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The Trouble with Crossfit

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  • The Trouble with Crossfit

    The Trouble with Crossfit by Jason Silvernail DPT

    Crossfit (www.crossfit.com) is a relatively new and very popular fitness fad that has many dedicated participants. In order to understand Crossfit as an exercise program, you must rationally look at its strong points and weak points without regard to the overzealous manner in which it is sometimes promoted. Understanding those with a minimum of emotion and with an eye toward a fair assessment is my goal here. Only by this sort of assessment can you put this method in its proper perspective and use it appropriately if you decide to do so.

    The Base – Circuit Training
    Crossfit is a type of circuit training. A circuit training regimen means moving from one exercise to another with a minimum of rest until a designated number of stations has been completed. The stations can be either a strength-building exercise (like a pushup or a squat) or a cardiovascular exercise (like jumping rope or a rowing machine). Finishing one station and moving to another can be driven by completing a certain number of repetitions, a given amount of time, or a certain amount of work as calculated by a cardio training machine. This method of training differs from more traditional strength-building or cardiovascular training. In circuit training, you are using a lower load than that used for typical strength building and a higher intensity but shorter time than that used for typical cardiovascular training.
    Other programs built on the circuit training concept include Curves for Women, Gladiator Conditioning, BodyPump-Style fitness classes, and many Kettlebell-based programs.

    Advantages and Disadvantages of Circuit-Style Training
    Circuit training has many strong points. Using this mode of training, you can train both your cardiovascular fitness and your muscular fitness with one workout. You can also train your anaerobic (short, intense effort) energy system for tasks that require all-out effort, which often is neglected in traditional resistance training and cardiovascular training programs. Circuit training can burn a tremendous amount of calories as well, which may be why it is recommended for weight loss programs, such as Curves for Women. Circuit training can give a balanced, general type of fitness that does not rely too much on cardiovascular capacity or muscular strength – so it is by design a nonspecific approach. Sports or activities involving short bursts of high-intensity effort, such as wrestling, gymnastics, and American football often incorporate circuit-style training, as the energy requirements of those activities closely mirror the energy requirements of training in the circuit style. Almost any athlete or individual interested in improving their fitness would do well to incorporate circuit training into their regimen, to some degree.
    Circuit training does have disadvantages. Most importantly, it does not provide good specificity of training. Specificity is a core principle of exercise prescription. Specificity means that if you want to be good at a certain activity, you should do that activity in training. For example, if you want to do more pushups, then the training mode that will help the most is actually doing pushups. You can’t expect your progress with bench-pressing a barbell to make your pushups ability improve, because the activities are different. Those participating in a particular sport with particular movements and activities that need to be mastered will not be well served by using only circuit training in their program. To improve at a certain sport or activity, the movements and activities involved must be specifically trained. For example, a wrestler needs to be able to duck down and “shoot” in to his opponent in order to pin him to the mat. Training that specific movement is important if you want to improve your wrestling ability.
    The nonspecific nature of circuit training is such that it will not improve strength or build body mass as well as traditional strength training (because the loads are too low and the volume too high), and it will not improve steady state aerobic fitness as well as traditional cardiovascular training (because the intensity is too high and the duration too short).

    Crossfit’s Appeal
    Crossfit often appeals to those who are unsatisfied with traditional strength and cardiovascular training programs, those whose sport or job requires the kind of anaerobic workout that circuit training provides, or those who are looking to burn the most amount of calories in the shortest possible time. As we have seen from the discussion of circuit training above, this mode of training in general and Crossfit in particular can provide a wide range of benefits. Those who are not training for a specific strength or cardiovascular event, who need intense anaerobic fitness, and those who are interested in generalized fitness improvement across several areas may benefit especially from circuit training and/or Crossfit.
    Often Crossfit devotees will argue that other programs do not have the anaerobic intensity of their workouts and don’t provide the kind of fitness that they are interested in attaining. On balance, they are correct in these assertions. Circuits certainly can provide very high intensity workouts that stress the anaerobic system very well, and provide a kind of stimulus that most traditional weight training and steady-state cardio programs cannot match. The popularity of Crossfit with military, law enforcement, and fire/rescue personnel is easy to understand if you imagine the generalized fitness required for these jobs and the need for anaerobic fitness capacity.

    Crossfit’s Disadvantages
    Crossfit has some specific disadvantages other than the ones mentioned for circuit training. These disadvantages are the Workouts of the Day, their intensity of training, and safety issues with exercise form and fatigue.
    Crossfit workouts are disseminated typically using the Workout of the Day, or WoD. These are posted on the Crossfit website. The WoDs are a somewhat random listing of different exercises, usually done by time or by repetitions. Examples include the “Murph”, which is a one-mile run in a vest followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 body-weight squats, and another one-mile run, done as fast as possible. The problem with the WoD format is that they are not tailored to any specific need or participant and may involve many or only one exercise, often done in large volumes. This kind of programming is a one-size fits all approach, and while the site and many Crossfit trainers claim that the workouts are “scaleable” for those less fit, any group exercise is bound to be too easy for some participants, and too hard for others. This risks overtraining and ignores many of the well-established principles of program design. Any poorly planned program will usually fail to deliver on fitness goals, and pure intensity cannot substitute for a well planned and executed conditioning program. Programs and workouts as seemingly random as Crossfit’s WoDs violate many principles of program design.
    Crossfit workouts are known for their intensity. While intensity is important to improvement, it must be done in a safe way. Encouraging novices to work at intensities beyond their capacity can happen even by accident when training in a group session, especially when the workout intensity is not scaled for individual participants and there is peer pressure to continue past what any given individual can safely handle. This is true of any workout in general but may be a particular concern in the circuit format. Overuse injuries and even Exertional Rhabdomyolysis can occur in these settings, and a lawsuit involving the Crossfit exercise regimen and a trainee with “Rhabdo”was reported by the Navy Times here: http://www.navytimes.com/news/2008/0...ssfit_081708w/. Crossfit’s unofficial mascot (who also appears on Tshirts) of a dying clown known as “Uncle Rhabdo” may indicate the appearance of an unserious attitude toward providing a safe, as well as effective, exercise environment. This attitude, if it exists, is unacceptable.
    Explosive, Olympic-style weightlifting, including overhead lifts, is an important part of Crossfit and an excellent way to build explosive strength and power. The load and above all, the proper exercise form, is crucial for a safe and effective use of these exercises. Placing such lifts in a circuit format, where different participants use the same weight for lifts and/or where lifts are done while fatigued and rushed for time, is a recipe for an injury and is not an appropriate way to coach or use overhead lifts. Many of Crossfit’s WoDs call for using explosive lifts in this way, which is in violation of the recommendations for teaching Olympic and overhead lifts published by organizations such as USA Weightlifting and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

    Circuit training can be an excellent way to condition, and many Crossfit affiliate gyms have coaches who are well aware of the limitations of the approach and have modified their programs accordingly. Given the limitations I discuss above, I cannot in good faith recommend Crossfit in general, but if you do choose to participate or find a coach who understands the limitations of their programming, I recommend the following guidelines. Start slow and be properly hydrated. Circuit intensity needs to be worked into slowly so you know your body’s response. Dehydration is a serious risk factor for Rhabdo. No explosive or overhead lifts for time or in a fatigued state. No exceptions. Keep your injury history and your personal fitness goals in mind. Good conditioning and meeting goals comes with sensible programming, not random workouts. Remember intensity cannot replace good programming.

    Those interested in more information about Crossfit are encouraged to read Chris Shugart’s excellent article “The Truth About Crossfit” on T-nation.com. Good luck and be safe!
    Jason Silvernail DPT, DSc, FAAOMPT
    Board-Certified in Orthopedic Physical Therapy
    Fellowship-Trained in Orthopedic Manual Therapy

    Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist


    The views expressed in this entry are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

  • #2
    Good write up on Cross-Fit Jason. I've been utilizing the WoDs off and on for about a year now and I think you captured the concept very well. I have a friend of mine who is a Ph.D. in exercise science who was an avid believer in Cross-Fit but sustained a pretty significant shoulder injury during some of the more vigorous activities. I think if it continues to evolve by addressing the limits you reported, it has some real potential.
    Rod Henderson, PT, ScD, OCS
    It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. — Jonathan Swift

    Comment


    • #3
      Rod-
      I'm always surprised when I see people with genuine expertise in strength and conditioning or exercise science who become "avid believers" in any fitness fad or paradigm.
      The reason people like Crossfit is no mystery - it's all about intensity. The circuit format has been well known for at least 60 years now so claims that it's new or innovative are just flat false. The new things Crossfit brings to circuit training - the WoDs and explosive lifts, are actually more disadvantages, as I mentioned above.

      It *can* be done safely and effectively, but I think the coach or exercise leader has to know enough about the limitations of the method in order to make it into sensible and safe programming. Far too many of the people doing this don't have enough solid exercise science knowledge to do that, and that's a shame. I don't think we've seen the last of cases of Rhabdo from this program, either.

      Chris Shugart's article on T-nation.com is great and well-balanced look at this issue also, it's highly recommended.

      Oh, and I fully expect some of the Crossfitters to put down their Koolaid, arrive on the thread at any moment, and throw out the usual boilerplate we are accustomed to seeing from those with an indefensible practice:
      -you don't know anything unless you've actually done the workouts
      -come to my gym and I'll show you a real workout
      -don't judge until you take the certification ($1000!!)
      -why are you badmouthing a great program
      -etc, etc

      Much like the HIT Jedi, they are dispatched across the galaxy to right wrongs and they come ready to do battle! I have personally been on the receiving end of some of this, and it's not pretty. I had some joker on the NSCA website send me a furious PM out of the clear blue sky telling me all about what he felt I was and was not qualified to express my opinion about, and making assumptions about whether I had actually tried Crossfit or not before. It's all a bit amusing to see the same scenario replayed.
      Jason Silvernail DPT, DSc, FAAOMPT
      Board-Certified in Orthopedic Physical Therapy
      Fellowship-Trained in Orthopedic Manual Therapy

      Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist


      The views expressed in this entry are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

      Comment


      • #4
        In this case, I believe someone offered to certify him at no cost ($1000 value) because of his standing as faculty member. I think it has appeal to many 25-40 y/o males with an interest in combat sports, football, etc... It can be a very good program for those with a pretty strong base level of fitness in all domains, but if you are missing any element you are left wide open for injury. "Avid believer" was probably a poor choice of words. He enjoyed the workouts. It is not for everyone, but it certainly has a following and (contrary to most fads) can be an effective training system...for some.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnq1M...eature=related
        Rod Henderson, PT, ScD, OCS
        It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. — Jonathan Swift

        Comment


        • #5
          Jason,

          I really appreciate this summary. Very helpful.

          Rod,

          Good coments, but I have to disagree with your last statement. I think the reason exercise fads catch on is that they usually can be an effective training system for some. Most are just very limited in their generalizability.
          Not every jab needs to be answered with a haymaker. - Rod Henderson

          Comment


          • #6
            I think just about every program "could be effective for some".

            I think Chris Shugart's article on T-nation said it best, if your goals are Crossfit's goals, you'll do well. I would change that to "if your goals are Crossfit's goals and you can avoid injury with the questionable aspects of the system and maintain good programming through other means, you'll do OK."

            I went to their website and downloaded the workout "Fight Gone Bad". They had trainees of clearly different fitness levels and strength levels rotating through the same circuit. One station was a barbell push press with the same weight for every trainee. Predictably, after fatigue and a few reps, they turned it into a standing incline bench press while extended backward, with limited range movement, banging out as many reps as they could. Ouch.
            Crossfitters respond "well, that's not good coaching."
            I respond "well why was it on the damn website as an example, then?"
            "uh...."
            Yeah, thought so.

            This can be a good program when its done well, for people who need this kind of anaerobic fitness. It's extremely popular in the military and I hear about it frequently from patients. Unfortunately its often not done well and I honestly think the programming is to blame to some degree.
            Jason Silvernail DPT, DSc, FAAOMPT
            Board-Certified in Orthopedic Physical Therapy
            Fellowship-Trained in Orthopedic Manual Therapy

            Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist


            The views expressed in this entry are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

            Comment


            • #7
              Originally posted by Jason Silvernail View Post
              I think just about every program "could be effective for some".
              Not exactly. There are many programs being peddled out there that have absolutely nothing to offer the unsuspecting customer except an opportunity to waste money. This is not CF's problem. There problems pertain to progression, specificity, and individualization (pretty big problems actually) as you mention here...

              I went to their website and downloaded the workout "Fight Gone Bad". They had trainees of clearly different fitness levels and strength levels rotating through the same circuit. One station was a barbell push press with the same weight for every trainee. Predictably, after fatigue and a few reps, they turned it into a standing incline bench press while extended backward, with limited range movement, banging out as many reps as they could. Ouch.
              I think where this program will never gain mass appeal, but maybe that's not what they are after. As you know the threshold to have a safe and effective training session is WAYY below CF. In a society where we value the most results for the least (preferably no) effort, this program will always go wanting for clients. It's great if you can avoid injury - not exactly the marketing pitch that works for me. I'm a slow and steady guy who likes his running and conventional weight training.

              This can be a good program when its done well, for people who need this kind of anaerobic fitness. It's extremely popular in the military and I hear about it frequently from patients. Unfortunately its often not done well and I honestly think the programming is to blame to some degree.
              I'd say it's to blame to a large degree, but CF will have to adapt or stick with what it's got.
              Rod Henderson, PT, ScD, OCS
              It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. — Jonathan Swift

              Comment


              • #8
                Originally posted by TexasOrtho View Post
                I'd say it's to blame to a large degree, but CF will have to adapt or stick with what it's got.
                I for one hope they adapt. It's a great concept at a time when not much in the way of circuit training is popular. I hope they can turn away from some of their more dangerous practices and get some better programming and safe, but tough training. It is possible to do both, and the Army's new PRT program being used in basic training is circuit based and has a track record for lower injuries than standard training.
                Jason Silvernail DPT, DSc, FAAOMPT
                Board-Certified in Orthopedic Physical Therapy
                Fellowship-Trained in Orthopedic Manual Therapy

                Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist


                The views expressed in this entry are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

                Comment


                • #9
                  x fit

                  Nice posts JS. Just like in battle, rarely in life do we get up and run 3mi straight.

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    x fit

                    Just imagine the cases of rhabdo missed due to difficulty in diagnosis. Discolored urine? Who doesn't have that, with B-vitamin supplementation and the number of dehydrated people walking around.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Great Post Jason.

                      What I like abt Crossfit:

                      1. The group dynamics
                      2. The intensity factor which is awfully lacking in most people's workout, especially in women.
                      3. Use of multi joint & functional movemments. People do a lot of retarded single joint exercises.

                      What I hate about Crossfit:

                      1. Utter disregrad for recovery & periodization
                      2. No specilaization. Useless for an advanced athelete.
                      3. And Glassman the founder is not liked by many in the field.
                      4. High reps for olympic lifts and deadlifts.

                      Ordinary people do not need all this crazy balls to the wall intensity to get stronger or whatever. Take a look at the strongman training and you will see a lot of periodization, recovery, specialization and these guys can deadlift some heavy weight for reps (without the rhabdo ofcourse)!
                      Last edited by anoopbal; 04-01-2009, 12:57 AM.
                      Anoop Balachandran
                      EXERCISE BIOLOGY - The Science of Exercise & Nutrition

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Jason's original post with full attribution has been copied to the Supertraining listserv.

                        Perhaps this will generate some additional discussion.
                        Barrett L. Dorko

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          I posted this on NSCA's website...take a look and enjoy.

                          http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_...up_by_crossfit
                          "The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer."

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            mrupe-
                            That seems to be a TNation link??
                            Jason Silvernail DPT, DSc, FAAOMPT
                            Board-Certified in Orthopedic Physical Therapy
                            Fellowship-Trained in Orthopedic Manual Therapy

                            Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist


                            The views expressed in this entry are those of the author alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US Government.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Yes it is.....is that a problem?
                              "The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer."

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