CrossFit – So Close…

January 20, 2012

Just a few weeks ago I wrote about my personal 10-week CrossFit experience. This post is about CrossFit on the whole (though informed by my experience, of course).

Anyone who has ever read an article (or watched a youtube video) about CrossFit likely has concerns about the health and safety of the whole operation. It’s impossible to deny that olympic lifts and compound movements can be injurious when performed incorrectly. It’s hard to deny that racing the clock to finish high-rep WODs is likely to cause dangerous breakdowns in form. It’s arguable whether a weekend of seminars and workouts (CrossFit Level 1 Cert) is enough qualification to guide all levels of people through these potentially harmful classes. This is all old news.

The way I see it, life is a series of decisions as to how much danger you’ll accept. It’s everyone’s right to accept the dangers of joining a CrossFit box, or much worse, the dangers of opening a poorly run affiliate.

The fact of the matter is that there are plenty of CrossFit boxes with great trainers, doing the workouts just as intended and keeping their clients safe. The issue I have with CrossFit is that even in this ideal situation, CrossFit isn’t what most people should be doing.


The first time I walked into my CrossFit box of choice (henceforth “The Box”), I signed a waiver and performed the WOD (scaled in a big way as the trainer’s caution won out over my hubris, thankfully). After the workout, I signed up for three months and paid upfront.

The membership form requested information about any injuries, as did the trainer prior to that first workout. I listed shoulder problems, half because it’s true and half to explain my planned avoidance of SDHPs and all things kipping.

Notably absent from the form, and not asked by the trainer or owner – my goals. No one asked “why are you here?” or “what do you want to get out of this?”. I figured they assumed that as a pretty lean and muscular young man, I was there to become a CF Badass.

I realized later that they didn’t ask my goals because it would have served no purpose; they wouldn’t have done anything differently for me to help me achieve them. They still would have had me doing the WOD 3 on, 1 off like every one else. This is how CrossFit is designed.

With a regretful mix of arrogance and apathy, Greg Glassman (CF Founder) describes that CrossFit doesn’t change for the trainee, the trainee changes for CrossFit.

“If you came to me with a set of goals that looked like ‘lose the fat, improve my musculature,’ or ‘move toward a better aesthetic,’ I wouldn’t do anything differently for you than if you came to me and said, ‘I want to improve my work capacity across broad time and modal domains.’ “

Yea, that’s stupid. And it’s also ignoring other common goals, like “carry groceries in from the car,” and “have big biceps.” These goals may seem weak or vain, but if that’s what the trainee wants, it’s what the trainer they are paying should try to give them.

Glassman continues: “I want to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Specialization is for insects. I’m looking for breadth of experience, and anyone who is at all wise realizes that being a specialist represents a compromised position.”

You know who else specializes, in addition to insects? Olympic athletes. I can guarantee you wouldn’t know the name Michael Phelps if his mission in life was to be pretty good at a bunch of crap.

The irony here is that CrossFit is very much specialized. CrossFit refuses to adapt to the goals of the trainee, refuses to be custom. By avoiding doing anything really well, they have specialized in mediocrity.

CrossFit is not the best way to lose fat. CrossFit is not the best way to get strong. CrossFit is not the best way to be better at a sport. Even athletes training for “the sport of CrossFit” don’t train with CrossFit anymore. Think about it – CrossFit isn’t even the best way to get good at CrossFit.

The good news is that elements of CrossFit are a great tool in many types of training. The foundations of CrossFit are solid and there is evidence that the early days were bright. I firmly believe that strategic applications of extreme intensity are vital to optimal health and athleticism in a large variety of pursuits. I love the (old) lean towards skill and strength over volume.

It is with volume that CrossFit has box-jumped the shark. The repetitions and AMRAP times have increased steadily since the early days, but the frequency (3 on 1 off) remains. Something has to give, and that something is intensity, health, or both. CrossFit has lost its way.

It’s easy to see how this happened. Intensity is addictive; we love a good beat-down. Also, with trainees scaling weight regularly, the only way for a programmer to hold their feet to the fire is with more reps or time. The focus on skill work and mental challenge has faded as the movement has grown.

Hidden behind the grungy appeal of warehouse workouts and puking clowns is a fact becoming increasingly hard to ignore: CrossFit is “forging elite fitness” not like a blacksmith with a hammer and anvil, but like a scared child signing their father’s name on a bad report card – CrossFit is faking it.

Luckily, there is a simple solution. When a trainee walks through the door, ask why they came in, what they want. Then program specifically for them. Fortunately, there isn’t a large variety of goals, so you can have three or four programs running and just plug them into one with a few personal tweaks. And the different programs can have a fair amount of overlap, like sharing a couple of strength days. It would take more work, but you’d have happier healthier clients, which likely means more of them, so you can have more staff.

I came down pretty hard on CrossFit here, but I really did love my time at The Box. It was great for me because it caused me to realize that I hadn’t been pushing the intensity envelope as far as I could. I’m also really glad that I established a baseline competency with olympic lifts. The trainers were great, I’m sure better than most.

Also, spending a little time in a globo-gym since my days at The Box has shown me that the majority of trainees have horrible form – even with basics like the squat and deadlift. In the last month at 24hr Fitness, I’ve seen three people squatting without lifting their heels (compared to dozens up on their toes), and two of them told me they have been to a CrossFit box before.

The fact of the matter is that on the vast spectrum from zero activity to optimal, CrossFit is much closer to the latter than the former. What bothers me is that CrossFit is so close – has so much promise – yet has missed the mark a bit.

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