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CROSSFIT: What Is It and Is It Right for Me?
Ty E. Richardson, M.D. Louisville Orthopaedic Clinic - Louisville, KY
Personal Fitness Background
I have been involved in exercise in one way or another since my teens. I took part in multiple sports and worked at a large health club while in high school. I worked as a personal trainer for a time during college and have at times worked at Golds Gym, Presidents Health Club, and have seen a lot of exercise “crazes” come and go. I remember the Nautilus principle of Ellington Darden, PhD., the step aerobics phase, Schwarzenegger’s “muscle confusion principle”, and more recently, P90X, Insanity, and the boot camp phenomena. As a sports medicine specialist, I see the deleterious effects that some of these plans have on people. CrossFit is one of the most interesting workout theories I have come across. I have seen an increasing number of patients who take part in CrossFit and I decided to find out more about it.
CrossFit: History and Main Principles
The term “CrossFit” was first coined by former gymnast Greg Glassman in 2001. He developed the principles of CrossFit and since 2001, 11,000 CrossFit affiliates have opened up across the United States. The definition of CrossFit is “high intensity exercise with constantly varied, functional movements designed to elicit a broad adaptation response”. The goal is to “increase work capacity over broad time and modal domains”. In plain English, lift more, lift faster, even after it hurts. One of the characteristics of CrossFit workouts and those that do them in a focus on intensity. The hallmark of these programs is the W. O. D. or “workout of the day”. This is where the variety is found. One day the WOD may be staggered sprints of 400m/800m/1600m/800m/400m with 90 seconds rest between runs and the next workout is 3 sets of 25 squats with body weight alternating with deadlifts, 15 reps per set. Most exercises utilize multiple muscle groups and multiple joints simultaneously. The Olympic lifts, cleans, snatch, squats, and deadlifts are mainstays of CrossFit weight workouts. Other exercises include ring dips, chest-to-bar pullups, handstand pushups, box jumps, and military favorites like burpees and mountain climbers.
Like any other exercise program, there are benefits and risks. My concern with CrossFit is the focus on high performance weight exercises such as the clean, squat, and deadlift. When done with imperfect form, or to the point of exhaustion, these moves can easily cause injury. Most CrossFit gyms have digital clocks in prominent locations and exercises are done by time. Participants are encouraged to continue for the allotted time, even past the point of exhaustion or pain. This is where these gyms get the reputation for intensity. In some gyms, stickers or t-shirts are given to members who work out until they puke; it is a point of pride. For the average person, this is a sign you are hurting yourself. You are nauseous because you have become dehydrated and caused such a rush of lactic acid from you damaged muscles that you have lowered the pH of your blood. The most severe, and often reported risk of CrossFit workouts is rhabdomyolysis. This is a condition where large amounts of myoglobin, a protein found in muscle, are being released into the blood stream from damaged muscles. It can cause smoke colored urine and in severe cases, renal failure.
Of course, not all CrossFit enthusiasts end up injured, in fact, many see significant benefits from their workouts. The constant changing of the WOD encourages the development of new skills and strengths and prevents boredom and burnout from doing the same old thing every day. The focus on functional movements that involve multiple muscle groups can improve athletic performance. I have several close personal friends who have integrated CrossFit principles into their workouts and have made significant gains. That being said, there are no published studies in peer reviewed exercise physiology or kinesiology journals that document any real benefit of CrossFit over any other exercise plan. Most strength and conditioning coaches at the college and professional level do not incorporate CrossFit into their athletes’ regimen. If you choose to take part in one of these programs, make sure that you feel comfortable and safe and remember that any exercise plan has to be customized to your abilities and expectations to get the best result.
Am I a Good CrossFit Candidate?
While CrossFit does have its’ risks, when practiced by persons who are in overall good health and are already at a high fitness level, it can be a great option to change things up and reach an even higher level of fitness. Former athletes who have remained active, current athletes, and those who exercise regularly are all good candidates. CrossFit is best suited for the advanced fitness buff looking to push beyond what they’ve been able to accomplish either on their own or by attending standard group fitness classes.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- Have you had any prior injuries? i.e. fractures, dislocations, torn ligaments, etc. If so, consult a physician before trying CrossFit.
- How is your current overall health? Do you have any diseases or conditions that may be adversely affected by participating in an intense workout?
If you’re not at an advanced fitness level but are in overall good health and exercise regularly, then CrossFit could still be an option for you. The main key for you is going to be using common sense and listening to your body. There IS a difference between pushing beyond your comfort zone and pushing until you feel actual pain. Everyone is different. What your body can endure and what someone else’s body can endure can be vastly different. The other key is going to be finding the right CrossFit gym for you. Do your research and find out about the coaches who run the CrossFit classes. There should be some kind of screening process in place to assess your current fitness level. From there, they should be able to recommend a plan based on your strengths and weaknesses and monitor exercises closely.
CrossFit is not for everyone. However, when practiced responsibly, it has proven to be a successful way for many participants to make gains in strength and endurance, as well as satisfying those looking for a seriously intense workout.