Crossfit is a gym, a lifestyle, a cult, or a training style, depending on your point of view. While Crossfitters swear by it, most strength & conditioning coaches disparage it. In my limited experience with Crossfit, I believe the owner/founder is a marketing genius. Greg Glassman has made it cool to belong to a gym with none of the standard gym equipment. He used basic psychology to create a cult-like following by tapping into people’s need for relatedness and desire for competition and hard work. He created a program that minimizes the time in the gym, important for busy people, and maximizes people’s affiliation with the gym.
Despite the insistence of many Crossfitters, Crossfit did not invent Olympic weightlifting, pull-ups, rope climbs, and other exercises that are ignored in more traditional gyms. However, by changing terminology (a gym is a box) and creating the WOD (workout of the day), Crossfitters speak their own language; they are different from the general public, and that differentiation makes them feel special. Teams create mantras, wear special clothes (ties on game days), etc. to create this same sense of togetherness and coolness for being part of the team. When I rowed, I had a shirt that read, “Athletes row; everyone else just plays games.” Shirts like that are meant for rowers to bond together and feel a sense of togetherness and superiority toward other sports, important in retaining rowers, just like Crossfitters creating terminology.
In that sense, I think Glassman is a marketing genius. If he writes a business or marketing book, I will read it.
I also appreciate Crossfit’s efforts to make real weightlifting and training cool. Most gyms and personal trainers sit clients on machines, bust out too many repetitions with too little resistance, and walk through a workout. The primary motivation is safety, not results, strength, or movement. When a gym like Curves pays its “trainers” minimum wage, you know the quality of training is absent.
The problem with Crossfit, and the reason that many S&C coaches disparage it, is that there appears to be very little training theory. Much like the basketball development system and its hodge-podge of programs without any overriding philosophy, workouts appear from day to day with little apparent planning. Further, like the current youth sports environment, hard or intense trumps everything else.
I spoke to a basketball coach yesterday who is using a Crossfit enthusiast to do some of his off-season workouts for him. His rationale for its success is that the players put their heads down when the Crossfitter comes in the gym because they know that it will be hard. It is mid-April. Games do not start until next November. Are six months of continuous hard workouts the best way to develop basketball players?
I watched part of an on-court workout designed by the Crossfitter. There was nothing inherently novel or wrong with the workout. However, the technique was terrible. As players got tired, the quality of the work worsened. The workout was beyond the work capacity of the players. This is where injuries occur because the body is not prepared for the work. This is a major critique of Crossfit.
The workouts essentially combined running, repeat jumps, and push-ups in a ladder. The explanation was that it would help improve maximal jumping ability. However, they started with 50 repeat jumps. That is not a maximal workout. The players barely got off the ground for their last jumps. Furthermore, they were not jumping and landing properly. There was no mention of ground contact time (GCT). There was no instruction period.
I shared a weight room with a Crossfit class this spring. I saw the same lack of technique and understanding of training principles. I watched a class attempt to find their max in the back squat after their WOD. I don’t remember their WOD on the day, but let’s assume that it achieved its purpose and the Crossfitters were suitably gassed at the end of it. How do you find your max in the back squat if you are gassed? Furthermore, is it safe? I thought a girl blew out her knee because she ended in such a compromised position and could not raise out of the squat. Other times, I watched split-squat jumps, pull-ups, and push-ups and wondered what the Crossfitters were doing. They almost always used too much weight, and their technique was incorrect to awful.
In the basketball workout, the players could not do proper push-ups. However, rather than instructing them, they were asked to do 120+ push-ups during the workout. That is reinforcing poor technique and failing to develop the strength that one believes is being developed. Similarly, even the running was developing bad habits as players were tired and not concentrating on their changes of direction.
Was the workout hard? Yes. Were the players tired at the end of the workout? Yes. Will this improve conditioning? Maybe. Is that the point of the off-season? Not to me.
Another critique of Crossfit is the lack of periodization. Periodization is an organized approach to training. Its purpose is to prevent plateaus and to work toward a peak as the season begins. Essentially, it is the planning of training so players are not doing the same exercises and the same routines throughout the year. Therefore, during the off-season, a S&C coach might cycle through a strength phase, a reactive strength phase, and a strength-endurance phase. Each of these would have different goals and purposes.
At the beginning of the off-season, while players recover from the competitive season, my first cycle would be technique. This is a time to return to the basics, teach new movements or lifts, and unload from the stress of the season. Focusing on technique would work the body through the full range of motion and help identify weakness and tightness that would need to be addressed before loading the players. This time would set the tone for the rest of the off-season by teaching the proper way to change directions, land, jump, clean, do a push-up, etc. The teaching is done in a period where I am unconcerned with the intensity of the exercise because the players are recovering. During more intense training cycles, I continue to emphasize the movement technique, but I can rely on cue words because the players have a basic understanding of the technique, even if they have not mastered the movements completely.
Crossfit, in my experience, is not the evil organization that some make it out to be. There are concerns with injuries and overtraining with the normal population as well as athletes. However, some of that is self-inflicted. Just because there is a time and the goal is to finish in as short a time as possible does not mean that a person has to push him or herself beyond his or her capacities. The exercises are largely self-directed, so the responsibility is primarily on the individual to maintain his or her technique and manage his or her fatigue.
From a sports-preparation perspective, I do not believe in the efficacy of Crossfit for high-school or college athletes because these athletes need instruction and preparation to maximize their training. Basketball is a game of movement; training poor movement intensely is not going to make a player better. Quality of training is more important than quantity.
Too often, in training, we put the cart (intensity) before the horse (technique). Crossfit certainly encourages this. Young athletes need appropriate, progressive training to maximize the benefits.
Edit: An example of why so many people take issue with Crossfit: