CrossFit – Getting the Benefits Without the Risk

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CrossFit was founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman. Just 16 years later it is a global brand and business phenomenon. It is the biggest fitness trend by a country mile and is practiced by members in over 13,000 affiliate gyms.

 

Glassman, and his team, have created a huge following of raving fans. These fans are so loyal that CrossFit is often referred to as a cult. This is no ordinary cult. It is one whose brand generates $4 billion in annual revenue and CrossFit, Inc. itself earns approximately $100 million per year.

CrossFit is big business and is doing an incredible job of taking over the fitness world. Yet it is fitness Marmite. You either love it or you hate it. Want to get some social media attention or a blog noticed (see what I’ve done there?) then mention CrossFit and add a negative term like, ‘will injure you’, ‘sucks’, or ‘is a cult’ and watch people come piling in to defend it or kick it when it’s down.
Despite (or perhaps because of) it’s Marmite status, CrossFit is raking in the $$$’s and gaining huge popularity amongst fitness enthusiasts worldwide.

So much so that I am pretty confident in saying… ‘everyone knows someone who does CrossFit.’

Why am I so confident about this?

Firstly, there is the aforementioned massive number of CrossFit gyms and participants and secondly, CrossFit is a way of life for most Crossfitters. People drink the CrossFit Kool-Aid and love telling you about it. They are as bad as Vegans in that respect! So bad in fact that there is this gag…

What’s the first rule of CrossFit? You always talk about CrossFit.
What’s the second rule of CrossFit? You ALWAYS talk about CrossFit.

Now I actually think CrossFit is awesome in many ways and the elite athletes possess phenomenal physiques. I mean who wouldn’t want to look like an elite Crossfitter?

I think we can agree these guys are in shape!

I think we can agree these guys are in shape! pic courtesy of crossfitforthood.blogspot.com

 

Or date one for that matter?

That's pretty hot!

That’s pretty hot! Pic courtesy of hdwalls.xyz

 

But, unfortunately, there are also many downsides to CrossFit. So first let’s get the pissing & moaning, critical stuff out the way…

Coaching qualification…

A major peeve of mine is just how easy it is to get ‘qualified’ as a CrossFit coach and/or gym owner.
To give you an idea…

“Prospective box owners first sign up for a two-day certification class, known as the Level 1 Cert…This costs $1,000 and introduces the ‘methodology and foundational movements’ of CrossFit. At the end of the two days, there’s a 55-question, multiple-choice test.”

Pass that and you can go and coach clients or even set up your own CrossFit box. Let me repeat that…2 days, multiple choice and only $1000.

That is not a high barrier to coaching!
Coaching (especially CrossFit coaching) has a twofold problem – Firstly, the barrier to entry is low. Secondly, the barrier to being a GREAT coach is very high!
Many CrossFit boxes are based on poor coaching. Given CrossFit involves some incredibly complex, high risk exercises (e.g., snatches) then this is a recipe for disaster.

Crossfit Fai at it's best! pic courtesy of pazoo.com

Crossfit Fail at it’s best! pic courtesy of pazoo.com

Note. Plenty of good, and even, great coaches exist in the world of CrossFit. The problem is the layperson doesn’t know how to spot one so, many people are playing injury roulette when it comes to starting out with CrossFit. Which leads me on to….

Injury risk…

As I alluded to earlier CrossFit is often criticised for the increased injury risk that comes with following their methodology. In a study that followed 54 CrossFitters over the course of 10 weeks, 16 percent of the participants dropped out, citing injury or overuse or as their reason for not finishing the program. The authors said…

“This may call into question the risk-benefit ratio for such extreme training programs.”

In my experience, injury rate in CrossFit does seem excessively high. This is particularly the case with beginners who have not got a good training background. For those new to exercise I would have a really hard time suggesting CrossFit as a good starting point unless the coaches at the box were of a really good standard and able to program the training to the individual’s needs.
Such CrossFit coaches and gyms do exist. The problem is that the majority do not offer this level of individualization. Instead newbies are thrown in at the deep end without the required technical proficiency or general physical preparedness to take on these killer workouts.

Rhabdomyolysis…

Critics argue that both the CrossFit methodology and the environment created by CrossFit trainers put athletes at high risk for developing rhabdomyolysis.
CrossFit, Inc. does not dispute that its methodology has the potential to cause rhabdomyolysis. In fact, it actually embraces it by promoting a character known as “Uncle Rhabdo”. Uncle Rhabdo is a cartoon clown collapsed on the floor and hooked up to a dialysis machine, with his kidneys and intestines falling out. Head honcho Greg Glassman reiterated the risk of taking part in CrossFit when he said…

“It can kill you. I’ve always been completely honest about that,”

A Pretty Dubious Poster Boy! pic courtesy of pjfit.com

A Dubious Poster Boy! pic courtesy of pjfit.com

As you have gathered there is a ‘No Pain. No Gain.’ Mentality in the world of CrossFit.
CrossFit participants need to watch out for is pushing too hard, too fast. Crossfitters start out in full on beast mode. Then quickly discover, however, that they’re not recovering and often actually getting weaker rather than stronger.

“Considering the intensity of CrossFit, your body needs rest in order to recover and maximize results,”

If you fail to recover then, you’ll just do more damage than good. When training we want to dig a hole and then fill it back up and add a bit on top through rest and recovery. This allows you make positive adaptations. Unfortunately, most Crossfitters dig themselves a trench which cannot be filled and they keep getting deeper and deeper until their body breaks down.

Crossfit funny

Technique…what technique?!

Bad technique is another reason CrossFit can be bad. The AMRAP culture leads to moving weight from A to B with little regard for correct technique. Captain Obvious alert!!!…this increases the risk of injury. Thanks Captain.

Captain Obvious

Pic courtesy of quotesgram.com

Lack of individualisation:

CrossFit does not allow you to start off at a beginner’s level. The workout of the day (WOD) does not give lighter loads or easier exercises for beginners. It is a seemingly random collection of exercises thrown together which can vary wildly form one day to the next.

A well-structured strength training program is completely different. It is…structured! A sensible training plan allows the person to start with an appropriate weight until their body gets accustomed to the training program. Then overtime the body can handle progressively more challenging workouts. Good coaches increase the intensity and load in a periodised fashion. The WOD completely disregards this.

CrossFit – The Good Bits:

Right, that’s enough CrossFit bashing. As I said at the outset I actually think it has many awesome elements. Here is a rundown…

It gets people off their ass and gets them moving. We live in an obesity epidemic so anything which encourages people to exercise has to be a good thing.

CrossFit is inherently varied. This variety appeals to many and keeps the exercise fun. Again another win for getting people up and about. This variety also means that participants develop a wide range of fitness qualities across a wide range of exercise modalities. Simply put it can help you be an excellent all-rounder. You won’t be elite at any one discipline but, you can be good at a lot of things. To quote a t-shirt a CrossFit buddy of mine has…

“Out lift a runner. Outrun a lifter.”

CrossFit has created a sense of community like no other fitness trend. This camaraderie amongst participants is a huge reason for its success and a massive positive. In commercial gyms worldwide people go in, put their headphones on and ignore everyone around them. Now I’m all for a bit of ‘me’ time but, it gets a bit much when trying to get a spot off a fellow trainee is harder than scoring a date with Gisele.

I'm not 100% certain but, I think she's quite picky about who she dates!

I’m not 100% certain but, I think she’s quite picky about who she dates! – pic courtesy of elle.co.za

People love to be a part of a team. People also tend to be more successful at reaching their goals when they train with a partner. At a CrossFit box you end up with not one training partner but, a whole group of them. In time these training partners form close bonds. Eventually training becomes something you do with your friends. Doing CrossFit isn’t like going to a regular gym. It is more like being a part of a sports team.

Following on from above the “Sport” of fitness has not only created a sense of teamwork but, also a competitive outlet for many. Other strength sports like strongman just seem so unobtainable to most while, powerlifting has grown in popularity recently it has never really captured the mainstreams imagination. Bodybuilding and physique shows are not everyone’s cup of tea either. Yet, there are people all over the world who enjoy training and love competing. CrossFit nicely fits in amongst these other sports and offers something challenging, obtainable, with variety that also results in a well-developed physique. It is little wonder so many trainees like to train and compete in the sport.

CrossFit focuses on big bang for your buck exercises. It is built around the Olympic lifts. Before CrossFit became popular and made the Oly lifts popular most gym goers didn’t know they existed. Those that did thought they were just for big fat, hairy Eastern Bloc blokes. It is fair to say seeing someone doing snatches pre-CrossFit was rarer than a sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. Now, however, weightlifting is far more mainstream and about 1 in 3 people in the gym are wearing lifting shoes and practicing the lifts.

Oh and did I mention the physiques?

Jacked!!! pic courtesy of myfbcovers.com

Groundskeeper Willy? pic courtesy of myfbcovers.com

The physiques of elite Crossfitters is a contentious one. In my opinion in most cases it isn’t that CrossFit has built these physiques but, simply provided a platform for the genetically gifted to showcase their prowess. Anyway, I’m not against this!

So there you have it. The good and the bad. So should you do CrossFit?

Yes, if you are a former athlete with a good competitive and training background, are a young healthy physically robust individual, or want to compete in CrossFit throw downs or even the games.

No, if you are a regular guy or girl who is just getting into training wants to develop a well-rounded level of fitness and stay healthy for the long-term. Instead of doing CrossFit you would be better served by taking the good bits and ditching the crazy to formulate your own training.

So how can you get the benefits without the risk?

Simple.

Follow the PLBBSM Principle when planning each training session.

What does it stand for?

  1. Powerlifter
  2. Bodybuilder
  3. Strongman

Start like a powerlifter. Then train like a bodybuilder and condition like a strongman (or dare I say it a Crossfitter).
What does that mean?

Well let me walk you through it.

Start the session with a big heavy compound lift to get some strength work in. This would generally be sets of 1-5 reps with long rest periods to maximize performance on the lift. So, for example, you might work up to a max triple in the squat.

Then in the middle portion of the session switch to a bodybuilders mindset. Do sets in the traditional hypertrophy rep range. Keep rest intervals medium to short and get a good pump. Taking our leg training example further you might do sets of 10-12 in the leg press, Romanian Deadlift and leg curl.

That brings us to the final portion of the session…conditioning.

Modified strongman training is perfect for this. You could push or pull the prowler, flip a tire or do farmers walks. Alternatively, you could do some CrossFit inspired met-con work here to fry your legs and get your heart racing. For example, high rep wall balls, BB complexes, the Airdyne for calories or rower intervals. Whatever you do the point is to go hard before you go home.

Prowler

So how should you set this all up?

I would suggest 4 days a week on an Upper/Lower Split as follows:
Mon – Lower
Tues – Upper
Wed – Rest
Thurs – Lower
Friday – Upper

Here is an example session for a Lower day:

A Back Squat, work up to max triple, rest 3-5mins between sets
B Hack Squats, 4×10-12, with 90-120s rest
C BB RDLs, 3×10-12, with 90s rest
D Lying Leg Curls, 3×10-12, with 75s rest
E Low Handle Prowler Pushing, 5x20m, with 60s rest

Here is an example Upper body day:

A Push Press, 5×3, with 3mins rest
B1 Pull-Ups, 4×8, 90s rest
B2 DB Bench Press, 4×8, 90s rest
C1 Single Arm Rows, 3×10-12, with 60s rest
C2 Dips, 3×10-12, with 60s rest
D Double Slams on Battling Rope, 5x30s on 30s off

Weekend Warrior Workouts:

Use the weekend as an opportunity to get some of the other benefits of CrossFit. Namely the social and competitive elements. Join a sports team if you have a sport you love taking part in. Anything you really enjoy works here. It could be 5-a-side footy, a pick basketball match, or a rugby team. Alterantively, you could join a running, rowing or cycling club. You could even arrange to play a round of golf with your buddies each Sunday morning.

England v Argentina Rugby Union Autumn International, Twickenham, London, Britain - 09 Nov 2013
Perhaps you aren’t into a specific sport. Well in that case you could do a class at the gym. A spin class or MMA style conditioning session.

The blindingly obvious:

You could of course attend a session at the local CrossFit box.
Doing only one CrossFit session a week allows your body time to recover and minimizes the potential risks. It also gives you training variety and the chance to get some of the CrossFit social/community benefits.

So there you have it. CrossFit is risky but, offers many benefits. If you are smart you can get these benefits and minimize the risk. If you follow the above training approach you can look like a Crossfitter but, actually stay injury free.

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