The Crossfit Experiment

Here we go guys.

Starting in summer 2013, my wife and I have visited as many CrossFit gyms as we could in the Portland area. We've been to 11 of them for a few classes each and have seen the wide variety of communities, training regimens, and attitudes that are present across the CrossFit world. My wife and I had no prior CrossFit experience but had heard so much about it from podcasts and blogs that we decided to do a thorough assessment of CrossFit as a philosophy as well as the quality of the different gyms in our area.

If you're not familiar with CrossFit, here's a quick primer of the basic idea from the official CrossFit website.

CrossFit is many things. Primarily, it’s a fitness regimen developed by Coach Greg Glassman over several decades. He was the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way (increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains). CrossFit itself is defined as that which optimizes fitness (constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity). CrossFit is also the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together. In fact, the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it’s so effective." 

CrossFit, then, is about promoting total fitness by doing a wide variety of movements and exercises that are constantly varied. They structure sets of movements into workouts called WODs (workouts of the day) that often provide strength and cardio training across most of the major muscle groups of the body. By doing different things every day you keep your body guessing and promote an overall level of fitness and ability. They combine exercises from Olympic lifting, track and field and gymnastics (as well as others) that promote athleticism while not sacrificing strength to improve endurance or endurance for strength.

Once you get past the basic workout structure CrossFit is also a community, and in order to become part of a community you often need to invest your time and effort into one group. By going to so many different gyms ("boxes") for a short time I definitely didn't spend long enough to get that sense of community and shared experience, but I can vouch for the friendly, communal atmosphere that was present at most of the gyms. While I didn't commit myself and join in, I definitely observed that community taking place. It's so much easier to stay motivated and keep going when you have others fighting right alongside you. I didn't want to become invested in one gym or another because I wanted  to be as objective of an observer of the CrossFit world as I could during this experiment. If there was something to critique, I didn't want to get it downplayed in my head by "drinking the KoolAid" of any particular box.

Local CrossFit gym comparison

Here is a map of the 11 gyms we went to in the Portland area over the past 6 months. (There are plenty more that we didn't make it to, because of schedule or location or other factors.) (I actually have now been to 12 CrossFit boxes, one being a San Francisco CrossFit class taught by Kelly Starrett--posted about here.)

I'm not here to vouch for or bash any of these gyms in particular, because I'm sure each of them is good for some people. I would encourage anyone to check out the gyms in your neighborhood or near your workplace or whatever works for you, and maybe visit a couple so you can see the differences  for yourself. It wouldn't be worth it for me to try to give individual assessments of the gyms because each persons subjective experience will probably vary widely. What I'm trying to do with this post, though, is to give an impression of the broad traits of CrossFit that I saw play out across all the gyms, and try to give recommendations as to whether CrossFit, as a paradigm, is right for you.

Here are some of my conclusions:

CrossFit is an awesome idea. Just like Paleo, it’s a practice/lifestyle/method that has gained rapid popularity recently. And they both come from the same assumption that we, as Homo sapiens, have evolved under circumstances and environmental pressures that have led to us being the creatures that we are, and because of that the best way to care for our bodies is to keep that evolutionary, ancestral perspective in mind, while combining the latest scientific knowledge to develop and sustain a method for human optimization. For Paleo it’s about nutrients; for CrossFit it's about building the body through functional movement, but again, these two are not truly divisible. In theory, this should lead to a system that is open to continual advancement and refinement as new methods and practices become known and new research is done. Sounds great! But did it play out that way? Here are my impressions.

Here's what I liked:

  • The focus is on functional, real human movements that are versions of movements we all do throughout the course of our regular lives.
  • In order to approximate these “real human movements,” CrossFit employs body weight exercises, Olympic lifts, mobility drills, and combines them in unique arrangements to help you build muscle and your gas tank at the same time.
  • A flexible, open, creative structure. You can be in charge of your own workouts and do modifications that cater specifically to your level. However, everyone is encouraged to push themselves so you all end up tired, yet not feeling intimidated by others that can do more than you can. Many of the boxes were great about offering modifications and tools like bands and platforms to help people who can't do all the pull-ups or hand stand push-ups or whatever.
  • Everyone, almost without exception, was very friendly, encouraging and welcoming. There were some experiences where I sort of felt like I was on my own in the corner doing a workout, but for the most part every gym was very inclusive.
  • I always left tired. My whole body had been worked and I was beat. It was a really good bang for the time commitment buck.
  • SOOO many leagues above the structure of a standard gym filled with giant machines that isolate individual muscle groups, restrain you to the built-in movements of the machines, and leave you alone and confused trying to figure out how to structure a workout.

Here's what I didn't like:

  • The potential for injury. Ideally everyone should be going at their own pace and developing skills slowly over time, but total newbies don’t necessarily know their limits and they tend to just throw you into the workouts with just a quick intro. A lot of gyms have "on-ramp" programs that you’re supposed to take before starting regular classes, so many people will have been shown the movements/lifts at least once before, but simply knowing what a movement is doesn't mean you’re going to have good form or be able to safely perform the movement across an entire workout. When you start doing a set of squats, for example, the first 2 or 3 are usually pretty good, but as it gets harder form starts being sacrificed and by the 10th or 20th rep, most beginners are in severely compromised positions that put them at high risk for injury. In order to combat this tendency you need to have someone there monitoring you at the beginning, someone who can stop you when you fault, show you what to do correctly and help you set the right difficulty. The hectic nature of the classes at a Crossfit gym, and the number of people in a class, meant that this level of attention was not always possible, which I see as a major issue facing Crossfit today.
  • Similarly, I saw a huge emphasis placed on pushing yourself to complete the workout at any cost, and sometimes this was at the expense of good form and a proper level progression. I've been told by coaches and trainers my whole life that, in training, if you can only do an exercise or get a rep is by sacrificing form and just yanking on whatever it is, then that means you aren't strong/limber/conditioned enough to do that exercise. In other words, it only counts if your doing the form right. The Crossfit gyms often would show modifications to exercises for people  the couldn't do the full movement (such as using resistance bands to aid in pull-ups or dips), but I felt there was too much of an attitude that "you should find your own level" rather than the expert coaches helping you determine your true level. 
  • I saw CrossFit boxes say they were all about good form and proper skill development and      attention, but the day-to-day reality often left something to be desired. It’s something that worried me, as oftentimes the injuries that come from improper form come after a prolonged period of doing an exercise incorrectly and accumulating stress on your body in a way it wasn't designed to handle. The risks, then, are not necessarily obvious on any given day, and then one day you might throw out your back or tear your meniscus and not even know why. This is difficult to address because it would mean coaches paying strict attention to each and every person in a class, but if Crossfit is going to market itself as the way to go for fitness it's got 

  • Sales-ey BS. On occasion I felt a very strong salesman vibe from some of the instructors and it seemed clear that they were going to push me into trying their intro series. Most gyms have an on-ramp program, like I mentioned before, and this is something you usually pay separately for before you get started on a main membership. Several gyms, at the end of our first workouts, were very “clear” with us that the next thing for us to do was to come sit right here and sign up for the on-ramp. Often, when they brought these kinds of programs up without first being asked, it didn't come across like they were just trying to give us information, but instead felt like they were car salesman trying to get money out of us before we walked off the lot. I don't blame businesses for acting like businesses, but it didn't feel that great to have had good interactions with staff during workouts and then have them switch gears into sales mode. Maybe it’s just me, but as a "consumer" I really appreciate it when somebody goes to the trouble of saying "Here are our programs;  here's some information; this is what it costs. If you're interested or have any questions feel free to call any time. Thanks for coming in." I would say, out of the 11 gyms we went to, 4 of them did just that and didn't make us feel pressured, but that’s not a majority. (And no surprise that those 4 were the ones we were most interested in coming back to!)
  • The method, though better than standard gyms, has the potential to be another homogenized system that isn't right for a lot of people. If the WOD isn't right for your body that day, you may be stuck and it could be hard to get the right workout for you out of it. At the end of the day, it's another "system" that you really need to buy into (slurp goes the Kool-aid).
  • CrossFit has many branded, named, themed WODs with specifically named exercises. They employ wall balls that you throw and catch as you squat, several different bars, climbing ropes, boxes for jump squatting, rowing machines, etc etc etc. This gives a cohesive feel to everything and can give the impression that these things are all essential. In truth, you can exercise all the muscle groups of the body and do your conditioning work with a single kettle bell.
  • It is EXPENSIVE. Compared to a membership to your local 24 hour fitness the cost of a Crossfit membership is huge. If you want what they provide (a community of people, unified around a set of principles that work, who help motivate each other) then it can TOTALLY be worth the cost. Getting fit and in shape changes people lives and for the potential benefit the cost is not important, but damn, it's a commitment to spend that much.

Wrap Up:

I don't want anyone getting the wrong idea by my critique that I think Crossfit is a bad system. If I had to sum up all my thoughts in one sentence I would say: Crossfit works to get you fit and motivated, but it still has a long way to go. In order for Crossfit to succeed long term it needs to focus on safety down to the most minute levels and be open to continual evolution and expansion. While the list of movements/exercises employed in Crossfit gyms is longer than other fitness systems, the true number of beneficial fitness modalities is staggeringly larger, if not infinitely so. It employs movements from a bunch of different disciplines, but there are SO many more things that could still be added and improved upon. I hope Crossfit continues to build on its successes by allowing for creativity while staying true to the basic principles of good form, slow individualized progression, and real, functional results. Based on my experiences I'd say that there's a chance that Crossfit will blossom and continue to expand, but there's also a chance that it will wither by restricting it's evolution, growing too quickly and watering down the quality of their end product, which is and should always be the optimization of the real human bodies that are employing it's methods, leading to greater functionality, health and productivity.

This post has become an absolute beast, so I'm going to end it there, even though I feel there's plenty more that can and should be said. It's a complicated topic, but I hope I gave a good impression on my views after doing a lot of qualitative observing and participating. I'd love to continue the discussion, and hear any responses to my thoughts, so feel free to comment or reach out to me on Twitter or by email! Thanks fore reading!
style="border: 0" />