Why Crossfit May Not Be Good For You

Let’s face it, Crossfit is a controversial topic in the world of strength and conditioning. Crossfit gyms are springing up all over the world. They are cheap and easy to open, with only a weekend certification and a few thousand dollars worth of equipment. This appeals to many newcomers to the fitness business. You can be part of a rapidly growing trend and you can do it without great expense. I am not a Crossfit fan so some might view this piece as yellow journalism. I will try to keep my personal opinions to myself and deal with what is generally agreed upon as safe in strength and conditioning.

First, a little background. To be honest, I knew very little about Crossfit until I was contacted by representatives of SOMA, the Special Operations Medical Association, in 2005. Crossfit was their concern, not mine. I was asked to come to the SOMA meeting in Tampa, Florida to discuss training special operations soldiers. At a panel discussion in 2005 I offered answers to questions asked about Crossfit and the controversy began.

What follows is not from the SOMA meeting but, my thoughts since.

Major Question 1- Is planned randomization a valid concept. Crossfit is based on the idea that the workouts are planned but deliberately random. I think that the term planned randomization is an oxymoron. Workouts are either planned or random. I believe strongly that workouts should be planned and that a specific progression should be followed to prevent injury.

Major Question 2- Is Training to Failure Safe? Because Crossfit is, at it’s heart, a competitive or self-competitive program it becomes necessary to train to failure. There are two layers or problem here. One is the simple question of whether training to failure is beneficial to the trainee. Some strength and conditioning experts believe training to failure is beneficial, others caution against. I must admit that I like training to failure. However, this brings up the larger question of what constitutes failure. Strength and Conditioning Coach Charles Poliquin (another non-Crossfit fan) popularized the term “technical failure” and, this is the definition that we adhere to. Technical failure occurs not when the athlete or client is no longer capable of doing the exercise but, when the athlete or client can no longer do the exercise with proper technique. In training beyond technical failure the stress shifts to tissues that were not, and probably should not, be the target of the exercise.

The third layer of the training to failure question relates to what movements lend themselves to training to failure. In the area of “generally agreed as safe”, high velocity movements like Olympic lifts and jumps are not generally done to failure and never should be taken beyond technical failure. Is it one bad rep versus multiple bad reps? How many bad reps is too many?

Major Question 3- Is an overuse injury ( generally an injury caused by repeated exposure to light loads), different from an overstress injury ( an injury caused by exposure to heavy loads). Both are injuries. The first is overuse, the second is trauma. In my mind injuries are injuries, period.

Major Question 4- Should adults be Olympic lifters? I don’t think that Olympic lifts are for adults. Most adults can’t get their arms safely over their head once much less fifty times with load. The other question that begs to be asked is should anyone do high rep Olympic lifts. I know the best Olympic lifters in the world say no.

With all that said believe it or not my biggest problem is actually less with the actual workouts than it is with the false bravado and character assassination of dissenters. The community can be pretty venomous when you question Coach Glassman or Crossfit. In fact, I know I will get angry emails from this piece.

The Crossfit community is also filled with people who tell you that injury is a normal part of the training process. I have spoken up against endurance athletes who willingly hurt themselves and to me, this is no different than the current Crossfit controversy.

I know that this post will generate more controversy but, Crossfit might be the most controversial and polarizing topic in strength and conditioning since HIT training.


90 Responses to “Why Crossfit May Not Be Good For You”

  1. brianseelos Says:

    I agree that the “average” adult should not do the oly lifts and they are taught to way too many people at Crossfit boxes. There are adults who can do them and should. Ex-athletes and people who are just progressing through the lifts can do them as long as they have the mobility and can safely do them.

    I am not a die hard crossfitter, but I see the benefit for some older athletes with the lifts and the added competition it brings.

  2. mboyle1959 Says:

    I guess we will agree to disagree. I just find the average adult to be a square peg, round hole when it come to the olympic lifts. I love them for my younger athletes.

    As for Crossfit high reps vs baseball or golf high reps? Apples and oranges. No one hits or pitches to failure and keeps going even after technique fails. Not a good comparison.

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  3. brianseelos Says:

    I will start by saying that I am a Crossfit Coach, and I train a mix of high school athletes, who are seeking D1 scholarships, and fit adults.

    Do I think Crossfit is awesome? No. I do think it provides an environment for crappy “trainers” with little experience to be in a position to hurt people. I have seen it before. The “trainer” yelling a a group of middle aged women who can’t squat with proper form, all while he or she is eating their paleo meal.

    It is a fierce community of gym owners, trainers, and athletes who guard against any negative comments by putting people down. I did not drink the koolaid. I started working at Crossfit Oconee because they cater to young athletes and that Is what I want to do.

    I agree with most of your points, but I do think that adults can be Oly lifters. With some mobility work the overhead position can be achieved safely. That is what I am trying to do at my gym. Bring more mobility and stability exercises in order to reduce injury.

    In my mind there is little difference with the athletes who perform repetitive exercises at a Crossfit box and a golfer or baseball player. These athletes hit hundreds or thousands of balls a day with little worry of overuse injuries. I think its all in how you warm-up and mobilize the joints for the stress that counts.

  4. I am not going to disgree with Ellen about her crossfit experiences. I’m sure that there are some Crossfit locations that employ quality instructors who understand how to coach technique, when to progress or regress exercises, etc. But the bottom line for Crossfit is that they are responsible for their lowest common denominator, and plain and simple, MANY Crossfit gyms are dangerous and excessive. I’m an S&C coach and I also spend a great deal of time working with the general public. Many of my clients have tried Crossfit for a month or two, only to realize that they aren’t getting the results they want, and they feel worse than when they started.

    Performing Olympics lifts in general is not the problem. Performing olympic lifts under time, where the number of repititions performed is valued higher than the quality of the repitition…this is the problem. If you talk to any olympic, powerlifting, professional or collegiate athlete, they will tell you that the highest they’ll go on their olympic lifts is 5 reps. I realize that not everyone attending a crossfit gym is there to become a world class athlete and many are there for the metabolic effect. But if you talk to the best metabolic experts around, they’ll all tell you that you’ll reach technical failure on your olympic lifts WELL before you attain your desired metabolic effects. Olympic lifts are designed to make an athlete more powerful, more explosive, and to teach them how to summate force. They do these things very well if they are programmed correctly, but this is not the case at most Crossfit gyms.

  5. Merle Geierman Says:

    I am with the Coach Says

  6. I dont like name calling… So im fighting hard to not do it in this case. Ellen, your a Physical therapist? You should have your license taken away as you will injure all of your patients. Just because olympic lifts may simulate (vaguely) some every day movements, that doesnt mean you should perform them over and over with heavy weights (which is what always happens in cross fit) and with limted supervision.
    Cross fit is stupid and dangerous. Im a personal trainer and the reason i like cross fit is it always brings me clients that are tired of being hurt at a cross fit gym and my girlfriend is a physical therapist and it literally makes her rich. she probably gets 1 – 2 cross fit injuries per week. There are safer ways to get the same results.

  7. mboyle1959 Says:

    Although I obviously don’t agree, I appreciate the time and thought that went into your reply. Thanks

  8. Crossfit gyms are cheap and easy to open, with only a weekend certification and a few thousand dollars worth of equipment.
    This point is true. I believe that the onus is on the participant to do their research when choosing a Crossfit box. The same would hold true when choosing a personal trainer or a strength coach, who also may be certified in a weekend by various organizations.
    2. Is planned randomization a valid concept?

    Crossfit uses 3 different standards or models for evaluating and guiding it’s definition of fitness.
    The first is based on 10 general physical skills.
    The second standard is based on the performance of athletic tasks.
    The third is based on the energy systems that drive all human action.

    Click to access CFJ_Trial_04_2012.pdf

    Crossfit isn’t claiming to make you a world class 800m runner or the best MMA fighter with its programming. What is does claim is that improvements in endurance, stamina, strength, and flexibility occur by training. Fitness is about performing well at every and all tasks imaginable, in infinitely varying combinations. I haven’t yet found a definition linked with Crossfit that uses the term planned randomization. What I have found is Crossfit’s programming to achieve goals of highest fitness utilizes constantly varied, high intensity functional movement. I agree with Mr. Boyle that specific progression should be followed to prevent injury. At the Crossfit boxes that I have visited and am a member of, progression with proper form using education, scalability, modification, and mobility while performing weightlifting and gymnastic movements, keeps injuries at bay while enhacing the skill performance of the sport.

    3. Is training to failure safe?

    I believe there is a conflict of definintion with this question. In strength and conditioning/body building, training to failure is performed with the goal of stimulating hypertrophy. Michael Boyle’s definition of failure during Crossfit sessions is described as technical failure; when the athlete can no longer do the exercise with proper techique. In my experience with Crossfit, while I have seen some athletes push themselves to technical failure, we are coached to choose a weight for each workout that is scaled to provide us with appropriate form while allowing the building of power, which is accomplished with work over time. We are corrected during our ‘WOD’s’ with regards to enhancing performance and reducing injury risk.
    4. Should adults be Olympic lifters? I don’t think that Olympic lifts are for adults.

    I completely disagree with this statement. As a Physical Therapist treating our geriatric population, I have observed the loss of a person’s ability to perform functional mobility activities thereby losing strength and leading to complete dependence on others. Olympic lifts strengthen our core by utilizing whole body conditioning to resist gravity and keep us competitive in the game of life.
    Olympic lifts have a functional analog to movements we must perform on a daily basis. Concerning getting up and down from a chair, or on and off of a toilet, for example, one must be able to perform a squat. I have ‘cleaned’ 40 pound bags of dogfood or mulch from low shelves and in and out of my car. Picking an object up off the floor, or transferring a patient from their bed or wheelchair uses the same form factor as when one performs a deadlift. (I will also add that at the age of 52, I can still transfer my patients, and because of the functional strength through proper performance that I have attained while training and conditioning at Crossfit Moxie, neither my patients nor I risk injury.

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