clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Crossfit: The Merits of Sweaty Scientology

New, 59 comments

Crossfit is only a slightly more contentious topic than race, religion and abortion. Despite my insulting title and the fact that I have some major problems with a few of sweaty Scientology's core methodologies, I think on balance it has been and will prove to be a net good for fitness.  New religions always have a bumpy beginning, but the ones that succeed jettison cumbersome ideology, self-criticize, purge and adapt.  Crossfit is starting to do that right now - perhaps not corporately where it continues to spout a fair amount of nonsense - but at the individual affiliate level where informed and innovative folks are running some of the best gyms/boxes/whatever in the country.

Of course, the really good Crossfit franchises also share the same branding as the incompetents and the layperson has no idea how to differentiate them.  Given enough time and enough major injuries, these things should sort themselves out eventually.

What's Good About Crossfit?

Community.

Crossfit brought back community.  Though it is often mocked for its zealotry, it has effectively harnessed the power of shared culture to create individual accountability in a group context.  And espirit de corps.  Mock that if you wish, but many of us would love to belong to a friendly gym with a culture of support and improvement.  I do 95% of my workouts alone and I'd kill for one good spotter who doesn't grab the bar while it's still on the way up, much less a real training partner. Globo-Gym features a bunch of individuals zoned out on their iPods doing their own thing. It's as alienating as the bubble gum techno pounding through the speakers.  One of the reasons I loved boxing was the sense of family, shared suffering and unique culture. Crossfit gets this in a big way.  When you harness the power of peer pressure positively through shared challenge, you get better compliance, focus and effort.  You also attract nice, positive people. There are fewer dickheads per capita and it's a good place to meet the opposite sex.

Barbell Training & Compound Movements.

Crossfit seriously revived, possibly even saved, barbell training. Bodybuilders were its first evangelists and Arnold sent millions of young men to the squat bar and bench press, but when bodybuilding devolved from Arnold's symmetry to a pathetic display of laughable chemical freaks waddling around with distended bellies and 280 pounds packed onto a 5-7 frame the barbell imperative faded.  Who the hell wants to look like that?  Give me P90X!  I want to tone. Powerlifting was a niche of a niche reserved for subhumans with sleep apnea doing ammonia hits before shitting themselves during their deadlift single.  This does not lend itself to widespread adoption.  Gyms were steadily taken over by machines and fitness classes, the floor space for power racks replaced with cardio equipment.

The rekindled interest in powerlifting, Olympic lifting and general strength training in this country is a direct consequence of Crossfit.  That is inarguable.  It is a good thing.

Do Women Even Lift, Bro?

Crossfit convinced women in large numbers that barbell training and compound movements are good for them, won't make them "bulky" and that strong is the new skinny.  No initiative has more effectively gotten the fairer sex to pick up a barbell or throw around a kettle bell.

The Crossfit Reformation.

Martin Luther is nailing his grievances to the door at Crossfit corporate with a bumper plate.  Individual boxes are now ignoring portions of the brand's original philosophies and spending more time training and educating their charges to do things right. Crossfit's best affiliates are often its most inadherent and no longer just advocating a random grab bag of movements with questionable skill, puking and then calling it a workout.  That's still there for people who want it, but you'll find plenty of Crossfitters training compound movements and HIIT in very non-WOD ways.  Which now obscures what Crossfit even is.  Is it a philosophy, a brand or just where you train?

What's Bad About Crossfit

Crossfit Corporate Isn't Very Transparent.

Crossfit has an injury problem, but won't release statistics or allow independent study.  Which lends credence to the story of the LA orthopedic surgeon who named his new yacht CrossThanks in honor of the folks who paid the bill.

Crossfit had an overtraining problem and when rhabdo cases mounted, the initial corporate response was to use it as proof that Crossfit was indeed hardcore.  They embraced it.  As the heat turned up and Crossfit went from small fitness movement to a certification mill, that attitude changed to denial and cover-ups. Crossfit no longer bragged about the prospects for rhabdo and their unofficial mascot, Pukie The Clown, always depicted hooked up to a dialysis machine, was pulled from their literature.  If you're hardcore and open about the risks, own it.  Free country.  But you can't have it both ways.  When the money starts to pour in, don't get sanctimonious about your safety focus.

Like any good religion, Crossfit excommunicates its internal critics, too.  Whether Robb Wolf (responsible for Crossfit's Paleo bent) or Mark Rippetoe (original Crossfit barbell training guru).  This doesn't make them evil, but it does suggest a certain level of insecurity.  The most positive aspect of Crossfit corporate is that it appears to be almost entirely money focused.  A rebellious affiliate gym won't be purged for philosophical disagreement so long as they pay their tithe and doesn't embarrass them in the media.

Crossfit's Best Crossfitters Aren't Products of Crossfit And Don't Train Much Crossfit.

Crossfit created a fake sport called The Crossfit Games to highlight its athletic supremacy...at doing Crossfit sorts of things.  It serves as a marketing showcase since the methodology has had uneven adoption in sports that require logical training progressions and innate genetic components, not fits of random hard training that create an admirable conditioning effect. They promote these top performers - particularly the very attractive ones - as the products of Crossfit methodologies.  Not really.  These folks are almost all former gymnasts, college track athletes and Olympic lifters (usually from the B teams) with a deep training base built on things that are not Crossfit. They compete in Crossfit because there's no athletic avenue available for a postgraduate fit 5-9, 200 pound guy who isn't fast, has insufficient team sport skills but a good capacity for working out hard. Crossfit makes them fitness celebrities. Placing 17th in the country in the pole vault at Western Carolina won't score a Reebok sponsorship.  Being a ripped Crossfit games competitor might.

Crossfit competitors don't prepare for Crossfit competitions by Crossfitting. They do lots of specialization training around specific events using more conventional methods, not WODs.  In other words, they train like real athletes preparing for specific tasks.  Using them as examplars for corporate philosophy is a snake eating its own tail.

Olympic Lifts Aren't Burpees.

Some forms of exercise respond very well to competition, a push to exhaustion, peer pressure and racing. A major premise of Crossfit philosophy is that most exercise is best employed with high volume, high intensity, minimal recovery in large supersets.  Olympic lifts and major compound movements included.  Crossfit incorporates them in their WODs, but not frequently enough such that the user actually gains mastery, much less proficiency.  Even a master Olympic lifter doesn't do Olympic lifts for volume for exhaustive purposes.  Any volume Olympic lifters do is for perfect reinforcement of form - which elite Olympic lifters do CONSTANTLY.  But a hairdresser from Topeka can obtain technical proficiency doing it four times a month while in an exhausted state.  Cool.

Doing Olympic lifts poorly to "keep up", beat a time or doing them in a supersetted state of fatigue is inadvisable. Particularly when peer pressure and a desire to please clouds judgement.  Sadly, it's not even particularly useful training.  You should train those movements to get stronger and build explosiveness - not create anaerobic debt and exhaustion.  A snatch clean shouldn't be trained like a jumping jack.

Training Requirements.

Great Crossfit coaches exist largely because of their prior education and experience, not because of the Crossfit certification process.  That process requires $1,000, a weekend and (recently added) 750 hours coaching Crossfit. Illustrating Crossfit's corporate penchant for circular self-reinforcement.  Why are you qualified to coach Crossfit? I coached Crossfit for 750 hours.  What prepared you to do that coaching? A weekend of Crossfit instruction.

OK.  Go coach up those Olympic lifts, "coach."

Conclusion

Crossfit is beneficial, exasperating, interesting, full of promise and sprinkled with philosophical sophistry.  I predict that it will change for the better, but even if it all unravels tomorrow, the net effect will be a move towards barbell training, hard work, better community and more women training meaningfully.  Crossfit's best realization would be for the top affiliates to set their own course and become facilities focused on scientific, sensible barbell training combined with HIIT conditioning and interval methodologies while maintaining the positive sense of community and camaraderie. Many are already doing that.  It's worth your time to find them.

My only useful tip is to quiz your coaches on their backgrounds BEFORE Crossfit and engage them in an honest dialogue about their philosophies and how they'd progress you as an individual.