Exercise statistics are grim. Only about one in five American adults meet US-government physical activity guidelines.
Those guidelines aren’t super stringent: They recommend adults perform 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity and two days of moderate- or high-intensity muscle strengthening two days every week.
CrossFit™ training hits several of those marks: It combines vigorous physical activity and weight training, and research shows its supportive group environment could improve exercise adherence. (1)
(One note before we proceed: CrossFit has trademarked their name, but I will refrain from using the trademark after its name throughout. Just know the word has been trademarked.)
What is CrossFit?
By now, you’ve probably heard about CrossFit from the 60 Minutes report several years ago, seeing a “box” pop in your neighborhood, or more likely, listening to someone rave about how CrossFit is the best thing ever.
“If you haven’t heard of CrossFit — the high-intensity training program that blends elements of weight lifting, gymnastics, old-school gym-class exercises, circuit training and aerobic conditioning — it’s probably because you haven’t yet met one of its loyal and enthusiastic participants,” says Cari Nierenberg at Live Science. (2)
Researchers call CrossFit an extreme conditioning program that typically involves high-volume and high-intensity physical activities with short rest periods between movements and use of multiple-joint exercises. (3)
Put another way, CrossFit workouts are intense, and their website doesn’t try to sugarcoat this point:
“It must be understood that [CrossFit] workouts are extremely demanding and will tax the capacities of even the world’s best athletes.” (4)
While the exercises vary tremendously (one of the program’s perks if you like to mix things up or get bored easily), a typical CrossFit workout combines high-intensity interval training (HIIT), weight resistance, and body weight exercises (such as squats and lunges) in a powerful, intense workout that can last you anyway from less than 30 minutes to an hour.
Let’s look at HIIT and weight resistance, both well-studied types of exercise. The former has become big among healthcare professionals because it gets results quickly without the time commitment.
Whereas moderate-intensity exercises like weight resistance or lap swimming hit about 50 – 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, higher-intensity exercise raises that number to 70 – 85 percent. In other words, HIIT leaves you breathless, and you shouldn’t be able to do it more than about a minute before you’re maxed out and need a rest.
Both moderate- and high-intensity exercise has its benefits, but HIIT provides a bigger bang for your metabolic buck in less time. One study equally divided 18 mostly physically inactive married or engaged females to either moderate-intensity aerobic and resistance training (ART) or high-intensity functional training (HIFT).
The ART group completed 50 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each session and full-body resistance training on two sessions per week. The HIFT group completed 60-minute sessions of CrossFit with actual workouts ranging from five to 30 minutes.
Researchers found HIFT beat ART on various factors, including exercise initiation, enjoyment, adherence, and intentions. HIFT participants spent significantly less time exercising per week, yet were able to maintain exercise enjoyment and were more likely to intend to continue. (5)
Then there’s weight training, which I’ve occasionally heard described as the fountain of youth. Research backs up this perspective. Studies find inactive adults lose three to eight percent of their muscle mass per decade, accompanied by gaining fat and a crashing metabolism.
Weight resistance can change that. Researchers find 10 weeks of resistance training may increase lean weight over three pounds, increase resting metabolic rate by seven percent, and reduce fat weight almost four pounds. (Original figures were in kilograms; I’ve converted to pounds.)
That’s not all. Among its benefits, lifting heavy improves:
- Physical performance
- Cognitive abilities
- Type 2 diabetes
- Insulin sensitivity
- Cardiovascular health
- Blood pressure
- Lipid profile
- Bone development (one to three percent increase in bone mineral density)
- Discomfort associated with arthritis and fibromyalgia
- Specific aging factors in skeletal muscle(6)
CrossFit combines these and other exercises elements together. Started in 1995 by former gymnast Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California, CrossFit today has a worldwide network of thousands of affiliates. “Boxes,” as they call them, are the gyms where CrossFit is conducted. (2)
In 2018, CrossFit has become massive. You’ve got CrossFit Regionals, where “The fittest athletes and teams in the region compete to earn their place in the 2017 Reebok CrossFit Games.” (7) (Yes, Reebok® sponsors CrossFit and CrossFit Games. (8)
CrossFit women? Yep, that’s a thing. Google it and you’ll find The 15 Most Badass Women Of The CrossFit Games, The Top 20 Women to Watch at the 2017, CrossFit Games, and The 12 Hottest Women of the 2015 CrossFit Games.
CrossFit has come a long way from that “box” gym in Southern California. But what’s the hype and does science support it?
Defining CrossFit Workouts
Whether you’re an exercise novice or fitness junkie, you can theoretically do CrossFit. It’s never too early or late in life to embrace this workout. On their website you’ll find information about CrossFit for kids, (9) and my favorite participant might be 94-year-old George Evans of South Wales, U.K. (10)
A key characteristic of CrossFit exercises is scalability. Put another way, the workouts have enough built-in flexibility to allow participants at different fitness levels to modify a similar training regimen, which they call the “workout of the day” or more likely, the acronym WOD. (1)
CrossFit also fosters a community feel you often don’t often find in gyms, yoga studios, or with most exercise programs. In fact, studies show compared with regular gym members, CrossFit members experience significantly greater bonding and community belongingness. (1)
Like I mentioned earlier, CrossFit prides itself on mixing up its WODs, which combine cardiovascular exercises like running, biking, and rowing with elements from Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, and gymnastics such as squatting and deadlifting.
“CrossFit athletes rarely do the same routines in the same week,” says James T. Cain. “For example, in Monday’s WOD, you might do 15 sit-ups, 20 lunges, and run half a mile, completing as many repetitions as possible (abbreviated AMRAP) in a certain amount of time. In Tuesday’s WOD, you might do 5 pull-ups, 10 sit-ups, and swim 5 laps AMRAP. CrossFitters spend somewhere between 20 and 40 minutes per day on a WOD.” (11)
Cain says CrossFit training incorporates 10 fundamental physical qualities including strength, stamina, power, flexibility, speed, agility, coordination, and balance.
“That means you’re going to do a whole bunch of different exercises in various disciplines, working as many parts of your body as possible,” he says. (11)
Nierenberg says a typical CrossFit session will entail about five minutes of warm up, a “skill phase” like an Olympic weight-lifting session featuring repetitions of a particular lift, followed by the WOD. (2)
Whereas the benefits of CrossFit haven’t been extensively studied as much as its individual components including HIIT and weight resistance, one study found CrossFit could dramatically improve aerobic capacity, anaerobic power, health-related fitness, body composition, and presence of neurotrophic factors including brain-derived neurotrophic factor. (12)
CrossFit doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and no doubt more studies will explore its other benefits. Science doesn’t need to sell it to many participants though: They have already committed to CrossFit, despite its potential drawbacks.
A quick Google search will turn up countless blogs and studies extolling the benefits of CrossFit. But you’ll also find plenty of criticism from disgruntled former and current CrossFit attendees.
Some of these criticisms are absolutely relevant, and research especially supports the last one I mention. Among them include:
As for cost, one gym charges $150 a month (or $240 per couple) for Unlimited Group WOD sessions & Open Gym, which they argue “are the equivalent of semi-personal training.” (13) If you do three classes a week and break that down, each class costs about $12. You’ve got to look at the bigger picture too: Being in better shape probably means fewer sick days, more confidence, and even longevity: All things you can’t put a price tag on. If cost truly prohibits you, you can find the WOD and many workouts for free online.
2. Quality of instructors.
Even though CrossFit instructors are certified, some trainers will be better than others. That happens anywhere. A good instructor will be patient but firm, walk you through exercises you haven’t mastered, and cheer you on during your workout. He or she will make sure you don’t put yourself at risk for injury. Stick with it for a few workouts and if you don’t jibe, look for another instructor.
3. A push to out-of-shape participants.
“They herd in soccer moms and out-of-shape dads under the guise that intense exercise will make them fit and lean, but going from zero to 60 on this program is just an invitation to injury,” one friend recently said.
At least with most facilities, that’s not entirely true. CrossFit usually provides introductory classes, and scalability ensures the workout becomes tailored to each participant’s fitness level. Besides, pushing sedentary people to extremes can happen in any workout program. I’m not totally defending CrossFit here, by the way, and I see the validity with this criticism.
4. Cult-like atmosphere.
Any workout regimen – yoga, Pilates, spin, whatever – can foster a cult-like atmosphere. CrossFit devotees seem incredibly dedicated, and the camaraderie might come off more clique-ish than welcoming. While you probably shouldn’t expect participants to immediately come across as warm and fuzzy, if you don’t feel welcome within a few classes despite making the effort (meaning, you’re not a wallflower and you don’t keep a scowl on your face the entire class), look for another class.
You can’t mention CrossFit without hearing “injuries,” and many PubMed studies discuss this problem in depth.
“Fatigue associated with high intensity anaerobic exercise may result in the deterioration of concentration and skill,” researchers note in one study. “This fatigue is believed to put athletes at greater risk of injury.” (1)
Researchers in another study found the majority of CrossFit workouts lack prescribed rest periods. (14) Rhabdomyolysis, where your muscles break down and “leak” cells into your bloodstream and create potential kidney injury, gets most of the spotlight. Researchers call it an “underdiagnosed and underreported” problem in CrossFit. (15) But there are other potential injury risks. Let’s look at a few studies that focus on them:
One online questionnaire with 132 responses found 97 people (nearly three-quarters of those who responded) sustained an injury during CrossFit training, and nine of the 186 injuries required surgical intervention. Shoulder and spine injuries were most common. (16)
Another study with 386 CrossFit participants found about one in five sustained some kind of injury, mostly acute and minor. Males had more injuries than females here. (17)
One study among four CrossFit facilities found athletes sustained 62 injuries during the preceding six months. Shoulder, knee, and lower back were the most frequently reported injury locations. (18)
In all fairness, one systematic review of 13 studies found CrossFit carried injury rates and health outcomes comparable with other exercise. (19)
Some of these criticisms are legitimate, and they emphasize what should be implemented in any workout program: If it feels painful, don’t do it. Only you can find your threshold, where you’re pushing yourself without risking injury.
If a trainer asks you to do something you believe will create harm, express your concern and ask whether you can modify that exercise. You know yourself and your body better than your trainer, and communication becomes key here. If your trainer isn’t receptive – if he or she pushes you to do it anyway or acts like a jerk when you ask to modify thing – find another trainer.
Exercise should be intense. It should be challenging. It should push you physically to help you become resilient in other areas of your life. Sometimes it might feel like fun. Some days you’re going to be up to the challenge and other days you won’t. Occasionally, it might hurt a little. But there’s a world of difference between temporary discomfort and putting yourself at risk for injury.
CrossFit for Beginners
Maybe you’re bored with your workout routine, crave a new challenge, or just want to see what all the fuss is about. With over 13,000 CrossFit affiliates worldwide, you’re certain to find one near you. Check out this link to find one. (20) CrossFit also offers online classes.
Before you begin, spend some time on CrossFit’s website reading their FAQ page, which answers many of your questions. (21) Ideally, you should visit your doctor and confirm you’re able to undergo intense exercise. Pre-existing injuries and certain conditions might give you the red light on starting CrossFit and other higher-intensity exercise programs.
Once you’ve found a nearby box, contact them and ask about attending an introductory class. Most offer a free class that introduces you to the basics of CrossFit. Instructors are also available after class to answer any questions, and you can usually schedule a follow-up session to discuss your goals and class options. While your experience might be different, I found instructors very helpful with none of the “hard sells” that some gyms and exercise programs use to lure in newbies.
Before you commit, ask yourself some questions including:
- What are your fitness goals? Would CrossFit be the right fit to reach those goals?
- Do you do well training in group environments? (Some people prefer to workout solo or with a partner.)
- Will you actually go to classes regularly? After all, those classes will be expensive if you frequently blow them off.
- Do you do better with one-on-one training? You might be better with a personal trainer if sharing an instructor among many participants limits you.
- Are you fully committed to your time at CrossFit? (You might prefer the go-at-your-own-pace at a regular gym.)
- Does the potential cheerleading attitude at CrossFit motivate you? (If high-fiving someone makes you roll your eyes, you might come across as aloof or unfriendly during workouts.)
These are also questions to bring up when you talk to your instructor. CrossFit isn’t for everyone, and you’ve got plenty of other workout options to reach you goals.
The CrossFit Diet
While it garners far less support than the actual workouts, diet and nutrition become an integral part of the CrossFit exercise.
While CrossFit prides itself on workout variety, their diet advice is pretty simple:
Whether or not you do CrossFit, this is pretty good nutrition advice even if it might feel limited or restrictive.
CrossFit recommends doing the Zone Diet during the first four weeks. (21) The Zone recommends eating 40 percent of your calories as carbohydrates, 30 percent as protein, and 30 percent as fat. Dividing food into those specific macros could feel confusing to some people. A Zone meal might be a grilled chicken breast, spinach, a sweet potato, and half an avocado.
CrossFit also promotes the Paleolithic (Paleo) Diet, which mimics what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. (22) While some overlap exists between these two plans, a Paleo diet would probably be lower in carbohydrate (although you could eat healthy carbohydrates like berries and sweet potatoes).
Some critics argue the lower-carb Paleo diet might benefit short-term performance but adversely impact longer-term training. Others, like Ben Greenfield, combine CrossFit with a high-fat ketogenic diet. (23) (I’ve written about ketogenic diets and the pros and cons of exogenous ketones – which are becoming more popular among athletes.)
Ultimately, figure out what works for you. Athletes overall tend to be more invested in diet and nutrition, and evaluating how different eating plans can impact performance can help you get the most out of your workouts. I’ve written about optimal protein intake, what to eat before and after a workout, and how to design an optimal workout-fueling eating plan in this blog.
5 Strategies to Optimize CrossFit or Any Workout Program
Workouts are important, but what you do outside the gym becomes far more important to get and stay fit. Doing WODs three or four days every week but neglecting other pillars of optimal health will at best only get you so far on your fitness journey, and at worst make you crash and burn during your workouts. I’ve found these five strategies can complement your workout and create more effective long-term results.
1. Create a nutrition plan that works for you.
Diet becomes crucial for peak performance in CrossFit or any other workout program. You can’t out-exercise a bad diet, and I commend CrossFit for paying attention to diet. What ultimately matters is the eating plan that works for you. That might be the Zone, Paleo, or something entirely different.
2. Take rest days.
Recovery becomes crucial for peak performance. While the harder faster more intense mentality might work for you in your 20s, as you get older, recovery days should be more frequent. CrossFit instructors typically recommend starting with three days of workouts followed by one day of rest, adjusting from there. Your mileage will vary, and tuning in to your body – pushing yourself, but also giving yourself time to recover – will become key to your success and to minimize injury.
3. Consume anti-inflammatory nutrients.
Working out frequently can ramp up chronic inflammation, leading to soreness, achiness, and other minor miseries that can hijack your progress. Worth repeating: Take rest days. An anti-inflammatory diet can also help dial down those aches and pains. Fill your plate with things like wild-caught fish, tons of leafy and cruciferous vegetables, walnuts, and other omega-3 fatty acid-rich foods. Sprinkle herbs and spices like turmeric and ginger wherever you can. And add freshly ground flaxseed or chia seeds to your protein smoothies. Athletes can also benefit from anti-inflammatory supplements including fish oil, curcumin, resveratrol, and coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10).
4. Get great sleep.
What’s the definition of misery? Slogging through a workout, over-caffeinated, on three or four hours’ sleep or – just as bad – subpar sleep where you toss and turn. “Poor sleep can lead to decreases in performance and recovery for athletes,” says Raman K. Malhotra, MD. (24) No kidding. Aim for seven to nine hours of quality, uninterrupted sleep and dial in on your needs. On heavy-workout days, you might need more sleep.
5. Incorporate active recovery.
Hard, fast, and intense might be your mantra, but over-training and over-exercise can sabotage your progress while creating injury and burnout. Lighter-intensity exercise is what I call actively recovering: Balancing intensity with complementary exercise like restorative yoga, brisk walking or swimming. As with your workout, find something that works for you to complement that effort.
CrossFit can be an intense, challenging workout that helps you build resilience, camaraderie, and a better body. But it isn’t for everyone. If you do (or have done) CrossFit, I’d love to hear about your experiences. Did you feel the workout put you at risk for injury as many of these studies suggested it might? Did I miss anything here? Share your thoughts below or on my Facebook page.