If you have any degree of a social life, then you’ve heard of CrossFit. Its members are known for their cult-like enthusiasm and tendency to check in on Facebook whenever they’re working out. Whether you’re a member or a hater, it’s hard to ignore the fact that CrossFit has taken the world by storm in the past decade. If you’re like me, you’ve heard both the good and the bad. But before delving into the health cost-benefits of CrossFit, let’s first take a look at the foundation of this program.
Although cross training has been practiced for decades, the CrossFit movement is credited to Greg Glassman, a fitness coach from Santa Cruz, California who began doing these workouts in his home garage. The workouts resemble a military-like high intensity group training headed by a coach to keep morale high. The popularity of these workouts increased over the years, spanning not only across the United States, but to other countries as well.
Today, CrossFit has over 11,000 affiliate gyms across 70 different countries and over 100,000 trainers. Not to mention their weight lifting tournament whose tagline is “The Fittest of the Earth”–The Cross Fit Games. This tournament is where athletes must complete several different lifts or movements within a certain amount of time. Whoever completes all the tasks with the fastest time is deemed the “Fittest on Earth”. Because whoever finishes their workout the fastest means they’re the best, right?
“CrossFit begins with a belief in fitness. The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness. We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable. After looking at all sport and physical tasks collectively, we asked what physical skills and adaptations would most universally lend themselves to performance advantage. Capacity culled from the intersection of all sports demands would quite logically lend itself well to all sport. In sum, our specialty is not specializing”.
Their message is something out of a Marine handbook, and while claiming to be inclusive, also gives off an elitist tone that somehow doesn’t intimidate non gym-goers.
One of the reasons CrossFit has become so successful is because of its ability to reach audiences outside the physically fit demographic that regular gyms reach. This likely has to do with the structure of the workouts. CrossFit is different in that it takes place in a group environment. Instead of exercise being a solitary activity, CrossFit makes it a group challenge where everyone works together under a common goal: to get swoll.
Workouts are made up of high-intensity training intervals using gymnastic rings, pull-up bars, max racks, kettlebells, and climbing rope among other things. These workouts are designed to put 100% of your strength into everything with little-to-no rest in between sets. Because CrossFitters are physically depleting their bodies during this one hour training session, they see results faster. Resting in between sets is a weightlifting standard, but their branding team argues that since they use less weight for more reps, it is not harmful to your body.
More recently, CrossFit was criticized for improper exercise practices, citing case after case of CrossFitters suffering from kidney damage, uncontrollable bladder, and rhabdomyolysis, a condition when muscle cells explode from being exerted too much. This condition can even lead to death.
When asked about the safety of their program, CrossFit’s branding rep noted that fitness competence and knowing your limits are a key factor of CrossFit. “Anything unsafe comes from an individual doing something they are incapable of, or not learning to respect scaling,” he said. “When you learn to surf, you’re not going to paddle into a 50-foot wave because you know you don’t initially have that ability. You need to work yourself up, respect your capabilities and only move on when you’ve absolutely perfected the level you’re at.” (Racked) CrossFit has also been criticized for instructors refusing to take blame for any of their students’ injuries.
“If you ask a CrossFit coach, the injuries were all my fault. In a culture that drives you to go as hard and fast as possible, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the hype. You’re supposed to push yourself to the limit, but when you hit the limit and pay the price, you’re the idiot who went too far” (Medium).
Herein lies the problem with CrossFit. The problem is that putting in 100% effort is often mistaken for going beyond your threshold. While CrossFit states the class competition aspect of their program makes students work harder, it can also pose a threat to their health, making them more prone to injury or other damage if they can’t keep up with their classmates. Everyone in these classes are at a different physical level, and asking them to compete with each other is dangerous. The safety of CrossFit really boils down to the experience of your trainer.
Another thing to note is their “Death By” routines, where students add one rep to each consecutive set until they can no longer complete the exercise. This essentially throws “knowing your limits” out the window, placing more worth on performance than health. The problem is not that these athletes are prone to injury (injury rates are similar to those in Olympic weight lifting and gymnastics), but instead that CrossFit markets itself to the everyman. They invite competitive athletes and people trying to lose weight alike all while not informing them of the risks.
The benefits of CrossFit are apparent in its hundreds of thousands of participants and the repetitive Facebook check-ins. If you’re thinking about jumping on the CrossFit bandwagon, the best advice is to be smart about it. Find a good trainer you can trust who knows what they’re doing. Always practice good form, and ask your trainer about your form whenever you’re feeling unsure. Be aware of your body’s limits. And know the warning signs of injuries and illnesses.