossfit. It's because it's hard for anyone to do maintain a high level of effort at the intensity required by a normal Crossfit workout. If you don't believe me, just watch Jillian Michaels get annihilated by her first WOD. She's supposed to be pretty fit right?
Bob Harper's CrossFit Challenge
Crossfit doesn't just smoke people during these workouts just for the sake of kicking their ass. They do it because study after study has shown that high intensity interval training is way more effective than standard aerobic or strength training alone. You're going to see great results with Crossfit, and you'll see them doing workouts that only last 5-20 minutes instead of an hour-plus.
The thing is...it's not one of those gimmicky workouts that promises incredible results in a short time, or the normal moderate intensity cardio regime handed out as the way to go by popular fitness culture. It's hard...fucking...work. You don't get results by doing the eliptical machine for 30 minutes, three-times a week in the "fat-burning zone" until you glisten (not sweat...because that would be too hard). You get it by throwing down and actually exerting some real effort.
And since all Crossfit workouts are done full-blast, you don't have a choice but to work hard. It just happens. When you're done...you'll lay on the floor for a bit to stop the room from spinning, and then go check out the class schedule for tomorrow.
Good: Cutting out the crap
I've been doing Crossfit-style workouts since 2008. So it's been almost four years since I did a single tricep kickback, or bicep curl, or one-legged calf raise with my eyes closed on a tightrope (okay...haven't done that one..but it sounds cool). I wouldn't argue that assistance exercises like these don't have their place. But the average gym rat doesn't need them. When they do them, they spend all sorts of time isolating muscles that they don't even have. What's the point of being able to do pec flies with 100lb dumbbells if you can't even do one pushup?
You won't do any of that garbage with Crossfit. Instead, you'll be fed a blend of compound and olympic lifts, bodyweight gymnastic exercises, and high-powered cardio work. The exercises used by Crossfit are taken from many different disciplines, and chosen because of the high neuroendocrine response caused by performing them. You are going to make better progress doing squats and Olympic lifts than you will doing leg extensions and preacher curls.
The exercises are also highly functional. For one, they have good carry-over into a sport-specific context. Doing Olympic lifts for example will give you great upward explosive power for things like football and rugby. They also can mimic real-life activities in many ways. For example, doing a medicine ball deadlift feels a lot like how you would pick any odd-shaped object off the ground.
A lot of people I know don't work out at the gym regularly because they feel alienated there. A modern gym, especially it's most recent incarnation in chains like Anytime Fitness, is just a warehouse of workout equipment. People go there to do their own thing, and seldom interact with one another. Even in a fitness class, people do their workout...they just do it at the same time as everyone else.
That might be fine for some people, but I don't think it's fine for most. We are social creatures. And one of the finest expression of that social nature is through sports. That's why sports generally involve more than one person. Sport and fitness can be hard sometimes. But we are more likely to participate, and even work harder, if we share in that hard work with others.
If you want to see what real fitness community looks like in a strength training setting, go to a powerlifting gym sometime. You'll usually see a group of not less than five people working out together. Not just spotting each other, but encouraging each other and challenging each other (or having a bro-session).
Of course, you need five people just to lift the weight off you if it crushes you.
That sort of thing happens sporatically at gyms all over the place...if you have a bunch of like-minded friends who are also members of your gym. Well...at a Crossfit gym that's everyone, all the time. Everyone is doing the same workout. Everyone is competing against each other and encouraging each other. Crossfit gyms have Christmas parties and potlucks. They celebrate their members' birthdays. The owner usually knows everyone by name. How many other gyms do you know like that?
Of course, it's not all good news. MGBG don't play that game. So read Part II: The Bad and the Ugly of Crossfit for the whole story!