CrossFit; the training, the Games, the BS

What is CrossFit (CF)? In a nutshell it’s performing movements and or exercises under time that are continuously varied from workout to workout. Started in the mid-1990’s, this training system does have value in improving one's fitness level, but the claims made Crossfitters (CFer) and on the CF website are untenable.

CF’s upside according to its proponents is being a total-body conditioning workout that is purposefully varied, which inhibits boredom. I think it’s a home run for fitness enthusiasts because the workouts are challenging. CF’s inherent difficulty, notice I said difficulty not intensity, also benefits the average person because most people do not train hard enough to elicit any measurable result.

The seemingly illogical CF programming is a short-sighted effort to challenge as many movement patterns and energy systems as possible. “CF is not a specialized fitness program but a deliberate attempt to optimize physical competence in each of the ten recognized fitness domains. They are cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.” Says founder Greg Glassman, who is also known for his outrageous unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of CF.

It’s the lack of specificity that gives CF its upside as well as its downside. Because the body is receiving multiple forms of stimulus through CF, the body never excels at any of the “fitness domains”, let alone bringing up their weak areas. Somebody who starts out as a CFer and was not strong or muscular through previous training will not make appreciable gains in strength or muscularity but can become fit.

People differ in their physical strengths and weaknesses. Personalized programs that cater to these individual needs are the hallmark of a successful coach. Without figuring out what a person’s weakness is, as with CF, the over result will fall short. For example, if a person comes to a CF trainer (they’re not coaches) and is quad dominant, and that trainer doesn’t take measures to remedy this issue, they will never be able to perform several exercises correctly, e.g., squat, deadlift, cleans, sprinting. Without being able to perform exercises optimally, a trainee will never reach their full potential. And because the programming is illogical, and individualized programming is the antitheses of CF, don’t expect any weakness to be found in the first place, let alone remedied.

CF’s illogical programming is a sight to be seen for experienced lifters and coaches. I’ve been to a few CF gyms, and several CrossFit events over the years, including those at the Arnold Sports Festival. The order of the exercises and how they’re performed is just outrageous. Watching these athletes perform deadlifts, Olympic lifts, kipping pull-ups, or handstand push-ups in a fatigued state, with poor form calls into question the program as a whole.

Even more appalling is reading CF articles and watching Glassman’s and other proponent's videos as they try to explain the efficacy of the program, and how it’s evidence based

Intensity and duration exist in an inverse ratio.

In other words, as the intensity increases while performing an exercise, the amount of time one can perform the exercise decreases. CF proponents claim their program utilizes a high level of intensity, which builds strength, muscle, speed, etc. Well, there is no such thing as performing a movement or exercise for 5, 10, or 30 minutes and training with high intensity. This is a physiological fact, not a choice, and certainly not something one builds up to. Is CF difficult? You bet your ass. Is CF Intense? No. Any endurance activity, and that’s what CF is, is by its very nature of low intensity.

For one to get bigger, stronger, or faster, a precise stimulus is needed. That stimulus is short, intense training sessions. Why short? Because we have known for centuries, the body can either train long or train hard. A perfect example is to compare distance runners to sprinters. Because of the types of training, one is emaciated looking and one is muscular. Remember you cannot sprint a mile. Is it difficult to run a mile? Yes, but it is impossible to run a mile with the same intensity one can run 100 meters.

You’ll never get truly strong performing CrossFit.

No matter what Glassman or other CF coaches claim, it’s not going to happen. A CFer will never be able to achieve strength gains anywhere near the level of a weightlifter, powerlifter, bodybuilder or even a strength enthusiast. The vast majority of CFers experience no substantial strength gains what-so-ever compared to other training modalities. The CFers who are somewhat strong or muscular are former bodybuilders, powerlifters and weight lifting enthusiasts. Training that targets strength endurance, which is the hallmark of CF, doesn’t increase maximal strength. Training for maximal strength, however, naturally increases one’s strength endurance, which is another universal principle CF overlooks. If getting stronger, especially maximal strength, is your goal, CF isn’t for you.

You will not attain any measure of lean mass.

CF’s founder Greg Glassman claims CF, for the natural athlete, is better at building muscle than traditional hypertrophy weight training (bodybuilding). As with most of his claims, there’s no empirical data to back this assertion. While touting the muscle building capacity of CF, he fails to explain the lack of muscularity among the vast majority of CF athletes, including top athletes, especially in their legs (except for those who are former bodybuilders or powerlifters). However, every single bodybuilder or powerlifter I’ve seen and talked to that has started CF has lost a significant percentage of muscle and strength; this is a physiological inevitability.

It’s been well documented within the fitness industry for decades that performing an exercise with brief high-intensity muscular contractions is the most important stimulus for building muscle and strength. The duration of the exercise or movement is crucial but can be counter-productive. Sets lasting 2, 5, 10, or more minutes are entirely out of the realm.

Contrary to Glassman’s outlandish claim, CFers don’t come close to the muscular development of a natural bodybuilder. At best, some CFers look very athletic, which is excellent, if that’s your goal. But there are more efficient and safer ways to get there, especially if you’re a hard gainer.

Why Glassman and other CF proponents go to such lengths to falsely market CF despite its inherent shortcomings is obvious. Get a little integrity and market CF for what it is, be proud and shut your pie hole. By the way, it wouldn’t hurt Glassman to take advantage of his “evidenced-based” training program.

The training program is the sport.

In my view, the CrossFit Games is CF’s biggest strength. But, the CrossFit Games markets their athletes as the fittest in the world, which is not surprising but truly absurd. For starters can anyone say MMA, Ironman or wrestler? Anyway, there is no question that the top CFers are superb athletes that are part of an action sport with an audience appeal. It's no surprise the CrossFit Games have become a tremendous investment opportunity for sports sponsors.

In much the same way as the Olympics, I think the CrossFit Games can capture worldwide attention. Am I comparing Olympic athletes to CFers? Absolutely not. However, though not nearly as gifted, top CFers can wield a similar emotion in an audience.

Many people are very intrigued with physical prowess and ability even though they may not even participate themselves. With the right marketing, a seemingly unpopular athletic event can evolve into an enormous commercial success. Case-in-point: The Ultimate Fighting Championship and Strongman Competitions.

Trying to fit a square peg in a round hole

Over the past several years CF has been trying to repackage itself in different arenas. I’ve seen several high school sports programs, e.g., football, basketball, using CF as the sports performance enhancing program. Choosing CF is pure ignorance on the part of the coaches. To increase one’s explosiveness, quickness, or overall athleticism, one needs a particular type of training which cannot in anyway be provided by CF.

For a sports training program to be successful, it should match the type of training to the sport and the player’s position. For instance, a defensive lineman’s position requires short bursts of intense action requiring strength and quickness with long rest periods in between. With an inability to build speed or maximum strength, how is CF a proper prescription? Given the science behind sports performance training, and a failure to individualize programs, how is CF even considered for any sport? It's easy to apply to large numbers.

High school programs that are using CF are putting their kids at a distinct disadvantage when compared to those who are utilizing traditional sports specific weight training. Likewise, individuals who want bigger muscles or more strength are also at a disadvantage when compared to those who apply proven weight training principles. CF just doesn’t fit the need.

In conclusion

One doesn’t see the leading athletes or the heads of MMA organizations writing articles and publicly declaring how MMA is better than boxing. One doesn’t see the prominent athletes or the heads of the NFL writing articles and publicly stating how the NFL is better than the NBA. One doesn’t see the leading athletes or the heads of wrestling organizations writing articles and publicly declaring how wrestling is better than taekwondo. But, this is not true of CFers who worship Pukey the Clown. If a person is secure with themselves and what they do, they feel no need to belittle or even compare themselves to others, or what others are doing. You can draw your own conclusion.

I have a greater overall background of CF than most CFers, and to this day I believe CF is a poor choice for the vast majority of people the majority of the time. Even with the best CF trainer available, I still would never recommend CF for any reason. CF’s illogical programming that holds fatigue over results, or cherishes puking while training, needs to be questioned. CF is a recipe for disaster.

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