CrossFit recently wrapped up with their highest participation ever in their CrossFit Open. This time period is when I usually see people climb out of the woodwork to try to figure out all of their chronic (and acute) physical pain. This is also the time where most people demonize CrossFit. This isn’t the fault of CrossFit. This is because “normal” people think they are competitors day in and day out. What gets most people in trouble is the truth that they are not competitors.
Before I get ripped to shreds by all of Fran’s friends, let’s get this straight, this isn’t a CrossFit hate piece. As a little bit of a background, I am a CrossFit Level One Trainer. I also happen to have a Doctorate in Chiropractic and Master’s in Exercise and Sports Injuries and worked primarily on CrossFitters for the last four years. I’ve also done CrossFit for years. I’m no Rich Froning, but I’m no slouch either.
I’m not particularly for or against CrossFit in any sense. When done properly, CrossFit can be one of the most well-rounded fitness programs available for people and a tool that can help you do work depending on the job needed to get done. But there’s a problem. CrossFit “done properly” is rarely seen.
FUNCTIONAL FITNESS OR COMPETITIVE ATHLETE?
As CrossFit and the CrossFit Games popularity skyrockets, the line between functional fitness and competitive athlete is becoming too blurred. Casual gym goers are now working out like they are trying to win a workout every single day. This can easily lead to excessive stress, injury, fatigue and overall misdirection from why they signed up for the gym in the first place.
CrossFitters generally have much more aggressive soft tissue injuries. Trust me, I’ve seen plenty. Lab work I’ve done on casual, non-competitive CrossFitters typically comes back consistently poor. Elevated LDL, triglycerides, and inflammation markers. Kidney and liver markers so out of range you’d expect this person to have just gotten done with a week long bender. Yes, this is better than never moving, being overweight and having diabetes, but it doesn’t sound too functional to me either.
The reason for the vast majority of the negativity isn’t because CrossFit is dangerous, it is because no one is asking why they are doing anything.
If you’re a CrossFitter, the number one thing you should ask yourself (as with anything else in life) is “why?” The proverbial why is typically never addressed in health. In the case of CrossFit, I think it is extremely important to ask why about your training goals. A good question to ask would be “am I training for function (or physique, or longevity, or strength) or am I a competitor?” These are, and should be trained as, completely separate things.
Is your main goal to have a fun workout with a strong community? This is one of the main reasons why CrossFit is so popular.
Is your number one priority to have a pretty decent physique? CrossFit works for that when paired with a great nutrition plan.
Is your goal long term health, function and overall longevity? I’d argue CrossFit, as done by the average CrossFitter, is probably not the best exercise choice for you, day in and day out.
The good news is that are ways to incorporate CrossFit in a more sustainable way.
HOW TO MAKE CROSSFIT WORK FOR YOU
LEARN TO SAY NO
One of the most effective ways to make CrossFit more sustainable is by saying no to workouts.
A good example of when to say no is my recent participation in the CrossFit Open. I just did four out of five of the workouts but didn’t do 17.3 because I don’t think getting super fatigued then maxing out on a full squat snatch is a very smart thing to do with my goals in mind. My goals are to feel good and not have injuries. If yours are to be on the podium at the CrossFit games, then please, do that workout.
This can apply to the workouts that are programmed at your gym. If there’s something you feel uncomfortable with, or don’t know why the hell you are doing it, ask the coach. If they don’t give you a reason to do it that is compelling and fits your goals, say no.
For example, what does a heavy full squat snatch mid-WOD do for you that other movements with much less risk of injury don’t? If it is hip explosiveness and pushing overhead, why wouldn’t you do something much less risky, like lighter dumbbell thrusters? Can’t figure out why you’re doing a movement? Don’t do it.
DONT STRESS YOURSELF
CrossFit, just like any competitive sport, is inherently extremely competitive. With competition comes an overload of stress. But are you a competitive athlete, or are you just trying to feel good, look good and be healthy? Are you trying to beat the person working out next to you? Are you trying to beat your previous personal best?
Imagine a day where you wake up, late for work. Then you spill some coffee on yourself while trying to rush out of the door. You’re bombarded all day from emails, calls and demanding bosses. On your way driving to the gym you think about all of the bills you have to pay, then someone cuts you off and you spill your pre-workout on yourself the same place you spilled your coffee. Now you get the to gym and you’re supposed to get intense and compete with not only others, but your previous self as well?
Most humans are far too stressed on a day to day basis and don’t need anymore. If you’re feeling like you’re already facing too much on a day to day basis, taking it out at the gym will not be a sustainable solution. Do some low impact work like yoga or rock climbing where there isn’t an obsessive need to compete. Meditate and take time off. Do a workout where there isn’t a goal to win or compete.
If you’re training like a competitor, you should be recovering like one as well. Competitive athletes train their faces off but realize the main gains are made in recovery. If your body doesn’t successfully respond to the stress applied to it, you’re going to have some serious problems.
This lack of recovery explains most of the lab work abnormalities I stated before. Most humans can’t keep up with the repair demands that 5-7 days of super intense CrossFit training places on the body. The people who can are the competitors who spend the majority of their day focused on eating, sleeping, resting and recovering.
The reason behind this is the constant high intensity and your body’s attempt to constantly recover from this amount of training stimulus is not adequate. If you don’t have your nutrition dialed in and your non-training time dedicated to recovering physically, your body will be in constant repair mode.
Super intense CrossFit workouts done 1-2 times per week are probably more than enough for most people. Focus on recovery and work on some gymnastics and bodyweight movement if you want to improve your function. Do some yoga, pilates, swim, or anything that doesn’t make you feel like you’re going to die.
And no, Murph isn’t “active recovery” because there’s running in it.
TEST DON’T GUESS
When I stopped obsessively doing CrossFit because of how much I wanted to shift my priorities to my work, I assumed that I would lose all my “gains” and be a complete mess.
I dropped down to 3-5 days per week of lighter weights, higher reps, and more bodyweight movements. Maybe 1-2 super intense CrossFit workouts per month. A lot more “play” activities like playing basketball with friends, swimming, etc.
I also started eating about ⅓ the amount of protein in conjunction with switching to a primarily ketogenic diet.
What happened? Fourteen weeks later and my body composition actually improved, I gained 4 pounds of lean mass and feel better than I have in years.
The point here is that the only way you’ll know how you respond to something is if you make a change and observe the results. Test, don’t guess.
IT MAY NOT BE YOUR FAULT
This isn’t all on you. Crossfit properly done is a two-way street. You need the right mentality not only from the athlete but the coach as well. If you’re a CrossFit coach and programming for a class, you should be aggressively asking “why” you are choosing the workouts and movements you are dishing out as well. You should be asking yourself “am I trying to make my members fit and resilient to injuries or train them to win competitions?” Neither one of these results are wrong for the right person. What tool are you using and for what job?
Programming toes to bar in between deadlifts? Why? Are we trying to teach people to round their low backs into flexion when we don’t want that in a deadlift? Why? Is our goal to make the person more susceptible to injury or just make a workout hard because that’s what you think a workout is?
If you go to a gym where people are getting injured all of the time and the new members are tossing around Olympic lifts in WODs the second week they are in the gym, do yourself a favor and find somewhere new.
To reiterate, I do NOT think CrossFit is bad or any more injury prone than any other fitness regimen for the average Joe as long as it is programmed for functional fitness and not for the CrossFit Games athlete and that the athlete is working with the assumption of trying to improve on the goals they want to reach, not fight through a competition.
You can fit CrossFit into your workout plan in a long lasting way if you are asking the right questions. If you’re doing CrossFit, before your next workout, I want you to ask yourself: “Am I a competitor or not?” and “does this workout help me reach my goals?”
As my good friend Dr. Ryan DeBell of The Movement Fix would say: “Train to improve, compete to win.”