Before delving into the “does CrossFit work” question, I’ll preface the topic by acknowledging an encompassing positive point about CrossFit; it brings many previously sedentary people into the fitness lifestyle. This is obviously a good thing. With one of our most daunting present-day problems being a growing obesity epidemic, how can I knock a program whose popularity knocks the couch potato tendency right out of a cubicle warrior’s daily routine? That’d be a form of blasphemy from a guy who believes in and loves physique improvement. So I’m compelled to give CrossFit praise right out of the gate for being “exciting” and “fun” to a good many people. If competitive fun and a big dose of “what’s my workout gonna be today”-type mystery is what gets a large number of the population started in fitness or rededicated to it, I’ve got to give CrossFit credit for that.
This makes the “does CrossFit work” question something to be answered at a slightly more granular level. Actually, this reveals the need for ANY fitness system’s efficacy to be analyzed with greater detail. If we merely judge them on their ability to get people up and moving, then our high school PE teachers gave us routines as worthy as any. Those “changed” a lot. They held us accountable. And they were often competitive (at least when I was in school).
Coincidentally (or maybe not), the guy who started CrossFit is a former high school gymnast. His name is Greg Glassman. And what better way to jump into the “does CrossFit work” question than to study the definition of CrossFit from the founder himself? Below is a video of Glassman providing exactly that to a roomful of eager listeners.
‘Does CrossFit Work?’ Anatomy of CrossFit’s definition
I’ve watched this video repeatedly and in its entirety and I have completely mixed reactions to Mr. Glassman and his claims. I love some of what he says and I find other things completely laughable. So in our “does CrossFit work” analysis, let’s start with his definition of CrossFit:
“High Intensity, constantly varied, functional movement”
Funny… as a correlative to this definition, he states that when someone asks him what CrossFit is, he wants to “expose them to a workout” so he can say “… see, that’s what CrossFit is” (2:10).
This tells me that it’s no wonder that many CrossFit disciples like to tout and defend its purported effectiveness by stressing “how hard it is.” The guru of CrossFit himself wants to confuse ‘product’ with ‘process.’ Possibly, there’s something inherently indefinite about the goal of this program that spawns a knee-jerk reaction of something like the following:
“Okay… you just try to sprint 400 meters after doing a set of power cleans; it’s hard”
But the question “does CrossFit work” cannot be definitively answered by analyzing its difficulty – nor can any workout. As I explain in my book: ‘An effective workout might be difficult – but that doesn’t mean any difficult workout is effective.’
Now, before you evangelists of CrossFit start chastising me with assumptions that I’m a wimpy writer that’s never met a hard workout in my life, let me beg to differ. In the 1980s, I thrice endured the toughest military training in the world. I was in BUD/S classes 128, 129, and 141. Each of these classes of basic U.S. Navy SEAL Training is unique in its experience of mind-numbing exertion. I can guarantee that whatever you think is a difficult CrossFit workout – you can multiply that by about 100 to get a typical day of workout intensity we experienced in BUD/S class 141. In fact, I’d estimate by our 1980s BUD/S attrition that it’s unlikely that most of you, or Mr. Glassman, could endure the disgustingly painful and arduously killing workouts that I’ve endured in the military’s most elite training. I witnessed it truncate the egos of former U.S. Marines, Army Rangers, and Olympic athletes until they whimpered away with their tails between their legs.
Okay… now that that’s out of the way, here’s what I think about the official CrossFit definition:
- High Intensity (I absolutely love Glassman’s definition and explanation of this)
- Constantly Varied (“stupid is as stupid does” – just another manifestation of ‘muscle confusion’)
- Functional Movement (mixed opinions – and extremely goal dependent)
Mr. Glassman defines intensity as work, which he then defines with the following equation:
Time/Force x Distance
I actually love this definition while I’d simultaneously eschew him for his mockery of bodybuilders in this regard. He claims that bodybuilders define intensity “by how red their faces get” and “how much of a scene they make” (5:04) while they attempt to lift heavy weights (aka Mike Mentzer ‘high intensity’). This is an intentional confusion of definition with effect by Mr. Glassman in order to project authority or superiority. Obviously, a bodybuilder can be engaged in a bodybuilding exercise that matches Glassman’s own definition of intensity. He or she could do this and, in effect, show bodily symptoms of what might be labeled “intensity of effort.” Intensity is often reflected by involuntary physiological changes and vocal outbursts – as I’m sure any dedicated “CrossFitter” can attest.
Constantly varied is the part of the definition for which I have the biggest problem and lies at the heart of the “does CrossFit work” question. It’s justified by believers in CrossFit by the fact that their stated goal is proficiency in ten general physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy. Never mind that they never define what the long-term goal is in each of these categories; leaving that open-ended allows illogical workouts to appear esoteric and scientific.
For those who’d contend that there is logic in these ‘constantly varied workouts’, let me ask you this: If all you did is consider three important variables (like age, experience, and genetically-determined recuperative capacity), how many individual results could come out of a class full of CrossFitter’s responses to any given workout stimulus of each of these ten “skills?” Now add in the fact that workouts in each of these skills will affect recuperation time in all the others. Add on top of that the reality that CrossFit workouts combine movements of numerous different devices for different set and rep schemes. What do you get from all this?
‘You get enough outcome variables to make any claim of “CrossFit workout logic” absolutely absurd.’
Now, I can already hear some of you CrossFit enthusiasts reacting with something like the following response:
“Oh yeah… well we did CrossFit workouts at our Fire Department and we got in better shape than ever and I’m stronger now than before and I can run up stairs easier… and…” (on and on)
Hey… there’s no doubt that CrossFit can provide measurable improvements in capacity of any exercise its proponents deem worthy. The question is whether a CrossFitter is maximally gaining those benefits in relation to his or her goals (assuming they have goals). When someone experiences some improvement using arbitrary workouts, they typically believe it’s the “constant change” that’s providing the results and have no idea the degree they’re shortchanging themselves by NOT using a more systematic approach.
Functional movement is a notion nearly as questionable as ‘constantly varied’ in our “does CrossFit work” analysis. In the Greg Glassman video, he displays additional disdain for bodybuilding with mockery of deltoid lateral raises (16:40) and barbell curling (17:15). He claims there’s “no functional movement in bodybuilding” or “at least not enough.”
If a guy stands in front of an audience and slams bodybuilders while his gut protrudes beneath a sunken chest, I guess he’d damned-well better emphasize the virtues of “functional strength.” He’d also better make it clear to all of us that he has phenomenal blood pressure readings (30:50). That way we can assume that his type of “fitness” is something hidden and he just might possess a lot of it. Aside from whether he does, his mimicking of side lateral raises and the accompanying question “when was the last time you did something like this in real life” is about as asinine as it gets. Here’s my counter question:
“When’s the last time you did something that resembles ‘clean and jerks’ in real life?
Think back in the past week. It’s unlikely you’ve had to clean and jerk anything from the floor to a spot above your head. If the need arose, you probably just got someone to help you. Even in the event that you had to lift your carry-on luggage from the floor to the overhead compartment on an airline flight, your movements only vaguely resembled those of this Olympic power lift.
In contrast, you’ve likely had some occasions in which you needed to extend your arm away from your body with weight in your hand. When you did that, you used the same muscles you’d use doing lateral raises. When you’ve lifted a box and carried it with bent elbows and supinated arms, you were using the biceps in a way more closely resembled by biceps curls than any coveted exercise used by CrossFitters. Wow, imagine that… bodybuilding exercises that provide “functional strength.”
It’s funny that many advocates of ‘functional strength training’ try to appeal to sedentary folks by using something like the following statement:
“We train for functional strength, which helps with things like… grabbing your groceries out of the car… picking up your suitcase and putting it in the overhead compartment…”
Strange; I’ve been doing these silly little bodybuilding workouts for years and my ability to perform all these daily tasks has improved phenomenally. In fact, I’d estimate that my “grocery-from-car-lifting” abilities have probably at least tripled since I’ve been body building with my HardBody Success principles. The added bonus of bodybuilding is that my deltoids actually look good while I’m doing it.
In the video presentation, Mr. Glassman defines ‘functional movements’ in the following manner:
“Movements that are categorically unique in their ability to express power – that is, they have the decided advantage of allowing us to move large loads for long distances.” (11:28)
Can anyone else recognize relativity-laced gobbledygook when they hear it? For example, flipping a tractor tire for a hundred meters clearly represents “a large load” for a “long distance.” But the difference in distance between that and doing a single ‘dead-lift’ is clearly greater than the difference between a dead-lift and a side lateral raise. This leads one to assume that the dead-lifts, as performed by CrossFitters, are measured in distance by number of repetitions. However, this reveals the inherent relativity in Mr. Glassman’s functional movement definition; even single-joint exercises (like arms curls) could be categorized this way. The difference, just like that between dead-lifts and tire flipping, would be in weight used and distance measurements (repetitions for weight lifting). He even mentions ‘pull-ups’ (a bodyweight exercise) as being one of moving “large loads” for “long distances.”
What kind of fuzzy logic is that?
I wonder if I’m the only one who finds another thing absolutely idiotic in the notion of superiority of ‘functional movements’: It’s the belief that only compound, multi-joint movement exercises improve the strength needed for compound, multi-joint movements. This is a huge assumption. For example, why do functional strength fanatics think the pectoral mass built from dumbbell flyes doesn’t improve the strength needed for bench pressing? I challenge any CrossFitter to explain why it wouldn’t. I challenge Greg Glassman to explain why it wouldn’t. Incidentally, he mentions in the video that functional movements are “built into your DNA; they’re part of who you are” (15:07). Assuming that’s a truism, we certainly can’t be creating a hindrance to them when we supplement their strength with isolation movements.
The truth is that bodybuilders actually use both compound movements and isolation exercises; we perform those coveted squats and bench presses. It only seems to be Greg Glassman who’s never noticed this.
“Does CrossFit Work?” To be continued…
Obviously, I could get really long-winded on the topics of fitness and physique enhancement. I’m sure the “does CrossFit work” topic will be covered more in further posts. Since this post is now at about two-thousand words, I’ll finish this “does CrossFit work” segment with some bullets of what I like and what I dislike about CrossFit:
What I like about CrossFit:
- It sparks or reignites enthusiasm for fitness: With evidence of a population more unfit than ever, I’ve got to commend CrossFit for getting people interested and excited about fitness. I can’t deny that many of its members gain workout motivation.
- It encourages competitiveness: Yes… I am FOR that. In a world too overcome with touchy-feeliness and a notion that “everyone deserves a trophy” – it’s nice to see an organization that actually prizes merit-based competition.
- It emphasizes measurement in fitness: This is terrific. You can’t markedly improve what you don’t measure. CrossFit teaches accurate measurement and ascribes it the value it needs.
What I dislike about CrossFit:
- It attempts to be too many things: I understand their objective of “non-specialization”… but spreading oneself as widely as CrossFitters do has more ego-stroking and workout entertainment value than the value of truly excelling at any of their ten physical skills. I think CrossFitters would do well by narrowing things down a bit.
- It provides little hypertrophy: It’s not surprising to me that most CrossFitters I see have unbalanced physiques or very little muscular shape. The only ones who don’t are those who’ve engaged in bodybuilding prior to joining CrossFit. Most people get really excited about improved bodily shape. CrossFit is not the optimal workout for providing that.
- It teaches “followership”: I won’t take a cheap shot and call it a cult, as some antagonists do. However, an organization that passes down a WOD (workout of the day) is definitely not teaching adherents how to ultimately think for themselves in regard to body improvement. If the workouts are indeed not random and arbitrary – there should be a book that teaches the methodology.
I welcome (and encourage) any lively debate on the “does CrossFit work” topic.