By now, you’re probably in the fitness minority if you haven’t heard about Crossfit and the functional fitness revolution. Elaborate gyms lined with row after row of various exercise machines and cardio equipment have taken a back seat to simple “box” gyms with nothing more than some medicine balls, free-weights, ropes, kettlebells and maybe some rowing ergometers. But how effective is functional fitness? Can rusty kettlebells and old ropes really provide the same benefit as a treadmill and an incline row machine?
Let me first state that I love Crossfit. I love it for its culture of simplicity and minimalism, as well as for the improvements I’ve seen in my own fitness level as a result of following its program. However, as a fitness professional, I know that all fitness programs must meet three tried-and-true principles in order to be maximally effective: specificity, overload, and progression.
“Regardless of the type of training program, there are three foundational principles that always apply: specificity, overload, and progression. A lack of attention to any of these principles often produces less than desirable training outcomes and sometimes injury,” says the National Strength and Conditioning Association in its book, “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning.”
So how does Crossfit stack up to these principles?
The NSCA defines specificity as a “method whereby an athlete is trained in a specific manner to produce a specific adaptation or training outcome.” Essentially, to become a better runner, you need to run. To improve your bench press, you need to keep practicing the bench press.
Crossfit is general, rather than specific. Originally targeted toward police, firemen and the military, Crossfit’s program focuses on whole-body movements that can be applied to a variety of real-life skills, such as carrying a wounded victim down a flight of stairs. To quote the Crossfit website: “Our specialty is not specializing.”
Overload refers to increasing the training stimulus beyond what your body is used to. You need to continually overload your body to see new gains in strength, endurance and muscle growth. Through our body’s natural response to physical stress, known as the General Adaptation Syndrome, we grow bigger muscle fibers, recruit more motor units and develop bigger and more efficient hearts. What doesn’t kill us in training, within reason, makes us stronger.
Crossfit does overload to some extent, but it depends on a number of individual factors. Crossfit’s one-size-fits-all approach to fitness may be overload some and under-load others. Crossfit does follow a general program that allows for rest and recovery of certain muscle groups. However, without knowing the individual exerciser’s needs, it’s difficult to know which muscle groups really need rest and how much, as well as when to increase the load of a specific exercise.
The program must become increasingly difficult in order to see continued gains in performance, according to the NSCA. Dr. Tudor Bompa coined the term “periodization,” to illustrate how a training program should progress throughout the year. The body can lose its ability to adapt when the program remains stagnant, and the trainer or coach needs to know when to alter the volume and intensity of the workouts to either make the program more difficult or provide rest.
Crossfit’s program design is non-linear. There may be day-to-day variety in the difficulty of workouts, but there is generally no steady line of increasing difficulty. Opting for general, all-around fitness and an inclusive program design, Crossfit’s “workouts of the day,” or WODs, do not increase in difficulty over a long period of time. However, you can keep track of your own progress and increase difficulty as you see fit.
Crossfit will almost certainly get you in shape. Following Crossfit’s WODs will likely allow you to learn a variety of difficult movements and will make you an all-round better athlete. However, if you have a very specific goal for training, rather than to simply become “hardcore,” Crossfit probably isn’t for you. If you’re a high school wrestler, following Crossfit’s WODs probably won’t provide the most optimal plan to peak you at the right time of the year. If you have a goal of losing a certain amount of weight, Crossfit will definitely help, but you will spend a lot of time performing unnecessary and difficult strength-training exercises.
Finally, Crossfit’s violation of the NSCA’s training principles, and its sometimes illogical workout design, may place you at an increased risk of injury. For example, can you perform 20 pullups, 25 ring-dips, 30 kettlebell swings and 20 hang cleans as fast as you can, right now? That describes just half of a recent Crossfit WOD. Did you also make sure to warm up first and cool down afterwards?
Crossfit is cool. It’s a fun and macho fitness counterculture that will likely get you in shape. But make sure to approach the WODs with caution. Scale back on the sets/reps/load when needed and spend ample time mastering the technique of each lift. And if you’re an athlete or just an average exerciser with some specific goals, you’re better off getting a trainer who has the skills and expertise to take your specific abilities and limitations into account.