Over the last decade CrossFit has exploded in popularity and boxes are everywhere. There are at least a half dozen boxes within an hour drive from my small hometown of Milverton, Ontario, Canada. It’s amazing how the popularity of CrossFit has grown over the years. But with that popularity comes a lot of controversy.
As a physical therapist who lifts weights seriously and competes in powerlifting I get asked a lot about CrossFit and what I think of it during training consultations, in the clinic, and on social media. In this article I will go over the risks & benefits of CrossFit as well as how I would tweak it to maximize results and minimize injury risk. Admittedly I was a CrossFit hater even up to a few years ago but the more I go and with more research that comes out I see the value of it when done safely.
Disclaimer: by CrossFit I am referring to the CrossFit workouts of the day or WODs. I’m not referring to the CrossFit games as many top level CrossFit athletes follow a more structured training plan to maximize their performance from the games.
Disclaimer 2: this article is more anecdotal in nature than some of the stuff I write so bear with me.
1) It’s gotten people excited to work out hard
In today’s sedentary, obese society I see many people who love doing the CrossFit workouts. I’ve often said that even if your exercise program isn’t ideal, as long as its done safely, something is better than nothing. Any exercise program that you will enjoy and stick to is worth its weight in gold.
2) It provides a great sense of community
The competitive, friendly group atmosphere in CrossFit is unlike any other in the iron game. Powerlifters squawk & debate a lot on raw vs gear, high squats during meets, enhanced vs drug free & all sorts of other issues. By contrast CrossFit promotes a great sense of unity & camaraderie.
3) It produces great benefits in terms of improved cardiovascular fitness & body composition
A lot of research, even the criticized JSCR publication, has shown that CrossFit workouts produce positive benefits in VO2 max and body composition1.
4) Its indirectly increased the popularity of other forms of physical activity
When you go to most commercial gyms these days you often see people on cardio machines or weight machines. By contrast CrossFit involves a combination of free weights, cardiovascular, and body weight exercises.
Many of my powerlifting friends have noted that CrossFit has indirectly increased the popularity of powerlifting and olympic lifting as some of those lifts are used in the WODs & in competitions.
The bad… and how I would change it…
1) Lack of individualization
I say this so often that I sound like a busted record – but programs do need to be individualized. Some people can’t do olympic lifts correctly. Some can’t do overhead presses correctly. Some don’t have the strength or shoulder mobility to do pullups. Some don’t have the baseline fitness to tolerate the volume or the intensity of the workouts.
The tradeoff of group exercise programs is that you gain a competitive, group atmosphere but you lose the ability to individualize the workout based on the individual’s anatomy, injury/medical history, goals, and fitness levels.
What I would recommend; and I understand this doesn’t always work depending on fitness business structure; is a basic individual assessment of each client to get a medical history & assess fitness levels. This can help tailor the volume, frequency, intensity and exercise selection to the individual to give them a hard, effective workout while minimizing injury risk. Many good trainers and strength coaches do semi-private group training where each client gets an individualized workout in a group atmosphere.
2) Poor choices of exercises for high repetition
Some exercises are not built to be done for high repetitions. An example of those is box jumps as they place high stresses on the lower extremity from jumping up & down repetitively.
Some exercises are not built to be done for high repetitions by certain people. I can do deadlifts for sets of 6-8 and hold reasonably good form through the set – but some can’t. I find anecdotally that deadlifts and olympic lifts are the exercises most prone to form breakdown with repetitions.
Some simple ways to fix these issues are
- Replace the box jumps with a more joint friendly exercise such as jump rope
- Perform deadlifts & olympic lifts earlier in the workout when each client is fresh and stop them when fatigue sets in and proper form cannot be maintained
3) Work till you puke mentality
A concern that I have with many “metcon” programs such as CrossFit, P90x, Insanity and others …. is the culture that you have to give 110% every single workout and work til you puke or lay in a pool of sweat.
A simple way to fix this is to have people work using an RPE scale to where they feel like they’re working hard but still have something in the tank.
It may sound like I’m completely bastardizing CrossFit here – but that’s not the intention. CrossFit has got people excited to workout, has gotten people unified & together about a form of exercise, and can produce positive benefits in fitness. But as always I believe that a more individualized alteration of CrossFit can produce better results on an individual level with less risk of injury.
1. Smith MM, Sommer AJ, Starkoff BE, Devor ST. Crossfit-Based High-Intensity Power Training Improves Maximal Aerobic Fitness and Body Composition [RETRACTED]. J Strength Cond Res. 2013;27(11):3159-3172. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318289e59f.