CrossFit: If you're going to argue against it, at least know what the heck you're talking about. Otherwise you sound as bad as jogger trying to educate a powerlifter about the drawbacks of benching.
Here are the exact grievances copied and pasted from CrossFit's vocal critics, along with the real story.
1 – There's too much variety!
Critics say you can't make progress because CrossFit is "constantly varied." They think variety means that no exercises are repeated from week to week, so you never experience progressive overload. But this is misguided.
CrossFit isn't about doing the unfamiliar regularly; it's about regularly doing the most effective movements – but in a variety of ways. Which means constantly becoming more adept at fitting a lot of exertion into a short period of time. This is a thing called work capacity. It has nothing to do with the idea of "muscle confusion" which naysayers like to bring up a lot.
CrossFit's biggest staples are squats, deadlifts, snatches, cleans, pull-ups, rows, dips, and overhead presses. They are consistently scheduled and people progress in both strength and skill on a regular basis.
Most affiliates follow plans from top boxes, and they're not as random as critics seem to think. CrossFit programming may have been random in 2004, but times have changed. Once in a blue moon a very novel approach to exercise will show up in a WOD and expose people to something totally different, but CrossFit classes start and end with big compound movements.
2 – It's just cardio!
No, it's strength and power lifts, bodyweight and gymnastic movements, and yes, some interval and longer duration cardio. But also 1RMs and strongman movements. Your heart rate will definitely go up, but if yours isn't going up when you train anyway, then something's missing from your workouts – intensity. Part of the hour long classes are for strength and skill, the other part for intense metabolic conditioning.
3 – It's not programmed right!
Saying that all of CrossFit isn't programmed correctly is like saying all of bodybuilding isn't programmed correctly. The programming isn't uniform across all facilities, nor among all individuals who scale exercises and loading according to their needs. And any CrossFitter who's unhappy with the programming is free to take his or her business to another facility where the workouts are different.
4 – The men are weak and skinny!
Are conventional gyms packed full of only ripped people? Because last I checked, there's a pretty broad spectrum of body types at every facility where people work out.
Let's not forget that the top male CrossFitters are all bigger than their most vocal critics. It's not unusual for the men to have a squat around 400 pounds and a deadlift around 500 pounds – great numbers for people who are focused on more than just three lifts. And as far as size is concerned, most look about like male physique competitors, in season. In other words, they're aesthetically pleasing without trying to be aesthetically pleasing.
5 – The top CrossFitters don't even do CrossFit!
Just like in the elite levels of any competition, the top CrossFitters use more advanced programming and specialize in the things they need to improve.
Preparing for the CrossFit Games is basically their job. Some may do the WOD in addition to their own training, and some may not. But it's safe to say that most (if not all) got their start just coming in and doing the workout of the day. And the basics of CrossFit are still foundational to their training.
A related complaint about the top CrossFit athletes is that all of them were already strong and skilled before starting CrossFit. This is true with some of them of course, but the CrossFit Games is now full of athletes in their early 20's who never trained seriously until they took up CrossFit. They are true products of CrossFit training.
6 – CrossFitters don't do real pull-ups!
Sure they do. There are workouts in which strict and weighted pull-ups are programmed. There are workouts in which they're not, and people may kip or do them strict. You can pull your chest to the bar however you want. This may come as a shock, but CrossFitters who aren't into kipping don't do it.
Yes, at some point the volume of the pull-ups will require either the use of a kip or a band for assistance, but a paying client can make the choice to swap it for something else. See how personal responsibility works?
And as for kipping, coach Thibaudeau has said this before: A kipping pull-up is to the strict pull-up what the push press is to the strict overhead press. There's value in both the push press and overhead press, but a leg drive sure will help you punch that bar up quickly and efficiently. Same idea with the kip. And some CrossFit coaches won't encourage kips until the strict pull-up is mastered.
The "butterfly" version isn't all that common outside of competitions. Is it a "real" pull-up? Well, is a shirted bench press – which can enable you to lift a hundred more pounds than you could raw – a "real" bench press? Both are competition variations used by experienced lifters who have already mastered the regular variations.
7 – They never lift heavy! They only do high reps!
There are CrossFit workouts that require you to find your one rep max, two rep max, five rep max, etc. Wait, you didn't know that? And yet you're attacking CrossFit? Weird. Google is your friend.
8 – It's dangerous!
The initial studies that came out about it being dangerous have been discredited. One such study, administered by the NSCA, reported an inaccurate injury rate. Study participants who were reported as having experienced injury may have actually just withdrawn from the study for issues unrelated to injury.
And all exercise is "dangerous." So is chronic disease, living uncomfortably in your own body, instability when walking up stairs, hip replacements, heart surgery, etc. CrossFit can help prevent all these things.
Are there no injured bodybuilders, powerlifters, runners, or casual gym attendees? CrossFit has attracted tons of people, many of whom are inexperienced. So yes, injuries will occur because of the numbers it's brought in. Open 12,000-plus new gyms of any sort, and physical therapists will get a boost in clientele. Same thing would happen if 12,000 new powerlifting gyms opened.
9 – It makes women bulky!
If you don't think muscular women are attractive, it probably means you're out of shape. Generally, those who lift appreciate a woman with visible muscle. Those who are sedentary perceive it as undesirable, simply because they haven't been exposed to weight training. It's an acquired taste.
Luckily the women who make the most progress in CrossFit either stop caring about "bulkiness" altogether, or they notice it and start trying to build more. So if you're trying to hurt their feelings by calling them hulks, manly, gross, or bulky, then you're actually just complimenting them.
10 – It's too expensive!
It's actually more bang for your buck than paying for a conventional gym membership and hiring a personal trainer on top of that. At every CrossFit box, there are coaches instructing groups of people, and within that group setting they'll work with you alone on an as-needed basis. So it's semi-personal training.
At many affiliates you pay a flat rate and get access to other classes like gymnastics, specialty Olympic lifting, and endurance-based training. Many CrossFit affiliates are fine places to do programs like Starting Strength and 5/3/1. You can train with expert specialists, work out in small groups, or train on your own time. In most cases you also get an open gym with free weights, lifting platforms, Prowlers, sleds, strongman equipment, and all the cool things you wish your conventional gym had.
11 – It's a fad!
It's been around for 16 years and is still growing. The Games are sponsored by Reebok, it's got ESPN coverage, and its athletes have major contracts and book deals. When was the last time you saw a powerlifting or bodybuilding competition on TV? CrossFit was even around before bodybuilding categories such as figure, men's physique, women's physique, and the bikini division. Yet those aren't called fads.
You can only tell that something was a fad in hindsight. But CrossFit hasn't gone anywhere. And since CrossFit has exposed millions of new people to Olympic lifting, gymnastics, and strongman-style training, those specialties have grown along with CrossFit. This "fad" has exploded the lifting market, insuring that subsets and specialties don't become "fads" themselves.
12 – It's a cult! CrossFitters don't stop talking about CrossFit!
People get excited when they learn new things and make progress. And they're making massive progress alongside other people. They create meaningful bonds. So naturally, they talk about what excites them and they connect with others. What's the big deal? You see "cultish" behavior in all forms of fitness, mostly from newbies.
Nobody bats an eye when bikini competitors talk about their macros, meal prep, posing, and cardio. The truth is, anyone who goes from sedentary to fit will talk about the things they're doing which make them feel good. And CrossFit attracted a lot of newcomers. This is great news given the fact that the rate of obese people in America has surpassed the rate of merely overweight people.
13 – The CrossFit Games are crazy!
What happens on TV isn't anything like what happens at your local box. Far from it. And just because you go to CrossFit facility to work out, it doesn't mean you're expecting to become a Games athlete. Is it extreme at the Games? Yes. It's a spectator sport and it's on ESPN.
14 – CrossFit is gay!
This one is almost too dumb to even address, but you'd be surprised how often it comes from bodybuilding fans... guys who cheer for shaved, oiled-up men wearing nothing but a banana hammock. Um, okay. Listen, I like bodybuilding and physique-style competitions too, but calling something "gay" makes you sound idiotic for many reasons.
15 – They don't use real weights!
CrossFit uses lots of Olympic lifting plates, even on deadlifts. Why? Because that's what they have and they're versatile. A 45-pound Olympic plate weighs the same as a 45-pound iron plate.
Where Naysayers Have A Point
Olympic Lifts Done for Conditioning
Mark Rippetoe has said before that Olympic lifts weren't meant to be performed for conditioning by the general public. And he makes sense.
Solution: CrossFitters can learn the risks and decide how they're going to work on preventing them. Here are some of the precautions they can take:
- Train with experts and Olympic lifters outside of class.
- Prioritize technique over speed.
- Keep the weight conservative.
- Practice pacing and drop the bar if technique gets sloppy.
- Do a less technical exercise in place of Olympic lifts. Coaches are trained to scale exercises to the client's abilities, so that's always an option.
The Order of Exercises
This usually just depends on who's programming the workouts and where the skill and strength portion of the workout fall in relation to the metabolic conditioning.
But when extremely demanding conditioning is programmed at the beginning of a workout and it's followed up with something like overhead squats, you're just asking for trouble. Who is really going to build strength or improve skill when their legs are shaking, their lungs are still burning, and their nervous system is trashed?
Solution: This may not happen a lot, but if it does, CrossFitters can always opt for an appropriate weight given their recovery. Nobody cares if someone else is backing off the weight when they're not up for it.
Not Quite Enough Hypertrophy-Style Training
When full range of motion and compound movements are considered the holy grail of exercise, you DO miss out on a few things.
Hypertrophy work doesn't just make you look good, it also strengthens the weak links that often don't get enough attention. Isolation exercises for instance, like glute bridges, lateral raises, chest-supported rows, bicep curls, face-pulls, and ham curls. There's a place for things like these. And consider techniques that extend time under tension: controlling the eccentric, using partials, doing drop sets, and holding an exercise isometrically. These things all help build more muscle.
Isolating the glutes in the horizontal plane (like with glute bridges and hip thrusts) can help you run better and faster. But the glutes generally only get trained in the vertical plane in CrossFit with deadlifts, squats, and Olympic lifts. And isolating your lats can help you use your back muscles during pull-ups instead of demolishing your biceps and triceps.
These are just a couple examples of why isolation work is important. You can focus on a muscle group, build it, make it look amazing and it will give you an advantage in many favorite staples.
Solution: CrossFitters could do hypertrophy training on their own if they wanted to. Achieving a mind-muscle connection is such an individual thing that it would be almost impossible to create a group fitness workout emphasizing it. Training to feel a specific muscle burn and ache is a lot different than other forms of exercise.
Unless You Do It, It's Not What You Think
Stop judging CrossFit by what you saw once on a YouTube video from 2007. It has evolved and is still evolving today. This means that people are looking critically at it and tweaking it for the better.
If you want to know what CrossFit is really like, attend. But go with an open mind and go with a desire to learn. Find a place with great rapport. When an affiliate is filled with expert coaches and people making massive progress, it's popularity will spread by word of mouth.