CrossFit: Benefits and Drawbacks

2017 Update – I’ve learned a tremendous amount from CrossFit on how to compress healthy habits into 15 minutes or less.  Check out this free Habits Guide to learn how to get fit in the minimum amount of time.

I’m 8 months into my CrossFit journey.  I set a goal last year to find some new activities and I stumbled upon Bikram Yoga in San Diego.  After four months of Bikram, I wanted a workout that was shorter and more varied.  Enter CrossFit.

I started on January 1st, 2012 with a special holiday endurance class at CrossFit Inspire in Malvern, PA that rotated squats, push-ups, air squats and inhaling a pie, a cupcake, and a beer or Coke after each respective exercise.  I skipped the empty carbs and opted to substitute an extra 50 air squats for each of the three foods/beverages.  I was continuously told by gym members that, “This isn’t what we normally do.”  I wasn’t concerned.  I learned CrossFit folks like to have fun and I was sore for 3 days from the squats.

If you have no ideas what CrossFit is, read this introduction from their website.  To understand their principles here’s a description of the CrossFit view of world class fitness in 100 words.

  • Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.
  • Practice and train major lifts: deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean & jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast.
  • Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense.
  • Regularly learn and play new sports.
CrossFit Weight Stacks

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself,
you will succumb in every battle.” – Sun Tzu – At CrossFit these are your enemies.

CrossFit fitness is focused on:

  1. improving 10 general physical skills (cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy),
  2. performing any possible task well, and
  3. increasing your ability to deliver energy through the 3 main metabolic pathways (phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative).

Over the last 8 months, I’ve learned some of the benefits and drawbacks of CrossFit, which are summarized below.  Please note that this is based on training at a single CrossFit box (a box is a gym in the CrossFit dialect).  Your experience will vary based on where you train.

Benefits

  • High-Intensity Level – You will train hard, but it will be hard relative to your fitness level.  It shouldn’t be that much harder if you’re completely out-of-shape compared to an athlete, because the workouts are tailored for each member.
  • Short Workout – The workout is typically a 5-10 minute warm-up, 5-10 minutes of technique review, and a 10-20 minute main workout called the WOD (Workout of the Day).  You can often be in-and-out of the box (gym) in 45 minutes.  Despite the short timeframe, you’ve sent your body a clear message to get stronger, because of the focused intensity in those 10-20 minutes.
  • Adaptable for All Fitness Levels – I see people of varying athletic ability, body type, and age in the same classes.  I don’t believe that anyone is excellent at all the exercises CrossFit incorporates when they start.  You may be good at Olympic lifts, but then you’re probably not great at running fast or pull-ups.  The trainers do an excellent job modifying exercises for beginners.  For instance, most people can’t do pull-ups.  At CrossFit students either do horizontal pull-ups where their feet touch the ground to provide assistance or you step onto a very large rubber strap that removes some of your bodyweight when you pull-up.  Over time you use bands with less and less assistance until you can complete a pull-up without the band.
  • Variability – There are exercises that are commonly used, but the list is quite long as you can see here.  The combinations of exercises are endless, but there are standard named workouts used to help you evaluate your progress.   Occasionally, you’ll get to perform a “Hero WOD”, which are typically named for courageous military men or women.  Here’s a link to the CrossFit Named Workouts.  The benefit of frequently changing exercises is that you don’t get bored with performing the same workout over and over again and your body is constantly challenged.
  • No Thinking – You don’t have to plan your workouts.  They’re planned for you.  Everyone does that same workout each day and the workout changes daily.  You can do something different and train on your own, but with the Workout of the Day (WOD), you only have to focus on executing the movements in your workout, not planning them.
  • Friendly Competition – You train with a group of people performing the same workout.  Scores are posted on the whiteboard, which encourages you to push a bit harder to post a good time or a good score.  The competition is never malicious and never makes you feel bad about what you’re capable of doing.  People are supportive of each other and work together to help each other improve through coaching, tips, and sharing strategies.
  • Community – My CrossFit box (gym) often has charity events, fund-raising nights for their competition team, dinners to kickoff challenges for losing body fat, and more.  You’re joining a community when join CrossFit. Their focus is health, fun, and helping others.
  • Fun – The workouts are difficult, but the challenge and camaraderie is fun.  Loud music blasts from the gym speakers.  Coaches give you just the right amount of encouragement to push harder.  There are smiles all around (at least when you’re done the WOD).
  • Healthier by Osmosis – The community feel has another positive effect.  Everyone trying to be healthier means you learn to be healthier by being around like-minded people.  Imagine if you joined a bar.  I know you can’t join a bar, but imagine if you could.  You’d likely drink alcohol a lot more.  When you join a gym of people enthusiastic about improving their health, you get healthier.  These aren’t people running like gerbils on treadmills.  People are focused on their goals and open to trying new strategies.  You’ll learn those strategies and can get advice from people who’ve implemented them.  You are the average of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time.  If you want that average to trend healthier, try CrossFit.
CrossFit Box

Here’s an example box. Remember, a box is a gym. Remember, a box is a gym. There will be an intelligence test at the end of this article.

Drawbacks

  • Price – CrossFit is expensive.  It can cost $100 – $200 per month for unlimited classes at many places.  Here’s what you get for that fee.  My box (gym) has hourly classes every weekday from 6 am – 7 pm except during mid-morning and early-afternoon when most people are at work.  They offer Yoga once per day at different times each day and twice a week they have Kickboxing, which I teach.  Most people can’t consistently afford to pay $150 per month for their gym.  I encourage you to try it out for 2-3 months.  CrossFit is like having a personal trainer, but cheaper.  You don’t get as much attention as a dedicated personal trainer, but I  think the CrossFit coaches hit the sweet spot.  You typically don’t need someone watching your every move like a personal trainer would.  The CrossFit coaches will spend time each class teaching you, but it will likely be a few pointers on technique sprinkled throughout the class.  If you focus on their advice, your technique and fitness will improve quickly.  If after 2-3 months, you can’t afford the training, you will have a new set of tools in your exercise toolbox.  You can always do CrossFit-style workouts on your own.  They’re easy to find, since most CrossFit affiliates post their daily workouts on their public website.
  • Injury Risk – Injuries are a risk in almost any type of exercise, but that’s the risk you take to be healthy.  CrossFit is intense and competitive.  Sometimes, there is a sense of pressure to go faster to complete the workout more quickly.  I don’t feel this pressure too strongly from the coaches at my box and I think they do a pretty good job of encouraging proper technique before moving quickly.  I do feel that everyone should take personal responsibility for how they approach a workout.  If you know your form is being compromised by going to quickly, you should slow down.  I tend to smile at anyone encouraging me to go faster when I know my form will likely be compromised and I keep on moving at a moderate pace with solid technique.  This is hard for newer folks, but I think if you start CrossFit with the proper mindset, you can avoid serious injuries.
  • Unfocused – Since CrossFit uses so many different exercises and aims to improve many aspects of fitness, it can often feel like you’re not making much progress in improving in a specific area.  I think this is an issue for people trying to achieve an elite level of fitness or training for a specific sport.  For most people, CrossFit will improve your overall fitness and that’s all that you’ll need.  For folks training for sports, you can create goals for your CrossFit training and spend time before or after classes or while training for your competition focusing on sport-specific exercises.  I recently did this with double-unders and bar muscle-ups.  I couldn’t do 1 bar muscle-up and I couldn’t chain together more than 2-3 double-unders.  After two weeks of focusing on these skills I can now easily do the bar muscle-up and have chained together close to 25 double-unders.  The key is that I recognized a goal I wanted to achieve and I applied focused attention to it.
  • Cult Feel – It’s a unique mindset at CrossFit and there’s a bit of a mind-meld in mentality amongst members.  You have to be careful not to get swept up in group-think by applying critical thinking to what you hear.  If you’re inexperienced this can be difficult, because you don’t have a strong foundation of knowledge on health, training, and nutrition.  You can read, ask questions, and learn from mistakes.  I think the benefits of the cult/community-feel are more positive than negative and I find it to be more of a community (positive) than a cult (negative).

Recommendation

You’ll notice a clear slant here towards the benefits from a biased convert to CrossFit.  If you want to get healthier, I think it’s worth trying out.  While ~$150 may sound like a lot of money, I’m sure most people would pay that much for necessary drugs and medical treatments.  Consider that spending money on high-quality training will save your life 5, 10, or 20 years from now from being miserable and unhealthy as you can’t perform the phenomenally, fantastically, fun activities that make life feel full.

Check out my new site MattDever.com or my Habits Guide to pickup healthy habits with minimal time, money, and equipment required.

CrossFit Tire Flip on Stairs

You most likely will not have to do this at CrossFit unless you visit the box (gym) in Cannes, France.

You only ever grow as a human being if you’re outside your comfort zone.

Pete Cerutty

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

Mark Twain

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4 thoughts on “CrossFit: Benefits and Drawbacks

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