CrossFit: Is It for You?
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | July 2015
A closer look at CrossFit, examining the benefits and concerns of this popular fitness program.
CrossFit has taken the fitness industry by storm. It is the new craze with millions of followers across the world. Some CrossFitters follow the fitness program with cult like exactness. The staunchness of the followers is so strong that my wife warned me when writing this article, “Are you sure you want to take on Crossfit?”
Several years ago, I became curious about the CrossFit craze. At the time, I was training several clients at a popular gym and running a series of outdoor boot camps. I was in excellent shape from exercising with the boot camps. I arrived at the CrossFit gym with great confidence and left with confidence shaken and complete exhaustion from the twenty minute WOD (Workout of the Day).
CrossFit (CF) provides phenomenal workouts. I became an instant believer after twenty minutes of heart pounding work. CF has pushed millions to high levels of fitness they may not have reached otherwise. Is CF the magic answer we have been looking for? Is it for everyone? It is not; but it may be for you. Like most fitness programs, CF should be carefully considered before jumping in with the millions of others in the new CrossFit nation.
CrossFit workouts utilize high intensity interval training (HIIT), focusing on strength and conditioning. Routines integrate multiple functional movements performed at high intensity.
What is CrossFit?
The first CF gym opened in Santa Cruz, CA in the mid 90’s by Greg Glassman. Nearly ten years later there were only thirteen CF affiliated gyms. Now there are more than 10,000. The explosive growth of CF over the past decade has attracted good and bad attention to the discipline.
CF gyms utilize simple exercise equipment found which has been around for decades. Most CrossFit gyms will be stocked with barbells, rubberized dumbbells, gymnastics rings, jump ropes, kettlebells, medicine balls, plyoboxes, resistance bands, rowers and various mats. You will not find complex universal or nautilus systems which are a staple of most modern fitness facilities.
"CrossFit is a lifestyle characterized by safe, effective exercise and sound nutrition. CrossFit can be used to accomplish any goal, from improved health to weight loss to better performance. The program works for everyone — people who are just starting out and people who have trained for years."
CF is a strength and conditioning program that challenges exercisers by placing high demands on their cardiovascular and strength systems. CF accomplishes this through explosive consecutive exercises with little rest. CF workouts or WODs are designed to provide a varied mix of aerobic exercise, gymnastics (body weight exercises), and Olympic weight lifting.
Religious followers of CF see vast improvements in their cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy (Smith, 2013).
WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT FROM A TYPICAL WOD?
I pulled this recent WOD from CrossFit.com. The WOD for Wednesday December 3, 2014:
Intense? These workouts are not for the weekend warrior. Modifications fare strongly advised for the beginner to prevent injury and over exertion.
"These movements are actions that you perform in your day-to-day life, like squatting, pulling, pushing etc. Many workouts feature variations of squats, push-ups, and weight lifting that last for predetermined amounts of time to help build muscles."
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
High intensity training has been around for several decades. Nautilus inventor, Author Jones helped to popularize this method of training in the 1970’s. CF derives many of its principles from the HIIT research and fundamentals. The basics of HIIT training are: Train Harder, train briefer, and train less often.
One of the key elements of high intensity training is maintaining a high target heart-rate throughout the entire course of the training session. During the bursts of higher intensity, 85% of maximum heart rate is a suggested target. Because of the high demands on the cardiovascular system, a doctor’s direction and approval is mandatory.
The increased heart rate during the workout fires up the metabolism which theoretically burns additional calories not only during the workout but for several hours or even days afterwards. If the additional calorie burn is not countered by increased consumption (often a temptation to increased metabolism burn) than weight loss is the result.
Other programs that follow some variation of the HIIT method are Tabata, Insanity, and PX90.
The Camaraderie of CrossFit
CF is designed to be performed in a group. The WODs can be obtained from CrossFit.com and done individually; but individual workouts lose the motivation CF encourages through competition. In a traditional CF gym the same WOD is performed by all the participants. Times are recorded, repetitions counted, and competition encouraged. The interaction between participants is a major aspect of CF’s success. It is the social aspect which transforms participants from individuals to fellow a CrossFitter. Two strangers form an instant bond once they both do CF. No longer strangers but family.
This characteristics of CF makes CF what it is. The participant gets a sense of being part of a group, something important. By combining the benefits of exercise and group inclusion, we create a mental health concoction which cures many of our modern depression ills. The more scientists learn about the depression the more social isolation seems to be a key factor in its expression (Cruwys. 2014). CF provides commonality, individual differences are overlooked and social anxiety minimized.
"CrossFit may offer the participant an opportunity to develop skill sets related to lifting techniques and the coordination needed to perform the exercises of the class."
Concerns about CrossFit
While CF has strong advocates, it also has its share of critics. Naturally, any new method which is quickly gobbling up a larger piece of the fitness market share is going to have critics. There is not a perfect program for everybody and CF is not an exception. The best fitness program is the one which keeps us healthy and motivated. Trying to find the correct fit for us individually requires investigation into the different programs and see which fits us best.
CF’s limitations which should be carefully considered are: the limited experience of a certified CF trainer, over-exertion injuries, and over-training.
Limited Training of CrossFit Instructors
A bad trainer is common to all disciplines. There are always those who are not experts in their defined field of expertise. Whether it be a doctor, lawyer, or food server there will be those who are proficient and those who are incompetent.
An experienced trainer is able to evaluating each participant and adjust a WOD to their individual needs. Such proficiency is achieved by understanding the biomechanics of each exercise combined with an in-depth understanding of human reactions to structured stress.
Level 1 certification of a CF instructor can be achieved through a weekend course. The express course leaves an instructor woefully short of the information needed to safely introduce high intensity training to new participants.
The lack of training for certification and the characteristics of CF physical demands leads to an abnormal amount of trainers who have little more to offer participants than a “No Pain, No Gain” attitude.
High-intensity workouts when combined with exhaustion are a combinations for significant injury. It is crucial to have trainers well-versed in form, individual limits and first-aide.
Personal training is an unregulated industry. The determinants for licensing are set by the individual certifying agencies. ACE, CSCS, NASM, and ACSM are commonly recognized in the fitness industry. These programs require a well-rounded knowledge about the biomechanics of the human body and an extensive understanding of the effects of exercise on the cardio vascular system. While a certification with any of these agency is not a guarantee of safety but it does provide a foundation to build expertise upon. An additional degree or certification would be important information to ask about when seeking a CF affiliated gym to join.
Over-Exhaustion and Injuries
There has been numerous cases of rhabdomyolysis which have been tied to CF workouts. Rhabdomyolysis is a serious and rare condition which is associated with vigorous exercise. It is a condition where the skeletal muscle becomes so severely damaged that it begins to break down. Muscle cells may rupture and leak out into the blood stream which potentially can damage the kidneys to the point of kidney failure. This is a life threatening condition.
In 2005 a former U.S. Navy information systems technician Makimba Mimms sustained injuries during a CrossFit workout in 2005. He also was treated for Rhabdomyolysis which was attributed to the CrossFit workout. He was eventually awarded $300,000 in damages. CrossFit, instead of addressing the concerns, used this case as evidence of the superiority of intensity contained in their workouts. (Stoddard, 2011).
During intense activity the possibility of injury is increased. A careful cost benefit analysis is important. A personal understanding of our own susceptibility to injuries and a doctors assessment can help determine if more intense workouts are a healthy fit for us personally.
Renowned spinal biomechanics expert Stuart McGill cautions about the “fatigue and failure” mentality with exercise. He suggests that some exercises are conducive to this while others are not (Stoddard, 2011). Many of the Olympic lifts are not healthy exercises to perform to failure. Fatigue can greatly compromise form and form is essential for deadlifts, squats and other heavily weighted exercises.
CF is high intensity. Like the other high intensity programs there is the possibility of over-training. The symptoms of over-training include decreased performance, prolonged recovery times, fatigue, persistent muscle soreness, increased risk of infection, insomnia, and injuries.
The key to training with high intensity is to be reasonable. We need to be responsive to our body. Sometimes rest is needed. High intensity by its very nature pushes are body to the limits. Pushing past limits is necessary for improvement so our fitness levels do not stagnate; but continually violating our bodies signals that we have gone too far can back fire and can slow improvement or even lead to deterioration.
CF instructors and gurus hate the cult comparison; yet the CF culture, as a whole, wants unquestioning adherence to their philosophy. This article—although more favorable than not—will draw extensive criticism from the CF crowd because it points out some of the inherent weaknesses. Group addiction does not support possible draw backs. Because so much time and effort is devoted, any possible suggestion of fallibility causes discomforting cognitive dissonance. CF proponent angrily will protest these comparisons.
Is CrossFit for You?
If the characteristics of this heart pounding workout style sounds attractive, check it out. CF gyms are everywhere. Try a few weeks of workouts, bring a friend, and see what the CF hype is all about.
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