PART 1: In Defense of CrossFit
A Reasonable Discussion on a Polarizing Topic
I love CrossFitters as patients and friends. I don’t do CrossFit, but it still gets under my skin that people feel the need to pick a side of this imaginary fence. I guess no one ever listens to the reasonable guy, eh? Hence, this is the first in a series of articles looking at Crossfit from a perspective that is…get this…reasonable.
Target Audience: Healthcare and Fitness Professionals such as myself. I live in the real world. I work with Mon-Fri 9-5 type of people. If you want to talk about how to develop elite athletes, too bad. There are enough Joe-Shmoes out there claiming that they can do that (Who knows if they can). Also, if you feel like disregarding this opinion-article simply because of the premise, then I hope you’re not calling yourself a colleague of mine…I prefer to associate with reasonable folk. Just for today, let’s drop the technical jargon of HRT, GPP, and blah blah blah. That stuff is important, but I’m looking at the mile-high view of the phenomenon of CrossFit. This os only Part 1, and only meant to see the positives. Wait for Part 2 if you think I missed a bashing opportunity. Let’s have a civil conversation. Starting now.
Certainly, in team sports like rugby and football, the efficient coach would find a friend in the Crossfit approach. I would argue that ALL of track and field…including our distance people…would find the path to personal greatness quicker with an approach based on the credos of Crossfit.
If I would have told you that Dan John, to many of us a “golden calf“, blurted that quote up top, you would likely cry heresy (unless of course you actually took the time to read his published works). The nice part is, I don’t even have to paraphrase. He said exactly what I would have wanted to. In my opinion CrossFit can be better for many people than what they get out of their normal gym routine and in some cases their trainer. Here is why.
1. CrossFit involves full-body, multi-joint exercises every single time.
When you look at the exercise selection in any CrossFit workout, you’re not real likely to find any pansy-esque movements. The ability of the participant to complete said movements notwithstanding, there are not too many workout “systems” that encourage that kind of neuroendocrine response. For overall health and fitness, CrossFit is better than the typical Globo-Mondo Gym workout by a long shot.
No machines here, people. We are talking barbells, kettlebells, and bodyweight. Some guys would loosely call this “functional”. I think that when it’s done right, it is “functional” for many folks.
2. It is the right kind of goal-oriented.
If you’ve spent many years in the weight room or gym game, you know that “results may vary”. I have known girl after girl and dude after dude who have set their sights on a goal and then proceeded to exercise as if to completely disregarded it. “I want to gain 20 lbs of muscle” followed by hours on the preacher curl. “I want to lose those extra 10 pounds” followed by 2 hours on the elliptical.
Crossfit coaches as a whole generally encourage people to ignore the scale and focus on measureable outcomes. What is your typical weekend trainer using? Calories? The scale? I beg to say that CrossFit’s goals are much more appealing than what you’ll see posted in the lockers at Gold’s Gym. For instance, how was your “Cindy” score now compared to 6 months ago? What is your 1RM deadlift? How did you perform in the CrossFit Open this time around? The list of goals could go on. You don’t often see people on the scale at a box. In the opinion of this author, that is much healthier, both physically and mentally, than the “Men’s Health” version of health that our general populace gets bombarded with daily.
3. What’s the best exercise? The one you will do.
How many people don’t go to the gym because, well, they don’t enjoy it? When you see a newbie walk into a gym, many of them look like Bambi, staring into the headlights. I can imagine you’d feel like a Star Wars fan at a Star Trek Convention. Not everyone grew up in “the game” like you and I did. Most people just want to enjoy themselves while getting fit.
So what do normal people need? Not to hit the long head of the biceps harder. No, not at all. They need to enjoy the process. As wrestling coaches will say to their athletes, they need to ‘embrace the grind’. Most folks will not embrace a typical gym. They will embrace CrossFit. They want to go to CrossFit. Does the typical non-CrossFit gym-goer want to go or do they feel that they have to, in order to eat that pizza? I would beg to say that CrossFit has done an amazing job at making people want to exercise.
4. The Diet
If you’ve been in the health and fitness game at all, you know that basics have to come first. I can’t count the amount of times people have come to me for technique help on some Olympic lift when they can’t touch their toes.
If you’ve been in this industry more than a month, you know that “the basics” of fitness, health, bodyweight, body composition, and longevity live in your fridge. The Paleo diet, which is endlessly preached by CrossFit, is a solid, sustainable, long-term dietary solution. No calorie counting. No macros. Just good, clean, organic whole foods, leaving out the common irritants and allergens. The average Paleo-eater eats healthier than the average personal trainer, in the opinion of this doc. Note how I didn’t say “eats better for mass” or “eats better for fat loss” or “eats better for sarcoidosis”. Please, try to tell me that the average personal trainer gets their protein from lean, organic, locally raised meat. I call BS. They get it from highly processed shakes. CrossFitters get in from real food. Not eeryone can getting all the caloric coaching that they need, so Paleo is a great framework on which to build a solid diet for Dick and Jane.
5. The Community
I have a miniature story to tell on this one. I will give you the cliff-notes version:
I recently got unceremoniously dismissed from a local mondo-gym over some incidents which stemmed from me dropping 65 lbs on the floor from waste height (I was also to blame in this shemozzle, a story for another time). But that is not the interesting story.
What ensued was nothing short of astonishing. The CrossFit community – one which I loyally serve with my healthcare practice but to which I do not personally belong – poured out a humbling amount of love on me. Two separate box owners here in town offered to let me use their facilities. One showed up at my office the following day with a key and the security code. Every patient of mine who drinks the CrossFit kool-aid insisted that they would support my need for weight-lifting to the best of their ability. I have never felt so wanted in my life by people outside of my immediate family.
The amount of trust and appreciation that was bestowed upon me in this minor inconvenience of a situation has shown me beyond a reasonable doubt that CrossFit has developed a community like no other, a place where people feel supported. A place where the other people in the room matter. A place where cheering on the guy beside you is as much of a norm as curling in the squat rack would be at mondo-gyms. I don’t think that you can even TRY to match this part of CrossFit. It is built in. 99% of gyms out there will never achieve the pureness of support that a CrossFit community has.
6. It actually makes people capable!
We in health and fitness like to be all high and mighty about “our” athletes…as in the ones “we” develop or treat. OK, your athletes are amazing. Let’s talk about the 99.9% of the population who aren’t paid to compete. Let’s face it, if you were to take an army of healthy CrossFitters and an army of healthy gym-goers and make them face off in an old school weights war, CrossFitters would win in the blink of an eye. Squat-rack-curl-guy would suffer death by wall-ball-to-testicle-smash. Cardio bunny would suffer demise by AMRAP-kipping-pullup-to-the-face.
- CrossFitters are stronger than the average dude at Gold’s Gym.
- CrossFitters have a higher VO2 Max than most cardio bunnies.
- CrossFitters can usually push, pull, hinge, squat, and carry. Sound familiar? Globo-gym-dude sure can bench well, but alas, he can only do three pull-ups.
I could go on, but let’s just say that CrossFit is pretty friggin’ great at injecting power into the veins of average people.
7. The Good Exceptions – What happens around here.
This section highlights the great parts about some of the CrossFits I have the honour of working with. I don’t know what the norm is at most CrossFits in terms the following factors, but I have seen the following great things out of the 4 boxes I maintain constant contact with:
- There is a required educational introduction.
- When you first walked into a gym, what was required of you? Sign the paper and don’t sue us, right? All the CrossFit gyms I work with have some sort of “On-Ramp” program wherein there is set number of classes one must attend before they can participate in normal WODs. At CrossFit Glenmore, just down the street from me, there are ELEVEN required classes before CrossFit can unabashedly be undertaken. That’s a whole lot more than you will get before you are allowed to yoga, zumba, P90X, or just stroll into the weight room at your condo.
- One long-time trainer here in town, owner and operator of The BodyShop CrossFit, told me in a recent discussion that he often asks people to take almost six months to work up to the prescribed workouts. Did you catch that? Six months. I think that sort of thing invalidates quite a few haters’ slapdash remarks. He’s not looking to make a quick buck or get beach-ready with that. He’s preparing people for a life long journey of health and wellness.
- The athlete gets coached.
- Yes, compared to working with an elite level coach, CrossFit doesn’t compare. You won’t catch the big names in strength and conditioning instructing during “Fran”. BUT the average CrossFitter gets way more instruction than most gym-goers. They are being watched and analysed, cued and coached. In cases where a good coach is present, this is invaluable. When I started lifting weights, I would have been better off with a CrossFit coach than just walking up to the Smith machine and pretending it was good for squats. Instruction is invaluable, especially from a good coach.
Ask any classmate I have ever had or anyone who has taken one of my mobility workshops…I LOVE to talk the technical jargon. I love to debate. Most of all, I love to be right, which requires that I often change my mind. Unfortunately, on the topic of CrossFit, people like to think that there is a right and wrong, a black and white, or a 2-side coin. The point of this article was to present a jargon-free, easy-to-read perspective from a doc that hates to see so many minds closed off to something that is not a “for-or-against” topic, but one that we should be talking openly about and potentially introducing some healthy clients to.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Admitting the Faults (a realistic look at what should be changed), and Part 3: The Ideal CrossFit Affiliate (I paint a picture of what “the box of the future” should look like, giving suggestions for current affiliates).