What Does a Personal Trainer Think About Crossfit?

Despite being quite popular for more than a decade now, I managed to make it all the way to this summer before finally giving Crossfit a try. A variety of factors opened an opportunity for me to finally visit a Crossfit “box”, and it serendipitously aligned with a time in my life where I was legitimately ready and willing to give it an honest effort.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the box I was attending was lead by a national Crossfit competitor, Matt Morton. If you can’t tell from his pictures, he’s without a doubt an elite athlete, and actually came very close to qualifying for the 2018 Crossfit Games (darn altitude sickness). I knew the moment I saw that he was the owner and head coach that I was going to get a high quality Crossfit experience, and boy was it challenging.

Here are some of the workouts we did:

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It’s hard to understand how demanding these or any Crossfit workouts are without having tried them, but you can trust me when I say they are extremely difficult compared to other group fitness programs. It is this high level of intensity that has given Crossfit a muddled reputation in the fitness community. Without question, the greatest controversy surrounding Crossfit is the likelihood of injury for the average attendee. I would like to speak to this narrative, which has largely been perpetuated by fitness amateurs who simply thrive off of clever internet criticisms, and offer a professional insight into Crossfit and how it compares to other group fitness services.

Risk of Injury

Firstly, I have a lot of positive things to say about Crossfit, or at the least Crossfit Captivate gym in Henderson, TX that I visited. There is no better way to find the motivation to do something you would NEVER do on your own than to do it with other people. This is exactly why group exercise is so popular for people who are new or not fitness-minded at the gym. Exercising in a social setting distracts you from the “exercise” aspect of the workout and both pressures and encourages you to push yourself like the others around you. At Crossfit Captivate, every workout had me asking myself “why am I doing this?”, but I never once thought about quitting, and I came back every day because I knew I wasn’t alone in my struggle, or my reason for being there. I knew absolutely no one, but we were all united by a desire of self-improvement.

Having worked at a Gold’s Gym that offered Gold’s Fit, a studio style cross-training class, as well as just having a trained eye for exercise modality, I feel like my limited experience with a branded Crossfit box still qualifies me to draw some conclusions of how Crossfit differentiates itself from other community oriented studios. In my opinion, Crossfit’s biggest distinction is that it values and emphasizes the Olympic lifts, which I approve. Crossfit also utilizes what is probably the widest array of equipment on a regular basis. Copy-cats have followed suit with tires, sledgehammers, power racks, boxes, kettlebells and heavy medicine balls, but Crossfit’s regular use of barbells really separates them from the crowd. The barbell is the most efficient, versatile and universally available tool that allows you to load your body with resistance uniformly. Since Crossfit copy-cats leave this invaluable piece of equipment out of their arsenal to “make workouts safer” (aka save money on sq/ft), cross-training enthusiasts are going to be missing out on a lot of strength and skill at a copy-cat box.

The programming of Crossfit is also unique. It is very aggressive, which makes sense when you look at professional Crossfitters. It is very clear by their bodies that they are extremely strong, conditioned, and movement proficient. This is where the controversy over Crossfit comes from. I once heard a reputable source from the fitness industry say something along the lines of “I can’t think of a better recipe for injury than to perform complex movements as heavy as possible, as fast as possible, for as long as possible.” I’d love to be able to tell you that no coach would ever allow you to lift too much weight too fast, but the reality of group exercise is that participants are largely in control of the weight they choose, the speed they go and the quality of their movement. Coaches will try to suggest ideal weight options to the group, keep eyes on those most likely to need correction, but because they have to divide attention across the class and avoid singling out insecure guests and members alike, everyone is susceptible to hurting themselves, especially an average person. While the risk of injury may be high for newcomers, I would argue that there is no significant difference  in the risk of injury in Crossfit than there is in any other group exercise class.

Think of a few different popular group exercise classes. Anything Les Mills, Step Aerobics, even Water Aerobics…walk into any one of these classes and you are bound to find elderly and/or overweight men and women doing things that a Personal Trainer would never want them doing. Poor alignment, limited range of motion, too little effort, too much effort; these and more all increase the likelihood that someone will develop an injury either during, or prematurely after as a result of their exercise.

Group exercise classes have their pros and cons. They cast a wider net to attract and keep more people involved in regular activity, but they do so at the expense of facilitating repetitive improper movement which is what ultimately wears away joints and leads to injury. Instructors try hard to coach proper movement using a variety of cues during class, but in the end there is little they can do to correct movement quality due to reasons mentioned before like divided attention, fear of embarrassing members, or and/or inability to see it when it occurs (to name a few). In my honest opinion, I would encourage improper activity over no activity any day. At least with activity there is a stress stimulus to trigger a positive adaptation of the exercised joints, whereas no activity just promotes muscular, neurological and skeletal degeneration.

All Crossfit has done is taken the same level of risk vs. reward that you find in any group exercise class, and raised the bar. The risks may be greater, but so are the rewards, and that is why professional Crossfit athletes look almost inhuman. They push themselves through what could easily (but still arguably) be considered the most well-rounded, intense, and physically demanding training compared to any sport in the world. I challenge you to name any sport that requires athletes to commit to and perform anywhere near the array of movements while maintaining only as much body-weight as needed to execute the various strength, skill and endurance events in the fastest time possible. If you found anything close to Crossfit, it’s probably a Crossfit copy-cat. By no means do you need to train to become a professional Crossfitter, but opting for a higher intensity exercise modality like Crossfit will benefit your body vastly more than Zumba or Step class will.

My Personal Preference

You might be wondering how I enjoyed Crossfit. Just because I give it my stamp of approval when it comes to risks vs. reward, does that mean I am going to sign up for a box near me so I can make Crossfit my regular training regimen? Not any time soon. It’s not because I don’t think anyone should do Crossfit, it’s just that I prefer to write my owns workouts and have control over their implementation and variation, especially mid-workout.

I enjoyed the challenge of every Crossfit workout I did, and never walked out of the gym disappointed, but if there had been an option to change exercises for something else over the ones we kept doing round after round, I would have highly preferred more variability. Increasing the amount of variability, however, can take away from the intensity of the workout because that adds to the amount of movement coaches have to demonstrate and members have to learn, whereas sticking to fewer movements for longer time periods decreases confusion and increases movement proficiency. This trade-off make it understandable why seemingly few movements are often repeated for long periods of time, and maybe some Crossfit clubs include a greater amount of movement variety per workout, but even then there is a strong chance that the movement options chosen would not be ones I would prefer over others.

I will say this; if you want results you’ve never had, you’ll have to do something you’ve never done. Opting to join Crossfit where you will inevitably do workouts you would never have thought of will likely get you in better overall shape than if you spent the same amount of time doing any other workout, but you will have to be OK with doing things you don’t always enjoy. That’s where the beauty of a group atmosphere comes in handy though – you all suffer together!

Conclusion

Take whatever preconceived notions you have about Crossfit and unless you have actually given it a shot and tried it out, bottle them up and keep them to yourself. Stop perpetuating the idea that Crossfit is any worse than other group exercise classes, because I would argue that it’s every bit as safe as another exercise class and without a doubt offers a much greater reward potential. If you enjoy working out in a social setting, know you need guidance on exercise that is going to deliver the results you want, and/or don’t mind doing some things you won’t enjoy in exchange for a strong mind, body and social-life, I highly recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and into your local Crossfit gym. You will likely work harder than you have ever worked before, and your body will look and feel the best it ever has!

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