What is CrossFit? The Good, Bad, and Ugly

What is CrossFit? The Good, Bad, and Ugly

CrossFit is probably not new to anyone, anymore. The faddishness has lost a bit of its underground appeal, as it's become more mainstream over the past few years. But, if you've been living in a world devoid of kinesio tape, fluorescent socks, and being pressured to make something "paleo-friendly" for a pot luck, let me fill you in.

Crossfit was the brainchild of Greg Glassman, a college gymnastics coach turned personal trainer turned self-proclaimed rogue fitness expert. He created a fitness program that combined high-intensity interval training and plyometrics with Olympic weightlifting and a dash of gymnastics.

Related - CrossFit: An Exercise Fad?

He opened the first CrossFit box with his (now) ex-wife in 2000, with the idea of creating a rebellious crew of super athletes who excel at all forms of physical fitness.

The idea is to be ready for anything, so the workouts - or WODs - change daily. One day might have you doing sprints, pull-ups and box jumps and the next, thrusters to death. You never know what you're going to get, but you have to do it as fast as you can and as heavy and hard as you can. You are being timed and ranked against whoever shows up that day.

CrossFitters are known for being rebellious and cultish, and are the first ones on the underground bandwagons, like bulletproof coffee, biohacking, and whatever Joe Rogan talked about on his podcast the night before. They're the rebels of the fitness industry, riding the line between cutting edge training and simply being a little too flamboyant and gullible.

A Look at CrossFit

The Good

I have to hand it to CrossFit for breathing life back into the lifting community. Before CrossFit, powerlifting was a niche sport and Olympic weightlifting was nearly dead. Bodybuilding was relatively popular, but not nearly as much as it is now.

Not only that, but CrossFit is largely responsible for the "strong, not skinny" movement among women. For the first time, it is mainstream for ladies to belt up, clap on some chalk, and lift heavy in the gym.

The camaraderie is great for people who would otherwise give up. Friends will cheer and push you on to reach your full potential. It's validating to feel like you are part of a team and belong somewhere. Going beyond what you think you can do and not only surviving but killing your previous time is an incredibly empowering thing.

Your conditioning will be amazing. All the high-intensity intervals and breakneck pace will improve your entire cardiovascular system. Lifting weights will increase your strength and build some muscle, provided you eat enough and rest enough to repair your body.

You will experience a wider variety of functional movement and exercise than you would by only powerlifting or Olympic lifting. If you are consistent, you will have better conditioning than a powerlifter, more strength than a runner, and more agility than your regular gym rat.

A typical CrossFit class includes a warm-up, a lift, a WOD (workout of the day) or METCON (metabolic conditioning) segment and a cool down or portion where you work on a gymnastics movement. Sometimes the lift is part of the WOD, sometimes it’s separate.

The Bad and the Ugly

That said, a jack of all trades is a master of none. You will never out-lift the lifters, or out-run the runners, nor will you out-curl a gym bro. Without specific training and periodization, you'll never reach your full potential in one area. Since CrossFit training is random, you may only work something sporadically and you are always going full-tilt in all directions. You may get decent at a lot of things, but you won't achieve greatness at one.

Injury: moderate to severe risk. Full stop.

CrossFit is making all the sports doctors, physical therapists and chiropractors rich by encouraging novices to push past all limits with a hundred pounds or more over their head. Olympic lifting was never designed for speed or going to failure.

On its own, the sport is at least a moderate injury risk - making it a race increases that risk exponentially. There are ample opportunities to sprain your ankle, tear your knee, throw your back, and blow your shoulder every class if you are not completely honest with yourself and adherent to your exhaustion level and limitations.

Quality control and lack of training credentials is also a problem. All it takes to become a certified CrossFit coach is about $1,000 and a weekend of your time. All it takes to license and retain a box, is a certification and yearly fee to CrossFit, Inc. The actual coaches can vary wildly, from people who have a lot of experience and education to someone who drank the Kool-Aid six months ago and wants to make some money.

The affiliates make their own rules and pricing and they may or may not be qualified to do a real pull up, let alone coach someone on a technical lift or be able to tell when someone needs to be pushed forward or pulled back. Unfortunately, this is also seen at the professional level.

Is CrossFit Right for You?

Greg Glassman enjoys the tough mystique, saying, "It can kill you. I've always been completely honest about that." I think that is a bit dramatic. On one hand, CrossFit preaches leaving your ego at the door, but on the other, they glamourize throwing up and passing out.

In the old days, you were encouraged to push it too far, but if you pushed it too far and got hurt, you would be blamed, not the program or the culture.

However, CrossFit is evolving. Many boxes are now keeping the heavy Olympic lifting separate from the WODs or METCONs and coaches are becoming more educated and experienced with their clients when it comes to sports knowledge, periodization and injury prevention. There are plenty of high-quality gyms in nearly every town.

So, check out every box in your area before you sign up. Find out if the coach is truly certified or just has a certification. Watch the class. Is there control and coaching on form? Is it a fun group of people you want to work with? This will be your crew.

With CrossFit, success or failure is dependent on the quality of the gym and its coaches; choose wisely and you will be in the best shape of your life, choose poorly and you can have an injury for life.

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