To CrossFit or not to CrossFit?

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We’ve all heard of CrossFit. Whether you’ve watched the CrossFit Games on TV, seen memes all over your social media feed, or have a friend who just won’t shut up about it. This form of functional fitness is renowned for creating absolute beasts, helping people to lose weight, gain strength and improve overall health – not to mention offering a community of like-minded, supportive fitness fans.

But, despite the growing trend and interest taken in the sport, many of us can’t help but harp back to the days only a few years ago, where we used to rip into our friends who did CrossFit. We’ve all laughed at that one mate for being part of the ‘cult’, famous for swinging around on a rig, unable to do a strict pull up…

So, have things changed since then? Is CrossFit still the crazy workout where members go from one injury to the next or is it actually the real deal when it comes to getting fit? Is it for everyone – you, your mum and your grandma – or do you have to be a certain level to start?

Samantha Harris at Action PR spoke to a number of fitness experts on the matter, discussing the benefits of CrossFit, the prerequisites and what to expect from your coach when joining a box.

Jens Vatter – International Head Coach GluckerKolleg

“The idea of CrossFit is great. The concept that you can combine different elements of weightlifting, bodyweight movements and gymnastics and make fitness a little more competitive and exciting. Yet, in practice, the execution is often poor. Workouts are all about going to maximum. Hitting a certain number of reps in minimal time or vice versa. I often see the emphasis placed on the need for speed and power, with people getting carried away and giving limited awareness or concentration to the stability and mobility required. It is no surprise CrossFit has become the highest ranked sport in the USA for injuries…

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with a number of elite level athletics coaches. They have always preached the importance of building from the ground up. Focus on the basics, drill technique, work on eliminating restrictions. In Olympic Weightlifting for example this can take a year or longer to do properly. Only when athletes are competent in the static movements, should they even consider lifting weight dynamically and explosively. The problem that I see from a lot of CrossFit boxes, is that they spend a couple of weeks teaching technique and the next thing you know, they ask members to go for high reps in a workout. You need intense levels of concentration to get perfect movement for such complex skills. It’s just not possible to concentrate that hard when you’re trying to go faster. Consequently, the potential for injury is much higher.

The nature of CrossFit is that it is exciting, competitive and people want to improve. Any form of fitness which encourages people to move more is of course great. The issue with CrossFit is that it can be an extremely taxing form of fitness for your body. Completing 200 box jumps, 100 burpees, 50 clean and jerks in a session will no doubt tire you out. But CrossFitters come back day in and day out, with insufficient rest. Indeed, CrossFitters record some of the highest Creatine Phosphokinase (CPK) blood levels (amount of muscular breakdown) following a workout. Putting your body through this multiple times a week, on top of the stresses of general life, is too much. Once a week is more than enough.

As I said before, the idea of CrossFit is great – I often take elements from it and incorporate them into my group training sessions. Your everyday individual can benefit immensely from some of the functional movements CrossFit has to offer, just not always to the level required. Does anyone really need to sit into such a deep squat? Basic fitness can get people fit and healthy without adding load and volume and speed. We should be looking to accommodate for all levels of abilities and age groups, helping the masses to move more and better, rather than promoting the fitter, faster, harder attitude. Because more exciting and heart racing doesn’t necessarily mean healthier or better for you.

Neil Dimmock, Head of Fitness at Ten Health & Fitness

As a fitness professional, it makes me happy when people want to increase their activity levels. However, what I see too often, is people trying to move more, without knowing how to move better, first. This is essential for all forms of exercise, but even more so when it comes to CrossFit, due to the high skill level, range of motion and stability required.

For example, in CrossFit, you have moves like the overhead squat, which expects participants to squat, with resistance, above their head, often at speed. Whilst in principle there is nothing wrong with this movement pattern, there is a large percentage of the population who won’t have the mobility in their ankles or shoulders for this, let alone the core stability. As such, they are far more likely to injury themselves during the session, or fast track themselves to an injury down the line.

Keen participants are always going to want to jump right in – I see it all the time, with clients wanting to step up to our intermediate level classes before they’ve mastered the basics. It’s my role as a trainer to ensure they can walk before they run. The buzz of CrossFit exudes that go harder, faster, heavier mentality. Hence, it is vital CrossFit coaches do the same. Whilst it’s very easy for gym owners to want to see uplift in memberships and packed out classes, this can’t come at the cost of clients’ health. When screened and assessed properly, given the right progressions and developed to the appropriate level to perform such movements, individuals can benefit greatly from this form of workout.

I wholeheartedly recommend CrossFit as an amazing form of exercise – it combines resistance training with cardio, putting varying demands on the body through changes in speed, load and direction. It is the definition of a functional approach to exercise. What I don’t recommend is going into it blind, and coaches have a duty to be screening participants to check they are ready. Build a structure. Make the body resilient first. Look at mobility and core stability before anything else. When you’ve instilled the correct movement patterns and habits – with the coaches blessing – definitely go and give it a go!

Harriet Hewitt, MSc Sports Therapy and Head of Programming at CrossFit Watford

“Due to my background in sports therapy, I was initially introduced to the coaching staff at CrossFit Watford as the Movement Specialist, with a focus on integrating effective warm-ups and ensuring correct movement patterns during classes. As such, movement quality has always been a key part of our gym’s philosophy – both in the on-boarding process and throughout members’ journeys with us. I’m an absolute stickler for good form and movement standards – our members will vouch for that! But it’s a necessary part of exercise, especially in CrossFit.

When a prospective member walks through our doors, they attend a Beginner’s Course, whereby we assess their level of physical competence, mobility and strength, alongside teaching basic CrossFit movements. The Nature of CrossFit is such that the demands on the body can be fairly high, so it’s imperative they are able to move properly and safely. We’d never let someone exercise under load if they can’t. Instead, we alter movements, offer mobility coaching through our MAP online platform and encourage one-on-one sessions to build the foundations before they official enter a class. Once deemed ready, we welcome them into our workouts.

In the past there’s been a stigma associated with CrossFit for being this high intensity, crazy form of exercise for only the fittest and sportiest of individuals – and if that’s not you, you’ll just injury yourself trying. That’s far from the truth. When delivered properly, it’s an incredible form of exercise, which is scalable for everyone. It improves fitness, strength, joint health, movement under load, not to mention reducing stress levels. Personally, it’s helped me understand the amazing things my body is capable of, more so than any other form of fitness – and that’s even with a career in professional level rugby.

As such, anyone and everyone has a place in a CrossFit gym and we’ve welcomed in all age ranges, from 13 year olds looking to kick start their fitness journey, to 70 year olds wanting to move a little more and feel better in their bodies. As long as we understand the needs and restrictions of each individual, they can get the most from their CrossFit experience. Injuries are prevalent in every sport, but when you instil good practice, drill effective movement, encourage on-going joint management and treat niggles before they become a problem, there’s absolutely no reason to suggest CrossFit would be anything other than beneficial for anyone of any age.”

Liam Smith, Personal Trainer, Snap Fitness Burntwood

CrossFit is the definition of high risk for high reward. Yes, it’s an amazing way to increase your strength and fitness, but it’s also a sure-fire way to get hurt. If you’re someone who thrives off competition and needs that extra element to make you push a little harder, then great, CrossFit might be what you need, but for the average Joe just looking to get a fitter and tone up, there are much less risky ways to do so.

Let’s start with the workout. In a CrossFit box, members walk in and they do whatever is on the board, regardless of their ability or even their overall fitness goals. In the gym, and especially with personal training, programming is tailored specifically to the individual, based solely around their needs and requirement. We can break down each session to focus on different elements – like programming a leg day session if they want to build their lower body strength. In CrossFit, you’re at the mercy of the workout of the day (WOD), regardless of what you want to work on.

Similarly, CrossFit boxes don’t have any mirrors. As a personal trainer, allowing my clients to watch themselves, see how they move and show them little tweaks to improve their technique is vital to their progress. A lot of people struggle to feel small changes to their movement patterns, but when they can watch themselves and see any posture changes I make, they adapt quickly and reduce their chance for injury. That’s much harder in a CrossFit gym, and considering the complexity of many of the different exercises, it’s a huge oversight.

I do agree, CrossFit brings about fast and amazing results – from fitness through to weight-loss and muscle gains. It brings together like-minded people and you often hear CrossFitters referring to their box as their family. Community is a great thing and if it means people continue to exercise for the rest of their lives, then perfect. The issue with such an intense form of workout is the burnout it brings on. When you try and push yourself to the limits every day, it’s inevitable. And when you add in the element of competition, coupled with big egos, you’re not going to see people ‘taking it easy’ or scaling the weight even if they really should…”

Whatever your perception and opinion on CrossFit, we’ll leave you with the words of Greg Glassman, Founder of CrossFit. “The needs of an Olympic athlete and our grandparents differ by degree not kind. One is looking for functional dominance, the other for functional competence. We have used our same routines for elderly individuals with heart disease and cage fighters. We scale load and intensity; we do not change the programs.”

So the rest is for you to decide. To CrossFit, or not to CrossFit…?


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