When I first came across it, one of the main selling points of CrossFit, was that it was a great method for conditioning your body for sports – be this football, athletics, martial arts, triathlon or any other sport on the planet.
Personally, however, I think the evidence indicates that the concept of Functional Training is a Myth. That is to say that training free-weight or calisthenic movements in the gym to develop power, balance, coordination, etc, has little if any cross-over into the real world.
When “debating” with a friend, and fellow fitness professional, who practices CrossFit, he challenged my view with the argument that:
“Though I am not training for any specific sport, if I were to compete in any discipline, be it a long distance run, a strong man competition, or a cage fight, against someone else who did not do any cross-training, I am confident that the strength, stamina, speed, etc I’ve developed through CrossFit would enable me to easily out perform them, despite the fact the sport itself is new to us both.” – Anon (or words to that effect)
Do I disagree with his statement? No, I do not.
But does this mean that I was wrong, and that in fact Functional Training is an Effective Way to Improve Sporting Performance?
Do You Even Sport?
I talk a lot about the SAID principal – that the body adapts very specifically to the demands imposed upon it – and also that there is little cross-over between improved performance in one exercise/movement/sport and another.
This doesn’t mean to say, however, that I don’t believe there is any potential cross-over. There are many general adaptations to training/exercise/sport which can carry over to improved performance in others:
- Increased Muscle Mass
- Improved Mobility
- Increased VO2 Max
- Better Proprioception
- Improved Balance and Coordination
- Better grip, core, posterior chain strength etc
This is to name but a few.
Undoubtedly, if an individual decides to take part in a Decathlon after they’ve been training CrossFit or other similar Cross-Training program for 2 years, they will perform much better than had they done no previous training, or had trained in a different more specialised modality (i.e. if they’d been doing marathon running or bodybuilding only).
The faulty leap in logic people then make, however, is to conclude that because this individual was better at the Decathlon because they had trained CrossFit, people who are already Decathletes should also use CrossFit to improve their performance.
This is not the case.
Si quieres aprender Portuguese, mejor que no estudies Español
I am reasonably fluent in Spanish (hopefully no errors in the above!). It took quite a while – perhaps 3 months to be able to confidently navigate my way through the day-to-day necessities, 6 months to be able to do small talk, and from a year onwards gradually developed the ability to have complex debates, understand more complex humour etc.
Around a year and a half ago, I started to train Capoeira. In January, I went to Brazil for a Capoeira Festival in Bahia with a group of friends, before going traveling down the coast.
Come December, I thought it was probably a good idea to learn some Portuguese. I’d already picked up a few words from the songs and during the classes, but I’d never actually studied it.
In 1 month, I’d already reached more or less the level of Portuguese, it had taken me 6 months to get to in Spanish.
Both being derived from latin, the two languages have very similar grammar, many shared or similar words, plus I’d already learnt what techniques were best for me when it came to language learning.
So what on earth does all this have to do with CrossFit?
Because I had already “trained” Spanish, when I came to “train” Portuguese, it was a lot easier for me than it would have been otherwise – just like the Decathlon training would be easier for the CrossFitter than an individual who’d done no training, or only trained a sport which was very different such as ultramarathon running for example.
What it doesn’t mean, however, is that if you want to learn Portuguese/are already learning Portuguese, and you don’t already speak Spanish, that you should start learning Spanish to try to speed up or improve the process. That would be “una locura”.
Not only would it not assist you in learning Portuguese, it would more than likely hinder the process – You’ll have less time to focus on Portuguese, and the similarities can actually cause confusion and cause you to mix the languages… Voce hablas Sportuguese?
The same would be true for sport. If you decide you want to train a particular sport, be this decathlon, martial arts or marathon running, the best strategy would be to train specifically for that sport. Personally, I’d recommend a minimalist HIT/HIIT style Strength and Conditioning Program such as the one outlined here, coupled with training the specific skills of the sport.
Training complex “functional” movements at high intensity ala CrossFit, which require a high degree of balance, coordination and skill, takes a lot of time away from your schedule which could otherwise be used for training your sport and/or rest and relaxation, and there is even evidence that training movements which are similar, but slightly different to your sport could even have counter productive effects due to interference!
AMRAP in the Face of Danger
Before any die-hard CrossFitters get upset, I am not trying to say that no one should do CrossFit, or that CrossFit is evil and should be banned, though I can understand why many people do.
The true man wants two things: danger and play. For that reason he wants
womanCrossFitTM, as the most dangerous plaything. Friedrich Nietzsche (had he been a CrossFitter)
Aside from the silly socks, annoying jargon, and general “swollier than thou” attitude, the main reason people criticise CrossFit is because it is dangerous.
In defense of CrossFit, I don’t think that they’ve ever tried to deny this.
It can kill you – I’ve always been completely honest about that. Greg Glassman, CrossFit Founder
A recent study found the rate of injury within CrossFit participants to be 73.5%*, mainly to the shoulder and spine (with 0 cases of death, paralysis, or the infamous rhabdomyolysis within the sample). The authors of the study attempt to put this finding in context with the following comparison:
Injury rates with CrossFit training are similar to that reported in the literature for sports such as Olympic weight-lifting, power-lifting and gymnastics and lower than competitive contact sports such as rugby union and rugby league. Hak PT et al1
Footy also involves the wearing of long socks, talking nonsense and getting hurt on a regular basis. In fact, the injury rate is possibly even higher than that of CrossFit2. It doesn’t appear to receive the same amount of vitriol from the blogosphere and media however.
Plus of course, there are many other sports and activities out there which are far more dangerous – Martial Arts, Horse Riding, Extreme Sports.
So why is everyone so worried about CrossFit?
I don’t think that word means what you think it means…
The reason people get all worked up about CrossFit, is no one seems to know exactly what it is, including the people who developed it!
Whether CrossFit is defined as Exercise, Training or Sport is very important.
In the aforementioned study, the researchers compared CrossFit to numerous SPORTS.
As far as competitive sports go, CrossFit is probably pretty average in terms of injury risk – but that’s because the injury risk of most competitive sports is pretty close to 100%!
That is to say, if you play any sport – be it football, rugby, powerlifting, tennis, volley ball, hockey, frisbee – and put in 100% effort doing everything you can to win, unless you are exceptionally lucky, at some point you’re going to slip/trip/collide, and end up with a sprain/strain/tear/fracture.
SPORT: Risky Fun with Positive Side Effects
For the most part, people choose to do sports because they enjoy them.
Hopefully, the majority enter into sport with their eyes wide open, acknowledging that at some point they will most likely sustain an injury.
After weighing the risks against the years of enjoyment from which they’ll benefit, and the positive side effects participation in physical activity can have on their healthy, physique and longevity, however, they decide it is worth it.
EXERCISE & TRAINING: First Do No Harm
Unlike Sport, Exercise and Training are activities performed with the specific intention of producing an adaptation in the body.
Exercise, at least under my definition, is performed with the aim of forging health through improved cardiovascular and pulmonary function, increased muscle mass, better mobility, etc.
Training should be performed with the express intention of improving specific physical attributes – i.e. increased vertical jump, faster sprint, stronger grip, better endurance etc.
This is not to say that people can’t or don’t enjoy exercise or training. Often people do (sometimes too much, and as a result end up over-training/exercising but I digress!), only that this enjoyment is more of a side effect, not the primary motivation.
Above all, modes of Exercise and Training should be SAFE & EFFECTIVE.
There are many definitions of Health, but I think all of them would include the absence of pain and injury. An exercise program which injures you, therefore, is not doing its job.
Equally, if you are injured, your athletic performance will suffer, therefore if your training program injures you, it also is failing to do what it says on the tin.
Is CrossFit for You?
The t’interweb is full of polarised articles stating that either CrossFit is the best thing on the planet, and that everyone should do it, buy the socks and the t-shirt, and talk about nothing else all day, or, CrossFit is an evil, annoying dangerous scourge, which should be banned immediately, as even thinking about it could cause a severe case of rhabdo.
I don’t agree with either camp.
Though I personally didn’t find that CrossFit was for me, I have friends who love it, and for them it is a great choice, fitting their needs and wants perfectly. Essentially, whether CrossFit is Good or Bad FOR YOU all comes down to your personality and your goals.
Below is my rough “Is CrossFit for Me?” guide:
- I just want to stay healthy and look good
- I want to improve performance at my sport
- I’m highly competitive, love training till I vomit, and thrive on variety
Probably not. There are many safer, more effective, time efficient and cheaper alternatives out there. Personally I’d recommend a combination of HIT Resistance Training, HIIT interval training, NEPA (lots of walking and general physical activity) and some mobility work.
Definitely not. Training CrossFit to improve your performance in another sport makes about as much sense as taking up rugby in order to get better at cross-country skiing. Don’t do it! What one should do in terms of “Sport Specific Training/Strength and Conditioning for Sport” is a good question, and will be the topic of the next post.
Sounds like a good fit. If you’ve tried CrossFit and really enjoyed it, are aware of the potential injury risks and that there are easier, faster, safer (but potentially less fun) ways to get in form, go for it.
Why you shouldn’t always play it safe
Though I’m not personally a CrossFit fan, I’m perhaps even less of a fan of EXERCISE, at least in its strictest definition.
Why? Because while exercise is (or at least should be) Safe and Effective, it can also be BORING 🙁
The goal of EXERCISE is Health and Longevity – but what is the goal of Health and Longevity?
Simply to exist on this planet for as long as possible without pain or illness?
Health is the Ability to Live Your Dreams – Mosche Feldenkrais
I love this definition, but one could still ask what’s the point in having this ability if you don’t use it?
We all need to be enjoying life today, right now, at this very moment if possible.
Though activities such as CrossFit, Martial Arts, Rugby, Break Dancing, Rock climbing, Mountain Biking etc may be dangerous, this risk can be more than compensated for by the enjoyment they provide.
Perhaps every hour you spend trudging on the cross-trainer buys you an extra hour of healthy pain-free life, but what’s the point, if you’ve lost an hour in the process – at best you’ve broken even!
Personally, I choose to stay healthy in order to play Capoeira, practice acrobatics, go for mountain bike rides and hike steep trails, all activities which I do because I enjoy them.
I often have aches, pains, strains, cuts and bruises, and am aware that any day something more serious could happen such as a broken limb, snapped tendon or worse. I manage these risks as best as possible by taking safety precautions, doing S&C and staying focused at all times, but they will always remain at some level. In my opinion, however, these are acceptable risks.
All of these activities also have positive effects on my health and physique – they have an exercise like (side) effect. This therefore means I no longer have a need to do EXERCISE, in its pure form.
Can you prepare for the Unknowable?
So to wrap up, my personal thoughts are that CrossFit is a sport, not an effective mode of exercise or method of training to prepare the body for another physical activity.
Looking at the CrossFit website for the first time in nearly a decade, it seems that this is more or less how they position themselves nowadays too. At least, I didn’t see any overt messages recommending CrossFit as an effective way to prepare the body for other sports (though no doubt it is still marketed for this by many CrossFit coaches and boxes).
Rather, on the website, is says:
The program prepares trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown but for the unknowable, too. Our specialty is not specializing – CrossFit.com/what-is-crossfit 11/05/2016
Hmm. Interesting. The unknown and the unknowable. Aside from making me cringe, this did make me think.
I would probably have to agree, that if your body copes with everything that CrossFit throws at you, it’ll likely also cope with most unknown unknowables which crop up in your day-to-day life.
It’s pretty uncommon nowadays that you’re randomly required to repeatedly lift a heavy object from the ground to overhead, before sprinting around the block and then climbing a rope and doing 100 burpess…
So CrossFit may prepare you for the unimaginable, but what is going to prepare you for CrossFit? More CrossFit? As we’ve seen, training CrossFit has pretty much a 100% injury risk. If you are going to train CrossFit, should you just train CrossFit, or should you do some additional/extra curricular “Sport Specific Training/Strength and Conditioning”?
Also, what about other sports – if CrossFit and “Functional Training” are not the safest and most effective methods to prepare for sports, what are the alternatives?
I’m going to look at these questions, and more, in my next post: “The Truth About Strength & Conditioning for Sport”
*One could perhaps extrapolate from this the risk of injury is in fact closer to 100%, if you factor in that A) How many of the uninjured respondents are in fact very new to CrossFit, and simply haven’t had their (first) injury yet, and B) How many people simply quit after they get injured, and go back to BodyPump or Spinning instead.
1) The nature and prevalence of injury during CrossFit training. Hak PT , Hodzovic E , Hickey B
2) Though I can’t find any direct comparisons, the following couple of studies find it to be more dangerous than gymnastics and/or weight-lifiting (though in these studies the rates of injury for the aforementioned appear to be lower than that of CrossFit, but as the risk is expressed differently, and I couldn’t really be bothered getting the calculator out, I can’t say for sure).
Risk of injury according to participation in specific physical activities: a 6-year follow-up of 14 356 participants of the SUN cohort Juan Pons-Villanueva, María Seguí-Gómez, and Miguel A Martínez-González
Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training Brian P. Hamil