CrossFit – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

When our athletes re-locate from Kansas City, I have the bittersweet pleasure of helping them find new CrossFit homes. Each time I do so, it’s a reminder that no two CrossFit Affiliates are alike. That’s my favorite part about the affiliate model. One may choose to do yoga after every Workout Of the Day (WOD) while the other could program bicep curls everyday.

The affiliate model is also precarious because it makes critique of the CrossFit training methodology incredibly difficult. Putting “CrossFit” in your blog headline almost guarantees a flurry of click-bait activity. With even a rudimentary understanding of the affiliate model, most people would realize that a criticism of methodology is a fruitless exercise.

But, I also believe that no methodology is – or should be – above reproach. For that reason, I’d like to offer up a critique of the methodology’s various interpretations. After all, a fair critique of methodology would require over 13,000 unique critiques to account for the over 13,000 unique interpretations. It would be absurd to state “Personal Training is bad,” right? Are there bad personal trainers? Sure. Are there great personal trainers? You bet.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular click-bait titles and parse out best – and worst – practices.

Critique – Working out for time is dangerous.

THE UGLY – Going to the gym everyday to complete a soul-crushing workout as fast as you possibly can with the sole end goal to be at the top of the leader board is absolutely dangerous. Completing the movements of that workout with zero regard to form or movement proficiency for the sake of a better time is also absolutely dangerous.

THE BAD  – Going all-out everyday, day in and day out, also has it’s risks. Maybe you do pay attention to form and “only compete against yourself”, but still insist on going balls-out all day everyday – you’ll probably have a fairly short shelf-life. The risks here are less acutely dangerous, but will expose themselves within several months to a year.

THE GOOD – The clock is a tool to provide context to work performed. By putting context to work, we’re able to illicit ideal metabolic adaptations. For example, if I asked you to run at a 12:00 mile pace you would have a much different metabolic change than if I asked you to run an all-out 100m sprint. Good affiliates use “the clock” to make sure athletes are using appropriate weight, complexity of movement, and scaling options to illicit a similar adaptation for everyone in the room.

Critique – Olympic-style weightlifting is dangerous.

THE UGLY – The barbell snatch and clean and jerk are incredibly effective tools for improving body composition, strength, power, and speed. One could argue that they are the most efficient (most benefit for time invested) training tools. But, yes, the olympic-style lifts are incredibly risky. A poor interpretation of their effectiveness would be to expect every person in the room to perform the lifts at the same weight, with the same range of motion, and at the same speed. It’s ludicrous to assume that everyone should be performing the lifts in the exact same way.

THE BAD – Let’s say you do opt to perform the snatch and clean and jerk in a CrossFit setting. Let’s also assume that you’ve adjusted load and speed for each person in the room. That’s a great start. But, I still believe it’s irresponsible to assume that everyone can and should perform the olympic-style lifts regularly.

THE GOOD – A good affiliate recognizes the efficiency and effectiveness of the olympic-style lifts. Most coaches enjoy the lifts. But, it’s important that we coaches not project our own affinity for the lifts onto our clients. Truth be told, there are some instances where a client may never be able to safely reach the bottom of an overhead squat. That is completely OK! A good coach will be able to translate the benefits of the olympic lifts into a similar progression. For example, you can get the similar motor pattern of a power snatch by using the American kettle bell swing.

Critique – The competitive nature of CrossFit makes it intimidating and dangerous.

THE UGLY – People are inherently competitive. Get several competitive people doing something physical with a clock and it’ll get ugly. CrossFit is currently experiencing a unique separation between sport and hobby. Sometimes those lines are blurred. Most professional sports’ off-seasons last between 152 (MLB) and 215 (NFL) days. In the case of CrossFit, the professional offseason lasts roughly 210 days (keep in mind there are often times a month or two between competitions). THAT’S A LONG OFFSEASON. Poorly executed CrossFit fails to recognize “seasons.” You simply can’t act like everyday is a competition without injury.

THE BAD – So maybe you don’t walk into the gym everyday acting like you’re in the Colosseum. Good work. You’re beginning to differentiation between training and competition. But, let’s say you still want to “throw down” at a local competition. It can be tempting to forget that you’re not a professional athlete. You will probably never make a dime off your athletic performance. You should absolutely throw down and compete – but never to the point of injury. Over three times as many people will seek medical attention this year as a results of weekend running races than at CrossFit events. An injury is not worth it in either scenario.

THE GOOD – A good coach should encourage you to sign up for competitions and events. Why train for a marathon if you’re never going to run it, right? Your coach should guide you through why you’re doing it – to challenge yourself, to have a goal to train for, and – most importantly – to have fun. On Monday, you’ll still need to pay the bills, raise your kids, and be your best self. The risk in never worth the reward for the amateur.

Critique – the movements are too complicated and executed with poor form.

THE UGLY – Doing a complicated movement for the sake of doing a complicated movement (i.e. “everyone else has a muscle up”) as fast as you possibly can will undoubtedly result in injury. Forsaking intensity over mechanics will also absolutely result in injury. Attempting to do movements that you’re not ready for will also absolutely result in injury.

THE BAD – You’ve probably heard the term “scaling options.” Scaling is great. Scaling is taking a more complicated movement and making it less complex so that it can be completed by the athlete at that level. Scaling has its limitations, however. Scaling assumes that the end goal is the complicated movement. The reality is that most people will never be able to do a muscle up. Again, that’s OK.

THE GOOD – The good gyms will opt for “progressions” over “scaling.” In my opinion, scaling denotes deficiency. Progression is just that – progression; moving forward. A coach that offers progressions will give that athlete a meaningful workout that is safe, yet challenging and suited to their current level today. When I was 19, I was in a fairly traumatic mountain biking accident. I was riding a very technical downhill trail, trying to beat my previous time, at a speed that was way too fast. Does that make mountain biking inherently dangerous? Of course not. It makes going too fast while doing something too complex inherently dangerous. It is the coaches responsibility to intervene with this happens (I wish I had someone do the same for me).

When it comes to creating internet click-bait, there are a few buzzwords that guarantee a flurry of comments and shares. Vegan, yoga, intro/extrovert, and… you guessed it – CrossFit. And, when you’re trying to get clicks on your blog to sell ad space, you’ll resort to what’ll get the most press. Like everything in life, the truth lies someone between the click-bait. Aim for a little nuance.