CrossFit : Evil or Effective?


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10 Question Exam (sent via email)

Recently, I have received an influx of questions and comments regarding all aspects of CrossFit and H.I.I.T; the benefits, the drawbacks, the criticisms, the studies, becoming an affiliate, etc.  The studies that were brought to my attention, both lacked a significant sampling, made generalizations, and had poor calculating statistics.

Before diving into this, I think it’s important to mention that a 73.5% injury rate, if it is accurate, is very similar to Olympic Weight Lifting, Power Lifting, Gymnastics and other high-intensity sports and even lower than injury rates in contact sports. It is also a major flaw in logic to make a highly generalized statement: “CrossFit causes injuries.” Despite the higher injury rates in other sports, you never hear that gymnastics causes injury or football causes injury or boxing causes injuries. Why does CrossFit generate such a high degree of animosity?

Injury Rate & Research by various certifications, educational institutions and journals seem to condemn CrossFit. In a recent survey with 132 responses reported 97 CrossFit participants’ sustained an injury, an injury rate of 73.5% or 3.1 injuries/ 1,000 of training. Two other surveys had less than 60 participants. On the surface, this appears to be a horrendous response rate. But before you “throw the baby out with the bath-water,” let us all take a fair, honest & non-biased look at the facts.

Surveys are not the best or most accurate method of calculating statistics. Considering that CrossFit has thousands of Gyms World-Wide (100,000 Active Credential Holders according to recent publication and over 11,000 affiliates). 132 respondents is hardly a significant statistical sampling.

This survey needs even further scrutiny when you consider that those CrossFitters who have sustained an injury were more likely to respond to a survey than those who had not, another fact that could easily have skewed results.

If you employ deductive reasoning toward CrossFit and sports in general, a more accurate question should be: How do you reduce the injury rate in CrossFit or any other sport?

If you take a fair, open and honesty look at CrossFit, you see a rapidly growing sport that participants love! CrossFit is made for the Anaerobic Athlete. CrossFit defines itself as “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement, strength and conditioning program based around functional movements with the basics of moving large loads, over long distances, and to do so quickly.”

If you recognize that the lack of exercise is the primary risk to health World-Wide, you must stop the Fitness Industries continuous attempts to put “Round pegs into square holes!” If people love CrossFit, let them do CrossFit. If people love running, yoga or Tai Chi, don’t just let them…,ENCOURAGE them to do the program they want to do. The Fitness Industry should be focused on selling their clients and potential clients precisely what they want to buy!

The Fitness Industry should not be trashing a successful modality simply from jealousy over their success. If everyone in the Fitness Industry was concerned about Fitness, they would be searching for solutions, not searching for problems.

Criticisms of CrossFit: Solutions

Criticism: Lack of understanding of basic Biomechanics.

Solution:  Don’t try high-intensity exercise with poor posture, poor core stability or poor general condition. Watch for weakness in the Transverse Abdominis and strengthen the Transverse Abdominis along with the core.

Criticism: Poor Program Design for beginners.

Solution: Starting out too high an intensity, too early in a program with beginners is a recipe for injury. Adhere to the G.P.O. Principle.

Criticism: Poor Instruction on exercise techniques.

Solution: Focus on proper exercise technique. Emphasis technique in every movement at all times. Pay additional attention to clients towards the end of the workout, when technique breakdowns as a result of exhaustion, have them stop immediately or injuries will follow. Adhere to Back Safety Guidelines i.e: head neutral, scapula retracted, back flat, straight or “weightlifters” arch as required.

Criticism: Lack of understanding of Neuro-physiological failure.

Solution: Once proper exercise form and technique are mastered, look beyond the typical concentric failure. High-intensity exercises such as the Olympic Lifts: Clean & Jerk & Snatch; Power lifts: Squat, Bench Press & Deadlift & the popular CrossFit exercises such as kipping and bounding Box Jumps should all be judged based on neural physiological failure, not concentric failure.

Criticism: Over emphasis on Metabolic Conditioning.

Solution: Since many new participants will have Proprioceptive Fiber Atrophy, instructors need to focus more on the participants form, instead of an over emphasis on Metabolic Conditioning (M.C.) Crossfit emphasis on Metabolic conditioning can cause an increase in intensity due to shorted Rest Interval. Trading good form for Metabolic Conditioning is poor program design and results in injury.

Criticism: Accidents caused by Metabolic failure.

Solution: Metabolic Conditioning could be achieved through other exercises less hazardous than Clean & Jerks & Snatches until Metabolic Conditioning is sufficient to sustain higher intensity. Smart CrossFit trainers start their new or deconditioned clients with very light loads, i.e., PVC piping.

Criticism: Lack of solid development Strength Foundation.

Solution: Focus on development of a firm strength foundation before performing heavy weigh, high rep or demanding Metabolic Conditioning workouts. Strength is the critical component of most of the other 11 components of fitness. Without adequate strength development, you will greatly increase the risk of injury when attempting speed, power, or other components of fitness.

Criticism: There are injuries associated with Crossfit: Achilles Tendon injuries from Bounding Box Jumps, Shoulder injuries from Kipping, Impact injuries due to High Rep Olympic Lifts to failure, Rhabdomyolysis, etc.

Solution: Follow the GPO Principle: you should never increase any F.I.T.T factor by more than 10% in one week period of time. Important guidelines and techniques from your IFPA manual:

  • Never bounce at the bottom of any exercise. If the heels drop and touch the ground on any plyometric exercise, the intensity is too high. You must reduce the height of the box.
  • Exercises benefit from a functional range of motion when the exercise begins at 120% of resting length. Exceeding 120% is a cause of injury. As the athlete attempts to use more of the myotatic strength reflex as exercise fatigue and neural physiological fatigue occurs. The athlete will exceed 120% of resting length to attempt a few more reps. This is why shoulder injuries occur in kipping.
  • Watch carefully for higher risk exercises like the Olympic Lifts. Stop the athlete when form faults occur, this typical occurs before concentric failure.
  • Watch for early warning signs of overtraining; irritability, lack of restful sleep, loss of motivation, increased RHR (resting heart rate), loss of appetite , etc.

Again, the criticisms regarding injury resulting from CrossFit are common in Olympic lifting and high intensity exercise in general. The criticisms of lack of knowledge, in a small segment of CrossFit trainers is not a Crossfit issue, it is an industrywide issue, unfortunately found in both personal trainers and fitness professionals worldwide.

We can provide trainers with the knowledge, skills and abilities to be successful, but it’s on the trainer to execute these principles safely and effectively. In their haste to use “sexy modalities” like CrossFit or H.I.I.T, many trainers are trying to sprint before they have ever learned to crawl. Too many fitness professionals put their ego’s before the safety of their clients. Too many don’t even know…what they don’t know!

Must Know Key Principles

GPO Principle: Gradual Progressive Overload provided you with very specific rules on how to progress your most deconditioned client safely and effectively. You can take a retired accountant who has never worked-out a day in their life and using GPO get him into competition shape injury free. Increase only one F.I.T.T. factor/week and never more than 10%. F.I.T.T. Principle: All of your exercise prescription must be based on Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type. Accurate Fitness Assessments are required for safe and effective exercise prescription.

Individuality Principle: Base all your Program Designs on the client, not your “Workoutof the Week.”

Periodization Principle: Based on Dr. Selye’s General Adaptation Principle (GAP) and Dr. Bompa’s Periodized Programming.

Variation Principle: The Perfect Workout does not exist. All the research shows that 2-3 weeks on the same workout leads to staleness. Workouts must be varied on a regular basis. This Variation Principle is one of the biggest strengths of CrossFit and one of the primary reasons that CrossFitters get such great results. One benefit that is rarely, if ever mentioned by critics of CrossFit…CrossFit gets results!

It has been recommended numerous times that all IFPA Certified Instructors review their IFPA Personal Trainers Manual on a regular basis. This will provide a continuous reminder of the critical nature of all these and other exercise science principles, Personal Training Guidelines and systems that must be required to keep your clients safe. Following the IFPA Personal Training System is designed to keep you training safe and effective. Following the IFPA Personal Trainer Protocols will not only reduce injuries, it will greatly improve the many benefits of CrossFit.

Benefits of CrossFit

  • Participants in CrossFit report that they get phenomenal results.
  • CrossFit is a great way to strengthen the core.
  • CrossFit works every physiological system.
  • CrossFit works all 12 IFPA Components of Fitness: Strength, Speed, Power, Anaerobic Endurance, Aerobic Endurance, Agility, Balance, Coordination, Flexibility, Body Composition, Symmetry and Biochemical Balance.
  • CrossFit strengthens the extensors. Most muscular skeleton disorders result from a lack of symmetry between internal and external rotators and agonist/agonist muscle groups. CrossFit corrects this imbalance to a far greater degree than other modalities.
  • CrossFit answers the “No Time Objection: heard so often in fitness. Some CrossFit workouts can be less than 30 minutes.
  • CrossFit builds a community of social support rarely seen in the Fitness Industry. One of the reasons people love CrossFit is due to the feeling of belonging to a close-knit team. How successful could the entire fitness industry be if every gym could build such communities

To sum up, be wary of any study. Take the results with a grain of salt. More often than not, most studies have many flaws, including overgeneralization, lacking a significant number of respondents, conflict of interest, selective observation, etc. While it is important to keep up to date on the latest research, I caution you to question everything you come across, not just in the fitness industry, but all industries.

I myself have never participated in CrossFit. With that being said, I have always been the biggest supporter of High Intensity Interval Training. Over the years I have written several Fitbits on H.I.I.T and an IFPA H.I.I.T course is currently in development.  As a former gymnast, olympic lifter, powerlifter and bodybuilder I have done every movement in CrossFit. If done correctly, CrossFit can be an extremely effective modality. Volumes of research support the efficacy of High Intensity Training.

Many of my friends speak highly of the CrossFit Community. We have several IFPA Faculty that are deeply involved in CrossFit, and they have been part of the IFPA for over 20 years. These are the sources I trust the most. We also have many trainers that have their own successful box gyms.

If you are considering becoming involved in the CrossFit Community, I will give you the same advice I gave my daughter. First and foremost, listen to your body. You know what you can handle. Always use proper technique. If your technique breaks down as a result of fatigue, you STOP immediately. I don’t care if you are trying to achieve a new maximum. As an IFPA Trainer you know the fundamentals and principles to safe and effective training previously mentioned. Use them!

Achieving new gains is addictive period. Not just with CrossFit, but any sport or fitness activity. Be smart. Have rest days and allow your body to regenerate, otherwise overtraining and injury will follow. Use CrossFit the right way and you will be a part of highly supportive community unlike anything I have yet to see in the fitness industry and achieve great results in your training.

If you are considering becoming an affiliate with CrossFit and opening your own box gym as many of our trainers have, take everything you have learned, all of your knowledge, skills and abilities and translate these principles into everything you do. Every movement, every workout, every client you train, use what has made you successful as an IFPA trainer and you will become an asset to the CrossFit Community.

Best Regard,

Dr. Bell


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