What is CrossFit?

 It's a mixed bag, folks. 

It's a mixed bag, folks. 

CrossFit is probably not new to anyone anymore. The faddishness has lost a bit of it's underground appeal, as it's become more mainstream over the past few years. But, if you've been living in a world devoid of Reebok, florescent socks and being pressured to make something "paleo-friendly" for a pot luck, let me fill you in. 

Crossfit was the brain(?) child of Greg Glassman, a college gymnastics coach turned personal trainer turned self-proclaimed rogue fitness expert. He created a fitness program that combined high intensity interval training and plyometrics with Olympic weightlifting and a dash of gymnastics. He opened the first CrossFit box with his (now) ex-wife in 2000, with the idea of creating a rebellious crew of super athletes who excel at all forms of physical fitness.

The idea is to be ready for anything, so the workouts - or WODs - change daily. One day might have you doing sprints, pull ups and box jumps and the next, thrusters to death. You never know what you're going to get, but you have to do it as fast as you can and as heavy/hard as you can. You are being timed and ranked against whoever shows up that day. 

CrossFitters are known for being rebellious and cultish, and are the first ones on the underground bandwagons, like bulletproof coffee, paleo dieting, bacon and doughnut binges, and rocktape. They're kind of like the Joe Rogan of the fitness industry - all flamboyant and gullible and don't tread on me-like. 

The Good

I have to hand it to CrossFit for breathing life back into the lifting community. Before CrossFit, powerlifting was a niche sport and Olympic weightlifting was nearly dead. Bodybuilding was relatively popular, but not nearly as much as it is now. Not only that, but CrossFit is largely responsible for the "strong, not skinny" movement among women. For the first time, it is mainstream for ladies to belt up, clap on some chalk, and fuck it up in the gym. I like the outfits, too (only for the women, though, tights and man buns on dudes is just unappealing, no matter how showy the package.)  

The camaraderie is great for people who would otherwise give up. Friends will cheer and push you on to reach your full potential. It's validating to feel like you are part of a team and belong somewhere. Going beyond what you think you can do and not only surviving, but killing your previous time is an incredibly empowering thing. 

Your conditioning will be amazing. All the high-intensity intervals and breakneck pace will improve your entire cardiovascular system. Lifting weights will increase your strength and build some muscle, provided you eat enough - which is always encouraged - and rest enough - which is sometimes neglected -to repair your body. 

You will experience a wider variety of functional movement and exercise than you would by only powerlifting or Olympic lifting. If you are consistent, you will have better conditioning than a powerlifter, more strength than a runner, and more agility than your regular gym rat.

The Bad and the Ugly

That said, a jack of all trades is a master of none. You will never out-lift the lifters, or out-run the runners, nor will you out-curl a gym bro. Without specific training and periodization, you'll never reach your full potential in one area. Since CrossFit training is random, you may only work something sporadically and you are always going full-tilt in all directions. You may get decent at a lot of things, but you won't achieve greatness at one. 

Injury: moderate to severe risk. Full stop.  

CrossFit is making all the sports doctors, physical therapists and chiropractors rich by encouraging novices to push past all limits with a hundred pounds or more over their head. Olympic lifting was never designed for speed or going to failure.  On it's own, the sport is at least a moderate injury risk - making it a race increases that risk exponentially. There are ample opportunities to sprain your ankle, tear your knee, throw your back, and blow your shoulder every class if you are not completely honest with yourself and adherent to your exhaustion level and limitations. You could even get rhabdomyolysis, when your muscle cells die and flood your kidneys with too much protein, effectively shutting them down. Sound fun? You can thank CrossFit for making a super-rare disorder seen only in a handful of endurance athletes, navy SEALS and extreme athletes not only a real possibility, but a joke. (No, seriously, they've made a clown mascot out of it.) 

Quality control and lack of training credentials is also a problem. All it takes to become a certified CrossFit coach is about $1,000 and a weekend of your time. All it takes to license and retain a box, is a certification and yearly fee to CrossFit, Inc. The actual coaches can vary wildly, from people who have a lot of experience and education to someone who drank the Kool Aid six months ago and wants to make some money. The affiliates make their own rules and pricing and they may or may not be qualified to do a real pull up, let alone coach someone on a technical lift or be able to tell when someone needs to be pushed forward or pulled back. Unfortunately, this is also seen at the professional level. (Google "she got that lift.") 

Is CrossFit Right For You? 

I don't know. Are you a devil-may-care die hard libertarian who likes the feeling of tape all over their body and has a great health insurance plan? 

I think CrossFit is evolving these days. From what I see on social media, it seems many boxes are keeping the heavy lifting more separate from the WODs and coaches are getting more educated and experienced with their clients when it comes to sports knowledge, periodization and injury prevention. Or maybe I'm only seeing the top-tier gyms in my feed. 

On the other hand, the converted will often shut down any conversation that pokes flaws in the program. You are supposed to push it too far, but if you push it too far and get hurt, you will be chided for being wrong, not the program or the culture. They say leave your ego at the door, then imply you should f*cking race until you puke or piss yourself. Greg Glassman enjoys the tough mystique, saying, "It can kill you. I've always been completely honest about that."

Personally, I think that's a bit dramatic. 

Look, CrossFit can be one of those things that changes your life. It can also be one of those things that gives you an injury for life. If you are looking for something wild and extreme, or a raucous team sport, go for it. But, heed my advice: Check out every box in your area before you sign up. Find out if the coach is truly certified to be doing what they are doing or just has a certification. Watch the class. Are they having a bunch of uncoordinated boobs wing-dinging bumper plates all over the place? Wrenching their backs trying to pull barbells off the floor for 100 repetitions? Or is there some control and coaching on form? Is it a fun group of people you want to work with? Or a cluster of blowhards and know-it-alls, one upping each other in between rounds of kipping pull ups? This will be your crew, make sure they seem like decent people. 

I would also suggest having some lifting under your belt before looking into a box. If you understand proper form and what you are capable of, you will make more prudent choices even when you are being peer-pressured into pushing it. You'll know your body when your coach doesn't. Better to live to fight another day, than end up in a PT's office with a herniated disc and sidelined for the forseeable future.