Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Crossfit Post

It had to happen sooner or later. There was really no avoiding it. The irresistible force meets the immovable object. I had to talk about Crossfit at some point. The following is purely my own opinion, based on my very limited personal experience with the Crossfit system.

A history...
Crossfit is a training system developed in the mid-90's in California by Greg Glassman. It is a system focusing on General Physical Preparedness (GPP) that has been popularized within the military, police forces and fire departments. Classically, the Crossfit system utilizes a sort of turbulence training effect by having each Workout Of the Day (WOD) be something completely different. Today might be 5 sets of 3 conventional deadlifts, and tomorrow might be 13 muscle ups, 50 burpees and quarter-mile run. They also have "Benchmark Workouts", named for various Crossfit superstars as well as military Crossfitters who lost their lives in service. These serve as a way to measure your progress in the system.

The system revolves around 10 basic fitness tenents: endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination and accuracy. All of their workouts revolve around these basics, and many workouts involve multiple facets. WODs will include cleans, snatches, deadlifts, squats, gymnastics moves, running or medicine-ball work. The idea is to prepare you for anything you might encounter.

Crossfit originally gained popularity through its home page, where anyone could go and see what the WOD was, and follow it on their own. In the last 2-3 years, Crossfit Affiliates have begun springing up all over the country, in massive numbers. The Affiiliates are simply privately owned Crossfit gyms; basically a franchise. People are now more inclined to go to these gyms and pay the membership costs in order to workout with like-minded folks. As of late, many of the Affiliates have begun to do a really good job with supplementing the WOD with progressive-overload style strength and conditioning. Crossfit also holds an annual "Games" where affiliates/individuals from all over the world get together to compete and see who is the best.

The Pro's. 
The most important thing I have noticed about Crossfit is the camaraderie it builds amongst its participants; I LOVE that about Crossfit. The people you work out with become your friends, your teammates and your foes. Working out with these like-minded people pushes you to work harder, thus getting better results. You cannot underestimate the drive that you get from working out in a gym with a great work ethic. The system has Benchmark workouts built into it as a measuring stick, you can always go back and check your progress against yourself. Crossfit also exposes people to many different aspects of fitness; olympic lifts, power lifts, endurance and gymnastics themed stuff.

Crossfit provides a fantastic place for a former athlete to work out that has a similar atmosphere to the weight room in college. Loud, noisy, sweaty: everyone is there to work. If someone goes in the corner and pukes, so be it. Shit happens.

My orginal "Con" regarding Crossfit goes back to how they gained popularity: the homepage. The workouts provided on the homepage can be followed by anybody; any ass-clown at their local Golds Gym can check it out, and then try and complete the workout. The argument against this, is that anyone can look up any workout and go try it and hurt themselves. This is 100% true, but Crossfit workouts become especially dangerous when you use the combination of high reps and technical lifts that are common in their workouts. For example, here is todays WOD.

As an advanced workout? Not bad. For Joe Schmo at Golds? Not a great idea. Overhead squats are a pretty technical lift, and then couple that with an energy sapping explosive lift (squat snatches), an extremely metabolic exercise (double unders) and one of the tougher core exercises out there (toes to bar) for 5 rounds as fast as possible, and that sounds like a recipe for disaster. A Crossfitter will always say "well, the workouts can be adjusted based on level". True, if you go to an affiliate. If Tommy Toughnuts at the gym wants to try a CF workout, and sees that on the homepage, that is what he will try....and he will most likely get crushed, if not hurt.

The technical aspects of many of the lifts, combined with the high rep nature is what many strength and conditioning coaches will point to when asked about CF. Most coaches agree that the technical aspect of the Olympic Lifts require them to be performed at a high intensity with short rep ranges (usually 1-5) that will prevent a breakdown of form. CF, however, feels differently. A recent workout was 3 rounds, round 1: 21 reps, round 2: 15 reps, and round 3: 9 reps. The circuit was 24" box jump, 75# power snatch and chest to bar pullups. So, by the end of the workout you will have completed 45 reps of each exercise, in as short an amount of time as possible. 45 power snatches, as fast as possible? Not a recipe for perfect form, if you ask me.

The other aspect of CF that bugs me is the apparent lack of programming. It appears that the WODs are put up in a fairly random style. I understand that this is where the GPP style of training comes in, but how are you expected to improve if you have no room for the progressive overload system? If you never know when you will be deadlifting again, you cannot improve at it. In fairness, a lot of the affiliates have done a great job with adding in a "strength" component to their workouts. Athletes will often complete the strength portion of the workout prior to doing the WOD. This gives them some time to work on technique and use the progressive overload system to add weight to the bar. The strength portion will often be lifts used to "assist" the athletes in the WOD. For instance; the strength exercise will be a front squat; that way the catch/downward movement phase/drive (essentially a front squat) will never be the weak link.

Maybe I was wrong about Crossfit...

Maybe there are some holes in my theory; like I said, I've never really done Crossfit (I would like to spend some time at a Crossfit gym, though). That is the secret to CF, I believe, being at the gym with other Crossfitters. No, I don't think Crossfit is a system for everyone. I think that everyone should spend some time using progressive overload, as well as the conjugate system for a while to build their baseline level of strength. If you are obese, you need to spend some time working on your metabolic conditioning as a baseline. Throwing someone who has no baseline level of fitness into a CF class doesn't make sense; they still need to work on the basics.

However, I actually do think Crossfit has a lot of benefits; especially now that the Affiliates are so accessible to everyone. This makes it a much more legitimate, in my opinion, player in the fitness industry. Left unguided, someone could really hurt themselves attempting to keep up with WOD on the homepage. Under the supervision and scrutiny of coaches, it is a million times safer. Also, it is nice to see that Crossfit coaches are now coming from the strength and conditioning world; if you peruse the site, a lot of them are now coming with legit NSCA and ACSM and NASM certifications, to back up their Crossfit certs.

Above everything else, you just can't overlook the benefits that the atmosphere and culture has on its participants. I really think an athlete will get more out of a shitty program in a great enviroment then a great program in shitty enviroment. Its just tough to give it your all with 45 year old guys benching 65 lbs and 25 year old women doing 3 lb bicep curls behind you.

In the end, as long as you're lifting heavy shit, you're on the right path. If you do crossfit, or 5/3/1 or Show and Go, you're still doing something!

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