The Pros & Cons of CrossFit

Angie by Greg Westfall

Complex barbell movements such as the Snatch and Overhead Squat are common in CrossFit workouts.

If you’re involved in the fitness community even a little bit, chances are you’ve heard of CrossFit. Particularly with recent endorsements by Reebok and the popularization of the CrossFit Games, this fitness program is becoming more and more popular with both the fitness community and the mainstream public. If you haven’t ever heard of it before, you can get the basics here.

The increasing popularity has also lead to some extreme opinions about the program, the mention of CrossFit in various fitness communities often results in heated battles between those fanatically in favor of it and those vehemently against it.

Caroline and I have spent a full month training almost daily at a local CrossFit box here in Cincinnati, in addition to our own supplementary training at home, and we thought we would give our own opinions so far of what appear to be the pros and the cons of following CrossFit.

Pros of CrossFit

Adam’s Thoughts

CrossFit is definitely an effective way to get in shape. The workouts at the box we attend are split into two halves, the first focusing on perfecting exercise form and on building strength and the latter running through a traditional CrossFit metcon style workout. That means whether your goal is building strength or losing fat the workouts help with both.

The training is fairly varied, with workouts consisting of a wide range of movements and providing a full body workout overall. Being primarily circuit training with as little rest as possible between exercises the workouts also help increase endurance and improve your VO2max. Flexibility isn’t emphasized much directly, outside of dynamic stretches during warm ups, but unless you already have high range of motion in your joints the exercises will also help improve mobility since there’s a focus on reaching full ROM in each rep.

Caroline’s Thoughts

When done right, Crossfit can provide a fun workout that is challenging and will improve your conditioning and also build a little bit of strength. Varied, challenging workouts keeps it interesting for the easily bored and you are always pushed to your limits – often enough to experience an endorphin rush by the end of the class.

Cons of CrossFit

Adam’s Thoughts

Due to the nature of most of the workouts, particularly the tendency to put a focus on completing circuits as fast as possible, proper exercise form can start to get ignored. When that happens injury becomes extremely likely. It seems like a lot of the CrossFit people I’ve spoken with have suffered significantly more injuries than most weightlifters. It’s anecdotal, so I can’t back that up with data, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Another concern is the at least tacit recommendation that people perform the WODs posted on the main CrossFit website on a regular basis unsupervised whether or not they are at an appropriate fitness level. The box we attend doesn’t advocate that practice, and instead creates custom scaled programming for each individual, but I’ve heard from a lot of people who had boxes they went to who only did the WODs posted by the head office. This can create scalability problems too, for example when people who have never deadlifted before are told they need to deadlift 250 pounds 3×10 for time.

Lastly, there seems to be a serious cult attitude surrounding some areas of CrossFit. The trainer that runs our box has other education and certification but has confessed to needing to be somewhat quiet about any modifications or scaling he uses, because the head office has come down on trainers who have voiced concerns about the program in the past. One person even described their experiences with CrossFit by calling it “the Scientology of fitness”.

Caroline’s Thoughts

I agree with Adam for the most part, I’d only like to add a couple of other issues. The workouts, while fun and challenging, don’t really have a goal they are pushing toward, or at least not one that I could see. As I’ve heard said before, getting better at Crossfit is the focus of Crossfit, and that was our experience. It will make you stronger and faster, but only in a slow and inefficient manner.

The emphasis on kipping bothers me a bit too. Crossfit loves kipping pull-ups, and insists that you should do them even if you can’t do a full dead-hang pull-up. I understand the intention of kipping, but it’s not the same movement as a normal pull-up and it cannot replace normal pull-ups. It’s terribly annoying to see people, particularly women, who can’t do a normal pull up but sit there and do multiple kipping pull ups – they are sacrificing true strength and are just asking for an injury.

The final issue I’d raise is the pushing people to complete the WOD as prescribed. While a little push can be beneficial to encourage someone to work their hardest, it can also backfire in the result of an injury by trying to do too much while extremely fatigued.

In Summary

The largest problems with CrossFit seem to stem primarily from the capabilities, or lack thereof, of the trainers at the facility you attend. Unless you’re already at a fairly high level of fitness, attempting to follow the CrossFit program straight off the main website without having any guidance by a certified trainer seems dangerous at best.

Our CrossFit experience overall has been pretty positive. I think that’s mostly because we happened to find a highly experienced, knowledgeable trainer. Unfortunately the world of personal training, whether it be at a standard gym or a CrossFit one, has just as many people who zipped through their certification and have no business guiding anyone’s fitness program as it does qualified professionals who know their stuff. In fact, there’s probably more of the former.

My advice then is if you’re looking to lose fat, gain endurance and a moderate amount of strength that encompasses a broader range of functionality, go ahead and give CrossFit a try. Be very, very choosy about where you go though, and make sure to find a box that understands sports medicine & training outside of CrossFit and is dedicated to scaling things to meet your goals.

Do you love CrossFit? Hate it? Think we completely missed some big pros or cons? Let us know in the comments! (Just keep it civil please.)

Photo Credit: Greg Westfall

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Adam is a linguist and personal trainer living in Cincinnati with his wife Caroline and dog Bailey. He's addicted to all things related to language, parkour, fitness and martial arts. You can contact Adam at Adam@RoadToEpic.com, on Twitter or on Google Plus.

  • Greg

    I have no problem with Crossfit per say. In fact, I really like the idea of high intensity training with intervals and trying to beat your times. However, some exercises are not good for the masses. We have all seen some of the foolish things attempted by people doing Crossfit on youtube. Why have a 105 lbs teenage girl jerk and clean 300 lbs. It seems there are 2 Crossfits: the extreme sport fanatic version and the HIIT fitness version. The problem is they both carry the same name. Fitness and acting like a super human is addictive and potentially dangerous.
    Personally, I do P90X with some added exercise moves I have stolen from Crossfit and Zuzka Light. Fitness is about personal goals, not a name brand.

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      Thanks for commenting! I agree completely. I really think the value of Crossfit as a whole comes down to whether or not you get a trainer who genuinely knows what they’re doing.

      Timed circuits or AMRAP stuff used similar to HIIT can be great with things like body weight exercises or low weight movements, but when you start pressuring people to perform complicated movements like Olympic lifts as quickly as possible with a high weight and throw good form out the window, you’re just asking for trouble.

      The trick, like you suggest, is separating the useful parts from the dangerous parts.

  • Kat

    Our crossfit coach is the best and love crossfit! As for non Kipping pull ups, cf is a sport, game it’s their requirement they make the rules

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      I think if you get a really good trainer CrossFit can be fantastic. I have no problem with using kipping pull-ups within the confines of CrossFit – CrossFit is a sport more than it’s a fitness program and people are going to do what’s necessary to win. I think where you get into trouble is when people go into CrossFit viewing it primarily as a fitness program and wind up injuring themselves.

      Sport or not, you definitely can get a lot of benefit from CrossFit provided you’re proactive about ensuring your own safety.

  • Zach

    I am a big fan of Crossfit. I started this summer and I’m in the best shape of my life. I do think though it is essential to get a good trainer. One that is not naive about the sport, and understands people’s limitations

  • Brett

    After reading many reviews about CrossFit, I seem to have drawn some conclusions…

    1) The coach plays a big role in your crossfit experience. It seems if you have a well trained coach, who emphasizes form, you will have a better experience.

    2) Know your limit. You try to push too hard, you will get hurt.

    I looked up the crossfit by my house, and I checked out their WOD. Is it usually a good sign if they are saying “2 Deadlifts @60% (use bands if necessary)”. In my head, they aren’t telling you a specific weight to use, but 60% of your max, whatever that may be.

    I could be wrong, but it seems that that is a good sign of a knowledgeable coach?

    • scott_e_do

      Hey Brett –

      Coaching does play a huge role. Regarding limits though…most people don’t know their own limiits. This is why proper coaching comes into play. A good trainer/coach can tell fairly easily whether or not somebody has ability within the first 2-3 training sessions. Put your trust in a good coach, and watch the results.

      About the 60% stuff…this gym is probably doing strength training on their deadlifts. It’s a responsible way to build strength in a particular lift. Using a max as a compass is generally a solid way of training. Unfortunately, finding a knowledgeable coach and a gym that’s a good fit for YOU is just trial and error. Good luck to finding a new home quickly.

  • scott_e_do

    Hi Adam and other readers –

    Perhaps like a few others, I stumbled on this from a link posted by LBEB (Lift Big Eat Big), and saw the CrossFit article while snooping around the rest of the site. By no means am I an experienced, top tier CrossFitter (I’ve only been there a year and a half). But, in my time there, I have found several of Adam’s experiences to be consistent with my own. I also disagree with a few things, but I’ll get to those in a few.

    First off, coaching is paramount. I was lucky enough to get a pair of coaches (thanks Paul Estrada and Leon Chang) who each had varied backgrounds – one in fitness, personal training, and coaching; the other in medicine and body mechanics. This combo has made a recipe for success in my own CF gym. They place emphasis on getting stronger, which translates to heavy doses of Olympic lifting, each and every class. Members are not allowed to increase weight until proper technique is practiced and its importance is understood. Scaling weights is not only responsible, it’s required in our gym. WODs and lifts are only done Rx’d (as prescribed) if the athlete is able. All that being said, I agree with you about kipping pullups. Strength is not built with these. Efficiency is, however. Stick to strict pullups (with a band, if necessary), and watch your strength increase.

    Second, CF has not just increased my strength a moderate amount. My strength has ballooned. I played soccer in college, and always thought I had strong legs. While this may have been true for endurance, by no means did I have a lot of strength in them. CF has shown me what a good athletic base can get you, and my squat has increased almost 100 lbs since I started. I never had much upper body strength, as soccer doesn’t focus too much on that. But now I’m able to put more than my own body weight over my head. For those looking to get stronger and quicker, there’s no better place than CF to provide functional movements that get you there.

    Third, the goal of CF is not to get better at CF. It’s to get stronger, faster, and more healthy. Eating is a large part of CF’s regimen as well. As most people know by now, poor eating habits inhibit all sorts of physical and mental abilities. The same goes for exercising at a high intensity. You get out what you put in. You are what you eat. A body training at high intensities needs a specialized diet to help perform at maximum potential. Meats, eggs, veggies, fruits, and nuts are an easy and simple way to help get your body in shape. Notice grains, sodas, rice, and beans were left out. I’ve never felt better, and the results are clear as well.

    To sum this up, I enjoy your article. Unfortunately, there are a lot of CF coaches, athletes, and related mentalities that give it a bad name. I’ve seen the YouTube videos just like everybody else. And I hang my head in shame every time. CF started off as a way to be adept at multiple, varied, functional movements, across broad domains of the fitness industry. Us CrossFitters can snatch, split jerk, jump rope, run, swing kettlebells, and do more pullups than most gym rats would ever dream of. Forgive us for the clowns who get most of the press. We’re just a bunch of people who decided that we’d like to belong to something special, and who’re trying our hardest to improve our health, one rep at a time.

    • http://www.RoadToEpic.com Adam Wik

      Hi Scott,

      It is really nice to hear from CrossFitters who have gotten a lot out of it and who have fantastic trainers. Our response was really positive – we’ve actually continued training at the CF gym we sampled in the article as much as our schedule has permitted because of the quality of the training. The key I think is making sure you’re diligent about holding your trainers to high standards or at least being aware if you’re new and don’t know what to look for in a trainer.

      I really appreciate you bringing up diet because, already being essentially paleo, it’s something I didn’t even think to mention. You’re absolutely right, eating is huge. I think in most training diet is 80% of where your results will come from and CrossFit does put a lot of focus on that.

      Thanks for your input!

  • Lukas

    Well well, CrossFit,

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCGqou5rrPc

    Hhere is a great video of Lucas Parker talking about The CrossFit Games (in which he placed 15th!) and the lifestyle which CrossFit provides.

    The Cons really are all dependent on how you do CrossFit- for example, doing bad reps! If you are doing movements badly in an act to get done the workout quicker (guilty of this myself at times) you could very well hurt yourself. But CrossFit has many “WOD demos” when you go on the “main site” to show you what you should be doing.

    As for pushing yourself too hard, well, this is easily avoidable with knowing your limits and having, yes, a good coach.

    CrossFit may not have a designated goal in it’s workouts, “Ok kiddies, today we are working on our titties”, but I don’t think this makes it inefficient at improving you in all areas of fitness. CrossFit defines fitness as being proficient in the 10 general skills of fitness which are: accuracy, speed, agility, endurance, strength, balance, flexibility, stamina, power, coordination (in no specific order and without defining each term laboriously because I am secretly quite lazy) and it truly helps you achieve that.

    “The needs of an Olympic athlete and our grandparents differ by degree not kind.”

    That’s from the “What is CrossFit” article that is free on the CrossFit Journal (www.journal.crossfit.com). It’s true. Lucas Parker talks about working alongside people of all different degrees of fitness, and even though he may be using 200 pounds for x workout and someone else 100, it’s scaled and they are going through the same thing.

    So, for all the Grandma’s out there who should be able to deadlift because those groceries won’t pick themselves up off the floor, or for those who want to be WOD machines at ripe young ages; CrossFit is really what I would say the best. Quite a testament without degrees or PHD’s, but, it is mine, and I hope you can hop into my perspective and see how you like it.

    good tidings