Today I read with great interest an article written by Fabio Comana, a well credentialed fitness professional and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), entitled CrossFit - Is the Gain Worth the Pain? I was pleasantly surprised with the fairly positive acknowledgements given CrossFit by Mr. Comana and, by implication, ACE. It's been a long time in the making that the major fitness organizations gave credit and some balanced overviews of CrossFit training.
I do, of course, have a couple of small beefs with the article. Not being nitpicky, but the headlining picture shows a man spotting another man doing a barbell biceps curl. Now, the barbell biceps curl has plenty of application to the bodybuilder community, but absolutely zero application to functional fitness of the kind prescribed by CrossFit methodology. Once I saw the pic, I suspected that there were some other subtle flaws or oversights in the article. My point in this response is not to ding Mr. Comana, but to point out some inaccuracies and correct some misconceptions that could be derived from the article by those who lack the total picture and understanding of CrossFit.
First, the opening statement that "game, mission and life" are the guiding principles behind CrossFit is simply untrue. This statement was taken out of context from a 2008 CrossFit Journal article written by one of the original CrossFitters and CrossFit Headquarters Executive Media staff member, Tony Budding, to describe the effectiveness of the CrossFit program. While our training manifests itself through "game, mission and life", that statement is not our guiding principle. Let's be clear. CrossFit's charter is forging elite fitness. Our method, prescription if you will, of doing so is through constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensity. We've defined fitness by using three models of fitness that guide us though our programming and the development of our CrossFitters (note: I prefer the term "CrossFitters" over "clients"). These models are: (1) become proficient across 10 general physical skills (cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy); (2) perform well at any task (i.e. prepare for the unknown and unknowable); and (3) develop capacity to train in the three primary metabolic pathways (phosphagen, glycolytic, and oxidative). You can read more indepth about this by clicking HERE and downloading Coach Greg Glassman's "What is Fitness?" article from the CrossFit Journal. The article also goes into a discussion of our three primary modalities in training - monostructural metabolic conditioning, gymnastics, and weightlifting.
On that note, regarding training modalities, Mr. Comana argues that we do not offer up sufficient transverse plane or reactivity training in our methodology. The reason is that most transverse plane (i.e. rotational) work is skill based: agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy. This can be accomplished through mobility warm-up drills and through sport specific movement patterns if required by the athlete. Rotational work is not movement that demands high-power output, thus it's not at the top of the food chain when selecting CrossFit workout movement patterns. Hitting 50 golf balls for time might be challenging and fun, but it doesn't require much power or improve fitness overall. More on this relationship between fitness and power came as CrossFit began to evolve. I would add that the intensity of CrossFit training improves overall reflex response and, thus, the unknown and unknowable component of our daily WODs is sufficent to stress our reactive responses. I know that mine have increased with CrossFit.
Coach Glassman's three-part approach to fitness evolved over time to where he defined fitness in terms of increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. This definition more accurately reflects our broad based training as measured through power output, which is exactly equal to intensity. In layman's terms, you measure intensity by your power output. You measure your fitness by tracking your power output across many activities and various workout times to develop a graph of power over time. Raising the fitness curve equals improved fitness. This concept is more clearly laid out in "Understanding CrossFit", another article by CrossFit's founder, Coach Greg Glassman.
My point here is that intensity is what improves one's fitness and intensity is relative to each individual. I certainly can't put my 72 year old CrossFitters through the same intensity as my 24 year olds, even though they may do the same movements. This is done through careful scaling. For example, if we're snatching as part of our skill work and workout, it's entirely appropriate for both the older and younger generations to do the snatch. It's not appropriate, however, to have them attempt to do the same loads. It may be that the 72 year old uses a PVC pipe weighing only ounces while the 24 year old uses 135 pounds. (I also have a 72 year old that can snatch PVC with better form than one of my 24 year olds can with the same PVC pipe.) I'll return to this example later when I address concerns regarding form.
Second, while Mr. Comana addresses caloric burn as a measure of fitness, CrossFit does not concern itself with this measurement yardstick due to its inaccuracy when extrapolated across various populations. In Mr. Comana's first discussion of caloric burn, he compares the relative burns of CrossFit workouts versus workouts by those who utilize "traditional machine-based weight training." While the caloric burn is substantially different, we would prefer to measure the relative intensities of these differing modalities in terms of power output. The different movements thus become physics problems - force multiplied by distance and divided by time. This levels the playing field between the movements rather than attempting to compare caloric burn between differing body types and metabolic rates. In absolute terms, measuring power output will tell you which exercise produces greater power and, consequently, which one is therefore more effective overall with regard to intensity. In the second instance, Mr. Comana attempts to somehow relate caloric burn with adherence to programming by those new to CrossFit - a non sequitur argument to be sure. Yes, I agree with Mr. Comana that we need to create a positive experience to keep CrossFitters motivated, but that's done through spot-on, quality coaching and also through community building - a topic not discussed by Mr. Comana, but essential to CrossFit's success.
Third, Mr. Comana states that "the general public feels compelled to exercise to maintain their health, improve their aesthetics or simply because their doctor has advised them to do so. For them, we need to promote positive experiences, and CrossFit's high-intensity approach may not be an ideal match." Mr. Comana believes that high-intensity training leads to injurious training. Conversely, our high-intensity, as mentioned above, is relative to each individual. The good CrossFit trainer will coach and cue through warm-ups, skill work, and during the actual workout. Mr. Comana writes that "[a] coach should not attempt to correct poor technique under conditions of high fatigue and load as this only promotes injury." On the contrary, I believe that it's my duty to cue and correct during workouts and even to halt a CrossFitter whose form has degraded to an extent that the workout is no longer safe. In my discussions with numerous other CrossFit affiliate owners and trainers, this philosophy regarding safety in training is paramount.
I do agree with Mr. Comana's concerns with that many trainers may not have the proper levels of knowledge to keep from inadvertently setting up the conditions for injury. Bad coaching is bad coaching no matter what training method one follows, so this is not isolated to CrossFit as the article may imply. I'm sure that folks have gotten hurt with Pilates, yoga, pole dancing, spinning, and most certainly through group fitness pop classes, team sports (at any age), Chek or Poliquin workouts, martial arts programs, dance, power lifting, olympic lifting, running (competitive and recreational), as well as workouts designed and implemented by the thousands of personal trainers/coaches out there in the countless gyms and studios who run amok with whatever credential they can buy online via merely a written test with no demonstrated practical application. At least CrossFit's Level 1 certification has lectures, a written test, and over five hours of demonstration and practical application of basic movements required to perform key functional movements. It is from this base of knowledge that CrossFit trainers can grow their own base of knowledge, add to other methods they've learned over the years, or simply to just learn more about another method of fitness to add to their existing practice.
While Mr. Comana cites with specificity his dislike for the "as many rounds as possible" workouts as a set up for injury, I wholeheartedly disagree. A good coach or trainer will utilize this tool for new CrossFitters by, again, scaling the workout. An example of this would be our benchmark workout we call "Cindy" (after no one in particular), which consists of as many rounds of: 5 pullups, 10 pushups, 15 air squats in a twenty-minute period. Because this workout is self-paced, as a coach I can demand perfect form on each rep, slow the transitions down, and keep the chance of injury very low for each individual. (I can also let the more advanced athletes go at it hard and fast and video the workouts to show weaknesses and areas of improvement.) I can also scale the time by, perhaps, cutting it in half, or simply cut reps down to 5/5/5 if need be. For someone who cannot do pullups, they'll get ring rows, maybe pushups on the knees, and squats to a box. Deconditioned individuals must be handled with kid gloves. Athletes with a desire to peak their performance need to be pushed. The vast majority of CrossFitters are somewhere in between. Again, intensity is relative and a good coach will not let someone put ego ahead of safety just to get more rounds.
Remember my earlier example of the 72 year old and the 24 year old both working on the snatch? Once skill work ends and I'm confident that both have the skills to perform a workout using the snatch, either stand alone or in conjunction with other movements, we'll fire up the clock. Appropriate loads are already worked out, scaling of time and work efforts are worked out, and the competition begins. If I did my job right, at the end of the workout they'll both finish at about the same time and experience an intense, but safe, workout. They had fun, pushed a bit, and have some energetic conversations during the post-wod stretch and cool down period. Most CrossFit trainers approach their training of their CrossFitters in a like manner.
My point in bringing out this example is that CrossFit appeals to everyone as long as it's challenging enough, keeps up the interest, and is safe despite the relative intensity. It's irresponsible to let any athlete do a workout they're not prepared for just to satisfy an ego - their's or an irresponsible coach's. While this is true in our gym, it may not be apparent that the entire CrossFit community shares this view (though I know we do) because of the videos out there that do show less than stellar form. One has to remember that most videos on the CrossFit.com website today show elite athletes who have incredible work capacities that far exceed those of the average CrossFitter. They, like most top athletes, push to the limits of their experience and, sometimes, form degrades to a point where some would argue injury could result. As Mr. Comana admits, bad form can lead to dyskinesis, but training the way we do - constantly varied - allows us to overcome dyskinesis so as not to lead to injury on a level found in other conditioning programs while providing greater results.
My final beef with the article is with regard to Mr. Comana's concern with CrossFit's nutritional guidelines. Yes, we do advocate the use of Dr. Barry Sears' tried and proven Zone Diet that consists of a ratio of carbs - proteins - fats as 40 -30 - 30. It's proven that these levels of macronutrient intake satisfy basic nutritional needs of athletes while limiting the production of unnecessary levels of insulin and inflammatory responses within the body. As long as CrossFit trainers do not prescribe specific nutritional guidelines for each individual, a recommendation to follow the Zone dietary guidelines does not contradict scope of practice. Paleo and Primal diets are working well for a lot of CrossFitters as well, though the Zone provides clear and concise means of weighing and measuring food and determining one's own block requirements in a manner that's measurable, observable, and repeatable. We can't help our CrossFitters progress without having discussions on proper nutritional guidelines in a nonmedical setting for nonspecific nonmedical conditions. Besides, no one can argue that, in Coach Glassman's words, encouraging people to "eat meats and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar" is a bad thing.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm only pointing out areas in the article that might be ripe for confusion. Overall, Mr. Comana was very positive and even stated that he enjoys CrossFit workouts. We, the CrossFit community, welcome what Fox News would call "fair and balanced" reporting of what we do. Mr. Comana did a fairly good job of that, which I thank him for. Overall, I'll answer Mr. Comana's question - CrossFit - Is the Gain Worth the Pain? The answer is an unqualified YES!