If you ask a room full of fitness managers about CrossFit®, you’re likely to get responses that range in tenor from enthusiastic to disdainful. Despite the bad publicity CrossFit has received and how some in the mainstream fitness industry have shunned it, it’s more popular than ever. CrossFit has over 10,000 affiliates around the world (Beers 2014).
Regardless of where you stand, most objective fitness professionals admit that the CrossFit model has both good qualities and bad ones. This article’s purpose is not to vilify CrossFit, but to explore the pros and cons associated with this specialized and popular training method—and to offer ideas on how to incorporate CrossFit-inspired workouts into fitness programs and learn from CrossFit’s success.
CrossFit was founded by Greg Glassman as a program that specializes in not specializing (CrossFit 2014). The idea is that if you do CrossFit, you will be fit enough to do whatever you want, whenever you want. CrossFit is high-intensity training designed to enhance all areas of total-body fitness, including strength, agility, power, flexibility and cardiovascular health. No one can deny that CrossFit delivers incredible results. Its cultlike following promotes extremely hard training.
Let’s look at some of the pros and cons of CrossFit, and learn what fitness managers and personal training directors can do to encourage best practices among staff.
Benefits of CrossFit
- It’s cost-effective. Since CrossFit is a group-based program, clients share the cost, which makes it more affordable than private training. On average, a client pays $75–$200 per month for a CrossFit membership, with supervised group workouts. This is more expensive than a gym membership but less than a personal training package.
- It encourages total-body training. Typical CrossFit movements include squats, pull-ups, push-ups, Olympic lifts, sprints, box jumps, rope jumping and load carries—all movements that encourage full-body, integrated exercise.
- It stresses high-intensity, short-duration training. How many times have you heard members complain about lack of time? Short, effective workouts are very appealing and relatively easy to market—and clients see results.
- It fosters culture and community. This is one area where CrossFit excels. The group setting naturally encourages the development of friendships. Hardcore CrossFit participants exercise side by side with newcomers, and group members support and cheer each other on. CrossFit facilities post video clips to social media, applauding their clients for great workouts, achievements and accomplishments. This group support enhances adherence, because people don’t want to miss workouts when their friends are counting on them.
- The workouts are variable. Clients have numerous workouts of the day (WOD) to choose from. The variety significantly reduces mental boredom and physical monotony.
- Performance is measured. This is another area where CrossFit excels. Clients want to know how they’re progressing over time. Many also want to see how they compare with others overall and in their age range. CrossFit workout results are measured and tracked, so clients have a record of their hard work.
- The programming is results-based. CrossFit die-hards typically have beautiful, strong, lean physiques, which is very appealing to clients and potential clients. Science shows that high-intensity training provides efficient adaptations and offers great opportunities to change fitness and body composition.
Drawbacks of CrossFit
- Performance often overrules good technique. CrossFit’s performance-oriented environment can sometimes trump technique. When you’re racing, competing and trying to outperform your past results or the results of others, form may suffer. This is true for any type of competitive environment. Training at a high speed may strain connective tissue if you aren’t physically ready or strong enough to manage the speed. Lifting heavy loads can also strain connective tissue if you’re not strong enough to handle the load. When you repeatedly articulate at the same joint (high repetition), you risk developing repetitive stress issues. Because of the nature of the WOD, CrossFit participants often combine all the risk factors listed above—for example, repeatedly lifting a heavy load very quickly and with horrible form.
- Newcomers and deconditioned athletes try advanced moves too soon. At any gym across the country, you’ll find trainers who ask clients to perform exercises they aren’t ready for. This happens at CrossFit facilities, but bad coaching isn’t relegated to CrossFit. No personal trainer should ask clients to perform Olympic lifts or any other type of skilled, high-intensity, high-impact, high-load movement when they can’t do basic movements free of pain and with good form.
- The competitive atmosphere can breed overtraining. Even elite-level athletes don’t go “all out” during every workout. If your approach is to race every single day, you’re likely to overtrain and become injured. This is a problem for everyone, but deconditioned individuals may be at greater risk yet feel pushed to compete at a dangerous level with poor mechanics. This is fertile ground for injuries.
- Skilled movement is paired with a high level of fatigue. It’s one thing to push to maximum fatigue and failure. But pairing this overreach with a technical, skilled movement may lead to serious injury. CrossFit clients sometimes push to failure to try to beat a score, which is dangerous. It’s risky in any competitive sporting environment; however, most people in the general population aren’t willing to take those risks.
- It’s easy to get burned out. Because CrossFit lacks an easy/moderate/hard training approach, clients frequently burn out. It’s mentally tough to show up consistently when you’re always expected to perform.
- The programming can be considered random and potentially unbalanced. While CrossFit workouts are challenging, some fitness experts claim that there is no “method to the madness” and that some of the WOD are unbalanced and lack proper progression and periodization.
- There is a lack of program customization based on individual needs. This is true for any group personal training program or fitness class. A group coach cannot be expected to customize a workout for each individual. Therefore, a CrossFit workout may not be effective at addressing specific needs.
- Smaller stabilizers and postural muscles are sometimes ignored. Integrated, full-body movements are great, but sometimes clients need to isolate and focus on smaller or weaker muscles.
- Many coaches are unskilled. Since CrossFit certification requires only a 2-day course, some trainers may not have the background or education to effectively modify movements and customize workouts for people at different fitness levels or with medical issues. Note that this is true for the entire fitness industry, not just CrossFit.
Making Your Own Plan
We’ve reviewed the good, the bad and the ugly, and now it’s time to discern what fitness managers and personal training directors can learn from CrossFit and apply to their own programs. Share the following with personal training staff, and work together to develop fun, effective programs.
- Incorporate group and partner workouts to foster community and develop friendships.
- Program multimuscle movements, such as squats, lunges, step-ups, pull-ups, presses and push-ups.
- Make sure all personal trainers are certified and up to date on their continuing education.
- Teach clients proper technique before increasing their speed, load and repetitions.
- Be sure clients can perform base conditioning movements pain-free, before you teach them Olympic lifts and other advanced, skilled movements.
- Incorporate varying levels into workouts, so clients have easy and moderate days as well as high-intensity training.
- Balance your programming so that movement sequences and back-to-back workouts don’t overload one area too much. Always put safety first.
- Include a variety of movements that train smaller stabilizer and postural muscles and isolate weaker areas.
- Mix things up, and keep workouts new, exciting and fun.
- Design challenges, and conduct performance assessments.
- Post and track results.
- Post photos and videos on social media, and congratulate clients on their accomplishments.
- Sacrifice technique for performance. Make good form a priority.
- Focus exclusively on high-intensity training.
- Have clients perform a very skilled movement when they’re exhausted. It’s better to have them rest and recover until you are confident they can perform the movement with no risk.
- Sequence high-intensity movements back to back if they’re loading the same area.
- Denigrate CrossFit or any other type of training in front of clients or staff. Instead, focus on your own positives.
- Ignore staff’s interest in learning more about CrossFit or similar types of training.
CrossFit is popular for a reason. If you’re so against it that you can’t analyze the positives, you may miss out on a huge opportunity to enhance your own training and program design. Make sure everyone on your staff is aware of the pros and cons of this type of training, and carefully design a system that is uniquely yours and also works as a magnet for new clients.
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Beers, E. 2014. Viruosity Goes Viral. The CrossFit Journal, June, 2-8.
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