In the world of CrossFit, pain doesn’t mean gain.
BY ERIN SIMMONS
I get asked all the time if I’ve tried CrossFit. My friends text me—without fail—when the games are on and tell me I should be there, and I’m asked my opinion of it on a weekly if not daily basis.
So I’m going to share that opinion with you. I know that a lot of people won’t like it, and CrossFitters may react quite negatively, but the goal is not to simply go along with what is popular or to avoid tough subjects so that people won’t “unfollow” me. The goal is to educate people about fitness and health and to warn against potentially harmful or unhealthy diet and exercise practices, and that’s what I’m going to do in this article.
I’ll start with a few personal anecdotes. When I first stumbled upon CrossFit, I was working on a Navy base and started working out with some of the guys there. CrossFit was just starting up and military guys were loving it. The first workout I did was a series of pullups, pushups, and dips, and I couldn’t move my arms the next day. No big deal, I’d been sore before.
I did a couple more WODs (CrossFit speak: Workout of the Day) that were these types of circuits and they were fine. But one of my friends later invited me to the gym where she taught and I jumped in on a WOD.
First of all, I got there as people were attempting to do muscle-ups. No one was succeeding. The training they’d had in CrossFit really hadn’t prepared them to do this movement, so it was just a matter of attempting it over and over again. These were people who had been doing CrossFit for years at this point, and I’ve never gotten as many looks as when I jumped up on a pair of rings and pumped a couple out.
What was my secret? How could I do this without having done CrossFit ever before?
Well, I had trained as an athlete, lifted, and done many bodyweight exercises over my years as a collegiate athlete. CrossFit doesn’t translate into body control.
The workout was going to have deadlifts, which I had never done; to this day, I still don’t do them (but that’s another post altogether on risk: reward ratios). Having never done deadlifts, I got less than five minutes of instruction before weight was piled on. Afterward, I got five minutes of instruction on the “kipping pull-up” and instruction on kettle bell swing before I was given a 35 lb bell.
Then the timer started. I was constantly yelled at to go faster, to take shortcuts, and to do movements from which previous injuries precluded me. It was a whirlwind, and all I remember was stopping at one point and watching some of the bad form that people were using around me.
And that’s when I started to worry. A few months later, a guy I was seeing tried to convince me to try CF again and I did a workout with him. He was pretty knowledgeable of form, but the workout we did involved thrusters, burpees, and kettle bell swings as fast as you could possibly go. I should have known better that the thruster combination of cleans and push press shouldn’t be done for speed/time, but I did it anyway.
I was dead afterwards and incredibly sore the next day, with some aches and pains that didn’t go away for quite a while. After doing some research, I’ve never done (and will never do) CrossFit again, and here’s why.
First of all, let me say that I have been an athlete for years. Let’s just disregard high school, and jump right to collegiate athletics.
Never once, in the five years I was at Florida State University working out with a three-time back-to-back national championship team, did my strength coaches give me a workout sheet that told me to do Olympic or Power lifts for time. Never once did they give me a workout that told me to do sets of 15, 20, or 30 Olympic or Power lifts. Never once did they tell me to do as many as I possibly could. Never once in the nearly two years I’ve been at A&M working for a men’s four-time national championship track and field team and women’s three-time national championship team, have these things occurred.
Why? Because Olympic and power lifts are not meant to be done in sets of 30 or for time. They are extremely technique-oriented and are meant to be explosive and powerful over very short periods of time with plenty of rest. Subjecting your muscles to those movements continuously for time or for reps sets you up for injury.
Every coach I’ve trained under has done one of two things: given a workout with heavy weight for low reps, or given a workout with lighter weight for higher reps. When I say higher reps, I’m only talking 10. Anything higher than that were ancillary exercises, such as abs, push ups, pull ups, and the like. But rarely were even these ancillary exercises performed for sets of more than 15 or 20.
The point here is that subjecting your muscles to extremely high stress repetitively is not good. CrossFit seems to think that the more pain you are in, whether on that day or the days following the workout, the better. The more you disregard the pain and keep pushing through it, the “tougher” you are.
But this is not true, and more importantly, it’s not healthy.
Also, CrossFit coaches are able to get certified in a weekend. The only real barrier to opening up your own CrossFit gym is how much money you have. Very few of them have any real knowledge of proper form, which is especially critical for olympic and power lifts.
So, on top of having an already overly-strenuous, very high intensity program that sets you up for injury to start with, most people are doing the lifts and other exercises all wrong, and there is no one there to correct them. The strength and conditioning coaches that I have worked with as an athlete all have master’s or doctorate degrees in kinesiology or a related field. They have interned as graduate assistants for years. They have attended and presented at conferences, taken numerous certification exams, and have had to pass demonstration practicals in order to work with athletes in the weight room or on/in the field, track, court, or pool.
These professionals have dedicated their entire lives to providing a safe and effective strength-training program for high caliber athletes, not a single weekend plus some cash.
And not a single one of them recommends CrossFit. Not a single one of them has ever given me workouts that look like CrossFit WODs. Even athletic training staff that I have talked with have said that they would love CrossFit if they didn’t work with athletes, because they would always have people to treat.
Translation: CrossFit means job security for medical professionals due to the high rate of injury among the ranks of CrossFitters. These same athletic trainers warn every single athlete against CrossFit and tell them the health risks of being involved in it. Kinesiology professors have told their students that they better never find out that they have anything to do with CrossFit. No entity of professional athletics promotes CrossFit.
With all of that said, one has to wonder why people still do CrossFit. Why would so many people ignore the advice of professionals and risk injury?
For the most part, I think people want a workout to follow, they want to be part of a gym, and they want fellow sufferers and coaches to motivate them. People think that hurting is a good thing, that pushing past your body’s limits means you’re getting stronger, and that not being able to walk the next day means you had a good workout. People should be properly educated on form, acceptable rep numbers, and the warning signs of when to stop. Until gyms step up to the plate and accept the responsibility to do so, there will be injury both now and in the future for CrossFitters.
Many articles have been written on the dangers of CrossFit, and I’ll share just a few with you here.
The following link describes some of the health issues with CrossFit, especially the extremely scary possibility of CrossFit’s unofficial mascot: Uncle Rhabdo. It also addresses the “don’t quit” mentality of CrossFit, which is a dangerous one to have in athletics. In the Huffington Post, Eric Robertson shares the stories of Crossfitters who have pushed their bodies so far past their physical limits that they put their health and lives in jeopardy. The moral of the story: it’s just not worth the chance.
WebMD further recognizes the risks and problems of CrossFit:
Be aware that the CrossFit coach may not have an appropriate educational background in sports conditioning. Strength and conditioning specialists spend years learning proper technique of explosive exercises and some have degrees in exercise science, biomechanics, or kinesiology.
CrossFit claims that the system is “empirically driven and clinically tested” which insinuates that the methods are scientifically supported. A review of the current scientific literature, however, shows no published studies about CrossFit in top-rated peer-reviewed strength and conditioning or exercise physiology research journals.
Not only are the exercises themselves risky, but performing them under a fatigued state, such as during an intense circuit, increases the risk of injury even further.
The following article looks at the findings of a study by the Consortium for Health and Military Performance in conjuction with the American College of Sports Medicine. Dr. Michael Esco, associate professor of physical education and exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery, says, “Even though you go to an affiliate, the coaches have a weekend certificate. I’m in a field of academics where we teach students; it takes years to learn the proper mechanics of an Olympic lift, for example, or a plyometrics exercise—far more than just a weekend certificate.”
I’d also like to highlight a quote from a Dutch neurophysiologist, Kenneth Jay, in regards to using weights for cardiovascular gains (this actually includes kettle bells as well):
With an increased HR to VO2 relationship it will never be as good as typical cardio exercises. It is simple physiology really. Increased heart rate decreases the time available to fill the left ventricle of the heart, which means that the left ventricle will contain and eject less blood per contraction. This means that the ‘stretching’ of the heart wall, which is necessary to increase your stroke volume and your VO2, does not happen. It’s the Frank-Starling mechanism in full effect and it’s basic cardiorespiratory physiology. Moral of the story: stop thinking you can “get your cardio in” by lifting weights—no matter how fast you lift them!
Science of Running has posted a couple of great articles that show why CrossFit’s workouts and claims are invalid. The first addresses why CrossFit seems to work for people, at least at first:
In CrossFit’s key demographic, we see a lot of initial change. Why? Because it’s random highly intense exercise. For the unfit or formerly fit, this works great initially. People see results because it’s a very high stress workout. It’s why you see results when you do insanity or any of those workout videos. It isn’t that the exercises are super awesome targeted muscle sculpting patented exercises. Instead, it’s that the people who generally do them weren’t doing anything before.
And what happens when it’s no longer new?
We get stale, we stop improving, or our body breaks down.
The writer also makes a great point about the difference between variation in workouts, which is necessary for the body to improve, and randomness in a workout:
Variation not randomness—variation is good, but the direction you take that variation matters!
Why is random variation bad? Because you don’t have a plan to progress, you don’t build on previous gains, and you don’t balance or strategically target your workouts:
What’s worse is that there’s nowhere to go. When your bread and butter is randomized intensity, performed at near max or to exhaustion, you can’t just simply push beyond exhaustion to the next level. Once fitness gains flat line, no amount of pushing will create a new stimulus. You’re maxing out the intensity, and because you don’t believe in progressive, controlled, low-moderate and high intensity mixes, you’ve got to nowhere to go. There’s no way to progressively overload and create new stimuli and adaptation.
The second article addresses CrossFit’s claims that it enables people to become better endurance athletes. If you’re an aspiring endurance athlete, you may want to read the whole article, but I just wanted to highlight a couple important quotes:
If you’ve been in the coaching business long enough you know that hard stupid work doesn’t get you anywhere. You can’t just do work that is painful just because it hurts and expect to get better.
The goal of a workout shouldn’t be to hurt. I’m not saying that workouts won’t push you or that you won’t ever hurt during a workout or you won’t ever be sore the next day. I am saying that hurt isn’t the goal. Just because you feel exhausted or your muscles are burning doesn’t mean it was a great workout. A great workout targets specific muscles, specific actions, specific and personal goals. Hence, the next problem with CrossFit, the lack of individualization:
There is no individualization. Workout of the day. That’s the norm.
Finally, Livestrong’s Brooke Ross addresses Rhabdo and injury risk. Perhaps the best quote of the article is the last one: “While CrossFit motivates its followers to exercise, the growing fear is that the current model and lack of monitoring is more likely to build broken bodies than create a healthier nation.”
So my question to you is this: do you want a broken body? Or do you want to get fit in a healthy way? Do you want a coach screaming at you to finish the set even though your form has crumbled and you’re experiencing pain? Or do you want to train smart? Do you want to follow a coach that got certified in a weekend? Or do you want to rely on decades of research and training that strength and conditioning coaches have acquired?
I can tell you that I have worked and trained with collegiate athletes, national champions, world champions, and Olympians. The goal of these athletes is to challenge the body but stay within their body’s limits. Pain is not gain for them. Pain could mean injury, and injury means being unable to compete. Maybe for a season, maybe for life.
These athletes must be smart with their training and know when to stop before serious injury occurs. Coaches, athletic trainers, and other staff educate them on staying within these limits and developing their strength and athletic abilities safely.
So my advice: don’t do CrossFit for weight loss, to get ripped, or to throw around heavy things. Train like an athlete but train safely. Combine sprints/cardio with proper lifting and clean diet and that will get you where you want to be: fit and healthy.
[Note: I’ve showed this article to a new people who have been in CrossFit for some time, and I’ve noticed a slightly disturbing trend. There is a sort of “brainwashing” that occurs from the first time a person steps into a box (CrossFit speak for “gym”) that creates an “us vs. them” mentality. Boxes have attempted to combat the bad reputation of CrossFit by saying that other gyms do bad stuff but their gym is different, their coaches know good form, their gym focuses on safety. This is simply not true and every single thing that I’ve posted in this article refers to every single gym that follow CrossFit. There are no exceptions, if you’re following the WODs, it’s not good for you, it’s not safe, and you’re putting your health in danger. Take it for what it’s worth, but please believe that your box is not different, no matter what your coach says.]
Erin Simmons has a Master of Science in Biology. She has worked for the Department of Defense as a contractor in a physiology laboratory, and she is currently working on her Ph.D. in Fisheries at Texas A&M. A former student athlete, she is a volunteer assistant coach for the national championship track and field teams there, and she has created her own brand of fitness and health advice with Erin Simmons Fitness. This article was originally featured on the author’s blog and reposted with permission.