CrossFit is enigmatic. It has a massive following—many of its proponents bound together by extreme, almost cultish, veneration. Yet despite its large and devoted confederacy, it is open source and somewhat hard to classify. Is it a company? An organization? A movement? A sport? Ask a number of people and you will likely receive a number of different answers. For me, CrossFit is defined more by the collective consciousness of its devotees than by its fitness constructs.
In recent years I have undoubtedly studied CrossFit more than any other exercise conformity. Sweating to countless workouts, participating in competitions, building routine-specific equipment … all parts of my recent CrossFit history. I have even met ‘Pukey the Clown,’ CrossFit’s mascot of sorts. Without question, I am unconditionally acquainted with CrossFit and the culture which surrounds it.
In the text to follow I offer an overview of CrossFit, as well as my subjective evaluation of it as a frequent practitioner. Additionally, I put together a YouTube agglomeration of CrossFit in action.
An Overview of CrossFit
CrossFit is a strength and conditioning protocol with emphasis on ten physical domains: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, and accuracy. CrossFit was created by the highly polarizing (some like him about as much as they like getting an unauthorized boner while wearing sweat pants, others swear he is God’s sibling) Greg Glassman, a one-time gymnast. Glassman conceived CrossFit in the 1980s; in 1995 the first CrossFit affiliated gym was opened; by the mid-2000s CrossFit had international buzz; today we have CrossFit.com and thousands of affiliate gyms worldwide.
CrossFit workouts are colloquially known as WODs, an acronym of “Workout of the Day.” WODs are disseminated to practitioners via CrossFit.com, and or thousands of affiliate gyms. Other than on “rest days,” a new WOD is posted on CrossFit.com (the atomic clock of CrossFit) every twenty-four hours. Affiliates run their gyms as they choose. Some lead their members in whatever WOD is posted on CrossFit.com; others create their own workouts.
WODs are inherently diverse given their aggregated aim at improving ten distinct physical domains. They often call for running, rowing, calisthenics, powerlifting, rope climbing, kettlebelling, jump roping, and moving heavy objects. So that times and stats can be easily compared, and perhaps to imbue a bit of personality, WODs are often given monikers. In example, “Fran” is thrusters and pull-ups done three rounds of 21-15-9 repetitions for time. “Helen” is a 400 meter run, 21 kettlebell swings, and 12 pull-ups done three rounds for time. Some monikers are arbitrary; others have meaning. There is a number of “hero” WODs—“Murph” being a popular one—named after fallen soldiers for example.
Beyond its quiddity as a strength and conditioning protocol, CrossFit crosses into the “sports” sphere. Since 2007, luminaries have come together annually to compete in the CrossFit Games. Reebok currently sponsors the event, billing it as “… the world’s premier test to find the fittest on earth.”
My Subjective Evaluation of CrossFit
CrossFit is wildly popular, but also polarizing. It has extreme proponents (“firebreathers” in CrossFit vernacular), and extreme detractors among both casual and elite athletes. Its firebreathers, much like Honey Badger, are particularly fervid. I once posted a fairly neutral comment to a CrossFit forum only to have a firebreather jump in with the compelling and oft favored counterpoints, “… you don’t know shit about CrossFit … You are probably a fucking Zumeba [sic] instructor or something.” CrossFit detractors can be a pretty blatant bunch as well. In the same forum that I sparred with the verbally conquering firebreather, a detractor posted the statement, “…CrossFit WODs are incredibly haphazard. They can kill you, literally.” So where do I stand? Am I one of CrossFit’s firebreathers, or detractors? Pragmatically, I stand in the middle.
I enjoy CrossFit. Its WODs are incredibly intense, yet still succinct. It offers tremendous workout variety—one day you may be sprinting and doing pull-ups, the next you might be swinging kettlebells and jumping rope. It has a massive—active—social community. I could go on. Bottom line it has an organic quality to it that few workout modalities have. Paradoxically though, some of the attributes that make CrossFit so appealing also frustrate me at times.
Awhile back I stumbled on an interview Greg Glassman gave a blogger in which he said, “If you come to us with a 4-minute mile, six months into it you are going be 30 seconds slower but a whole hell of a lot fitter.” He went on to say, “… come to us with a 900-pound squat, in six months it’s going to be 750 pounds, but you, too, will be much fitter.” His words make sense. Most elite runners capable of a four-minute mile do not powerlift. Most powerlifters capable of squatting 900 pounds are too muscled to run an eight-minute mile (in some cases a mile period). CrossFit presumably splits the difference for these two types of athletes. It introduces weightlifting to the runner, and running to the weightlifter. In doing so it theoretically gives both athletes more rounded fitness; but, to an extent, it does so at the expense of top-end performance in both of their disciplines. So, which is preferred, being a jack of all trades but a master of none, or being a master of one but deficient in many?
A position held by numerous detractors is that CrossFit is a dangerous discipline. Many proffer the notion that doing the Olympic lifts after the running, sprinting, or jump-roping that many WODs call for is both non-productive and a recipe for injury. They point out that there does not appear to be solid science behind the progression of WODs over time. “One day you may do fifty snatches, the next fifty handstand push-ups, the next thirty ring dips and muscle ups … Your shoulders are thoroughly broken down after day one, yet days two and three you are still throwing lifts at them,” they say.
I am an avid cyclist, and at times a competitive runner; I am not, however, an elite athlete who can run a four-minute mile or squat 900 pounds. Even still, I have at times felt (slightly) the ill effects of CrossFit’s non-discipline specific training protocols. And while I am by no means a fervent detractor who posits the idea that CrossFit workouts have absolutely no congruency over time, I have occasionally questioned the general cohesion of its WODs.
Bottom line? I am much more a proponent of CrossFit than not. Its open source foundation is unique, and I think for the most part that it is an excellent strength and conditioning protocol—one I will call on often. Like any training modality though, it has its flaws.
A YouTube Agglomeration of CrossFit in Action