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Willson: CrossFit is a bastardization of fitness

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in the following column are those of the writer only and do not necessarily represent the views of the Collegian or its editorial board.

Since its initial 2001 gym opening, CrossFit has amassed an enormous following. As recently as 2015, the exercise program and fitness philosophy was reportedly being used in over 13,000 gyms, and between 2 and 4 million individuals identified as CrossFit affiliates. However, despite CrossFit’s popularity, many often neglect the sport’s illogical foundation, deleterious social dynamic, and altogether dangerous nature. CrossFit is by no means the first fitness fad to come with risks—there are diets that tell you to eat cotton balls for god’s sake—but the inherent hazards of this program seem to so greatly outnumber its benefits so much so that I question whether it can honestly be advertised as a fitness regimen.

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According to its official website, CrossFit is an exercise program “designed to improve fitness and health” by using “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.” The term “functional movements” refers to multi-planar, multi-joint actions that can improve one’s biomechanics in certain situations. Some FMs may be sports-specific, such as kicking a soccer ball or swinging a baseball bat, while others are more generalized, like running or performing a biceps curl.

The CrossFit program was developed by former gymnast Greg Glassman, and not only does the regimen incorporate elements of gymnastics, but it also emphasizes Olympic weightlifting movements (i.e. snatches, cleans, and jerks) and aerobics, primarily in the form of high-intensity interval training.

Adherents to CrossFit follow what is known as a Workout of the Day (WOD), posted every morning on the program’s website. Nation- and worldwide, thousands of individuals participate in these workouts, which are typically led by a certified CrossFit coach (certification requires little more than attendance at a 2-day course). Participants can also complete the workouts by themselves.

WODs vary greatly in the exercises they include; one day might consist of pull-ups and squat snatches, while the second entails nothing but 800m intervals of running, and the third a brutal circuit of deadlifts, wall-ball shots, rowing, and handstand push-ups. If these workouts seem to have no consistency or structure, that’s because they don’t. By its nature, CrossFit is designed to be “constantly varied,” so the body never becomes used to performing exercises in the exact same order.

I respect what Greg Glassman, CrossFit founder and former gymnast, was trying to accomplish with this. He was probably jumping on the antiquated idea of “muscle confusion,” which asserts that adding variety into your workout prevents stagnation in strength, power, and endurance. Unfortunately, muscle confusion has proven to be an ineffective method for such goals.

Instead, most experts (coaches, physical therapists, exercise scientists, etc.) implore athletes to utilize a method known as progressive overload, wherein stress (i.e. weight) placed on the body gradually and consistently increases over time. By alternating periods of heavy lifting (work) with periods of lighter exercise (rest), the body is exposed to an appropriate amount of strain for muscle breakdown while also being given ample recovery time to repair the damaged tissue into stronger muscle fibers.

It is progressive overload which allows PowerLifters to deadlift three times their bodyweight, and Olympic lifters to snatch two-and-a-half times their own mass. But even for the non-elite, average gym-goer, this method has been shown to improve overall endurance, strength, agility, and even bone and joint health.

But CrossFit, rather than stressing progressive overload, glorifies an ever-changing, non-routine approach to fitness. Why? In all likelihood, Glassman, who trademarked CrossFit into a for-profit fitness brand, wanted to make his product as appealing and interesting as possible. Most people aren’t enticed by the idea of doing the same movements and following boring old training programs that aim to improve strength, solely because they aren’t as zesty as, say, a Zumba class.

Glassman clearly recognized this: if you’re going to market a fitness program and make it profitable, you have to make it interesting. I doubt Glassman achieved greatness as an athlete by practicing a different gymnastics routine every single day. But, as stated earlier, this is essentially what his program touts: constantly modified exercise. As stated so aptly on the CrossFit website: “Our specialty is not specializing.”

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CrossFit’s dismissal of progressive overload and scientifically supported training routines is dangerous. It’s downright idiotic to think you can improve fitness when you’re constantly changing your routine. That’s like trying to find a cure for a disease by taking a handful of twenty different drugs. You could potentially feel a little better, but you’ll have no idea what caused that improvement, and therefore won’t be able to replicate the beneficial action. Conversely, you could also feel a lot worse, and besides, who the hell would take twenty different drugs at once? No sane person would.

I’m not discounting the fact that a lot of CrossFit participants are in great shape. Chances are, however, that these individuals have been performing the prescribed exercises (with proper form) for years, while increasing intensity at a reasonable, consistent pace. On top of this, the best CrossFit athletes usually follow a strict diet and consistent gym routine to which most working individuals cannot adhere.

Followers of CrossFit also know that the program is characterized by an uber-competitive social dynamic. During workouts, participants are often in a race against the clock to complete their prescribed exercises as quickly as possible. When taken in a class setting, a CrossFitter is bound to encounter individuals who take the sport so seriously—and so desperately want to be the fittest—that such people might enter the gym with the very intention of doing harm to their bodies.

These factors may push people too far past their limits. It’s good to feel challenged during a workout, but there is a difference between racing to run a mile with a friend and trying to deadlift 275 pounds faster than the ripped dude next to you. Because of the motivational yet highly competitive atmosphere, CrossFitters are constantly trying to outdo their fellow “teammates.”

And this brings me to my last point: CrossFit’s high risk of injury. Because the program incorporates so many different exercises, it is all too easy to commit the sin of improper form. Some exercises, such as the Clean and Jerk (an Olympic compound movement), can take years to master, not only due to their technical nature, but because of the amount of strength required to perform them correctly.

Some first-time CrossFitters don’t know the difference between a dumbbell and a kettlebell. They are most likely just starting out on their journey to a better self, and do not have a considerable amount of muscle mass and strength. If these newcomers walk into a CrossFit gym and see other people throwing around weights like toys, they may falsely believe they are capable of doing the same.

Concerningly, despite the potential for injury and the need for extensive education on certain exercises, CrossFit assumes that either a) participants will take the time to learn proper form (most don’t), or b) decrease the weight if something feels wrong (most won’t).

A perfect example of the newbie-injury phenomenon is perhaps best demonstrated by the association between CrossFit and rhabdomyolysis. Though rare, rhabdomyolysis is a potentially fatal condition that occurs when muscle rapidly breaks down. If the tissue cells are injured to a point in which they rupture, they release toxic substances into the blood that cannot be processed by the kidneys. If untreated, rhabdomyolysis can lead to kidney failure and death.

The high-rep weightlifting exercises that are a mainstay of CrossFit are the perfect catalyst for onset of this affliction, for they expose muscle tissue to extreme strain—repeatedly. The likelihood of developing “Uncle Rhabdo”—a mascot that unsympathetic CrossFitters use to personify the malady—is much higher for those who have not exercised for some time and suddenly decide to engage in strenuous exercise. Thus, many people may run the risk of rhabdomyolysis—and even death—if they exert maximum effort during their initial encounters with the CrossFit program.

As I said earlier, any exercise program has inherent risks. I’m not saying that if you try CrossFit, you’re going to die from renal failure. All I want to get across is that if you’re going to try a fitness regimen that prides itself on unproven methods, maniacal competition, and dangerous exertion levels, please, for the love of Uncle Rhabdo, educate yourself first.

Lauren can be reached at letters@collegian.com and online @LaurenKealani

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  • R

    rockkyJun 1, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    Not ignorance whatsoever.
    Don’t project your poor backround experience of achieving great gains to everyone. Everyone gains like you coming from a couch potato.
    Sooner or later you’ll plateau and if you want to continue pushing those numbers you’ll need to isolate capacities and use what the article recommends.

    Reply
  • R

    rockkyJun 1, 2017 at 9:55 pm

    Article makes important points.
    If you want to maximize capacity in any one element in Crossfit you have to employ some of what he’s talking about. The Crossfit model ain’t going to do it.
    Games athletes didn’t get there by doing “CrossFit”.

    Reply
  • M

    Matt WilliamsMar 27, 2017 at 10:43 am

    The fact that the bulk of people who Crossfit are simply doing it because they like it and it’s making them more fit greatly outweighs the vast minority of people who push it too far and hurt themselves. You should be grateful there’s a new outlet of fitness opposing the fat-American direction this country is heading.

    Reply
  • W

    Wendell webberMar 27, 2017 at 9:26 am

    Can you support any of this with actual data? I’ll answer for you…no.

    Reply
  • T

    Trey WhitakerMar 27, 2017 at 8:19 am

    I’m 58 years old, a two-time cancer survivor and a CrossFit athlete for 4 years. Although I’ve been injured running marathons, playing basketball and practicing jujitsu, I’ve never been injured doing CrossFit. Throughout my 4 years, I’ve often been sore but never injured and my fitness has steadily improved.

    While I’m not an elite athlete, I have stood on podiums at regional events. Despite pushing myself physically, I have never injured myself or suffered from rhabdo. This is a critical consideration since I have just one kidney.

    As a lifelong sportsman, I choose CrossFit since it’s safer than the sports I’ve pursued throughout my life. I recommend it highly and have seen amazing transformation in health including my own wife, sister and daughter.

    It appears that your post suffers from being an uninformed regurgitation of random facts with an bias agenda. In other words, it smells of fake news.

    Reply
  • J

    Jared SilberhornMar 24, 2017 at 9:13 am

    Ah yes. The “Crossfit is bad” article. Again. Again. Glad to see you breaking new ground. BTW, what did you do Monday at the gym – chest and bicep? What are you doing next Monday at the gym? What’s your mile time compared to a year ago? What’s your favorite odd object carry? (Mine’s the girl with the neon shoes.) How did helping your friend move go? What? No real world uses for isolated bicep curls?

    4 years ago I was looking at type 2 diabetes and a heart attack (my Dr’s words, not mine), was on 4 meds to stave off the inevitable and weighed 235 lbs at about 33% body fat. I’d lifted weights (that progressive overload was a blast. I love doing the same thing over and over again. And over again. And again.), cycled, and tried just about everything and never stuck with it. I got a Groupon for a month of Crossfit and tried it. It’ll be 4 years in June. Here’s a few things:

    1) I had to complete an “on ramp” course over a week to learn the basic movements and set my weight limits on the standard movements. I had to demonstrate before they let me out into the class.

    2) While there are definitely competitive people in the box (I’ve been a member at 4, dropped in to several while traveling), the biggest competition in Crossfit is you against yourself yesterday. If you get into a deadlift competition with some jacked dude next to you and you’ve been at it a week, that’s the fault of your ego, not Crossfit. In other words, the problem is you, not the program.

    3) Any box worth its salt has coaches constantly roaming and watching, correcting and, well, coaching. These boxes can easily be identified by a) yelp; b) google reviews; and c) asking anyone you know that does Crossfit (believe me, they’ll be MORE than happy to discuss). If a box made it through the fad years of roughly 2011-2014, they’re probably decent. Oh – and you get what you pay for. A box that’s $60 a month when everyone else is $100? Unless they just opened there’s probably a problem.

    4) I weigh 195 at about 16% body fat (because I’ve added donuts back into my diet and backed off the workload a bit. I’m usually about 185). I’m off the meds, I’m stronger than ever, shaved 4 minutes off my mile time in under a year and can move at least my body weight in every major Olympic lift safely. I took the time to learn and get good. Every single person at every single box I’ve been to has been nothing but supportive and helpful. Competitive, sure – but with those who want to compete.

    So, if you want to bash Crossfit, that’s fine. But maybe you should walk yourself into a box sometime and try it out for a month (enjoy the on-ramp class). Experience is worth far more than anecdotal evidence.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s Friday and I have to go do… wait. I don’t know what I’m doing today. That’s probably good, ’cause if I get bored I tend to skip or cherry-pick – kind of like when people who write anti-Crossfit articles cherry-pick their data.

    Reply
  • R

    Rich FooteMar 24, 2017 at 8:11 am

    We, as Crossfit athletes, have been reading this exact same type of article for years now. There isn’t a single original thought or assertion in the entire piece, and there isn’t a single source to back up any of the claims. Not exactly top-rung journalism.

    Do people get injured? Sure they do, especially if they ignore the guidance of a skilled coach at an affiliate that is, more often than not, run by athletes with multiple advanced certificates, not just the Level 1. Are the workouts constantly varied? Absolutely, and when someone follows a program at an affiliate, the long term planning leads to the progressive overload you cling to as the lifeline of fitness training.

    Please, if you want to rally against something, do your research, gather valid points and make them make sense. For the millions of people, worldwide who have been practicing the Crossfit methodology for years and see massive positive results, this type of argument is common and, honestly, played out. Have you personally tried Crossfit…for more than one or two sessions? I’d be willing to bet the answer is no, based upon the clearly regurgitated arguments here.

    If you don’t like it, don’t do it – but don’t assert yourself like an expert and try to force others away from something before they even try. Millions of us can’t all be wrong.

    Reply
    • R

      rockkyJun 1, 2017 at 10:04 pm

      The multiple developmental elements of Xfit only go so far by doing “Crossfit”. Sooner or later you have to take on isolated progressive Overload to some degree to continue improving.

      Reply
  • J

    JohnHinesJrMar 23, 2017 at 12:13 pm

    “Crucification” is not an English word.
    CrossFit started in 2000, not 2001.
    A CrossFit Affiliate is a gym owner, not an athlete.
    Don’t use the rule-of-3 to try to prove a point. Use facts, instead.
    I’m not sure how you define a ‘fad’, but a 17-year run of growth isn’t how I would do it.
    You really push the point about risks and injuries, without actually providing any information about them, their frequency, or the statistics compared to other forms of exercise (or not exercising at all.)
    Somehow, you equated CrossFit to eating cotton balls. I’m lost. Eating cotton balls is bad, so therefore CrossFit is bad? Am I doing this right?
    Bonus point: In over 4 years of CrossFit, I’ve done exactly one biceps curl. And, that was included in a workout as a joke, to make fun of people who think like you do.

    Reply
  • E

    Ed O'MalleyMar 23, 2017 at 10:54 am

    This opinion piece is amazing, especially the advice at the end about educating one’s self. This article doesn’t source a single interview or discussion that the author has or hasn’t had with anyone involved in Crossfit, Inc. or a local Crossfit affiliate, or even a garage Crossfitter. It reads as someone who simply scoured the Internet for “Crossfit + dangerous + unhealthy”.

    You are certainly entitled to your opinions and I respect that, but please, Ms. Wilson, for the love of Uncle Rhabado, please actually speak to real people who’s lives have been changed (for better or for worse) by Crossfit. That step would lend credence to the points and counterpoints you attempt to make in your article.

    Reply
    • R

      rockkyJun 1, 2017 at 10:02 pm

      The article in practice relates primarily to Crossfit competitors who very much need to do exactly as the article suggests.

      Reply
  • P

    Pete WagnerMar 23, 2017 at 10:06 am

    A cult religion of torture.

    Reply
    • J

      Jared SilberhornMar 24, 2017 at 9:14 am

      And it hurts so good!

      Reply