CrossFit Chaos

So, I haven't posted anything about Crossfit here at Strong Process before because I figured we were over it. It's really hard, people get fit, people get hurt, people love it, people hate it, muscles, socks, WODs, Ergs...we got it. But apparently, nobody can can over the drama of this workout. They cannot let it go. A few weeks ago, a pretty damning article came out about the dangers of CrossFit and rhabdomyolysis...and it made the ROUNDS on social media (not to mention was republished on HuffingtonPost with about 9 million comments).  Most recently, the American Council on Exercise commissioned (i.e. paid for) a study examining the intensity of two CrossFit workouts (conclusion: CrossFit is really freaking hard). So, with the most recent hype, we find ourselves deep in another round of CrossFit-mania. After seeing these two articles, a bunch of people have been asking me what I, here you go: With more than 7,000 affiliates worldwide, CrossFit is a big deal. Blasting music, loaded weight bars, and primal screams from resident Paleo-eating jocks are the backdrop in CrossFit gyms, or “boxes.” The CrossFit mission is to “fuel a revolution in fitness based on the pursuit of function, not form -- on measurements of performance, not anatomy.” This is unlike any gym you have ever known.

CrossFit founder Greg Glassman is a non-traditional and foul-mouthed spokesman, an irreverent coach, and—based on the explosion of his enterprise—a brilliant marketer. By capitalizing on the appeal of a counterculture grunge aesthetic, Glassman has enlisted hundreds of thousands of followers who aspire to his definition of fitness: “increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” (...whatever that actually means, I have no idea...). Add to that words like “scalable,” “AMRAP,” “Fran,” and “rhabdo,” and he’s created a whole new language.

Upon listening to several speeches Glassman delivers at his $1,000 weekend training certifications—attended by muscled Millennials with square jaws and nodding heads—one can easily get lost in his verbose explanations of his company and the training techniques he espouses. It is this collusion of education and marketing-as-fact that makes CrossFit such a powerful brand of athletic sub-culture. But that’s the cunning of Glassman. By attending one of his certification seminars and receiving the stamp of approval from CrossFit HQ, you too can open a “box,” making involvement in this fitness craze widely accessible to entrepreneur-lifters everywhere, regardless of prior experience or training.

The CrossFit model states that workouts are intended to be constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity. A manifestation of Glassman’s own rhetorical style: switch it up before they catch on. When you show up for your WOD - or Workout of the Day - expect Olympic lifting, rope climbing, box jumps, burpees, overhead squatting, pull-ups - as many reps as possible (AMRAP) and as fast as you can. You’ll never do the same thing two days in a row. The workouts are specially designed not to specialize. Another bonus is that you can bang out these WODs in about 20 minutes. You’ll leave exhausted and wake up sore.

Julie on Rope

So far, I'm on board. You all know I love me a good hard workout. Yeah, the AMRAP thing can be dangerous if you let your form go to hell, but so can crossing railroad tracks if you don't first check for the train. Also, very few personal trainers have more than weekend certifications...if you want to pay them lots of money to mess with your body, who am I to judge. At the end of the day, you need to be your own advocate for your own body. You get the expertise and guidance of those you choose to hire.

Where I do start to have issues, is with CrossFit's approach. In an effort to justify the intensity of the WOD’s he has packaged, Glassman insists that his methods are soundly based in scientific principles. In 2011 he launched his “We Got the Science” campaign, determined to prove that CrossFit training is the most measurably advanced exercise protocol available. On his website (accessible only to paying CrossFit members) Glassman posted a video stating that he intends to “harvest from the affiliates...the inputs and outputs of their clients so that we can do an aggregate analysis with some very sophisticated find out what produces the highest quality and quantity of life.” However, contrary to typical scientific protocol, only Crossfitters will be examined (without controls) and data will be exclusively released on his pay-to-play website (without review). His free-market approach to science will be virtually unchallengeable by true experts in the field.  But, Glassman states in the video, “This will dwarf anything ever conceived of in Framingham or Harvard Nurses.”  The results of this fitness experiment have yet to be published. (For reference, The Framingham Heart Study has ~1200 published studies)

I'm not suggesting this style of exercise has not been examined. Physiological benefits of these High Intensity Interval Training methods have certainly been demonstrated in scientific studies. But, until Glassman releases his own “proof”, actual scientific consensus about CrossFit WODs is pretty lacking. In addition to the unrefereed ACE paper I mentioned at the beginning of this article, only two recent studies show positive effects of the CrossFit workouts. In 2010, the US Army conducted a small internal investigation into the benefits of CrossFit on 14 men and women of varying athletic ability. They found, in all cases, that the CrossFit workouts increased power output by approximately 20%, a sizable and significant increase. A more recent (and the only peer reviewed) study released by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in February of 2013 appears to corroborate these results. According to their article, 43 civilian men and women of varying fitness levels experienced increased maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) and decreased body fat percentage after 10 weeks of CrossFit-based High Intensity Power Training. However, while these results certainly seem promising, they don’t necessarily prove CrossFit’s superiority. Both studies were lacking academic rigor, in that they each examined a very small sample set and did not compare CrossFit groups to some other kind of workout, or control. And despite CrossFit’s claims of supremacy, physiologic and metabolic adaptations are seen with a variety of exercise regimens, and have been observed in much more compelling experimental designs.

With regard to the ACE study, the take home message was that CrossFit is intense. REALLY intense. In both workouts chosen (FRAN and DONKEY KONG), participants were working at ~80% of their VO2 max. That's pretty much the equivalent of sprinting as hard as you can. The researchers noted that men were burning an average of 20kcal per minute and women about 12kcal/min. This is A LOT of calories in a short amount of time, no doubt. Here's the problem...the workouts lasted only ~15 minutes each. In the end, men burned about 170 or 112 kcals (per workout) and women 112 or 70 kcal...TOTAL.  For women, that's about the amount of calories in the cream you add to your coffee in the morning. Now, I'm not suggesting there aren't about 1 million other physiologically positive outcomes based on the intensity of this workout alone, but it's not the calorie burner it's been cracked up to be.

Perhaps based on the loose scientific validation, negative positions are being staked on the actual intensity of the CrossFit workouts. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, extreme conditioning programs, like CrossFit, result in a disproportionate risk for musculoskeletal injury, which lead to lost work time and require medical treatment and possible extensive rehabilitation. To this point, CrossFit has been in the hot seat as more pictures and videos surface on the internet, showing potentially harmful lifting form and dangerous equipment set up. Indeed, the incidence of CrossFit-induced rhabdomyolysis (as noted in the other article recently making the rounds)—a dangerous condition that affects kidney function as a result of excessive muscle breakdown—is prevalent enough in the CrossFit community that Glassman has addressed it publicly in his self-published CrossFit Journal.  He writes a warning to his affiliates, “With CrossFit, we are dealing with exertional rhabdomyolysis. It can disable, maim and even kill”.  Now, that doesn't mean that other sports don't induce rhabdo, they do...but the fact that people really only know about this disorder due to the sheer percentage from CrossFit is certainly worth noting.

Bad CrossFit Form

Even practitioners within the field of traditional strength and conditioning practices are locked in controversy over the validity and dangers of CrossFit. A good friend of mine, Dr. Larry Bourdeau, DPT, of Off Season Physical Therapy in North Andover, MA, disagrees with the position of the ACSM.

“CrossFit is a sport,” he told me. “It has its own inherent risks like any other sport. Using CrossFit to start to get in shape is a bad idea, but good CrossFit trainers can certainly guide someone already in shape safely into the training. At the end of the day, it is a very difficult sport and is good for someone who is competitive, driven, and committed, as well as [someone who] knows how to maintain proper form when exhausted.”

But, Mike Boyle, my mentor and internationally recognized Strength and Conditioning Coach has been very vocal about his distaste for Crossfit. On his blog he states,

“...Crossfit is, at it’s heart, a competitive program [in which] it becomes necessary to train to failure. I must admit, I like training to failure...technical failure.  [But] technical failure occurs not when the athlete or client is no longer capable of doing the exercise but, when the athlete or client can no longer do the exercise with proper technique. In training beyond technical failure the stress shifts to tissues that were not, and probably should not, be the target of the exercise. How many bad reps is too many?”

Concerns regarding the safety and proper execution of lifting exercises are seemingly dismissed by Glassman, who writes in his CrossFit Journal, “If safety is your sole or even your primary concern, your athletes’ fitness potential will be soundly blunted.

Baby Squat

But (here's where the drama comes in), science or no, injury or hypertrophy, hype or hate, CrossFitters just freaking LOVE CrossFit. They live, breath, and sleep for their next WOD. They love the amped up community. They crave the breathless mindless moment removed from their hectic day. They want to experience the tangible and visible strength that comes with dedication and hard physical work. And, despite the controversy (and based on the sheer numbers of memberships) there really is no evidence to suggest that under the guidance of experienced and professional trainers the WOD’s aren't as physically beneficial as any other challenging workout. Without the dubious assertion that CrossFit is founded on “science,” WODs are just real-deal-extreme-exercise, no validation required. Personally, I think Glassman does a disservice to his brand and his CrossFit army by attempting to turn them into a pseudo-science experiment. Because, at the end of the day, he’s not a scientist, and a WOD is just a kickass workout.

Photo Credit: Julie Arthur

CrossFit is definitely not for everyone, especially if you’re not into Paleo Kool-Aid and extreme weight lifting throw-downs. But if you like six-packs and bulging calves, sports bras and high socks, and you’re looking for the utmost in intensity, it may be something to explore with knowledgeable trainers at a reputable box. But do your homework. Look for a location with trainers that have higher-level credentials than the weekend CrossFit certificate, make sure they have an on-ramp program to avoid debilitating muscle injury, and start slowly. Like all other diet or exercise crazes, the criticism of CrossFit is warranted. There is a reason power lifting and athletic training is taught with safety and technique in mind—because when you do the exercises wrong you can cause yourself serious and permanent harm. When quantity is valued over quality, injury is a real concern. The majority of people that go to CrossFit are NOT athletes, have most likely never had training on when "enough is enough" and may not be able to judge when their bodies are telling them to stop. So, buyer-beware...if you're paying the money to have someone tell you what to do with your body, you want to be able to trust them enough to know that they will keep you safe.  And keep in mind that despite the constant references to numbers and statistics, it’s not science, it’s a business.

Photo Credit: Julie Arthur