In part one, I discussed what there is to love about CrossFit. In part two, I will discuss the issues I have with CrossFit and its exercise programming from an exercise scientist’s point of view. High-intensity, constantly varied, functional training isn’t for everybody.
I’ve been practicing Olympic lifts for nearly two decades and there is nothing I enjoy more than chalking up my hands and practicing the snatch. I love the fact that CrossFit has helped make Olympic lifting popular again. That being said, Olympic lifts should not be practiced by everybody, and they most definitely should not be taught by everybody. Additionally, doing Olympic lifts for high reps is not only counterproductive, but also it can be dangerous.
The entire purpose of Olympic movements is to improve rate of force development, kinetic synchronization, and neural recruitment. These lifts require a high level of technique, coordination, mobility, and ability to apply force in a rapid fashion. These abilities do not apply to everybody, though they absolutely can be improved upon with enough work, but before practicing them you should ask yourself if they are of any benefit to achieving your individual goals. Olympic movements are great for athletes in explosive/power sports, but for Joe Average, the capacity to move a heavy load from the ground to over the head in one rapid and coordinated movement probably isn’t that functional. If you have postural or mobility dysfunctions, which frankly, most people simply do, Olympic movements are contraindicated, meaning they can hurt you—and fast. Despite my decades of experience performing them with no postural or mobility issues, as I get older, a few years past my competitive days, sometimes I find myself asking why I still do them. Maybe you should too.
Even scarier than doing Olympic lifts is who may be teaching you how to do them. Before your coach breaks out the PVC pipe, ask them what their experience and qualifications are. If that answer doesn’t include a United States Weightlifting Association (USWA) certification (at least level one), I’d politely ask if there is another more qualified coach or if there are alternative movements for that specific WOD.
Because Olympic lifts are highly technique-dependent, fatigue greatly increases the injury risk. The lockout, the end of the movement, is by far the most dangerous phase of Olympic lifts. Decelerating a rapidly moving heavy load takes skill, coordination, and a fresh central nervous system. Each repetition becomes more dangerous as neural (not muscular) fatigue begins to set in; technique breaks down and you are no longer improving your ability to perform the movements, nor are you getting stronger. Olympic lifts aren’t safe for high-repetition conditioning purposes and even if they were, doing them for high volume is totally contradictory to their purpose of increasing force development. Frankly, it isn’t accomplishing anything productive. Push a sled, do some sprints, or knock out some box jumps to get in your metabolic conditioning, but don’t feel bad about questioning the coach if the WOD includes sets of high-repetition snatches.
Variety for variety’s sake
We’ve all seen the videos: kipping, axles, wall balls . . . In the name of “functional training” and variety, some odd, pointless, and downright dangerous activities have become regular components of CrossFit workouts. Kipping, which involves developing momentum by swinging one’s legs to propel the body upward and decrease the force requirements of completing a pull-up, isn’t inherently bad or dangerous; in fact, it is very similar to Olympic movements in both technique and purpose. Similar to Olympic movements, the danger is in the fact that they are often performed in CrossFit for something contrary to their intended purpose. Kipping is a way to teach and improve kinetic synchronization: how to initiate movement with your lower extremities and transfer power to movement in the upper extremities. They are not intended to help someone without sufficient strength to complete strict pull-ups to perform more repetitions. If you can’t do 10 marine-approved pull-ups, you shouldn’t even be attempting to kip, let alone using it as a means to complete 20 repetitions. You aren’t assisting the development of pulling strength, but you are introducing a ton of unnecessary stress on the small stabilizer muscles in the shoulders and upper back. And butterfly pull-ups? Yeah, leave those to the beasts who get paid to exercise for a living.
I have similar sentiments for other compound movement bastardization common in CrossFit. Lifting an axle is a great traditional Strongman implement for developing grip strength . . . if you are a strong man. For someone with small hands or inexperience with Olympic movements, it’s a completely pointless way to really hurt yourself. Attempting them is also a surefire way to become the star of an exercise fail video on YouTube. Wall balls? Unless you are planning on tossing your whining child out of their bedroom window (I am not advocating this), I fail to see how squatting and then subsequently tossing a weighted ball at a target on the wall is “functional”. Learning different movements can be fun, but constant variation and unnatural movements may result in a constant state of learning how to perform said movements and little actual progress. How are you supposed to progress when each workout is learning a new movement instead of following the foundational principles of exercise physiology and actually progressing by perfecting basic human movements and continually increasing the load?
“Functional” doesn’t mean complex or dangerous, and variety isn’t always a good thing. Physiological progress happens when you have mastered a movement and then can subsequently and progressively increase loads to place greater demands on your musculoskeletal system. If you are a novice exerciser or have movement contraindications, variety is not necessarily one of the principles you should be focusing on.
Many, many years ago, when I was working primarily with mixed martial artists, just when CrossFit was starting to become popular, my co-workers and I considered checking out what all the fuss was about. We already practiced many CrossFit principles in handling strength and conditioning for high-level fighters and figured that another certification to add to the resume couldn’t hurt—until we found out that CrossFit coaches can be certified in as little as two days, without any pre-qualifications or experience. Unfortunately, I personally know a few box owners whose background does not include anything more than a weekend course and who have staff comprised of box regulars with no qualifications whatsoever.
Like the fitness industry as a whole, you have to be very leery about who represents themselves as an expert. This becomes even more paramount when you are paying this person to teach you highly complex movements and oversee high-intensity exercise programming. When you walk into a box for your free consultation and initial workout, the first thing that should occur is validation that the coaches actually know what they are doing. Ask if the person teaching you Olympic movements is certified by the USAW, if the coach has more than a weekend’s worth of formal education in exercise programming, and if the consultation is being conducted by someone capable of performing a functional movement screen so that they have the knowledge to determine if you have the basic movement skills to even begin learning complex lifts. This level of knowledge and skill takes years of education and practical experience, not two days.
Yes, I hold CrossFit coaches to a higher standard because the high intensity and highly technical nature of the modality makes it inherently riskier than what a personal trainer is likely to do at a commercial gym. Your progress and safety are highly dependent on the quality of those teaching and overseeing your workouts, so make sure they are qualified to keep you safe and progressing towards your goals.
From a traditionalist’s standpoint, there are a laundry list of reasons to question what is going on at CrossFit boxes. I can break down every movement and find fault in how they are taught and nitpick programming, but I can do that with every exercise modality. I can do that with my own workouts if I spend enough time analyzing them. While you’ll never find me trying to improve my “Grace” time (it would take some serious pondering to come up with a more effective way to get injured and induce neural fatigue then 30 consecutive clean & jerk repetitions), I’m a fan of whatever gets people to consistently incorporate exercise into their lives.
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.