CrossFit – An Exercise Fad? The Good and the Bad

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CrossFit. The brand name evokes emotion.

Either you’re passionate about it, or you think it’s the second coming of the antichrist. Either CrossFit has been a semi-miraculous tool that has changed your body, your confidence, and revived your enjoyment of exercise, or you think it’s an over-hyped activity that is a serious injury waiting to happen.

I live in a powerbuilding world; a world of social media friends that have a serious love for the pursuit of strength, muscle or both. Some are bodybuilders. Some are powerlifters. Most are just average Janes and Joes who will never compete, but love the iron like it’s a second mother.

Related: Three CrossFit Lessons That the Bodybuilder Can Apply

The general fitness world is more forgiving. What do I mean by this? Let’s consider Instagram fitness circles.

Instagram is my second home. It’s a powerhouse of transformation stories, motivational fitness freaks, and provides an excellent snap shot at how the average gym-goer lives, eats, trains, and what they really care about.

So here’s the reality…

Outside of the 5% (not talking Rich Piana here), Joe and Jane fitness don’t lose a wink of sleep over CrossFit. They lack the desire and attitude that positions their activities and choices as better than another’s, or the insight or education to understand just how dangerous it can be if you are not properly trained.

I know this sounds rather harsh, for both the powerbuilding 5% and the body transforming 95%, but my statements do carry a hefty dose of truth. Sorry, world. Sorry. I didn’t create this mess, but also know I am certainly not generalizing. Not all bodybuilders and powerlifters are elitist, and not all recreational exercise and body transformation enthusiasts are ignorant of good form and the perils of abusing your body.

So, with that established…

I want to take a fair look at CrossFit. Is it a fad that will die? What is the good that CrossFit has to offer? The bad?

Breaking Down CrossFit

CrossFit is a brand, an activity, and a competitive sport. It is a fitness style, or regimen, created by Greg Glassman. CrossFit workouts, or WODs, consist of various intense fitness elements including:

  • Olympic lifts and variations
  • Plyometrics
  • High intensity interval training
  • Gymnastic elements
  • Powerlifting elements
  • Strongman
  • Calisthenics
  • Kettlebell lifting

“CrossFit is not a specialized fitness program, but a deliberate attempt to optimize physical competence in each of 10 recognized fitness domains.” – Greg Glassman

Those fitness domains include:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Respiratory endurance
  • Stamina
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Speed
  • Coordination
  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Accuracy

CrossFit, Inc. was formed in 2000 by Greg Glassman and Lauren Jenai. There are current 13,000 CrossFit affiliated gyms. Let’s take a look at more numbers.

  • CrossFit members are approximately 50% men and 50% women.
  • In 2005 there were only 13 CrossFit gym affiliates.
  • By 2015 the number of CrossFit affiliated gyms jumped to 10,000. [1]
  • The annual CrossFit gym affiliation fee is about $3,000.
  • The CrossFit games are growing at a rate of 166% each year. [2]
  • 2% of CrossFit gyms fail. [2]
  • CrossFit affiliates alone generate an annual revenue over $2 billion.

Looking at Google trends, here is the growth chart fro the search term CrossFit since 2004.

Will CrossFit Die?

“Screw CrossFit! It’s a fad and will die!”

If I had a dollar for every time I hear a statement like this, well… I would have a lot of dollars.

Will CrossFit die? Everything dies. Eventually. I don’t think asking if it will die is the best way to explore its potential growth and/or future decline. At some point it will peak, and its popularity will wane (some).

I do not believe that CrossFit, as a sport and gym activity, will simply just disappear in five to ten years. Why? Well, it’s exciting. It gets people moving. It’s challenging. Calling CrossFit a “fad” is oversimplifying its rapid growth in popularity, and being ignorantly dismissive of what truly constitutes a fad.

In fact, I would go so far as to say this… Anyone dismissing CrossFit as a temporary fad is simply revealing their bias and inability to take an honest look at just how it has impacted the fitness landscape. Oh, I’m sorry! Did I just step on your toes? Perhaps you needed it.

Even Jazzercise hasn’t died. Talk about an odd form of exercise, and a small niche. Jogging is still going strong, as well. I will say though, much to my dismay, that aerobics classes seen to have passed on. RIP. You will be missed.

JazzerciseHere’s my random, and undereducated prediction…

CrossFit popularity will peak in five to eight years. Somewhere around 2022 to 2025. It will reach a saturation point. There are only so many gyms that can become affiliates. There are only so many CrossFit gyms that can exist in any given region. Saturation is inevitable.

Once saturation takes place, we will see a slight decrease over time of its popularity. Nothing severe. Nothing dramatic. It’s too much of a powerhouse, and too much fun and effective, to die a rapid death. Yes, there are some issues with CrossFit, which we will get into shortly, but they can be fixed.

CrossFit at it’s heart is an engaging way to get folks moving. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s challenging. This is a good recipe for lasting success.

Activities rarely die a rapid death. Besides, there is a reason CrossFit grew rapidly. It filled a need that the bodybuilding lifestyle couldn’t. Not hating, bodybuilders. Just saying. Reality is reality.

CrossFit – The Good and the Bad

The Good – It’s Exciting

Yes, exciting. Each workout is different, and challenging in a new way. This is a completely different approach than the current fitness industry norm. You know how it goes – you pick out a workout and perform it over, and over, and over again… ad nauseum.

Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with mucking and grinding on the same exercises. Progressive overload on the basic compound exercises works, and works well. If you want an amazing physique, this combination is magical.

But many crave more than this. They want conditioning AND an improved body. They want to not only look better, but also to perform better… In every aspect of life. The bedroom. The mud run. The hike. Rock climbing. You name it.

Any form of exercise that gets people moving and excited is a good option. I don’t care how dangerous you consider it to be. So what. We are all adults. Life is dangerous. Get over it. Give me choice any time. Sometimes the best choices in life are the challenging, and somewhat dangerous ones.

The Bad – It Can Be Dangerous

So let’s analyze injury rates and establish a baseline.

A recent study published by the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine studied 386 CrossFit participants. Of this pool, 19.4% sustained an injury. [3] Lower back and shoulder injuries were most prevalent. It should be noted – and this is an important point – that injury rates decreased when trainer assistance was incorporated into training.

Many CrossFit gyms have a required training period for beginners. Look for this practice to increase as corporate CrossFit looks to reduce injury rates and training danger.

There was no significant difference in injury rates based on the age of the participant, Injury rates also did not change much based on the duration of the CrossFit workout.

During this study, gymnastics movements lead to the most shoulder injuries, while powerlifting movements created the most lower back injuries.

It goes without saying that trainer involvement is key here. If a CrossFit beginning participant spends time with a trainer, and if a trainer is made available at all times, the injury rates decrease.

A second study found that CrossFit lead to 3.1 injuries for every 1,000 hours of participation. [4] This was comparable to injury rates sustained in powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and gymnastics. So, a huge point of note here. CrossFit appears to be no more dangerous than the sports/activities it combines.

CrossFit was found to be safer than sports such as rugby and hockey.

If CrossFit implements more training for noobs, and if they pressure gyms to require on-hand trainers, the injury rates will potentially be lower than that of the sports it’s comprised of. This is an important point.

New Crossfit Study | Crossfit NOT More Effective Than Conventional Weight Training and Cardio

The Good – Exercise Options Are Inherently a Good Thing

Choice is a good thing. Even though I have a lover for building strength and muscle, my love for general fitness came first. It still lingers.
I enjoy hiking, bodyweight exercises, and doing many non-essentials that aren’t important to my specific strength and bodybuilding goals. And that’s OK.

Bodybuilding culture has become all about efficiency. If you perform something not needed for building muscle, there’s a good chance you will be laughed at, mocked, or pressured to give it up.

Don’t.

Not everything is about efficiency. Some things in life are about fun.

Choice is an important part of the pursuit of happiness. Exercise options are not only inherently exciting, but allow us to explore new – and potentially life-changing – forms of movement. Read that again: “life-changing.”

As children we were encouraged to try new things. Why? Because you never knew if that simple tuba lesson would lead you down a completely different path in life. To find your passions you must try new things. period, end of story.

The same goes for exercise.

CrossFit is amazing and noteworthy because it exposes participants to a myriad of different types of exercises. This opens doors, boosts confidence, and allows us to forge new – and previously unforeseen – paths in life.

The Bad – Rapid Growth Could Breed Sub-Par Instructors

Rapid growth might be good for business, but does it allow for proper instructor selection and training? That’s the question. In the words of Mark Rippetoe:

“The Ugly is that there are many thousands of CrossFit affiliates around the world and hundreds of new “coaches” each weekend. Think about this very carefully.”

We have already established the importance of training and good instructors. The challenge here for CrossFit is to create a standard for trainers that allows for growth but not at the expense of instructor quality. Is this possible? Maybe, but I believe unlikely.

Why?

Experience teaches me that even the most experienced gym rat knows less about exercise form than he thinks. This goes for trainers and bodybuilders as well. Finding folks who have dedicated themselves not just to fitness, but also to the study of exercise form is rare.

With this in mind, will it be possible for CrossFit to staff gyms with quality instructors and trainers that know what they are doing? It will be tough. CrossFit’s best bet is to have a good system in place for the best trainers to assist the mediocre middle. Ongoing education here will be essential.

The Good – Strength Training and Limited Rest are a Great Combination

I love the combination of progressive overload and limited rest. this style of training is typically known as rest-pause. Building strength in an environment in which rest is restricted is a wonderful way to build muscle.

For this reason, it’s no surprise that CrossFit is a quality method of building muscle.

Let’s not forget that CrossFit also focuses on Olympic movements, and other potent compound exercises. It’s managed to get more men and women under a bar than any other gym activity I know off.

Compound exercises and Olympic movements are big hitters. They build muscle, and fast. Even using a non-conventional form of training such as CrossFit. You might not be performing the same set and rep scheme, and same exercises, week in and week out, but you are consistently pushing for strength and performance increases over time.

Strength training using big barbell exercises will always build better bodies over time, regardless of the protocol used. While CrossFit may not be the best muscle building style of training, it’s cetrtainly good enough for average Joe and Jane who have no interest in looking like a puffed-up bodybuilder.

The Bad – It’s Not For Everyone

No-brainer, right?

Explosive movements and high impact training just aren’t a good fit for everyone. This goes for just about any physical activity, but especially so for CrossFit.

Personally, I don’t believe most individuals over the age of 35 are best served by using punishing forms of exercise. Sure, many can handle box jumps and burpees, but for most this style of training is just not the smartest idea.

Does this make CrossFit inherently bad? No. MMA fighting probably isn’t great for the average 45 year old mom either. So it goes.

I’ve learned over the years that slow and steady is probably best for most of us. Simple resistance training, and high intensity cardio that isn’t punishing on the knees. Over the long run this is the way to go if you want to stave off injuries and build the best body.

Remember, exercise and the pursuit of a good body and fitness are a life-long process. CrossFit might be great for a rapid improvement in conditioning, but in the long run it’s better to move forward like a turtle (slow and steady) than to beat the snot out of your body. Punishing exercise is not safe and sustainable for most.

This might sound very conservative to you young ‘uns, but one day you’ll understand.

And now, one more bad….

The Bad – Some people in Crossift Can Be Annoying and Cultish

If you aren’t involved with CrossFit don’t bother throwing things my way, I’m already ducking. Let’s be honest here.

Bad Apple CrossFitters can’t stop talking about it. These CrossFitters give it a bad name. It’s on the same level with bad apple vegans. “Hey I’m vegan!” “Hey I do CrossFit!”

We all know this is a generalization, but it’s founded in a degree of truth. Crossfit has done such a great job of branding that members are willing to talk about it all of the time.

References

1) “The Story of How CrossFit Went From Zero to 10,000 Locations.” L.A. Weekly, www.laweekly.com/arts/the-story-of-how-crossfit-went-from-zero-to-10-000-locations-5005604.
2) “By The Numbers: The Growth of Crossfit.” Channel Signal, channelsignal.com/blog/by-the-numbers-the-growth-of-crossfit/.
3) “Injury Rate and Patterns Among CrossFit Athletes – Jan 01, 2014.” SAGE Journals: Your Gateway to World-class Journal Research, journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2325967114531177.
4) “The Nature and Prevalence of Injury During CrossFit Training… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.” LWW, journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/publishahead/The_nature_and_prevalence_of_injury_during.97557.aspx.

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Name: Steve Shaw

Bio: I don’t believe in magic training systems or rep ranges. My philosophy is simple: remain consistent, use the best possible exercises, focus upon progression and enter the gym looking to maximize each set. When you maximize each set, you maximize progress. Easy, obvious, insanely effective.