So you’re curious about Crossfit? Not surprising as it may be the most popular fitness trend in the Marine Corps right now – and arguably in the civilian world, as well. There are a few things you should know before you try it.
What is Crossfit?
Crossfit is, first and foremost, a brand. It’s built around a very specific philosophy and work out style: to work really, really, really, really hard. In fact, many crossfitters pride themselves on having upchucked during the work out of the day (nicknamed a WOD) and then kept going. Crossfit’s mascot is Uncle Rhabdo, a cartoon kidney hooked up to a dialysis machine because his body got Rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolsis is a case of organ failure resulting from toxins released during a very, very intense workout. All this considered, it’s not surprising that so many Marines love Crossfit!
What Will I Do at Crossfit?
Workouts vary from day to day – hence the name Workout of the Day (WOD). You can expect to do resistance training exercises that include heavy strength training, power exercises and Olympic weightlifing. Some WODs incorporate plyometrics and sprinting. However, you never know what to expect because WODs are designed by each individual gym owner. Kelly Starrett of Crossfit San Francisco even created the Mobility WOD to help crossfitters address movement dysfunctions.
Crossfit isn’t a magic pill for losing weight. So many people gravitate towards new fitness trends because they’re hoping it’s going to be the one thing that finally gets them into shape. Crossfit is simply a hybrid of different types of exercise, put together in a way that’s challenging and performed in an environment that’s motivating. A common misconception is that Crossfit “invented” or “originated” some of the exercises they use. In fact, the exercises come from the realm of strength and conditioning.
My Favorite Things
The Crossfit community has a passion and fervor that’s infectious. In a way, Crossfit draws people into it like a cult that you never want to escape. That passion is making hardcore fitness mainstream. It’s replacing fad diets and cardio-obsessions with a more substantial and well-rounded exercise option. It’s teaching people to work hard in the gym. It’s making it normal, healthy and cool to lift heavy weights, at any age and regardless of your gender – and that’s awesome, because resistance training offers countless benefits for your health and your physique.
I also love that Crossfit is associated with the Paleo diet – not because I endorse Paleo, but because most people who want to change their bodies need a nutrition plan and not an exercise plan. It’s rare to see a group exercise program guides participants toward structured changes to their diet.
And the Not So Good Things…
While the theory and intention of Crossfit is strong, the overall execution is flawed because the quality of experience all depends on the gym you’re attending. Some gyms are absolute gems – They are staffed by educated coaches who create great WODS and execute them with expert supervision. Others are jokes, driving participants towards the impending doom of injury, overtraining and failure to attain goals.
Every coach’s first priority should be “do no harm.” That being said, you always need to start with the basics – healthy body alignment and excellent exercise technique – before you try more challenging exercises. This is important for two reasons: Getting results and preventing injuries.
Crossfit gyms often miss the basics, particularly when it comes to body alignment and excellent exercise technique. For example, WODS often have explosive exercises like Olympic barbell lifts and plyometrics. You shouldn’t do plyometrics until you’ve gone through six or more weeks of basic strength training – often called an anatomical adaptation phase.
Basic strength training makes your muscles stronger, but your tendons and ligaments don’t adapt to stress as fast as muscles do. So, just because your muscles can handle intensity doesn’t mean your tendons and ligaments can. That’s a recipe for injury. Interestingly, a 2008 article about Crossfit for Combat Fitness published on CrossFit.com acknowledges that there was a “temporary spike in minor injuries” at the onset of implementing a Crossfit program with a group of Marines.
The exception? A few gyms have added mandatory “beginner” classes to their schedules to help participants learn exercise technique and adjust to the intensity of the program. Overall, I think the quality of a Crossfit gym is reflected in the special consideration they give to beginners.
Volume & Intensity
Collegiate and professional sports teams use a type of exercise programming called periodization. Periodization allows for the volume and intensity of a workout to increase gradually over time and then fluctuate throughout the course of the year. Periodization helps prevent injuries, overtraining syndrome and that pesky rhabdomyolysis. Some WOD designers ignore the principle of progression and give intense workouts to people too soon and too often.
Crossfit isn’t the right choice for people who are training for sport performance. Why? Your body adapts to the demands placed on it – a sprinter’s body needs to experience demands that will improve sprinting. A marathon runner needs to experience demands that will improve endurance running. A golfer needs to experience demands that will help them hit the ball harder – just once. Crossfit doesn’t focus on any one thing. In fact, the whole goal of Crossfit is to be prepared for anything. Hence the word “cross.” This might not be a problem for recreational athletes, but competitive athletes need to make sure they aren’t squandering their training time with a workout that isn’t sport specific.
Crossfit Is For Fit People
Many exercises used in WODs are simply not appropriate for people who are overweight, obese or not already in shape – the very people to whom Crossfit appeals. Again, plyometrics are a great example. Plyometric exercises like box jumps and depth drops place a lot of force on the joints. Heavy people experience exponentially more load on their joints than people who are already fit, increasing the wear and tear on their joints and ultimately the risk of injury. Also, excess body fat in the midsection affects the alignment of the pelvis and spine, both of which need to be in perfect positioning to prevent injuries during heavy lifting.
Crossfit is a great option for your fitness regimen. It’s safest and most effective for people who already have extensive experience in the gym – a mastery of exercise technique and a basic level of physical conditioning. Many untrained people haven’t and won’t experience problems doing Crossfit, but some of that is dumb luck – overall, it can be downright dangerous for beginners. Participants who don’t experience injury at the onset often experience it down the road. Look for a gym helmed by experienced, certified Crossfit coaches with an unrelenting eye for technique.