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A Review of Crossfit
by Eric Brown
MS, RCEP, CSCS, CCN
Crossfit is a system of exercise that has rapidly grown in popularity over the last decade. Marketing itself as the ideal training system for everyone from housewives to special forces operators, Crossfit makes many claims, some of which are fairly difficult to believe. While Crossfit may be better than some other programs, being better than something that is terrible does not make for elite athletes or superior programming. To proceed further, we need to examine the claims that Crossfit makes. From the Crossfit FAQ:
Here's some insight from Greg Glassman, founder of Crossfit, on the intent of CrossFit:
"CrossFit is in large part derived from several simple observations garnered through hanging out with athletes for thirty years and willingness, if not eagerness, to experiment coupled with a total disregard for conventional wisdom.
Let me share some of the more formative of these observations:
- Gymnasts learn new sports faster than other athletes.
- Olympic lifters can apply more useful power to more activities than other athletes.
- Powerlifters are stronger than other athletes.
- Sprinters can match the cardiovascular performance of endurance athletes even at extended efforts.
- Endurance athletes are woefully lacking in total physical capacity.
- With high carb diets you either get fat or weak.
- Bodybuilders can't punch, jump, run, or throw like athletes can.
- Segmenting training efforts delivers a segmented capacity.
- Optimizing physical capacity requires training at unsustainable intensities.
- The world's most successful athletes and coaches rely on exercise science the way deer hunters rely on the accordion.
- Completely unsupported. And given Glassman's lack of real-world coaching experience, other than as a high school gymnastics instructor, he is not all that familiar with athletes. The ones who do best at crossfit have been neither gymnasts nor crossfitters. Some have been wrestlers, other strongman competitors.
- What is useful power? While, like many athletes and coaches, I use the Olympic lifts in training, what is useless power? This term is as vague and trendy-sounding as functional strength. Power production is highest in track and field heavy events.
- Well, given that powerlifters train exclusively for strength, this would make a certain amount of sense. Sort of like swimmers being better swimmers than other athletes.
- I would refute this, but there is really very little point. If this were the case, sprinters would be winning marathons. And ultra-runs. This is why running no more than 13 miles in training allows you to complete the Badwater. Oh, wait.
- What is total physical capacity? And specialists always make sacrifices, including in other areas of physical performance, to achieve dominance in their sport. This is like pointing out that powerlifters suck at marathons. There is a reason for this: specialization wins. Even great all-around athletes such as gold medal winners in the decathlon do not compare to their counterparts within the specific disciplines.
- Unfortunately this is not the case. So many instances of actual athletes successfully using a high carb diet are present that I am not even going to bother linking to them. Numerous peer-reviewed studies, longitudinal studies of athletic programs, etc. Pointless.
- No real argument here. But bodybuilding is all about training for appearance, not sport performance, so who cares? I do not post that runway models cannot win the high jump.
- As this baffles me, Joel has taken a stab at deciphering it. Basically, if you train to be good at something, other things will suffer. Not too many powerlifters win marathons, or vice versa. This is fairly obvious, and specialization is how you get good at something.
- No training intensity is sustainable. Otherwise there is no intensity.
- This would not be worth replying to, but since it is my field, I will. The Soviet Institute for Physical Culture supported the greatest competitive teams in the world. Exercise science has come a long way in the US since the days of the Harvard Fatigue Lab. We all should be familiar with what has been shown with respect to injury, power production and lactate threshold, just to name a few. All of which are a product of exercise science. I will speculate that Glassman's biggest gripe with exercise science is twofold. 1. It disagrees with pretty much everything he says and 2. It has produced superior athletes.
More from the FAQ:
Here is a hierarchy of training for mass from greater to lesser efficacy:
- Bodybuilding on steroids
- CrossFitting on steroids
- CrossFitting without steroids
- Bodybuilding without steroids
The bodybuilding model is designed around, requires, steroids for significant hypertrophy."
Oddly enough, many bodybuilders do quite well without steroids. And they did for generations before the invention of AAS. So have numerous other athletes all of whom are bigger and stronger than crossfitters. So comments such as "Natural bodybuilders (the natural ones that are not on steroids) never approach the mass that our athletes do. They don't come close." are just plain false.
What Crossfit Actually Does
Crossfit combines a variety of barbell exercise techniques, gymnastics rings, bodyweight exercises and a few other training tools into a random array of, well, you cannot call it programming because it is random. While it does eliminate boredom, it also makes it difficult to maintain and track progress. And there is a name for combining cardiovascular exercise, conditioning drills and strength training: Cross training. This is not something new, athletes have been doing this since the Olympics of ancient Greece. Even the term metabolic conditioning is not unique to Crossfit. Crossfit has developed some unique exercises, such as the medicine ball clean and sumo deadlift high pull, neither of which is particularly useful, but otherwise nearly everything done by Crossfit can be seen in other programs that have more structure and focus. What Crossfit does, in addition to exceptional self-promotion, is provide a training atmosphere with a strong sense of community and a focus on improvement.
The problems with Crossfit can be expressed in several categories: False claims, bad technique/programming, injury potential and character assassination of those outside the cult. Let us first examine the multiple false claims made by Crossfit:
Like many groups, including the HIT'ers of the 'previous training generation,' they have changed the accepted definition of something (fitness) to suit themselves, and then declared themselves the 'fittest athletes on earth'. (moving the goal posts). When there is an acceptable standard for this, and you can compare Crossfitters to athletes, then this claim may be supported. until then, it simply remains an assertion. False claims about Crossfit being better able to promote muscle growth than conventional bodybuilding, despite the lack of proof, or even one documented case, of this occurring. Yes, this was discussed above, but since I am lumping all false claims in here, it gets mentioned again.
False claims that doing just the WOD could take someone from a 250 deadlift to a 500-750 deadlift in two years, despite only pulling max deads four times a year (never happened, this from an interview with Greg Glassman). This is followed by the claim that if someone call pull a 500lbs. deadlift at heart rate x, then they should be capable of pulling 750 when rested (never happened, either) (yes, yet another case of bro-science) Link.
Glassman's insistence that he can out perform most crossfitters despite his refusal to do this. And, of course, the fact that no one has ever seen him do much of anything, and his physique leaves something to be desired. Yes, this is an ad hominem attack, and less than professional, but given Greg's long history of engaging in the same, he certainly deserves it in return. (see below) If you are going to make a claim, you better be able to back it up. I never tell anyone I am able to out run them, for the obvious reason.
"Our warm-up is your workout!" and other false claims. Can many crossfitters do things I cannot? Of course, but how many would snap like a twig under a decent good morning? However, I am not all over the freakin' net talking about how my training program is superior. When I talk about it, it is because I am looking to improve it. Claims that crossfit "is proven by competition" yet this is born out exactly no where. Except, of course, in crossfit competitions. So when crossfitters start beating other athletes at actual sports, not just out-performing themselves at their own strength and conditioning program, then they will have something to brag about. In the real world of athletics, a S&C program is part of what gets you ready for a real sport, yet athletes around the world improve in this area every day. It is just not considered a big deal. Claims that "doing Crossfit WODs will make you competent in almost any real-world activity," yet at the Crossfit games, many CF'ers failed at swims, and some even failed at a softball throw. Not going to bother to link to the results, fairly well documented across the net.Source of Budding's claim.
False claims with respect to the endorsement of Crossfit by the military of the US and Canada. There was only a single formal inquiry by the Navy (US NAVEDTRA devgroup) which went no where. Then claims that 'the SEALs train crossfit' were disputed by BUD/s and other trainers, which pretty much put an end to those claims. Crossfit HQ then made a pitch to the Canadian military, and they were completely rebuffed following formal study, which resulted in 'failing to meet the needs of the military on all counts, and increasing the number of injuries with respect to service members'.
General and Specific Programming Issues.
Lack of responsible programming (main page WOD). No consistency, emphasis on skill development (this is yet another way that injuries could be reduced, with regular practice at skilled lifts), and the refusal to substantiate the claim that there is a solid theory and methodology behind main page programming, despite people, including crossfitters, clamoring for this for years. Randomness is one of the keys to Crossfit, according to Glassman. Of course, this precludes any proper system of progression, so I guess Crossfitters just do whatever and hope for the best. Oddly enough, many are turning to other systems to improve things like their lifting, and endurance, and, well, just about everything else Crossfit is supposed to achieve. This should never need to happen because, according to Glassman, "periodization as planned variations in intensity is witchcraft," source and then he declares "exercise science a myth and says that no achievement in human performance has come even in part from exercise science." Source.
The attitude that Crossfit is the end-all, be-all of everything. Yet now we have Crossfit football (which fails), Crossfit endurance (which completely fails, see below), and who knows what else? If Crossfit is all you need to excel and become 'elite', wtf is all this other crap? Oh yeah, a way for HQ to make more money off it cultist followers by selling certifications that cost more than the CSCS for programs that consistently fail. This, despite the claims that everyone should train in the same manner, and these claims are often repeated on the main page: Link.
Claims of sub-certs that fail just as badly as main page claims. CFE (endurance) for example. Claims that performing CFE 'as RX'd' (programmed) will result in superior performance in said event. Of course, this does not work. You cannot successfully train for an ultra run never running more than 13.1 miles. An amazing number (probably a record) of DNF's (did not finish) have occurred, though. By reading the blogs and training programs of the few crossfitters who have succeeded, they did not train 'as rx'd' and instead did numerous longer runs. The biggest proponent of CFE was going to enter several ultra-runs, yet has either withdrawn from them or DNF'd every single one. At least he is consistent, 100% failure. Even the site where there was going to be a movie about his competing is gone, as well as all links to it and any other indications of its existence from the main site. Link to Bmac DNF: Link. Additional Bmac bullshit: Link.
Oddly enough, none of the crossfit champions (Crossfit games) train Crossfit 'as rx'd' either. Some of them train in manners more in line with conventional training and reality, and only practice some of the crossfit-specific crap a month or two before the games. One female champion from the previous year had to be shown how to do some of the exercises the day of the games. So apparently Crossfitters cannot even win at Crossfit.
Idiots mis-applying training methodologies that they have no need for. Sure, this occurs in every forum, but Crossfitters seem to be running a discount special on "Screw up as many ways as you can at once!!! Act now while supplies last!!!!" Nothing like someone squatting 65 lbs., using bumper plates to do it with, plus chains. Yes, have seen pictures of this. To add insult to injury, the chains were set up wrong.
People who train at CF gyms who refused to do the WOD being asked to leave. Usually because they were getting better results. I know of several people this has happened to.
Expanded review of programming
Nine month cross section of exercises from main page WOD. This was a list compiled by a member of Crossfit which examined every exercise scheduled on the main page for nine months, and how often they occured. An attempt was made to determine what sort of pattern existed in programming, but no one was successful, despite HQ claiming that there was a system. How this balances with "randomness" is beyond me, because if you have a system, then it is no longer random. Of course, that is better than claiming to have a system while not actually having one. The list of exercises, and the frequency with which they occured over a nine-month period, is below:
How are you supposed to develop proficiency at anything without regular practice?
- Pull Up 49
- Run 41
- Deadlift 33
- Air Squat 27
- Push Up 24
- Sit Up 24
- Thruster 20
- Double Under (Jump Rope) 20
- Muscle Up 19
- Back Squat 19
- Kettlebell Swing 19
- Handstand Push Up 19
- Row 19
- Box Jump 18
- Full Squat Clean 18
- Wallball Shot 17
- Burpee 15
- Overhead Squat 13
- Back Extension 13
- Full Squat Snatch 11
- Glute Ham Sit Up 11
- Walking Lunge 10
- Rope Climb 10
- Shoulder Press 9
- L Pull Up 8
- Ring Dip 8
- Knees to Elbows 8
- Push Press 7
- Bench Press 7
- Weighted Pull Up 7
- Rest 6
- Push Jerk 6
- Front Squat 6
- Deadlift High Pull 5
- Sprint 5
- Clean and Jerk 5
- Toes To Bar 5
- One Legged Squat 5
- Full Power Clean 5
- Hang Squat Clean 4
- Kipping Pull Up 4
- Turkish Get-Up 2
- Split Jerk 2
- Chest-to-Bar Pull Up 2
- Snatch Balance 2
- Ring Handstand Push Ups 2
- Jumping Pull Up 2
- Hip Extension 2
- Handstand Walk 2
- Ring Push Up 2
- AbMat Sit Up 2
- Hip Back Extension 2
- Ring Handstand Push Up 2
- Ground To Overhead 2
- Overhead Walk 2
- Full Power Snatch 2
- Hang Power Clean 2
- Overhead Walking Lunge 2
- Weighted Back Extension 1
- One Legged Overhead Squat 1
- Burpee Wall Jump 1
- Run Backwards 1
- Alternating-Arm Dumbbell Snatch 1
- Standing Broad Jump 1
- Squat Clean Thruster 1
- L-Sit 1
- Inverted Hang Raise/Lower 1
- Farmer Carry 1
- Walk On Hands 1
- Wallball 2-fer-1 1
- Good Morning 1
- Wall Climb 1
- Cycle 1
- Full Split Clean 1
- Handstand Hold 1
- Jump And Touch 1
- Straight Leg Deadlift 1
- Forward Roll 1
- Inverted Hang Descent 1
- Dip 1
- Burpee Pull Up 1
- Power Snatch 1
Now, given that Crossfit claims to improve fitness in all of the following ten "modal domains," we can examine the degree to which each domain is trained, using the nine-month cross-sectional of exercises as a model:
Various well-known Crossfitters failed a softball throw at the recent Crossfit games. Do we need to go any further? Girls in gradeschool do this every day.
- Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance- The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
Well, Crossfit does do a lot of running, unfortunately, not enough to complete a long run, if the performance of the director of CFE (Crossfit Endurance) is any indication.
- Stamina - The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
Fine at lower intensities. Of course, see previous comments about long runs. And, of course, the ability of competitors at Crossfit games to make it through a swim that many athletes would consider a warm-up.
- Strength - The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
Given that lifts in comparison to athletes are posted every day on the main page and in the forums, well, it is fairly easy to make a comparison of where Crossfitters rank in the world of strength. This is why other programs such as CFSB (Crossfit Strength Bias) and methods of combining Crossfit with strength training programs have evolved - Crossfit does not do much for building strength. The lack of focus on consistent practice combined with no focus on specific weaknesses does not exactly build strength. This is so well documented in the Crossfit forums that I am not going to continue.
- Flexibility - The ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
Well, there is not much emphasis on this. While stretching is suggested, it is suggested with every half-way decent S&C program. In any decent one, it is practiced, analyzed, and improved.
- Power - The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
Again, compare the snatch and clean and jerk of your average Crossfitter to anyone who actually practices the lifts properly. Not just superior strength athletes (which Crossfit does not produce). Courtesy of Joel, it was pointed out that in nine months, out of 644 exercises, only 7% were the classic lifts or their power variations. This is not a lot of practice, and limits both technique and the ability to generate power. This also undermines the claim that Crossfit "introduces a lot of people to the Olympic lifts." While it may introduce them, many people never see them again, becuase they are injured and unable to continue by the time they would run into each other one more time.
- Speed - The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
Not too many Crossfitters are winning any races.
- Coordination - The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
Do not see many coordination drills. Two in nine months.
- Agility - The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.
Do not see many agility drills. One in nine months.
- Balance - The ability to control the placement of the body's center of gravity in relation to its support base.
A few one-legged drills. No idea how much transfer practicing a balance exercise every two months works for improving balance. Never really seen this tested, either.
- Accuracy - The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.
Poor technique on the Olympic lifts. A weekend cert with a piece of PVC does not qualify one to teach the quick lifts. Yet this is all that is required to open your own affiliate and coach away. Given that "20% slop" is allowed, this is 20% less than the goal an athlete should be striving for. Eighty percent of an Olympic lift is like running 80 meters and claiming it is your time in the 100. Sorry, life does not work that way. If you are going to compare yourselves to athletes, you must hold yourself to the same standards. And weightlifting is possesed of the most technically demanding lifts, requiring the greatest degree of precision. Slop is not anything that should ever be associated with weightlifting. Nevertheless, this is endorsed by Crossfit HQ.
High repetition Olympic lifts. No one in their right mind does 30 reps on the snatch for time, especially with limit weight when they need to 'scale it down' to complete. The muscles in the kinetic chain do not all fatigue at the same rate, and this increases the risk of injury, particularly the rotators (both internal and external). As well as the fact that fatigue decreases the ability to perform the exercise correctly and efficiently, which further increases the risk of injury. This is, essentially, exponentially increasing the risk of injury secondary to totally poor exercise prescription and programming. Combine with the previous point, and you have taken what was once the safest form of training (multiple studies showing a lower injury rate of OL'ing than even badmintion) and now people are getting injured left and right (read crossfit forum injury section). More on weightlifting and injury can be read here.
Lack of Consistent practice on the skilled lifts. Like any other skill, you need to pratice it to get good at it, and the quick lifts are far and away the most skilled lifts. This lack of practice is shown in many of the video demonstrations on the main page, where bad technique is given as an example of what to do, instead of what not to do. Additionally, Mezzie noted that most of the exercises are done in a high-repetition manner, and/or part of a circuit, which does very little to build strength. This, combined with poor technique does the exact opposite of what a strength-training program should do. To expand on this, many of the key components of strength are trained with very heavy weights using good technique. This occurs so rarely in Crossfit that there is little wonder those who seek above-average strength levels are looking elsewhere.
Kipping pull-up.This may be done properly by gymnasts, but there is little relation to the No carry-over to conventional pull-ups, or very limited, increased risk of injury due to strain on shoulders and elbows. As well as greatly magnifying the incidence of SLAP tears. Again, read their injury forum. Combine with programming issues, poor technique and high-rep, sloppy Olympic lifting and you will have people getting shoulder and elbow injuries left and right. And oddly enough, that is just what is happening.(Again, see the CF injury forums) And the key to a good program is not wasting training time with injuries that could have been avoided. Examples:
"Short version: Kipping allows more work to be done in less time, thus increasing power output. It is also a full-body coordination movement when performed correctly, which applies more functionally to real-life application of pulling skills. Last, but not least, the hip motion of an effective kip mirrors the motion of the Olympic lifts/kettlebell swings, adding to it's function as a posterior-chain developer."
Problem being that when you kip you reduce the effective weight you are moving, so while the distance involved does not change, the effective mass does. Some evidence of this sort of thing applying to real-life pulling skills would be nice, but since we are still waiting on the 750 lbs. deadlift, apparently a lot more kipping must be done. As to the hip motion, no, just no. Hip extension is a quick snap to vertical then pull-under, which is nothing like what occurs during any type of kip. Additional thoughts on the kipping pull-up by former Crossfit standout Greg Everett (now disassociated) can be found here.
Useless exercises such as the sumo deadlift high pull and medicine ball clean. Even noted former Crossfitter and weightlifter Greg Everett has stated that the medicine ball clean serves no purpose, at best, and can cause bad habits on the pull for the regular clean. So in addition to not practicing the lifts enough, you practice exercises that actually hurt your performance. The sumo deadlift high pull is another exercise unique to crossfit that not only interferes with the mechanics of a proper pull, it causes a high degree of strain on the rotator cuff. A good S&C program reduces your risk of injury, not increases it.
One of the basic premises of a good strength and conditioning program is that you must keep your athletes healthy. There is a word for coaches who do not do this: unemployed. Crossfit appears to take a different approach. As per Greg, "If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don't want you in our ranks." Source.
Rhabdo from stupid programming. Over 200 documented cases. In 40 years as an athlete and 20 as a coach, including time in the service, I have never known anyone to have this issue. Link. This, despite Greg's claim that "Crossfit is the world leader in prevention of rhabdomyolosis." Source.
Achilles tendon ruptures from box jumps. Link.
The inability of Crossfit HQ to maintain a decent working relationship with a real coach in any field. Falling out between HQ and Dan John (one of the all-time nice guys ever), Rip, nutrition gurus, etc. And, of course, any discussion of 'where are they now' is quickly squashed. Dissent is not allowed anywhere in the compound. Link. (many of the comments have been removed, but this is where it occurred. Nothing like witholding evidence). Same with Rob Wolfe: Link. His criticism of Dr. Mel Siff, one of the most respected researchers in the field. Blasting of Chris Sommers, a respected gymnastics coach, who has far more documented success than Glassman. His attacks on other Crossfitters, who were paying customers. This is followed by attacks on Mark Twight, attacks on successful trainers, and the editing of any link to Mark Rippetoe's forum after Rippetoe leaves in disgust after a fallout with Crossfit HQ. Former devoted Crossfit boxes begin to leave the fold.
Crossfit makes many claims which have shown to be blatantly false. Crossfit does the opposite of a good strength and conditioning program in every respect: it does not produce better athletes, it only increases your risk of injury. Emphasis on skill is not present, and a willingness to learn from the problems that poor programming has caused is completley non-existent. Despite all of this, Crossfit is still visciously defended by many, who proudly refer to themselves as "Kool-aid drinkers." I know of no one possessed of any degree of moral fiber who would proudly proclaim this, given the incredible tragedy that it relates to. Is Crossfit better than doing absolutely nothing, yes. Is it better than a reasonable approach? No, not if you judge by the results of decent S&C programs. At some point, when, as many CF boxes do, switch to focused programming and eliminate things that make Crossfit unique, at what point are you no longer practicing Crossfit? If you exclude randomness, focus on building strength witht the occassional metcon (metablic conditioning workout, a term pulled from another system of exercise that Glassman refuses to credit) and only use exercises that help you achieve your goals, can you really say you are still a Crossfitter? Injury-free progress is the goal, regardless of the name of the program. Or at least of any good program. This does not appear to be the goal of Crossfit.
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A Review of Crossfit
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