Why is CrossFit so popular? Perhaps it’s because people enjoy the challenge of high intensity exercise, and the sense of accomplishment that comes along with pushing past perceived physical, psychological and emotional limits. Or maybe it’s the novelty of performing whole-body movements such as the clean or snatch, or gymnastic activities that integrate rings and ropes. Or maybe it’s the variety, knowing that every day will bring a new challenge, and the emphasis that is placed on training for life. Or maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe, it’s the community environment, the sense of belonging to something bigger, and the motivation and encouragement provided by others.
Viewed as a system built on fundamental principles of exercise science, motor learning and behavior change, CrossFit can provide tremendous benefit to anyone involved. Its four pillars – high intensity, variable demands, whole body movements, and communal environment – are grounded in science.
- High intensity. Research has shown that as little as 3-4 minutes of high intensity training can elicit similar, if not superior benefits to that of long duration physical activity.
- Variable demands. Frequent changes to the demands of the exercise sessions could afford an opportunity to engrain a set of desirable movement behaviors across a range of activities and environments (i.e. development of physical literacy).
- Whole-body movements. The inclusion of whole-body activities will challenge a performer’s control and coordination and place an emphasis on motions rather than muscles, which is arguably more applicable to training for life.
- Communal Environment. Training with others can provide a support network to improve adherence and long-term sustainability. It is commonly stated that relatedness (the desire to interact with and be connected others) is an innate psychological need that will influence our motivational state and involvement in physical activity.
So why is CrossFit criticized? The most common reason – too many people have gotten hurt while exercising. But, this is true of any type of exercise. In the tactical community, fifty percent of soldiers’ injuries and one third of those sustained by firefighters have been cited as exercise-related. While these statistics cannot (and should not) be attributed to CrossFit, they do highlight the need to identify potential reasons why people may be getting hurt while exercising (with CrossFit). Four of those reasons are:
- High intensity. As with any training method, the experience and capacity of the performer must be considered. There is no reason to propose that everyone perform with the same loads, speeds, durations, or exercises. Knowing that fatigue will likely become a factor, coaches must be able and willing to adapt.
- Variable demands. While varying the demands of consecutive exercise sessions may help to facilitate learning, it may also create a situation whereby a performer is asked to perform with a load, speed, work duration or exercise that exceeds his or her capacity. Knowing that a performer’s movement patterns will be influenced by the demands imposed, coaches must be able and willing to adapt.
- Whole-body movements. If a performer lacks the ability or awareness to move safely, simply attempting to perform a novel whole-body movement could impose an unnecessary risk. Knowing that whole-body activities will challenge a performer’s control and coordination, coaches must be able and willing to adapt.
- Communal Environment. The competitive nature of a communal environment could cause performers to focus entirely on the load lifted, the number repetitions or the time to completion. In doing so, they may lose sight of the fact that how they exercise matters. Knowing that competition could shift a performer’s focus, coaches must be able and willing to adapt.
Ultimately, CrossFit has done an excellent job creating a training system that is built on science. I have never belonged to a CrossFit gym, but would have to say that I also employ a “CrossFit” approach to training – I leverage the benefits of high intensity, variable demands, whole-body movements and a communal environment in training for life. However, in the absence of proper guidance or under the supervision of an uneducated coach, each of these potential benefits could end up causing more harm than good. It is for this reason, that we as a community, must let everyone know that how we exercise matters to make our exercise matter!