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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Crossfit: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Part II

Read Part I of Crossfit: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,

In my last post, I discussed what I see as the positives of the Crossfit methodology.  Of course, nothing escapes scrutiny on my blog.  And Crossfit certainly has some glaring downsides.  So here is what I see as wrong with Crossfit programming as it currently stands.

Bad: Thinking that specialization is unnecessary for sports performance

When my friend Vanessa Runs recently completed the Spartan Race in Southern California, she commented in her race report that she was blowing past a ton of Crossfitters on many of the obstacles.  These Spartan-style races attract Crossfitters in droves because they are supposed to be a bunch of random obstacles thrown together.  Something that should be easy for those trained in the "unknown and unknowable".

Here's the thing.  These races are just big trail runs with obstacles that usually involve manipulating your own bodyweight over and around them.  So the people who excel at them are folks who train in those conditions, are lighter, and can easily move around their bodyweight.  People like...say...Vanessa who is a seasoned trail runner that also crosstrains with yoga (and who is probably a good 50lbs lighter than the average Crossfitter).  The people that don't necessarily excel at them are those that run once a month (probably not on a trail), train for these events by do wall-ball shots and burpees so that they are "prepared" for everything, and have never done an actual pullup in their lives....i.e. Crossfitters (but I bet they can "kip" about 300 pullups).

Holding this gigantic tennis ball is sure to train me for tasks that in no way resemble it!

I'm not sure where people got the idea that doing a bunch of random exercises could make you better than everyone at everything.  It could be because the Crossfit mainsite tells people that it is in the business of "forging elite athletes".  If by "elite athlete", Crossfit means "good at randomly cobbled together exercise routines"...then I agree.  Otherwise, I don't.  I do agree that Crossfit will shore up your weak areas and makes you more well-rounded.  But specific sports value certain aspects of fitness over others.  So if you want to be good at specific sports, you need to train for the necessities of that specific sport. 

If you play football, you need to be stronger and more powerful than Crossfit can make you.  If you're an endurance athlete, you need more cardio than you're going to do in Crossfit (which is usually once every 13 days).  Crossfit has done a decent job in addressing this with offshoot programs like Crossfit Endurance and Crossfit Football.  But don't buy into the hype that Crossfit will make you "elite".  Unless by "elite", you mean "good at exercise". 

Bad: Failing to listen to criticism and evolve

This last point is a common criticism of Crossfit.  There are other more nuanced ones concerning exercise selection, programming, and other things that only fitness nerds would understand or care about.  I'm not going to go through each point because I don't think folks much care about how a sumo deadlift high pull involves the same axis as the Hawkins-Kennedy Impingement Test (though if you care, here's a funny article about it...yes, I said funny), or the benefits and disadvantages of the kipping pullup.

What I will say is that the Crossfit culture has a tendancy to sweep these concerns under the rug instead of dealing with them.  The Crossfit culture tends to be very "us versus the world".  Criticisms are generally taken as "you just don't get it because you're not as elite as us" instead of "hmmm...that's a really valid point...perhaps I should do something about this."

Here's an example.  Yes, that is a baby strapped to that dude's chest while he does an overhead squat.  Yes, it was posted to the Crossfit website.  And no, Crossfit mainsite did not take the picture down in response to intense criticsm that Captain Child-Endangerment here could have caved in this baby's soft spot with that weight.  They left it up and defended him as elite instead of saying "hmmm...maybe this encourages dangerous practices that we don't endorse". 

The result?  Crossfit comes off as very close-minded and elitist...and even somewhat fascist.  Ask a Crossfitter sometime about why they do kipping pullups instead of regular pullups, and you'll no doubt get a response about how they are better for you because they spread the workload among more parts of your body thus allowing greater muscle recruitment.  No...it means that you can't do a fucking pullup to save you're life and you're cheating.  These folks have a boxed response because that's what they've been told.

There's actually an interesting website called the Crossfit White Papers that keeps track of this phenomenon and does a decent job keeping track of it all.  If you want a no-holds bar timeline of the behind the scenes intrigue at Crossfit, that is the site for you.

Now, because Crossfit is ultimately a local phenomenon, there are some great box gyms responding to criticism of these methods and making positive changes.  For example, many are recognizing the importance of absolute strength and adjusting their programming to have a strength bias. 

And some do....

Ugly: Downright dangerous practices


There are so many things wrong with this video.  Let's name them shall we?  Like why are obvious newbies to Crossfit doing high skill Olympic lifts?  Why are they doing it with an axle instead of a normal bar thus making an already difficult exercise ten times more difficult?  Why is the coach allowing them to blow their fucking vertebrae off with horrible form and with a weight they obviously can't handle and then drop it wherever they please?  And then filming it like it's something worth putting Youtube (by the way...thanks for putting it on Youtube). 

This isn't just a random incident.  This is one result of something that is symptomatic of Crossfit.  It is common to sacrifice many things for intensity and results.  This video illustrates a few of those; like form, exercise selection, and weight selection.

That's just the tip of the iceberg.  Crossfit tends to push the same practices over and over despite warnings that they shouldn't.  High repetition box jumps are prescribed despite reports of ruptured Achilles tendons as a result.  Ridiculous "hero" workouts (usually workouts of insane difficulty) and ultra-long WODs are frequently prescribed despite reports of widespread overtraining and injury by those that attempt them.  Those are just a few examples. 

Again, there are many local gyms that are aware of these concerns and make safety a top priority.  But for as many gyms as there are that do that, there are a handful that make all of these program missteps.  Why don't all gyms have the smarts to realize the error of their ways?  Probably has something to do with my next point.

Ugly: McCrossfit-ization

Why did something like what happened in the above video happen?  I don't know about the gym in question personally, but if I were to guess I'd reckon it had to do with the way Crossfit is taught at the local level.  All that is required to become a Crossfit coach and open a gym is to become Level 1 Trainer certified and pay an affiliation fee.  The Level 1 Training course (which I will be attending) is $1000, and lasts for two days.  There is a test at the end of it with an 80% passage rate.  The affiliate fee is $3000 per year.  So $4000 and two days of your time and you too could be a Crossfit trainer!

Does that scare you?  It scares me!  With the surging popularity of Crossfit, gyms are popping up all over the world with no attempt at quality control from Crossfit HQ.  As with everything in Crossfit, there are certainly a number of gyms that are top quality, and have very knowledgable staff.  But the possibility exists also that the only training a coach could have is a two-day seminar.

Now the Level One class is very thorough.  But I don't think it gives you everything you need to successfully coach someone, or even own a gym.  It takes more than two days to learn that stuff.  Not to mention, folks who are only indoctrinated in the Crossfit method can't think critically about their programming and how to improve it.  They don't know any other way.  They don't know why something is right or wrong.

And if you take away that knowledge, I think you take away the best part of the Crossfit system.  Crossfit came about by being creative and taking the best of many different methods of exercise.  I fear that this rapid and easy spread of the Crossfit method is going to snuff out that creative fire that initially made the Crossfit system so great.

So how can you tell if the gym you are thinkng about is a McCrossfit, or the real deal?  Your best defense is to research the gym you are thinking about joining.  Look at the qualifications of the staff members.  Talk to the trainers and see if they know their stuff.

Hope this series gives you the tools you need to make an informed decision about whether or not to start doing Crossfit.



  1. Holy crap! That Revival Strongman video is scary. I couldn't watch it all, because I was so afraid one of those girls would break their spine. Great analysis, MGBG!

    1. Holy shit me too! How can anyone with even an ounce of reason think that was ok (even people who don't lift at all should sense the danger) and then be deluded enough to think people would be impressed with the efforts?

    2. I know one sports chiropractor and fitness store owner who says he loves Crossfit because they buy everything their coach tells them to (often from his store) and then get injured and come to him for treatment. Not the best endorsement for a workout. Thank you for a really balanced review of Crossfit.

  2. I still can't believe you are drinking the red kool-aid. The purple one tastes better.

    Seriously though, kudos to you for helping to show the positives and to show that Crossfit itself is not bad, just when it is done poorly.

    To be honest with you, I correct people every time when they refer to what I do as Crossfit. I no longer use it as a reference at all. Sorry

  3. Christian, I really enjoyed this post, both parts. The link to the white papers is eye opening. I've never been able to fully accept the hype Brian McKenzie throws down about CFE. I started following him on Twitter and reading his blog a few months ago and he seems to have more attitude than results. Sure he is probably a great athlete and is certainly in better shape than me, but he's not running and winning anything. I want to do what the winners do in any sport I am training for. The white papers clarified this for me.

    I completely agree that there are good and bad crossfit boxes out there. I hadn't thought too much of it as I train on my own. I think you can learn a lot from their respective websites and the efforts they go to in staying updated daily and the coaches giving attention to everything that is happening. I have seen clear cut good examples and extremely poor examples in the Indianapolis area alone. Seems like a new box pops up every month here. Some have seemed pretty sketchy to me.

    1. Here's my thoughts on Brian. His CFE program is brilliant and innovative, just like CF was in the beginning. But he's from the CF old school, so he's incredibly resistant to criticism and change just like the rest of them. Lots of people have had some really good points about how CFE works and doesn't work, and he doesn't really respond to any of them except in the traditional CF "brush off" way.

      He has an opportunity to take those points and really fine tune his program into something special, and I hope he does it. And I hope he loses the attitude. It's off-putting.

  4. Love that you're into CrossFit but also willing to see the problems and issues. That's so key to becoming a good teacher/instructor/trainer. I don't think CrossFit is for me, but I'd come workout in one of your classes.

  5. So if there were no crossfit would we all still be doing isolated bicep curls and calf raises? Or was it time for something new and crossfit was in the right place at the right time? If not crossfit then what else.

    I started crossfit right after the "300" movie came out, I am not sure what things were like before then.

    1. The fitness world was trending towards something like Crossfit when the program started. Back in the early 2000's, many of the components of Crossfit were becoming popular, like circuit training and a re-focus on compound and Olympic movements. Lots of fitness gurus have been recommending that stuff for years.

      But had it not been for the popularity of things like the movie 300 and P90X, I doubt anyone would know much about Crossfit. It was a relatively small phenomenon until very recently.

  6. Great posts, MGBG (parts 1 and 2)! I have recently been hitting the gym twice a week like clockwork to supplement my runs. I really like the idea of Crossfit and have friends and coworkers who are nuts about it, but your sentiments here basically reinforced some of my negative impulses and observations about the program - namely the Kool-aid drunk fanaticism. It's definitely off-putting. The CF gyms around here don't suffer from the same lack of a brain that the video displayed, though. I guess since there is such a strong military presence (read: lots of diversity in race, background, etc.), all CFers are extremely form conscious and insanely concerned about injury prevention and progressing very cautiously. Good and bad everywhere, I guess.

    Long-story-short, I am going to really focus on base strength like you spoke about here: http://www.maplegrovebarefootguy.com/2012/02/want-good-beginner-strength-training.html. I might add a few sets of stabilizer push ups in between, but I adore the simplicity of Rippetoe's plan. Can't wait to see how it turns out. Maybe once I get comfortable, I will check out our local Crossfit gym and see if anyone wants to join me for a Bro session!

  7. I loved reading this post. I've been to two really disappointing and even "stupid" crossfit gyms in the past, and I've also been to one really good one.
    I feel like some places just start a crossfit gym because it's "in" right now, yet they aren't even qualified trainers!
    You are right in saying that you have to closely analyze the crossfit gym you're about to join, plus they're expensive, so don't rush into it!

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