Taking the Good with the Bad in CrossFit

Hey everyone. I'm Allan, Physical Therapist and owner of Impetus Physical Therapy in Greensboro, NC. This blog post is in defense of CrossFit. As my typical disclaimer goes, this blog is intended to be educational, but not intended to serve as training or treatment advice for any particular individual. Please bear in mind that if you are reading this, I have not examined you and cannot say with any certainty that this is the right advice for you.

I wanted to write up some thoughts today about the persistent bullying of CrossFit that I continue to encounter in healthcare circles and in the media. Remember 2007, when no one had ever heard of CrossFit and there were no CrossFit gyms in Greensboro to be found (I'm assuming). Maybe you don't, perhaps you are too young to really remember that year with full clarity, but I assure you that the world of fitness has drastically changed in the last 10 years.

As a runner, I'm absolutely thankful for the emergence of this sport. For years, runners carried around the stigma of being hard-headed, chronically injured, and difficult to clinically treat. Now that CrossFit is in full force, the spotlight has been removed from running injuries, and has shifted over toward this new group of athletes. I feel really bad for the CrossFit community because I totally get the frustration derivative of the constant criticism toward something that you are highly passionate about and motivated toward doing.

Luckily, I think the injury rampant stigma for CrossFit remains largely in the medical arena. As a physical therapist, I am absolutely thrilled about CrossFit for a couple of reasons. In spite of the many frequently referenced negatives (which seem to be reported out of proportion), I think CrossFit has things to offer that are difficult to find elsewhere and I'll touch on those below.  As far as sports go, I think high injury rates are just a another part of the atmosphere. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/pediatrics/sports_injury_statistics_90,P02787/

the value of Functional Strength

Whereas some of us feel comfortable in the typical gym setting, I think many Americans still just don’t see the point. When you enter a gym, the oldest descriptor of what you might see is 'huge dudes moving heavy things from over here to over there.' Or maybe the visual you get is a row of 37 treadmills, full of people who appear to be in agonizing pain. Regardless, there can easily be a disconnect between this guilt-driven obligation time and how the personal benefit will really manifest.

CrossFit is substantially different in that the focus is centered around strength gains, far more than muscle gains. What's the difference? Endless research supports application of the SAID concept (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) to CrossFit in that, when the conditioning medium that is imposed is centered around ballistic, power-oriented activities, it is power that will be achieved, not necessarily bulky muscle. If you need an example of this, watch any Bruce Lee film. Other styles of conditioning may produce larger muscles and perhaps strength, but are not necessarily as effective at developing power.

The acquisition of strength is to serve the performance of the Athlete via overall improvement in physical conditioning. And where are the treadmills and ellipticals you may ask? Well, if you haven't been in a CrossFit gym before, the great part is that the high intensity aerobic conditioning is built into the WOD (workout-of-the-day), so once again, the gerbil wheel is replaced with functional activity.

Blending Strength and Fitness

It's easy for teenage boys to become obsessed with the strength side of conditioning (as I did in 1996), and many people coming to the gym for New Year's resolution weight loss will spend much of their time doing 'cardio stuff.' Lets face it, most people either lack the time or the motivation to successfully achieve both strength and fitness on their own. The time necessity and lifestyle changes required are daunting or impossible to most. 

As a physical therapist, I will tell any patient that muscular strength and cardiovascular conditioning are both really important...for everyone. Not just athletes. So I can absolutely get excited about a program that can give people resistance training AND cardiovascular conditioning in a single workout that takes less than an hour. Awesome!  This point is pretty simple: it saves people time and involves multiple physiological systems of the body.

Competitive Nature of the Sport

Competition is not for everyone. Personally, I see a long line to anything and I turn around and walk away. But for many, this is a key motivator for participation in CrossFit. The WOD sets a new challenge on a daily basis, the trainers are there to push the athletes within safe limits. Additionally, the social atmosphere of the sport makes people feel like they are part of a community, which is strikingly dissonant with the typical gym where avoiding eye contact is the law of the land. 

I can get on board with this. In an age where Hulu, Amazon, and Netflix have never been better at gluing us to couches, I think having a plethora of highly motivating options for physical activity is great! I am mildly sad that America doesn't have a stronger cultural prevalence of adult sports organizations. I am thankful for what church groups have done with softball and basketball, but adults simply don't participate in sports for leisure as other countries do.

What if every person you knew who was obsessed with NFL was outside running drills with 20 other adults, twice a week in preparation for an upcoming game? Would America be a fitter nation? Who's to say? I know what your thinking though, that '20% of those guys would be hurt every 6 months,' and you know what? That's precisely the rate of CrossFit injuries right now according to a recent study I reviewed in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine. 

physical activity has to be meaningful

So where does this leave us? Anyone in healthcare is mandated to promote physical activity, even when it may be outside of the zone of familiarity. Is CrossFit perfect? Definitely not. A good portion of their foundational literature is balanced and well-intended, but it's perhaps too concise at times and there are clearly some common risks and recurring problems. More and more of the reputable CrossFit gyms in the Greensboro area are invested in client safety and coaching best practices for athletes, and I expect this will continue to improve in quality as the sport matures.

Is CrossFit for everyone? Seriously? This isn’t a real question. Of course it isn't. 95% of these athletes were not doing Burpees or Clean & Jerks 10 years ago, but I can guarantee that many of them were looking for similar types of fitness activities. This type of sport has an appeal to a particular personality type, and clearly won’t be for everyone, but that doesn't mean that criticism should rain down hard. The injury rates are high, sure, but no one is comparing them other sports that are already well established.

My thoughts are as follows:

  1. If you're seriously considering giving CrossFit a try, ask around and find a gym that has a great reputation for client safety and low injury rates. My biased opinion is that all new clients should definitely go through an FMS screen prior to beginning a new program to easily identify factors that we can know will increase their risk for injury before things start to hurt. I don't know of any gyms doing this yet, but I hope to change that soon!
  2. I'm thinking if you don’t already have a solid foundation of strength and fitness, enter with caution. I know that many gyms offer beginner's sessions, but be conservative and assure that you feel relatively fit prior to starting out.
  3. Don’t be afraid to connect with a professional health care practitioner who specializes in human movement whenever persistent dysfunction, pain, or technical problems emerge. CrossFit coaches are given good information on ideal techniques and form, but not every human body is the same and will be able to achieve those guidelines. Some mobility and posture problems are more complicated than a simple 'laziness' of 'lack of focus,' and the reluctance to address these issues could result in an ever that sends you to the ER at Moses Cone.


So that's my speil. CrossFit isn’t a perfect system, but if we as movement specialist (DPTs, DCs, ATCs, etc) can focus on teaching great strategy, form, and technique, we can keep people active and healthy.  Let's help transform this sport into something that is better in the long run! Contact me directly via email or phone if you are having movement related dysfunction, or if you would like an in-depth screening of your movement.


Keep moving!