Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Crossfit: cult or ultimate training?

Having played a lot of sports and done a lot of physical training, it's not often that I see something in the gym that shocks me.

But recently I came across the Crossfit training system. It's based around short, hyper intense workouts using basic bodyweight gymnastic moves (pushups, pullups, burpees, rope climbing), olympic and power lifts (cleans, jerks, presses, squats) and track sprints and rowing. The goal is to engage the large muscle groups and push them to both anaerobic and aerobic failure at the same time. For experienced athletes, the idea of using olympic lifts for cardiovascular stress training seems over the top, but anyone who can survive this is going to get very, very fit.

The founder of Crossfit, former gymnast Greg Glassman, is the guru behind this movement. He rails against bodybuilders who lack functional strength, and runners, cyclists and triathletes who are so specialized that they lack overall athleticism. (He doesn't have any bad words for ultimate fighters, though, some of whom use his system :-) The point I think Glassman overlooks is that the traditional training methods are meant to minimize injury and allow regular performance by an average person. It's telling that Glassman, 49, doesn't Crossfit train anymore. (See this NYTimes profile from a few years ago; the followup reader discussion is very good.)

If you have any athletic background at all (endurance training doesn't count -- it's gotta be something with a little explosiveness and testosterone ;-), watch the videos and tell me you are not freaked out.

More video:

Uneven Grace mov wmv
(check out the women doing 30 clean and jerks with 85lbs in 5-7 minutes!)

GI Jane mov wmv
(pushup, burpee, pullup -- basic, but so brutal. Greg Amundson is a badass!)

Interview: Coach Greg Glassman

CFJ: What’s wrong with fitness training today?

Coach Glassman: The popular media, commercial gyms, and general public hold great interest in endurance performance. Triathletes and winners of the Tour de France are held as paradigms of fitness. Well, triathletes and their long distance ilk are specialists in the word of fitness and the forces of combat and nature do not favor the performance model they embrace. The sport of competitive cycling is full of amazing people doing amazing things, but they cannot do what we do. They are not prepared for the challenges that our athletes are. The bodybuilding model of isolation movements combined with insignificant metabolic conditioning similarly needs to be replaced with a strength and conditioning model that contains more complex functional movements with a potent systemic stimulus. Sound familiar? Seniors citizens and U.S. Marine Combatant Divers will most benefit from a program built entirely from functional movement.

CFJ: What about aerobic conditioning?

Coach Glassman: I know you’re messing with me – trying to get me going. Look, why is it that a 20 minute bout on the stationery bike at 165 bpm is held by the public to be good cardio vascular work, whereas a mixed mode workout keeping athletes between 165-195 bpm for twenty minutes inspires the question, ”what about aerobic Conditioning?” For the record, the aerobic conditioning developed by CrossFit is not only high-level, but more importantly, it is more useful than the aerobic conditioning that comes from regimens comprised entirely of monostructural elements like cycling, running, or rowing. Now that should start some fires! Put one of our guys in a gravel shoveling competition with a pro cyclist and our guy smokes the cyclist. Neither guy trains by shoveling gravel, why does the CrossFit guy dominate? Because CrossFit’s workouts better model high demand functional activities. Think about it – a circuit of wall ball, lunges and deadlift/highpull at max heart rate better matches more activities than does cycling at any heart rate.


Anonymous said...

I'm going to start doing that today - have to get ready for gravel shoveling season.

Unknown said...

Seems pretty cultish to me. I especially don't like their dismissive attitude toward scientific studies.

They're also trying way too hard if general fitness is the goal. Check out the injury forum on their discussion board.

I agree that doing crossfit gets you good at... doing crossfit.

Steve Hsu said...

So far no one seems as shocked as I am at what these guys are doing.

I guess you have to have done some Olympic lifts (like power cleans, which many football players use in training) to appreciate how tough it would be to use them for cardiovascular and stamina training. For example, the "Grace" workout of the day (see video link) is 30 reps of clean presses at a pretty high percentage of your 1 rep max. Most of the reps are done with minimal rest *after* the athlete has already reached failure.

Anonymous said...

I'm plenty shocked. Crossfit looks like some good ideas taken orders of magnitude too far.

Anonymous said...

As an alpine climber I've done high intensity Crossfit-like excersizes to complement my endurance base (such as what Mark Twight recommends). I think Crossfit is a reasonable general fitness regime for people who just want to get in shape. But for athletes the lack of specificity in Crossfit could hurt them. For example, I did a winter ascent with a Crossfitter and spent a great deal of time waiting for him to catch up to me.

Unknown said...

Actually I sort of like crossfit, except what's good in it is not original and what's original is not good.

Unknown said...

I have never been to a Crossfit facility or even met someone who has been to one, but I have read their website and tried some of these workouts and I think they are extremely effective. Can't speak to any cultishness since I don't know any of the true-believers.

However, based on their publicly available information, I don't get the comment on "dismissive attitude toward scientific studies." A big part of their focus is on measurable results, not hype.

Is this stuff going to get you optimized performance for a specific endurance sport or power lifting? No. Will you have a very high level of general conditioning (strength, muscular endurance, cardio fitness) to participate vigorously and safely while playing basketball, hiking, swimming at the beach, helping a friend move, studying a martial art? You bet.

Unknown said...

I should add that I am probably biased towards this sort of thing because of my background in rowing and martial arts, which both require a mix of strength and endurance. This kind of training is great for fighters.

Also, another negative is that it can be hard to manage their whole body sort of training when injured. I damaged a shoulder in a martial arts injury, and a year later a knee from doing something else outside the gym, and it can be hard to manage their workouts until you are back at near 100%.

Steve Hsu said...


I think crossfit is ok for ordinary people if the workouts are scaled down sufficiently. But I suspect there is a fine line between not working hard enough (the wod is supposed to be your only workout) and risking injury by trying to do too much.

I bet when you were rehabbing your injury you were doing all the things Glassman hates, like riding a stationary bike, doing crunches, using a weight machine, etc. :-)

Unknown said...

I agree that there is a danger from pushing too hard that is a challenge to manage. Do they really just do the WOD for fitness? Some of the stuff on their site talks about a pretty vigorous daily warm-up which would be harder than many people's whole workout (overhead squats without broomstick, pull-ups, push-ups, glute-ham sit-ups), which is done before the WOD.

I did spend a whole bunch of time on a bike for my knee, and a little bit of time on leg machines. I still did some of their (and other's) crazy ab work, because my middle was the part that didn't hurt. :)

I can say though that my cardio conditioning when riding a bike for 30 minutes 6 days a week isn't as good as when I am doing 3 of their metcon workouts in a week, at least not for things like sparring in two minute rounds.

Steve Hsu said...

Do you do BJJ or MMA? If you look at fighters' workouts they incorporate some of the crossfit stuff, but of course skill development takes up most of the time.

If I did just the wod 6x per week I think I would either undertrain or have a relatively high injury rate (like a tweak once every few weeks). But I am old... :-)

Unknown said...

I hurt my shoulder while doing a stand-up style of jujutsu, but the sparring I was doing was straight kickboxing, pretty much K-1 rules. I am only doing shadow boxing and bag work currently while I strengthen my rehabbed joints.

I have to say, I never just did Crossfit training. I'd work some of their workouts in to my existing lifting/cardio/training work. I think you could stay pretty fit on diet of the WODs, but I'm not sure that it would be enough for max fitness. I think that doing the WOD most mornings and skill work in the evenings would probably be enough for me. However, I'm older too (45), so I have to be careful with managing training frequency and intensity, since my recovery rate isn't what it used to be. Somebody in their 20s might need more.

Anonymous said...

i'm a 47yo wm doing cross fit for about 3 months and i have to say it is cultish but man i feel im in the best shape of my life...not cocky but everyone who sees me says i look fantastic but more than that you fell better...look i have to support a wife and kids and if you are looking for a great workout without spending all day in a gym it's the way to go...

Anonymous said...

I am a 5' tall female who stumbled across crossfit 1 year ago. I too can contest that I am in the best shape of my life!

Within the first month of training I lost 5% of body fat (I should add that I weighed 125lbs). Now I weigh 110lbs, not the bone-skinny Hollywood look either. I could perform pull-ups and several body weight excercises I could never have done before.

I highly disagree that crossfit is cultish. People who train this way beleive in what they do. I love it and constantly introduce crossfit to others. There is nothing cultish about that.

Anonymous said...


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Dave said...

I hate it when these idiots throw the equipment around like that.

Hi-Tech-IT said...

wow looks brutal I just want get down to a decent fat to muscle ratio, no extreme stuff hehe burn fat and gain muscle or something.

Adam RN said...

soo true..I am the same way and introduce it to everyone i know..I have always been in shape
but when i started crossfit about 3 months kicked my ass into the best shape i have ever been in my life..and now it is in the center of my life and Im loving every minute of it..stay crossfit tuff!!

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Muscle exercises come after aerobic exercises. After the blood has been pumped to every parts of the body, the strength and muscles are in prime condition. Next, incorporate core stability exercises. They are best done after a heavy work out. Core stability exercises cool the body system down. It works out the muscles in the abdomen, pelvis and lower back areas. These areas contribute to a person's center of balance, and stability as well.

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