The growth of CrossFit is like almost nothing I’ve seen in the health and fitness industry. According to Channel Signal, there are now nearly 14,000 CrossFit affiliates worldwide and the 3-year failure rate for new gyms is an absurdly low 2%. If I had an interest in venturing outside of my garage gym and joining a “box”, there are half a dozen testosteronically-named facilities within a 15-minute walk of my front door. Nary a week passes when I am not asked about my Fran time (don’t know, never done it) or if I’ve ever played medicine ball volleyball (yes, apparently that is a thing). Scanning my social media feeds, workouts of the day (WODs) are the second most popular subject matter, being narrowly outpaced only by angry bipartisan political bloviating. CrossFit is without a doubt the single topic that I am asked most about.
I’m going to be very frank. As an exercise scientist and connoisseur of pretty much every exercise fad of the past two decades, I have quite the love-hate relationship with the high-intensity, constantly varied, “functional” exercise modality that former gymnast Greg Glassman allegedly came up with in his garage as a teen. Having competed at different times in my life as both a powerlifter and a triathlete, but never at the same time, I am in awe at the combination of power, endurance, agility, mobility, and skill of today’s “world’s fittest athletes”. With no current goals for my training outside of staying healthy, injury-free, and modeling to my children that regular exercise is simply part of life, the type of fitness exhibited by Rich Froning Jr., Ben Smith, and Matt Fraser is precisely what I am after. My scientific, evidence-based, and peer-reviewed opinion is that CrossFit is a health and fitness panacea for some; for others, it is downright dangerous and a perfect recipe to turning you off to the undeniable health benefits of exercise for the rest of your life. In this three-part series, I’ll detail what I adore and what I detest about CrossFit, and will hopefully help you determine if the local box is a fit for you.
What’s there to love?
It’s pretty simplistic, but if there is a single thing I want to tell everybody out there who regularly exercises, but isn’t seeing the progress that they want, it is that you aren’t working hard enough. Yes, the benefits of regular low-intensity exercise, such as walking for 30 minutes a few times a week, are undeniable, but if you are spending the time to read this, my guess is that your exercise goals are a little more lofty (though no more important) than slightly decreasing chronic disease risk. As I have written about before, physiological adaptation requires that you place progressively higher demands on your musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems in order to force your body to change—progressive overload is one of the foundations of exercise science. There is no denying it, intensity is directly tied to results: higher intensity induces greater changes in body composition, strength, and endurance performance. The high-intensity nature of CrossFit exercise programming, along with the supportive and competitive nature offered by the typical box workout are amazing at getting people to simply push themselves harder than they thought possible. One of the most regular comments I hear from novice exercisers about their early experiences with CrossFit is that they have totally changed their mindset about what exercising hard is and how far they can push themselves. Of course there are limits to this; you don’t want to end up in the hospital with Rhabdomyolysis, but a few WODs are a great way to experience the level of effort that achieving high levels of fitness takes.
Support and Competition
Although I have always preferred training on my own, the research is pretty clear that social support and competition are major factors in why people exercise and how likely they are to make it a regular part of their life. Outsiders, myself included, find it a little hooky or even cultish, but there is no denying the effect: the supportive and competitive nature of CrossFit is pretty much unparalleled. Watching fellow box members cheer each other in their quest to accomplish physical feats they thought impossible can be a powerful experience. It almost gets this Aspie to feel things. CrossFitters tend to become best friends and competitors. They encourage each other to show up, work hard, and follow through with their other healthy lifestyle behaviors.
“Functional” has been one of the hot words in exercise and fitness for nearly as long as I have been alive. While Arnold Schwarzenegger inspired countless millions to lift heavy things and take their health seriously, the bodybuilding philosophy of treating muscles primarily as isolated units ends up developing human machines that may (or may not) look good posing in a speedo on a stage, but which aren’t necessarily good at putting all those bulging and striated muscles to use. An efficient working human machine is developed by looking at the body as a series of interconnected bones, muscles, and soft tissue (a kinetic chain) that work together to perform tasks. This is best accomplished by focusing on movements as opposed to muscles. Climbing a rope, pushing a sled, flipping a tire, walking with a heavy loaded sandbag in each hand; most of the actions involved in the customary WOD develop real world strength, endurance, and movement skills—an incline seated concentration curl, not so much. I love that CrossFit has helped make Olympic lifting and old strongman movements cool again, and that it focuses on developing athletes with a broad range of actual movement ability and a modicum of aerobic strength. You can look strong and actually be strong and healthy at the same time.
Strong is the New Skinny
As the father of a nearly five-year-old daughter, this one is especially dear to me. I could write a book about the health benefits of regular resistance training (and someday I will). Load-bearing activity induces physiological adaptation that positively influences body composition, hormonal regulation, eating and sleeping habits, cardiovascular health, and bone density. Furthermore, contemporary science has shown that the amount of lean muscle mass one carries is a better predictor of quality of life and longevity than BMI. I am still confronted with women on a daily basis who adamantly refuse to do any resistance training on the basis that it will make them “bulky”. Our culture continues to project this image that the epitome of female health is the size zero on the cover of Vogue, who likely doesn’t have the relative strength to carry her own suitcase through the Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport on the way to Fashion Week. Lifting things will make you healthy and help you develop the strength to change your own tire—and muscles can be beautiful. I’ve finally been able to show my 120 lbs. treadmill-maven wife that a few sets of deadlifts and heavy squats will not only improve her 5K time and health, but also not result in her waking up one morning looking like she belongs across a WWE ring from The Rock. The taboo is still there, but CrossFit has gone a long way towards promoting the idea that being strong is a good thing. Adaline, yes honey, those muscles from gymnastics and push-ups are cute.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.