I recently received another request to share my thoughts about cross-fit.
"As someone who I look up to a greatly respect in the area of physical training, I am interested what your thoughts are on CrossFit as an effective training program?"
Before I responded in full asked "Tell me what you think about CrossFit." I value the market research that consumer comments provide. The writer kindly responded in full and I will share his response in the below.
Firstly I would like to establish commonality in grounds for discussion. In any meaningful dialogue I believe it’s important that meanings are clarified and defined.
To this end, CrossFit is simply a word, or a mixing of two words. So in itself, CrossFit has no more meaning than the meaning a person attaches to it. For most people, the meaning will be shaped by their experiences or perception of what this word (or two words) stands for.
According to Wikipedia, CrossFit is:
CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program with the aim of improving, among other things, cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. It advocates a perpetually varied mix of aerobic exercise, gymnastics (body weight exercises), and Olympic weight lifting.
This source provides further clarification with:
CrossFit Inc. describes its strength and conditioning program as “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad modal and time domains with the stated goal of improving fitness, which it defines as "work capacity across broad time and modal domains.” Hour-long classes at affiliated gyms, or "boxes", typically include a warm-up, a skill development segment, the high-intensity "workout of the day" (or WOD), and a period of individual or group stretching. Some boxes also often have a strength focused movement prior to the WOD. Performance on each WOD is often scored and/or ranked to encourage competition and to track individual progress. Some affiliates offer additional classes, such as Olympic weightlifting, which are not centered around a WOD. (1)
Before I go any further I also want to acknowledge the success of CrossFit as measured by financial value and growth.
To his credit from a financial and organizational perspective, the founder of CrossFit Inc, founder Greg Glassman, has been able to retain control over his training concepts. In contrast, I have watched my original training concepts and methods be published extensively by various ‘authors’ without reference or credit. Take the ‘Functional Training Movement’ for example – if you took my concepts out of the books written by one of the more prolific authors in this sector, the book would fall over. Interesting when you consider this same person orchestrated a mass walkout of one of my seminar in 1999 on the basis of how terrible the content was, only to turn around and republish all the content during the next decade in complete absence of crediting or acknowledgement. So kudos to Greg. He had the business acumen I lacked in the 1990s. He has managed to date to avoid the damage caused by those who adhere to the ‘New Rules’ of publishing in strength training.
The value of CrossFit is reflected in the reported $16 million CrossFit Inc paid his ex-wife for her share in the company.
In relation to growth, since its inception in 2000, the number of affiliated gyms globally is quoted at 9,000 or more. Glassman commercial approach deserves recognition.
So what has driven CrossFit? I identify two main drivers of any new trend or movement (apparently it is now a ‘sport’ also). Firstly, the demand from consumers is based on the ‘new’ paradigm solving a problem that was not being solved by their prior solutions. The second driver is marketing forces, driven by commercial interests.
The growth and relatively longevity of the CrossFit movement or trend suggests that it is providing solutions to the unresolved needs of many people. I will leave exactly how to social researchers, however I suspect it may be the attraction of group training combined with the feeling of working hard, meeting the masses perception of what training should feel like.
The involvement of a large fitness industry company in Reebok, who around 2010 entered into a ten year agreement with CrossFit, suggests commercial marketing motivation to contribute to growing the trend. The impact in prize money alone compares a $25,000 total prize money in CrossFit Games 2010 to $1,000,000 in 2011. (2)
It is now in the interests of Reebok to drive this vehicle commercially.
The success to date of CrossFit is undeniable. More evidence of this is the number of my 'colleagues' who have become overnight experts on CrossFit, allowing them to jump on it's band wagon of success.
Now let’s get more specific about CrossFit as a training method.
Opposite and Equal
The attraction of CrossFit to commerce and consumer has been established. So what is it actually going to create in terms of long and short term training effects?
A valuable insight into the potential short term impact of CrossFit as a training method is provided in the response I received from the person who raised the question about CrossFit with me. They wrote:
"Well, I have been involved in CrossFit for about 16 months and found it to be very effective in developing all aspects of fitness. I became leaner, increased my endurance, flexibility, co-ordination, power, speed and strength."
As CrossFit rises in popularity the amount of what I call short term research conducted on CrossFit (1) will increase. Here’s an example:
A 2010 U.S. Army study conducted during a 6-week period produced an average power output increase of 20% among participants, measured by benchmark WODs. The average one repetition maximum weight deadlift increased by 21.11%. (3)
My attitude is you can wait for the studies but you don’t have to. You can reach conclusions earlier and benefit. Additionally, most studies will be short-term in nature. What may be lacking is a fuller understanding of the long-term impacts of participation in CrossFit.
To help answer that question, there’s a concept that is extremely relevant – the opposite and equal concept. It’s an original concept I released in 1999:
This is a very interesting principle, a concept that I have created. One that upon mastering will assist you to avoid negative outcomes from training. The concept is based on the belief that to every action (in training) there is a positive and a negative outcome, and that often the negative outcome is equal or as powerful as the positive outcome. (4)
The strengths of CrossFit are easy to identify. It has attracted a large and enthusiastic following in a short period of time. To achieve this it must be providing a solution that its participants had not been able to find previously.
Additionally once any belief or movement or trend reaches a percentage of market saturation it experiences a degree of self-perpetuating increase. Behavioural scientists suggest that in the same time it takes a new idea to reach 10% of the market, it shoots to 90%. So however long it takes for 10% of the market to accept and join in with an idea, it can advance another 80% in market participation in the same time.
I suggest CrossFit has or is reaching this tipping point.
From what I can see and hear, its participants enjoy the group motivation and the experience of pushing themselves. To this extent CrossFit has achieved a phenomenal job in creating this ‘community’ atmosphere.
Along with this level of physical effort come physical adaptations, including the ones listed by the person who wrote in with the question – effective in developing all aspects of fitness. They became leaner, increased their endurance, flexibility, co-ordination, power, speed and strength.
I would like to place this in context:
• I still call this a short or medium term result, not a long term result.
• I am not making any comment in this article about the effectiveness of CrossFit to transfer to any specific event or sport other than general fitness adaptations and participation in the ‘sport’ of CrossFit itself. The discussion of merits of CrossFit for specific occupational and or sporting outcomes is outside the context of this article, although very deserving of focus in an article dedicated to this topic.
Another strength of CrossFit is that it embraces a wide range of exercises, many of them with excellent theoretical benefits. In fact you could attribute any rise in participation numbers in strength sports (Olympic Weightlifting, powerlifting) to CrossFit.
Additionally, the characteristic of CrossFit to provide frequent variety in exercise programs may be attractive to many who require this to keep the motivation to train.
Now as my opposite and equal concepts suggests, there is an equally powerful downside to CrossFit that need to be considered.
Even the writer of the question that promoted this response recognized this, to their credit:
"There are a lot of things I like about CrossFit, however, I do understand that there are negatives as well."
Most of my initial concerns for CrossFit participants revolve around injury potential. I was not surprised when the question writer shared the below:
"Recently I suffered an injury at training, and while it did not occur doing a typical CrossFit exercise, I wonder if the training I have been performing over the past 16 months may have contributed to it. I was in a group fitness class and was asked to perform single-leg bounding over a short distance (around 15-20 meters). This was early in the morning, and there was dew on the grass. Upon landing, my right foot slipped forwards. There was a loud noise and a sharp pain in my knee. I found out later that I had a proximal rupture of the patella tendon. Not a common injury, as you are probably aware, and I was told that it is quite likely I had a pre-disposing weakness in the tendon. I have had a bit of a history if chondromalacia patella, which I had been managing, but no real issues with the knee besides that."
1 Individualization: The concept of individualization has been a long-touted one in the physical training industry. It makes most text books. I describe this principle of training as:
This principle stresses that to optimize the training effect, it is necessary to take into account all the factors that the individual athlete presents. This suggests that each training program needs to be individualized. Modified to suit the individual, in each aspect of training – speed, strength, endurance, flexibility and so on. (5)
In group exercise, the ability to individualize training is negated, which includes CrossFit.
Now rather than single out CrossFit for this flaw, I suggest that unlike say technology in general, I have seen no advancement at all in over three decades of industry involvement in the ability of fitness ‘professionals’ to individualize training.
There are a number of reasons I propose for this incredible limitation in this industry:
• The focus on research for justification of training protocols – it is difficult if not impossible to find a research study on your specific client giving you answers to stimuli (the training program) that has not been applied yet.
• The complete absence of teaching of the art of training, as opposed to the science of training.
• The willingness of what I certain inexperienced and incompetent individuals to position themselves as ‘experts’, write books and give seminars on how to train people. The people I refer to are very good networkers, very good marketers, will to deceive to create false perceptions of their guru-ness, yet have never coached or trained people to any level of success. In other words they are incompetent yet teaching. An excellent saying I learnt from John C. Maxwell is this:
You teach what you know but you reproduce what you are.
Therefore what they say and write about sounds great, but all that is developed in their paying audience is more of their incompetence, and no advancement occurs in average professional competencies. Unless you believe the ability to market through misleading content is an advancement – you can read more about this in my book ‘Barbells & Bullshit’ (6).
Therefore a person going to see a ‘personal trainer’ is unlikely to receive any more individualization in training than they would if they participated in group training.
2 Level of difficulty in exercise: A CrossFit class can contain a diverse range of exercises including many classics such as Olympic and power lifts. This is great in theory – total body, dynamic exercises etc. However from a finer point of view these exercises can be classed as higher level of difficulty which is associated with higher levels of risk for those whose bodies are or may never be ready for them.
In my 1998 book ‘How to Write Strength Training Programs’ (7) I provide the following guidelines for exercise selection:
Exercise selection in strength training refers to which exercise to use. Exercise selection is often presented as a difficult or confusing task, but the following should simplify this aspect of writing programs. When choosing exercises consider the following:
1. Training method.
2. Exercise suitability.
4. Injury history/prevention needs.
5. Training history.
6. Current physical status.
7. Strengths and weaknesses.
8. Level of supervision.
9. Balance. (7)
If you have multiple individuals in the class, it is in my opinion totally improbable that advanced exercises are suitable to them all.
3 Unfamiliar exercises: CrossFit characteristically provides high levels of variety in exercise. This alone could provides a discussion of the merits of this strategy as to the whether it is optimal to train with exploitation of the variety variable, however that is a discussion again beyond the level of this article.
What I will focus on is the impact of conducting a relatively unfamiliar exercise (that is you may not have done it for a few weeks). From a muscle perspective, this ‘shock’ can provide the delayed muscles soreness that some seek to validate their training. In other words, it can feel good. My concern is that loading a relatively new exercise is not necessary or wise for the majority of people the majority of the time.
In sharing my progressive loading models in my Get Buffed! books, I wrote:
In brief, I suggest that the first week of any new training cycle be treated as an ‘exposure week’, not a maximum effort week. What is often overlooked is the adaptation that results simply from the exposure - not only is a maximum effort unnecessary, it may also be counterproductive! Additionally, this sub-maximal approach in the first week allows for greater focus on technique. (8)
4 Extreme loading and technical breakdown: CrossFit is also characterized by high intensity of effort and high loading. In essence, there is a risk most participants are exceeding their technical limit most of the time.
I call this your technical limit – the loading limit before you lose the technical model you have chosen. This is a pretty redundant concept to most in the gym and they have no technical model – they just lift. Now this is great for some competitive lifters, who success is determined simply by whether the load goes from Point A to Point B within minimum guidelines. But if you want to selectively recruit specific muscles for sport performance or aseptic reasons – get a technical model. (9)
I have been discouraging this approach for a number of decades. I published the below nearly 25 years ago:
All individuals will have a 'technique limit' in weight selection at any given time on each exercise. The training effect will increase the limit progressively. Utilisation of loads in excess of that technique limit will result in technique breakdown and should be discouraged. (10)
The greatest concern as it relates to CrossFit participants is the injury risk:
In the case where loading exceeds technical ability, injury potential is increased, athlete’s career lengths are reduced, life-time quality of life is reduced, and transfer is reduced. (11)
5 High volumes: CrossFit is also characterized by high volume, although I appreciate this relative nature of this comment. To place it in context, I share my definition of relative volume as measured in number of sets.
Generally speaking, any number of work sets exceeding a total of 12 for the workout (yes, that right, 12 sets for the total workout, not per muscle group!) should only be contemplated by those with optimal lifestyles and recovery conditions. If you have a day job and/or consider your recovery average, this rules you out. (12)
Now in fairness the above describes conventional set, rest strength training. In relation to circuit training, I allow a higher number of sets. In my Guidelines for optimal number of sets per training session for each generalized training method (13) I provide up to 30 sets allowance, however this is on the basis of lower intensity sets.
The risks of high volume work are the reduced ability to recovery, and the increased injury risk associated with training under residual fatigue. I believe injuries resulting from progressive build up of residual fatigue are the ones least likely to be correctly related to their cause.
The battle against ineffective, inefficient and injury creating high volume training will never be over. (14)
6 Imbalances in the training program: In 1998 I released for the first time my concept of ‘Lines of Movement’:
That’s a concept I am sure you have never heard before because this is the first time I have really spoken about it. (15)
Now I am going to show you how I break the muscle groups up: (16)
Horizontal plane push
Horizontal plane pull
Vertical plane push
Vertical plane pull
I taught this with the intent of helping the world of strength training reduce their injuries from muscle imbalances. This intent has not been overly successful, in part I suggest because the concept was hijacked by the industry leading plagiarists who really didn’t understand it and therefore could not possibly teach it in with the impact of its intention.
From my generalized understanding CrossFit, there are potential program design imbalances e.g. more exposure to quad dominant exercises than hip dominant exercises, resulting in injury potential. This point was not lost on the question writer:
"My thoughts are that CrossFit did contribute to my injury due to the large volume of jumping, squatting and running. I would love to know your thoughts on this as well."
7 Time magnifies error: I released a saying in 1998 –
Time magnifies errors in training (17).
All the above concerns will be magnified over time. Considering the extreme nature – volume, intensity, and exercise selection – I suggest you can expect some significant physical complications the longer one participates in activities such as CrossFit. There are many physical therapists and chiropractors who echo this sentiment. Additionally, I am very familiar with the impact on the body of those who participate occupationally in such training environments, especially the Special Forces military personnel.
The points I raise above in my concerns were well summarized by the question writer whose question stimulated this article:
"…I do understand that there are negatives as well. The focus of the WODS is to perform a given amount of reps in as little time as possible, or to perform as many reps as possible in a given time limit. This can lead to a breakdown in form and potential injury. The volume of training also seems to be quite high and could lead to overtraining and overuse injuries if not properly managed. There is also no individualization in the training program. Though some coaches are quite good at pointing out what you need to work on and many clients will use "open box" time to work on these."
In summary, when (not if) a person comes to me and tells me of their injuries whilst participating in CrossFit, I initially ask if they plan to continue in CrossFit. If they do, I tell them I cannot help them. I have a saying that you cannot successfully solve an injury problem in the same environment that it was created in (18) and this is more applicable in any training environment that magnifies its flaws, as I suggest CrossFit does.
In conclusion I have been impressed with the magnitude and success of the CrossFit movement, and I am delighted to see the achievement of Greg Glassman in maintaining control of his intellectual property. There are many ways to achieve fulfilment in exercise and participation is CrossFit is an option. The power that Glassman and CrossFit have is their ability to refine and adapt their training protocols to deal with any recognition of the injury potential associated. Whether they do is unknown and their prerogative. Perhaps the masses are happy to take the injury risks in return for what their culture and environment offers.
As to you as an individual making this decision, it is yours to make. For me the body the only one we have for life, and should be treated with the utmost respect and care. I have worked with many athletes who have taken these risks in their training and competition with the potential for great reward, and I can understand why they have done this. An Olympic medal or world championship or playing professional sport comes with many financial and social rewards, and I know even as they suffer physically for the years after, most feel the sacrifice was worth it.
The question I believe you need to ask yourself is - are the rewards and benefits of CrossFit as it is currently conducted worth the risk for you? Only you can answer that, and I respect whatever decision you make.
(3) Crossfit Study". U.S. Army. May 2010. Retrieved 11 April 2014.
(4) King, I., 1999/2000, Foundations of physical preparation , p. 25
(5) King, I., 1999/2000, Foundations of physical preparation , p. 30
(6) King, I., 2010, Barbells & Bullshit: Challenging your thinking.
(7) King, I., 1998, How to write strength training programs (book), p.38
(8) King, I., 1999, Get Buffed!™(book), p. 23-26
(9) King, I., 2000, Heavy Metal #4, t-mag.com
(10) King, I.J, 1990,: Guidelines for the Safe Implementation of Strength Training Programs, The Sportsmed Newsletter (Qld Branch of the ASMF Newsletter), February issue 1990
(11) King, I., 2005, The way of the physical preparation coach, p. 48
(12) King, I., 1999, Get Buffed!™, p. 53-56
(13) King, I., 1999, Get Buffed!™, p. 34
(14) King, I., 2011, Legacy – Ian King’s Training Innovations, p. 82
(15) King, I., 1998, How to Write Strength Training Programs
(16) King, I., 1998, Strength Specialization Series (DVD), Disc 3
(17) King, I., 1998, How to write strength training programs (book), p.75
(18) I wonder how long it will take for the industries leading plagiarists – and they are truly world champions at it - to be publishing this saying/concept one as their own…You may even hear it as soon as the upcoming ‘functional training’ seminars in the US…