This article is strictly my opinion, based on my 17 years of training and fitness education, as well a decade + of helping some of the highest performing military Special Operations soldiers improve their fitness while mitigating pain and avoiding injury. My intent is not for you to take this information as gospel, rather, to simply consider it as a resource to pull from when making an informed decision on whether Crossfit is right for you.
I have a great deal of respect for Crossfit athletes. They're some of the fittest people on earth, and they have every right to train the way they do. This article is focused not on Crossfit as a sport, but as a fitness modality for the average person who wants to improve their health.
If you currently do Crossfit and some of the writing in this article offends you, you're a perfect candidate to re-evaluate the way you approach your training (but you're also welcome to stop reading at any time). I think that even if you're convinced you'll never quit Crossfit, you could still benefit from some of the recommendations herein.
Lastly, if Crossfit is the only thing that gets you off the couch, please continue doing it. Although It's far from being the healthiest way to train, and can cause a lot of long term problems, exercise in any form is still better than not exercising at all.
To start off, here are some Crossfit acronyms and terminology because they’ve created their own dialect:
AMRAP: A many rounds as possible. Usually in a given time domain, the trainee must complete as many rounds of the workout as possible. When involving Olympic lifts or gymnastic movements, can be quite dangerous
Athlete: A trainee or client doing a Crossfit program (full paragraph below)
Box: Crossfit’s word for Gym
Crossfitter: A person who does Crossfit. You'll often know they do Crossfit within 2 minutes of meeting them for the first time
EMOM: every minute on the minute
Olympic lifts: The Barbell Snatch and Clean and Jerk. Lifts performed for 1 heavy rep each by Olympic-level lifters, but for high reps, while under extreme fatigue by Crossfitters
WOD: Workout of the Day...because that’s too difficult to say
You-go-I-go: training with a partner and doing the exact same workout as someone else. May benefit on a bonding level but good programming should be individualized based on the person’s ability
21-15-9: An illogical rep range that is programmed into many Crossfit WODs (see below). Programmed at random, for exercises such as olympic lifts, amount of burpees, or calories on a rower.
Crossfit; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Crossfit. Some love it, some hate it. Some should pursue it, most should not. In this article I will dive into some of its most relevant pros and cons. I’ll explain my opinions on why it's not the best way for a vast majority of the population to train. I’ll also provide recommendations on how to train for Crossfit if you enjoy it, and not totally wreck yourself structurally, hormonally and mentally.
Crossfit came onto the fitness scene in the early 2000’s. Workouts were short, very intense, “functional” (more on that later) and highly varied which was, and still is, very appealing to many fitness enthusiasts. Another aspect of Crossfit that many appreciate is the community aspect of it. Crossfit remained almost a speakeasy fitness modality throughout most of the early 2000’s until the first Crossfit games was held. People simply enjoy going to the gym (but don't call it a gym, it's a "Box", for whatever reason) and suffering together. Although I would recommend that 95-98% of people avoid getting sucked into the Crossfit vortex, it has had some lasting positive effects on fitness culture that cannot be denied.
The Origins of Crossfit
Crossfit was founded in the year 2000 by Greg Glassman and Lauren Genai. It was a unique exercise modality that combined strength, aerobic capacity, gymnastics, bodyweight movements, olympic lifting, and other completely random measures of fitness (the randomness continues to increase each year). Crossfit is essentially highly varied circuit training. Fitness enthusiasts who were bored of their normal gym routines gravitated towards it mainly due to the fact that it was novel and hard.
As it became more and more mainstream, Crossfit boxes began opening up around the country and more and more people began to take interest. The first Box was opened in Seattle in 2002, and as of 2020, there are over 15,000 boxes nationwide. In 2007, the first Crossfit Games was held at Dave Castro’s (the man in charge of the WOD prescriptions at each Crossfit Games) ranch in Aromas, CA and from there, Crossfit became a sport. Each year since the inception of Crossfit, it’s become more and more popular. The first Crossfit Games winner payout was a measly $500, and the most recent 2021 games winner earned 300,000 in prize money. There are far more pros than cons of Crossfit as a sport. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Crossfit as intelligent exercise modality for the general population.
Crossfit, in general, gets a bad reputation in the world of fitness. In my opinion (and that of many fitness professionals), the majority of the population has absolutely no business using Crossfit as their main form of fitness training. That said, Crossfit has had some undeniable positive influences on fitness. The first that comes to mind is the re-introduction of barbell movements and compound lifts into resistance training.
Before Crossfit, barbells and compound lifts were rarely used by everyday gym-goers. Most of the barbell lifts were only executed by certain demographics like powerlifters, olympic lifters, and athletes. Barbell lifts can produce wonderful results for those looking to improve their health and fitness, especially when first starting out on their fitness journey. Another positive aspect of Crossfit is the community-like bonds it creates among its trainees. Most boxes have succeeded in turning their facilities into a place where people can go and bond over tough workouts. This keeps people accountable, motivated, and tends to lead to more consistency. This, however, can be a double edged sword, which I'll get into later.
The final pro of Crossfit (this one is also a potential con) is that intensity is highly emphasized. Many every-day trainees do not know what it feels like to truly train with intensity, which leads to lackluster results. Crossfit’s heavy emphasis on intensity has changed the way many people approach their workouts. These pro’s cannot be understated, but unfortunately, there are far more cons to participating in Crossfit.
In my opinion, the cons of Crossfit far outweigh the pros. First and foremost, if you love Crossfit and you feel great all the time doing it, feel free to continue. It is better than nothing, and if it keeps you somewhat healthy and happy, and stops you from embarking on Netflix Marathons from your couch, I’d be doing you a disservice by telling you to quit. But if you are either thinking about starting Crossfit, or currently doing it but second guessing your choice, my explanation of the downsides should steer you in the right direction (towards more effective, healthier, and safer training modalities).
Con #1: Misuse of Olympic Lifts, Plyos and Lack of Fatigue Management
Arguably the most prominent downside to Crossfit is the fact that it involves olympic lifts and plyometrics, under fatigue, for high reps, often with some sort of time limit. Olympic lifts are highly technical, skill-requiring lifts that should be done for very low reps (usually just 1) with sufficient rest periods in between each set.
Professional Olympic lifters perform high-rep olympic lifts absolutely never. They also never perform them while they’re fatigued. Plyometrics are excellent for building power and athleticism, but only when programmed for lower reps with apmple rest periods. I won't even get into the risks of doing several consecutive box jumps onto a wooden box, complete with a backwards jump down after every rep.
What makes it okay for Mrs. Johnson who’s a 45 year old mother of 3 to do 21-15-9 (a rep scheme that’s a huge pet peeve of mine) reps of barbell snatches for time (with burpees and box jumps mixed in)? This type of training is highly taxing, and if, by some miracle, it doesn't lead to injury, it'll eventually lead to worsening internal health. Maybe not tomorrow or next week, but eventually one day when Mrs. Johnson slept poorly, is stressed about life, and forgot to eat all day. The average person has no business doing olympic lifts at all, because the risk to reward is too high, and the amount of expert 1 on 1 coaching that is necessary to learn olympic lifts is extremely time and effort consuming. But doing them for high reps under fatigue shouldn't even be considered. The same goes for jumping and plyometrics (with the exception of pogo hops or skipping rope).
If your goal is to build explosiveness (the goal of properly programmed and executed Olympic lifts and Jumps), there are countless safer, and less technique-essential ways to go about it. If your goal is to improve your conditioning and aerobic capacity, there are hundreds of better options.
As I mentioned above, the intensity aspect is both a pro and a con. It’s a negative because although intensity is great sometimes, especially when doing straight sets of a resistance training exercise to build muscle, Crossfit has found a way to make literally everything too intense. You’ll often see Crossfit die-hards rolling around on the floor, bodies full of uncleared acid and unable to catch their breath. I like to call it the “fish out of water” or "rhabdo roll-around" (Crossfit workouts are notorious for inducing Rhabdomyolysis, which is a release of proteins into the bloodstream that can lead severe musculoskeletal, heart and kidney problems).
They finish almost every single workout like this, and wear it as a badge of honor. Training this hard, this frequently will lead to (at best) down-regulation and imbalances in important hormones in your body, which in-turn leads to burnout and feeling miserable all day. This is a cascading effect, and it takes a lot of time and suffering to reverse. At worst, you’re looking at serious long-term soft tissue injuries. You may feel a sense of accomplishment from a nice rush of endorphins following the workout, but you’ll notice that over time you begin to feel worse and worse throughout the rest of your day. It's not uncommon for Crossfit trainees to need lots of stimulants just to get started in their workout (further compounding the negative hormonal effects). Moderate intensity conditioning is very foreign to most Crossfit coaches. The better coaches understand the importance of monitoring the intensity of their trainees, but unfortunately they are few and far between. The Crossfit coach topic leads perfectly into the next con.
Con #3: The Coaching Certification
The Crossfit level one coaching certification training is one weekend long. You read that correctly. You can become responsible for the health, well-being, joint integrity, and hormone profile of hundreds of people in just 2, 9AM-5PM days of training. This is downright dangerous. Imagine going to a restaurant and eating food made by a chef that went to school for 2 days. It probably wouldn't come out very tasty. Thankfully, as long as the food was adequately cooked, your health and well being would not take a massive hit.
Now you’re in a Crossfit box, doing highly technical Olympic lifts under fatigue, for high reps, and you have to do them before the clock on the wall (specially made "crossfit clocks", of course) beeps. You’re doing this because your coach has almost no knowledge of how to program intelligently and safely. Now, you’re beat down, sick, injured, unmotivated, and your joints always hurt. Your hormones are out of whack and your body is in a constant state of stress. The coach who got certified from a weekend of training is now responsible for your demise, and that of most of his other clients. This is not the case with any other certification for any other exercise modality, and should really be reconsidered by the Crossfit rule-makers for the safety and well-being of it’s trainees.
Con#4: Crossfit for the Average Person
Crossfit is a sport, and unfortunately, people have been led to believe that they should use Crossfit to achieve better fitness levels. Don’t get me wrong, a majority of the movements implemented in Crossfit are very beneficial and produce great results when used as stand-alone training methodologies. However, as I explained above, the way they are programmed based on fatigue and under time standards is a glaring problem. Doing snatches or cleans for 1-2 reps is great (not for everyone, of course). Doing them for 21-15-9 reps is a recipe for disaster. Unless you’re a high level Crossfit competitor like Mat Fraser or Justin Medeiros, the 18th rep of a snatch does not look anything like the first rep or two. When strength training, I always preach that my clients strive for every single rep to look the exact same. The only thing that should change is the rep speed as they approach failure. The primary goal of making every rep look the same is safety, but it also increases muscle building potential, and cements the movement technique into muscle memory. This is very doable for most movements such as a barbell bench press, a back squat, a pull-up, or a lunge. This is not possible for high-rep Olympic lifts.
The issue with most crossfit WODs is that they try to kill too many birds with one stone. If you want to effectively train olympic lifts, you do them for low reps, with plenty of rest between each effort (like actual Olympic lifters). If you want to train work capacity (and you should), you do it in a way that does not involve a high degree of concentration and skill throughout. For example, if you want to work on your clean and jerk, you’d be far better off doing 20 sets of 1, or 10 sets of 2 with 2-5 minutes rest between sets. Not only can you use more weight to actually get stronger, but the rest periods are adequate to recover neurologically and mentally in order to perform each rep with a high degree of intent and mental focus.
Crossfit as a sport is, in my opinion, very entertaining, and good for the fitness community. The problem is, regular people see the Games athletes performing at super-human levels and think that they should try and emulate it. This is like watching Stephen Curry play in an NBA game, and trying to achieve your fitness goals by playing as much basketball as possible. I hate to break it to you, but this is not the best approach. Let’s call a spade a spade, and admit that Crossfit is indeed a sport, and not the best way to improve your health and performance. If you’d like to do some of the same movements and events that the Games athletes do, there are much safer ways to go about it (more on this later).
Con #4: Is it Really Functional?
The answer to this depends on your definition of functional. In my mind, functional exercise provides the trainee with improved ability to conduct routine daily tasks, and occasionally tasks that are not so routine. So, if you can carry your child into the car from your house, bend over and tie your shoes, put your socks on without sitting down, roll around and play with your kids on the floor, get up from said floor without using assistance, carry moderately heavy objects, go for a walk, or put something in the pantry or closet by reaching over your head, you are able to complete functional routine tasks.
Examples of "occasional functional tasks" are helping your neighbor move, lifting a couch with the help of a friend, throwing a football with your son, spending a few hours doing manual labor in your yard, putting a moderately heavy carry-on bag in the overhead compartment on a plane, quickly running into the road to take a child out of oncoming traffic, etc.
If your training enables you to do all these things better, your training is functional. The problem I have with calling Crossfit “functional”, is that although some people may become better at these movements of daily life, most people leave a Crossfit workout feeling beat up, tired, sore, and achy. Feeling this way daily, or even some days, is not functional. Getting out of bed in the morning feeling like you’ve been in a car crash is not, in fact, functional. Crossfit throws so many different advanced movements at the “athlete” that are not functional (snatches, burpees, handstand pushups, ring muscle ups, kettlebell swings all the way over your head) that I’d argue that it detracts from their ability to live a life of function.
Con#5: Calling Everyone who Does Crossfit an “Athlete”
This is more of a pet peeve (I have many with Crossfit) than an actual con. But nonetheless, just because you’re working out does not mean you’re an athlete. To be an athlete, you must meet at least 3 (hopefully more) than the following prerequisites: you must be lean (unless you’re a powerlifter, lineman, sumo wrestler or strongman), strong, mobile, quick, fast, explosive, aerobically conditioned, powerful, savvy at your sport, body aware (all athletes have this, no matter the sport), tough, and many more.
I hate to break it to you, but most regular Joe or Janes training in a Crossfit setting are lucky to have one or two of these attributes. Calling everyone an athlete is not only a disservice to them, but is also an insult to actual athletes. I always call a spade a spade, and calling every single person training in a Crossfit Box an athlete goes against everything I believe in. They are trainees, or clients. End rant.
Con #6 (final one): Poor and Lazy Programming
A tell-tale sign of good programming is individualization. Everyone has different fitness levels, strengths and weaknesses. Crossfit has invented ways for its trainees to bond over training, which can absolutely be a positive. However, when 2 or more people have to do the same workout, with the same weights or time standards, there’s a good chance that it’s not ideal for at least one of them. For example, Crossfit often has “you-go-I-go” (see definition above) workouts as part of their programming. Unless the WOD is strictly conditioning (running, biking, rowing etc.) The chances of you and your partner both benefiting equally from the workout are slim to none. Oftentimes this workout will be quite difficult for one, and extremely easy for another. So one person is at high risk of injury, while the other one is breezing through it and benefitting minimally from it.
This is an example of pure laziness when it comes to programming and coaching. Other methods of training that crossfit has coined that can sometimes be a recipe for disaster are the use of EMOMs and AMRAPs (definitions above). While doing an EMOM can sometimes be harmless, especially if it involves low skill movements or if it's done on low impact cardio equipment, when the EMOM involves higher risk movements that are best done with adequate rest and mental focus, you’ve just crossed into the danger zone.
The same can be said about AMRAPs. Trying to do as many rounds as possible in a given time domain in a workout that involves movements like Olympic lifts, heavy compound lifts, plyometrics, or gymnastics movements (muscle ups, handstand walks etc.) can put people at risk for serious injury. On the topic of plyometrics, these movements are often programmed in Crossfit as a cardio/conditioning piece, when any knowledgeable coach or trainer knows that plyo’s should be treated as explosive movements done with adequate rest and for low reps.
Jumping onto a box (Box Jumps) is a highly effective way to build explosiveness and the ability to jump higher. Landing on a box is beneficial because the trainee can practice jumping for height and improving their vertical leap. However, the proper way to execute them is to step off the box so you're in fact limiting the impact of landing. In Crossfit, Box Jumps are often done for many reps and with a time standard, so the trainee jumps back off the box. By doing this, you’re not limiting the impact of landing from jumps. In fact, you're actually INCREASING it (the box is often higher than the trainee’s vertical jump). Again, this is an example of thoughtless, lazy programming.
So Don’t do Crossfit, Got it. What do I do Instead?
So, you really enjoy Crossfit, and you don’t want to give it up. But you’ve read the information in this post and it has you second guessing your life choices. This is perfectly fine, and I’m going to provide you with some great alternatives that allow you to still train similarly to Crossfit, but avoid all of the negative consequences that will surely arise if you continue on your current path. Firstly, Crossfit has a myriad different modalities, movements, skills and energy systems that are combined into single sessions. Instead of trying to work on strength, Olympic lifting, aerobic system training, and gymnastics all at the same time, during the same workout, you can do all of these individually.
For example, today, you’ll focus on mobility and movement prep for the first 10 minutes in the gym. Then for the next 20-30 minutes, you’ll do some sets of low rep clean and jerks to really improve your olympic lifting technique. You’ll do 1-2 reps per set, and rest fully in between each. After this, you’ll spend 15 minutes doing some bodybuilding, like a superset of dumbbell bench press and barbell rows. You’ll wrap up your workout by working on your anaerobic/aerobic energy systems by doing a 10-12 minute EMOM of 20 seconds of rowing, 40 seconds of rest. Workout complete, and everything you used to work on all at the same time was still improved, just in a much safer and better structured manner.
Tomorrow, you’ll work on squat strength, by doing 6 sets of 3 at 8 RPE. Following this, it’s time for aerobic work. You’ll rotate between the assault bike, rower, and ski erg for 3 rounds of 5 minutes each (45 min total) at a conversational (zone 2 heart rate) pace. You got stronger, and improved your endurance, but you did them separately. If you have goals to improve everything involved in Crossfit, breaking them up and focusing on one (maybe 2 at the most) at a time will get you there in a much safer and healthier manner. It may be slightly less “fun”, but remember, doing things because they’re fun is not always the answer. If you want to have fun, go do something you love after your workout. Workouts can and should be enjoyable, but I’d rather be able to workout consistently, feel good, and get fitter and healthier while having slightly less amounts of fun.
Wrapping it up
Although the cons clearly outweigh the pros when it comes to Crossfit for the regular person, there are plenty of extremely knowledgeable coaches out there that know how to properly program their clients for success. I recommend that if you’re in the market to join a Crossfit box that you do some of your own research, try a few different places out, ensure that you’re getting coached by a competent trainer that’s had far more than one weekend of training to get certified.
If you’re already a high level Crossfit competitor, obviously you’re not the person I'm talking to in this article. Ironically, high level Crossfit athletes don’t do a lot of actual Crossfit. They work on each skill individually (Olympic lifting, strength, gymnastics, aerobic capacity, explosiveness) and then they combine it all when they need to in competition. Just because Suzy down the street says “yeah, I can barely walk for two days, it’s such a good workout!”, doesn't mean it is, in fact, a good workout. Training should make you feel better. That’s right, unless you're a competitive athlete, you should always feel better for the rest of the day after training.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Crossfit! Do you do Crossfit or are you looking to start? Do you agree or disagree with some of the points I’ve made?