A Retrospective of CrossFit

I've been wanting to write down my thoughts about CrossFit for awhile. I've been practicing this type of training for two years now and while it's helped me better undertand my body and got me moving well, there are a lot of things that I disagree with when it comes to the methodology and community. I want to stress that I'm almost 40 and I'm seeking fitness to better my life.

What CrossFit Got Right

Before I talk about what I disagree with I want to talk about what CrossFit got right. If we look at the definition of CrossFit:

Constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains.

It sounds really good at first sight. Being able to vary your workout from movements to time durations will definintely prepare you better for situations you may face in life. I love this idea. It's one of the things that really appealed to me about CrossFit. I got back into fitness in my late 30s because I wanted to be able to keep up with my two kids. I couldn't play with them for more than a few minutes without feeling exhuasted, my back was giving out on me repeatedly, and I just felt frail.

I wanted to fix that and CrossFit sounded like the right choice given the description. I drank the Kool-aid hard, like frat boy with a funnel hard. However, after repeated injuries to my shoulders, wrists, and sometimes lower back, I had to ask myself, "is this actually the right approach?". I still think mostly yes, but I noticed a few things about CrossFit I started to disagree with.

What CrossFit Got Wrong

I want to state that these opinions are based on me being an average person. I'm not young, nor would I consider myself someone who needs to be prepared for ANYTHING. If you're a service member, or young athlete looking to really push the bounds of your physical prowess, the CrossFit methodology as it stands is probably the right choice for you (even if I still think there could be some improvements there).

High Intensity

In the definition of CrossFit you may have noticed it says workouts should be done at a high intensity. I really dislike this part of credo for a number of reasons:

  1. The definition of high intensity is to vague. It's often equated with max effort and anything done at max effort over a long period of time is going to lead to that system burning out spectacularly. In this case, that system is your body. If you're young this may not affect you nearly as much but if you look at CrossFit games athletes who have competed at the top of the sport for years, almost every single one of them has had some sort of injury, normally in their knees, shoulders, or wrists. Because most movements in CrossFit are meant to be functional they generally require wide ranges of motion, stressing the most vital joints of the body. Now, ask any coach and they'll tell you that you should scale the intensity but when everyone around you is exerting a high intensity it can be hard to hold back for fear of looking like you're "sandbagging". I've experienced this myself time and time again.

  2. It affects the way you start to think about things outside of CrossFit. I noticed I started putting maximum effort into work, house work, and other areas of my life. This would cause me to burn out and go through peaks and valleys of productivity. If I wasn't giving my all, I wasn't giving any.

  3. The word intense itself is very aggressive and can be offputting to people who don't undertand the nuance of what high intensity means. It has to be explained to you which often leads to confusion (see number 1). I have had numerous people tell me they see CrossFit as too intense. It means people walk away before trying it because they're too scared to even walk in the door.

I want to clarify that I believe some high intensity activity is a good thing, I wish it said something about varied intensity.

Overly Functional

Nothing makes me feel cooler than swinging from rings like a gymnast, then lifting a heavy barbell, only to then flip upside down on my hands and walk across the room. My Instagram account is littered with stories of this. However, I have recently started to question the benefit of actually doing these movements. If the goal is to prepare someone for any situation they may encounter in life, what the hell do these people do in a day where these movements seem like a prerequisite for success. I believe a majority of them stem from a need to test CrossFit Games athletes in order to push the boundries of peak physical performance. Once it hits the Games or CrossFit.com it slowly makes it's way into every affliated gym in the world.

Yet, what is the benefit of these feats of physical capability in the real world other than looking awesome. I can't recall a single time in life where I have said, "if only I could do a ring muscle up right now". As a matter of fact I only say this in the gym. This leads me to my next point.

Prioritizes the Wrong Goals

In the beginning of this post I stated how I started exercising again to be able to be active with my kids and do things that need to be done around the house without risking injury. After a few months of CrossFit my goals started to shift from being able to keep up with my kids to hitting certain times on benchmark workouts and finally learning new movements. I'm not saying it's bad to progress and try new things, I actually think that's a very important part of being active. I'm saying the goals start to misalign. I was investing so much effort into fitness and hitting new PRs that I would often be too tired the rest of the day to do much of anything else. This is completely counterproductive to my goal of being more available to my kids or getting things done around the house. I know I'm not the only one who experiences this because you can find countless memes about this very topic all over the internet. Pair this with high intensity and I was clearly overtraining. It's no wonder rhyabdomyolysis is an actual concern in CrossFit.

Timing Workouts

When you are leaving everything you have on the gym floor you should never walk away feeling like you failed at something. Not finishing a workout within a given time cap is demoralizing, getting a slower time on a benchmark workout is demoralizing. I don't care who you are, no one wants to push their body and at the end feel like you didn't finish. I think by timing workouts it switches the focus from getting the right stimulus to beating the clock. I'm not saying all timing is bad. I'm actually a huge fan of AMRAPs* and EMOMs**.

* AMRAP means "As many reps as possible"

** EMOM means "Every minute on the minute"

Timing workouts leaves no room for scaling back intensity as well. If I complete a given workout in 10 minutes, the next time I do that workout, no matter what shape I'm in, or how I'm feeling mentally, I now want to have a better time. Because a better time means I'm getting fitter right? Well it's actually possible to have a worse time in a workout and still be fitter. Every day can't be your best day and that's alright!

You might be saying, but how can I be sure I'm improving without setting benchmarks. Well I look at this a lot like I look at weight loss goals. Most knowledgeable folks will tell you the worst thing you can do when working towards weight loss is stand on the scale every day. Instead they tell you to take progress pictures and go by how you look in the mirror. Sometimes data can get in the way. I feel the same way about fitness. You'll know you're making progress when you can run logner with your kids, or lift that heavy box up onto a shelf, or when climbing a few sets of stairs no longer leaves you winded. Remember, the goal is improvement in your actual life, not in the gym.

Not Enough Focus on Mobility

As we get older our bodies get tighter. If you have a job where you sit all day or spend a lot of time bent over, the tightness can get really bad. While CrossFit emphisizes the importance of proper form for movements, it does very little to actually help you improve your mobility. In my opinion this should be built into the core of the methodology. Tightness prevents you from being able to access a full range of motion which can lead to injury and prevent you from properly performing a lot of tasks, like reaching overhead or squatting down properly to lift a heavy object.

In Conclusion

While CrossFit sets a new precedent for what fitness means, it's goal is often higher reaching than most average people need to be active and prepared for real world situations. Many aspects of the methodology can lead to injury without careful examination and scrutiny, and with a class stucture it can be hard to ensure everyone is doing things safely and properly. I think there is a more practical fitness that can be defined and I plan to experiment with what that looks like.