Very few fitness brands have infiltrated and influenced the massive 80 billion dollar plus fitness industry the way Crossfit has. The brand was officially founded in the year 2000, and less than two decades later Crossfit boasted over 13,000 affiliate locations. By any estimate the Crossfit brand has been a runaway blowout success, and it has irritated me (for the most part) almost the entire time. Its not that I am jealous. Not at all. I sincerely respect what the Crossfit brand has done and I am thankful for some of the fundamental changes Crossfit brought to the industry at large.
The founder of Crossfit, Greg Glassman, has a very free market approach and allows affiliate owners to have a large amount of autonomy. He believes that giving Crossfit box owners more freedom than traditional franchises will encourage more creativity and will foster a “cream rises to the top” business atmosphere. I appreciate this approach being a serial business owner myself and I am a firm believer that the consumer is ultimately in charge of what kind of service and facility becomes “the norm.” The original Crossfit business model also called for minimal equipment (only the important stuff) and a barebones “garage gym” feel. The average Crossfit box was many times less expensive to start up and operate when compared to traditional gyms. In my opinion this is one of the main reasons Crossfit grew so quickly. The average Crossfit dues fee is also many times larger than the average big box gym membership. This meant Crossfit box owners didn’t have to attract nearly as many members. It was an easier to start and faster to profit gym business model when compared to traditional gyms
Crossfit also did something the fitness industry had failed at doing for decades. It got average people to do the best and most effective resistance training exercises. When I started running big box gyms two decades ago it was rare to see more than 2 squat racks in an entire 30 thousand square foot gym, and they had dust on them! I literally almost NEVER saw anyone do a proper barbell squat and it was even more rare to see someone deadlift. To make matters worse female members avoided ANY kind of heavy resistance training like the plague. I used to spend a majority of my time educating members on the body sculpting, metabolism boosting and overall health benefits of heavy barbell work. After Crossfit became popular gyms had to double or triple the amount of squat racks because EVERYONE started squatting and deadlifting, even women.
That being said, Crossfit also promoted some stupid and long term damaging trends to the industry. I remember the first time I watched a Crossfit class. It was in 2006 and I was very into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Some of my training partners started talking about this new workout class they were taking. Being an experienced personal trainer, I was extremely curious. They explained the workouts as best they could (the way non-fitness professionals can) and all I understood was that “the workouts are hard as hell” and “we get our asses kicked.” One morning I drove up to Santa Cruz and visited the Crossfit class. Having as much experience as I had at the time as a trainer, I immediately knew this new workout would be popular but also have a high risk of injury and a high risk of burnout.
People love hard ass kicking workouts. The fitness industry knows this. The harder the workout the more people perceive the workout as being effective. Extremely hard workouts also get people to talk about their workouts. “Oh man, I can barely walk today, yesterdays WOD really kicked my ass” or “I almost threw up from our workout today” are phrases that the average person perceives as noble or hard working and effective. In fact, personal trainers often brag about how hard they can train clients and how sore they can make them. My clients used to actually get upset that a workout didn’t make them sore. I would always have to spend a good chunk of the first month of training a client explaining why soreness isn’t a good indicator of exercise effectiveness and why intensity needs to be APPROPRIATE to the individual’s fitness level, health and in the context of their lifestyle for best results.
Harder definitely is NOT better, and in many cases is much worse. I learned this lesson in the first few years of my personal training career. When I first started I trained people hard with the intent of helping them progress faster. What happened instead was slower progress and even some minor injuries. It was VERY difficult to gauge appropriate intensity for my average 35-55 year old deconditioned client. Sometimes just doing a few sets of body weight squats was too much. As I became a better trainer I learned how to judiciously apply intensity and my clients progressed much smoother and faster. Crossfit is absolutely terrible in this regard.
Crossfit workouts are based on intensity. Intensity is at the root of their workout culture. Crossfit workouts are designed to kick your ass first and train you properly second. In the early days of Crossfit they even passed around a couple “unofficial” mascots. One was “Pukey the Clown” who was a clown who apparently had worked out so hard he was vomiting all over the floor. The other was a clown who took it a step further. He was known as “Uncle Rhabdo.” Rhabdo refers to a very deadly muscle breakdown condition known as rhabdomyolysis which happens when muscles breakdown so much and so fast that your kidneys can’t filter out the protein which results in hospitalization and in some cases death.
This cult like pride in maximal intensity promoted a culture in Crossfit where it was encouraged to workout out past normal levels of exercise intensity. The group atmosphere made it even worse as people competed for respect with their ability to push past pain, exhaustion and logic. I despise this mentality more than anything as it contributes to the terrible myth that intensity rules over all other factors and that harder is always better. Nothing could be further from the truth. Too much intensity (this is very individual) reduces the bodies ability to build muscle and burn body fat and dramatically increases the risk of injury and long term hormonal damage to the body. A very sizeable percentage of the clients that most personal trainers will ever work with are at their body’s stress limit already with terrible diets, lack of quality sleep and low level but constant work stress. Throwing an extremely intense but typical Crossfit WOD at them is one of the worst things we can do.
Although Crossfit’s over-reliance on intensity and the cult like culture around intensity is a massive problem when it comes to long term client success, it’s their exercise programming that is the biggest problem. Exercise programming refers to the design of a workout. Like a computer programmer would write code, a good coach or trainer takes exercises, reps, sets, tempo, rest periods and intent and organizes them in a way for a particular client and their goals. Good programming will get your body to change and improve in a seamless and consistent fashion while bad programming will leave you miserably stuck in the same place with little to no progress. Worst case scenarios of bad exercise programming result in worse performance, poor health and injury. In my opinion, Crossfit has some of the worst exercise programming I have ever seen in the fitness space.
Not all exercises are created equal. Some are more effective for particular goals than others and some are safer than others. Some exercises lend themselves well to fatigue based workouts and others simply don’t. When I look at Crossfits programming, it appears that they took almost none of that into consideration. Crossfit did start out with some of the best exercises from a strength, performance and muscle building standpoint like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses and Olympic lifts but that’s where the “good” parts of their programming stops. They completely jump the shark and ignore HOW those exercises should be applied and they especially ignore how they should NOT be applied.
An easy example of this is how Crossfit uses Olympic lifts which include power cleans, hang cleans and the snatch. When you look at all resistance training exercises, Olympic lifts are EASILY the most technical and require the most skill. This also makes them the riskiest when it comes to safety. With Olympic lifts the line between safe and totally unsafe is VERY thin. For example, if you do barbell curls for your biceps and you start to fatigue your form will start to breakdown. Form breakdown will happen with ANY exercise once fatigue really kicks in. This is because your body starts to compensate with different movement patterns. In the case of the barbell curl its not a big deal. A not so perfect barbell curl isn’t really that much riskier to perform when compared to an absolutely perfect barbell curl. It’s a relatively safe exercise when form is loose from fatigue. Not so with the Olympic lifts. When you perform a snatch absolutely perfectly you risk of injury isn’t that high. So long as you have good mobility and control, a snatch probably won’t hurt you. Everything changes if your form is off by EVEN A LITTLE BIT. As soon as you move a few inches in the wrong direction, or your spine isn’t in the perfect position or you lose some control a snatch becomes a very risky movement. This is true for all of the main Olympic lifts. Crossfit LOVES putting these lifts into their WOD’s (workout of the day) and prescribes that people do them for time and for maximum reps. It’s the WORST way to do Olympic lifts from both a performance improvements standpoint and ESPECIALLY from an injury risk standpoint.
The most experienced and highest level Olympic lifting competitors and their coaches RARELY train Olympic lifts to fatigue and these people compete for medals in the actual Olympics. They are the experts of Olympic lifting and even they won’t mess with doing these lifts to fatigue. Why? As soon as your body fatigues your form breaks down and, as we discussed earlier, a small breakdown in form makes these specific exercises very risky. The other reason is because Olympic lifts are based on POWER. Power is strength and SPEED. Strength alone is slow and grinding. Think of lifting something really heavy off the ground. Its slow and you are struggling the entire time. Power is much faster. It’s the ability to generate strength in a very short period of time. Throwing a ball, sprinting off the line or jumping in the air require power. Since the body adapts and responds in specific ways to stimulus, Olympic lifters train with maximal power. Training to fatigue only builds endurance as the lifts slow down and completely negates the benefits of Olympic lifting. In other words, Its asinine to use Olympic lifts in fatigue based exercise programming which is EXACTLY what Crossfit does.
If you look at the common Crossfit workouts they tend to combine movements with minimal rest. Here is a common Crossfit wod: 12 deadlifts, 9 hang power cleans, 6 push jerks for five rounds and all for a best time. This is basically a circuit with no rest and a perfect storm for disaster. To make matters worse Crossfit members are encouraged to beat each other’s times. Its not hard to imagine how the first thing that flies out the window is form and technique as people push and grind through these workouts to get them done as fast as possible or to do as many reps as possible. Again, its part of the actual programming. None of those exercises belong in a circuit let alone a COMBINED in a circuit. Follow workout programming like that and you will dramatically increase your risk of burnout and injury.
Crossfit also doesn’t use plyometrics in the way they are supposed to be used at all. Plyometrics are designed to increase power, which means they should be trained as such. In classic Crossfit fashion they take plyometric exercises like box jumps and they insert them into fatigue-based circuit programming. They completely miss the point and benefit of those movements and would be far better off just having people do jumping jacks in place...except jumping jacks don’t look “cool” enough and aren’t hard enough.
One of the strangest exercises Crossfit promotes is the kipping pull up. It’s an exercise that is very specific to gymnasts that requires a high level of skill with a high level of potential risk of injury. Everyday people have no business doing this movement. The benefits don’t outweigh the risks and the learning period takes so long that its simply not something people should spend time doing, unless they were aspiring gymnasts. Of course, Crossfit, with their cultish intensity worship puts kipping pull ups into their programming. They are weird and different looking (Crossfit loves being different) and they allow people to do many more “pull ups” vs when they are done strictly. Thankfully, as of the time I am writing this article Greg Glassman has publicly said he regrets ever including them into the Crossfit workouts.
The programming is the main reason I almost always advise people to NOT do Crossfit workouts. In my experience as a personal trainer I have seen more burnout, hormone issues and injuries caused by Crossfit’s terrible workout programming than pretty much any other fitness trend. To be fair this is just MY opinion, however most of my friends who are trainers and coaches in the fitness industry share the same sentiment.
When you combine the intensity worship with the poor exercise programming its easy to see why Crossfit is destined for long term failure. At first people love the group atmosphere and the crazy hard workouts and the bonding that the collective suffering produces but, in time, people tend to burn out from the over-application of intensity or they hurt themselves. Major fitness trends tend to have a business curve that grows and then peaks and then finally shrinks and this time period usually lasts between 15-20 years. In my opinion we have hit the peak of Crossfits national popularity and are about to see the bubble pop. Im almost sure of it. Now I am just keeping my eyes peeled for the next “big thing” in fitness.