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Friday, October 11, 2013

Crossfit: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Excessive workouts don't necessarily lead to better fitness
Recently I traveled to a rather remote area of Southern California to visit an old friend I hadn’t seen for several years. Living in Los Angeles, I’m always rather stunned to not see Starbucks along every corner.

Well, her small town didn’t have one Starbucks; just a local coffee house that didn’t open till 8 a.m. As an early-morning riser who likes a good cup of dark roast before my workout, all I could think was The horror!

We had dinner one night at the town’s only semi-upscale eatery. As I dove into my sirloin, my friend began telling me about a new workout her friends had passionately embraced akin to a Lululemon sample sale.

“It’s called
Crossfit,” she began, “and we have three places around here that recently popped up offering classes.  A few of my friends rave about it, and I’m curious. But, of course, I wanted to talk to you before I jumped in.” (no Starbucks but 3 Crossfit studios!)

I felt a pang of concern for these participants, and here’s why.

 Amped-Up Workout Programs

As humans, we’re genetically programmed to push physical boundaries. Witness, for example, the countless stalwart folks who queue up every year to climb tortuous Mount Everest, where oxygen capacity becomes severely diminished as you approach the summit and fatigue overcomes even the most in-shape, fully prepared athlete.

Why put yourself through such misery when watching Friends reruns in your jammies would be far more pleasant? Because when you push your physical boundaries, you discover your capabilities. Those events can become life-altering situations.

We likewise thrive on extreme fitness routines. Witness the recent popularity of countless programs such as P90X and Insanity, which have become household names.

Amped-up intensity fuels these workouts, which combine numerous strategies including high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and resistance training with bodyweight and/or dumbbells (hence their sometimes-daunting names).

Harder, faster, heavier is the mantra here.  

 Crossfit: Fitness as Religion

Crossfit has taken the extreme-fitness crave to a whole new level. If you’ve missed the boat about its hype, Wikipedia says “CrossFit advocates a mix of aerobic exercise, gymnastics (body weight exercises), and Olympic weight lifting.”

Sounds good, right? 

Not so fast. Rather than customizing programs, Crossfit takes a one-size-fits-all approach. Instructors rarely if ever screen or evaluate for muscle imbalances, weaknesses, and other obstacles that could pave the way for injury. People of all levels are often placed into a competitive environment and expected to thrive. Does that spell doom for every exerciser? No, but there's more to consider.

During the past five years, Crossfit gyms have steadily increased all over the country. While that initially might sound great (hey, more people working out can’t be bad, right?) Crossfit gyms have become a sort of religion for congregations of Crossfitters.

I have a friend – well, more like an acquaintance – who’s become a fervent disciple. She constantly talks about her workouts, attends a Crossfit Meet-Up group (to simply talk about her hobby), and slavishly frequents classes with a zealous devotion that borders on cultish.

 Targeting the Wrong Demographic?

Interestingly, my friend had never really worked out before discovering Crossfit. Along with her middle-aged soccer-mom companions, she literally took her fitness routine from zero to 60.

Trouble is, Crossfit wasn’t designed for her:

CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide.

Most people doing Crossfit don’t fit that description. 

Let’s be frank: many Crossfitters start out as moderately fit or even out-of-shape folks convinced that a hyper-intense workout will give them their dream bodies. Trainers convince them endless reps and brutal routines are normal to reach these goals, so they acquiesce even if extreme discomfort and pain occur.

Listen, I am all about working hard, getting and staying in incredible shape, and radiating a zeal and confidence. Correctly done, guided by a good instructor, Crossfit can provide a fantastic workout experience for the average to advanced exerciser. 

Unfortunately, that doesn’t always occur.

 An Invitation for Injury?

Too often, I see over-zealous, under-trained Crossfit trainers push ill-prepared participants to extreme degrees. More is not always better, and can actually become detrimental. Especially with inexperienced trainers, that’s a surefire recipe for potential injury.

Crossfit fans argue any exercise performed incorrectly can be harmful. Correct, but the incidence of injury among Crossfitters is much higher from what I’ve seen. I haven’t seen any studies proving that, but I have 20 years of empirical evidence to prove it.

One potential “injury” is rhabdomyolysis. In a recent searing Huffington Post blog, physical therapy professor Eric Robertson describes this horrific condition:

Under extreme conditions your muscles cells explode. They die. They leach protein out into the blood stream, including one form called myoglobin. Ever stalwart, your kidneys take up the job of clearing these dangerous proteins from the blood. Why? It's just what they do. Unfortunately, myoglobin proteins aren't designed to be in the blood in the first place and they can easily overload the kidney. This can produce injury or death to all or part of the kidney in a short amount of time, and is potentially lethal.

Not pretty, huh?  Rhabdomyolysis is a very serious, often life-threatening condition.

Turns out Crossfit has nearly “popularized” rhabdomyolysis: doctors have been seeing more of this condition since the fitness fad developed when it was previously considered a very rare condition.

Do rhabdomyolysis and other physical conditions occur in "regular" gym environments? Occasionally. But in Crossfit, the “gym culture” tends to view that as almost a badge of honor. Almost a take-it-to-the-next-level-even-if-that-means-severe-harm approach.

 Crossfit… Or Just Fit, Period?

I’m all for exercise kicking your ass. Many of my A-list clients profess it’s the most challenging part of their day, and that after a great workout they feel an exhilarating adrenal rush.

But I also believe exercise should provide joy, not torture. It should challenge you, not kill you. And I strongly advise working with a credentialed, experienced expert to reduce injury and maximize your potential.

Ultimately I’m all about finding what works for you, whether that be powerlifting or Pilates. 

If you’re into sadomasochism, Crossfit might be your ticket. Just look for a trained instructor and use common sense. Quit your workout if you feel you’re putting yourself at risk for injury or permanent harm. Exercise should be challenging, not unbearable. 

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Fitness expert and strength coach Jini Cicero, CSCS, teaches intermediate exercisers how to blast through plateaus to create incredible transformations. Are you ready to take your fitness to a whole new level?  Find out now!  Take Jini's "Are you Ready?" Quiz at © 2011 Jinifit, Inc.

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  1. great article - brief and to the point.

  2. I know this is an old post, but I did want to chime in and say that not all CrossFit gyms are the same. The instructors at my gym do push us hard, but if you're a newbie, they take the time to personally get to know you and what your strengths and weaknesses are. All newbies are required to go though a month-long intro course so they can properly learn all of the basics. Even in the regular classes, if you need to adapt a movement because of past injury or fitness level, those adaptations are given and encouraged.
    I know you weren't out to demonize the CrossFit community, but I just wanted to point out that there are some gems out there, with instructors that really care about your personal fitness and safety. I always come out of a class feeling challenged and proud of what I am capable of.
    Thanks for letting me voice my opinion. Love your blog posts!

  3. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, Heidi. You're right, not all boxes are the same. Sounds like you've found one of the better ones -glad to hear it! Many fitness enthusiasts are not educated on what to look for in a facility or an instructor (any type of fitness instructor), let alone determine whether the instructor's training and education is adequate, whether they screen participants for existing muscle imbalances and/or weaknesses, etc. The average client doesn't have the time or inclination to do a thorough investigation nor should they have to.

    "Accidents" can and do happen to anyone, it's not always necessarily the fault of the trainer. My advice would be to just make sure your workouts and are as customized as possible and you're making sure your body what it needs to recover properly.