On numerous occasions I have started to write and abandoned articles around this subject. The battle between “is it too random” and “is it hurting people by subjecting them to loads they are simply not conditioned for”, against, “it’s getting people on mass exercising, with weights, learning techniques for movements largely unseen in commercial gyms”.
My decision to finally get something down on paper is due to some recent experiences I have had with both S&C facilities and CrossFit Box’s, some good, some not so good and some downright terrible.
I’m going to avoid using such lines as “Constantly Varied, high intensity, functional movements” and “Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains” as they seem to be the go-to responses for many CrossFitters when they have simply run out of argument. I will aim to highlight some of the major Pros and Cons related to, what is currently, the fastest growing trend in the fitness industry.
The Argument Against
In S&C circles CrossFit has received a lot of bad press, with criticism coming normally through:
- Low standard of coaching in highly technical movements, i.e, Snatch and Cleans
- Random workouts with no set progression or physical adaptation in mind
- Athletes/members subjected to loads and demands far higher than their abilities
- More emphasis on ‘WODs’ than on strength training
In truth all of the above are valid points in SOME cases, for instance, are there facilities/coaches teaching Snatches and Cleans in Box’s around the UK with sub-standard technique?…YES. Are some facilities plucking workouts out of their arse?….YES. Are Athletes/members around the country being subjected to demands/loads far to advanced for them?….YES, and are there Box’s out there who only offer ‘WODs’ and no supplemental strength training?….YES.
Due to the low requirements necessary to open up a CrossFit facility, the standard of coaching is always going to be under scrutiny. Someone who has no experience of training can attend a weekend CrossFit L1 course, pass the written exam and open a CrossFit gym teaching highly technical movements to people of all ages and abilities. The course itself, which is a good course, does not prepare someone to teach this to a high enough and safe enough standard. On the course you will learn Med-ball cleans and Snatch technique with sticks, which is a good start, however nowhere near what’s required to begin teaching full Cleans and Snatches en masse.
The Ugly Reality
A couple of examples I have come across recently spring to mind when I think about how CrossFit are wanting their message and package delivered compared to the reality of what’s happening on a daily basis;
- A client of mine recently attended a CrossFit gym in the UK and when she arrived, she asked if there was a strength/skill element to the workout. The reply was “No, we only do WODs”. Confused, she asked how members were supposed to get better at movements like Snatches and Cleans, to which they answered “Practice them in your own time”……What!!! So they expect people who in many cases have never attempted a clean, and don’t even know what a snatch is, to just grab a bar and learn. Shocking!!
- A friend who joined a Box, went along to his first session/Onramp, where the coaches went over some basic movements and offered sound technical advice…Good start; then at the end of the session they got the new members to perform ‘Fran’ a 21-15-9 workout involving Thrusters and Pull ups…ok, still not too bad as long as it was suitably scaled for certain people. Day 2 comes and the strength/skill element is Deadlift…All sounds good so far; the implementation of a strength/skill was music to my ears. The guy has never deadlifted before, so picked up some vital technical advice, however I was surprised to find out he was subjected to a 1RM test on his first ever attempt. Following this the WOD was revealed and again a 21-15-9 format was in place, however this time it was Deadlift and Burpees. Needless to say he couldn’t walk for days after and actually ended up taking weeks off work. The demands were far too high; someone who has never deadlifted before should not be subjected to it in a high intensity workout.
I can hear the S&C crowd saying “told you so”, and it’s true, I have seen everything I have listed happening in Box’s around the country, however, is it happening everywhere…..HELL NO!!
The Argument For
Without doubt from what I have seen, S&C gyms largely put a lot more focus on the quality of lifts and strength elements, however look at how they structure sessions and it’s not really that different. They mobilise and muscle prep, before moving onto a strength section of the workout and in many cases will finish with ‘Finishers’, high intensity elements. Sounds familiar!!! Don’t get me wrong, CrossFit hasn’t invented anything new; they have put a brand to Fitness and created a sport out of fitness, which I think is great. The main movements are all well used around the world and have been long before CrossFit came along, but what CrossFit has done is to market itself very well and arguably the best positive is that it’s got thousands of people training, training hard and choosing to train with weights over treadmills and X-Trainers.
I could list Box’s around the country that have excellent coaches, with clear periodisation and progressions for their members, who are delivering great sessions, and make no mistake, their members are making huge progress.
If CrossFit is delivered well, there is no disputing its effectiveness; look at the top CrossFit Athletes and it’s no fluke that these guys and girls are absolute machines. In the last CrossFit games one of the workouts was a 21km Row with time also being taken for their first 2km. Sam Briggs one of the female Athletes (and eventual winner) recorded times amongst the best in the world. She didn’t have a history in Rowing, she simply had the strength and stamina to pull a great time.
Don’t get wrong, the majority of the top CrossFitters have a history in high level sport and track and field, and as such have built a good strength foundation from which to work which is a huge advantage compared with someone who has no training experience. However CrossFit is a Sport in its own right and in order to get better at the sport your training needs to reflect its demands. If the sport requires high intensity workouts using relatively high loads in technical movements such as Cleans, then guess what….you need to include this in your training; to what level depends on your tolerance and ability, however steps must be taken to improve across all elements of this sport. The transition of CrossFit to other sports is starting to show itself with 2 of the New Zealand All Blacks players setting up a CrossFit facility and the New Zealand team themselves implementing it.
Doing a CrossFit session with a group gives you an amazing buzz, the feeling of almost being a part of a team, supporting each other and competing against each other. I challenge anyone who has never done it to have a go, and tell me you didn’t love it. You will see members who don’t know anyone else in the class and by the end they feel like they belong, high fiving and chest pumping with everyone else. I know CrossFit spout on about Community, Community, but within the Box’s themselves, there is definitely a community sense approach and this has been captured really well.
The Sport of CrossFit has done wonders for the sport of Weightlifting
I recently watched a video of a weightlifter explaining how he was amazed when he recently visited a CrossFit competition to see thousands of people cheering for guys doing Snatches and the buzz it was giving people. In many cases Athletes are starting CrossFit, only to find they have a natural ability when it comes to the Olympic Lifting movements. This is not only true of weightlifting either as we have found with increased strength and fitness comes a confidence to go and try sports which people previously thought impossible. The sport of CrossFit has got more hands on bars than anything else in the last 5 years, and it’s only growing.
When delivered properly by good coaches CrossFit is an amazing training tool and S&C facilities all over the country could benefit from its inclusion in their programmes. They have the coaches with the experience to teach the movements involved and to teach them well, so if their only problem with it is that the coaching is bad…you coach it, and if it’s too random with no progression….you create a progression and implement the changes you want to see.
Take the product and adapt it to suit your style of teaching
At my facility ‘The Athlete Centre’ we operate primarily as a Strength and Conditioning/Performance Centre, where people of all levels and sporting background can come and receive quality training in an environment suitable for elite Athletes. We hire Physiotherapists, Osteopaths, Nutritionists, Sports Massage Therapists and will only hire Coaches who have an experience in either Personal Training or Strength and Conditioning, and not Coaches who have simply done a weekend course. We also offer CrossFit, because we believe our Coaches are good enough and have the technical ability to coach the movements properly without injuring our members. We have a support network of Therapists on hand to help with any mobility issues or muscular imbalances and we ensure all Athletes are of the standard necessary to undertake the workouts we prescribe. Is this the case in all CrossFit Box’s?…No. Should it be?…Yes!
If you as a Gym cannot teach these movements to a high enough standard then get someone in who can; trust me, your members will hold you in much higher regard if you get in an ‘expert’ rather than if you throw together a sub-standard session of your own. We only hire experienced Coaches yet we still employ the services of an Olympic Lifting Coach to deliver our sessions and run CPD for all our Coaches, to make sure our members are receiving the best possible coaching and that our Coaches are being up-skilled on the movements to a standard where they can teach them safely and soundly.
Go along to your local CrossFit Box and ask these fundamental questions:
- Do you have strength/skill elements to your workouts?
- Are your Coaches experienced PT’s/Fitness professionals and not just weekend warriors?
- Do you have Personal Training available?
- Do you have Physiotherapists/Massage Therapists we can access?
If the answer is No to any of these questions walk out and keep looking.
Is CrossFit good or Bad? Both
Should I Do CrossFit? Yes, if the facility can answer Yes to questions 1-4 above