Mr and Mrs Nutritionist

The Pros and Cons of CrossFit- a Non Biased Scientific Review

What is CrossFit?

If you have been on the fence about whether you should take the plunge and try CrossFit, take a minute and read this review on the pros and cons of CrossFit.

CrossFit is currently sweeping the nation and is one of the most talked about workout regimes at the moment, and to some is almost revered as a form of religion.  What is truly amazing about CrossFit is how rapidly its popularity has spread and the amount of people who now partake in the CrossFit way of life considering CrossFit was only started just over 15 years ago in Santa Cruz, California.

CrossFit is a type of workout that combines aspects of high intensity interval training, gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing, calisthenics, and other athletic exercises.  The goal of CrossFit is not to specialize in one particular movement or exercise but to improve overall athleticism and fitness.  CrossFit’s belief is that anyone can do CrossFit, no matter their level of physical fitness, they believe in scaling the load and the intensity of their workouts, not the type.

CrossFit can be extremely polarizing with those on one side who believe CrossFit is the best thing since sliced bread and who eat, sleep, and breath it.  On the other hand there is the group of people who believe that CrossFit is the most dangerous fad exercise regime and should be avoided at all costs.

Which is why this post needed to be written, we need to look critically at the pros and cons of CrossFit from a non biased scientific point of view.  So if you are looking for a non-biased review, based on science, then keeping reading to find out if CrossFit is right for you.

The Pros

Community

The sense of community and camaraderie, is probably one of the biggest reasons why CrossFit has done so well.  People who were athletes in high school or college may miss the sense of team bonding and encouragement that comes along with working out as a group.  As people age their participation in organized team sports decreases and they lose their motivation factor to work hard and be pushed to their limits.

Since CrossFit prides themselves on motivating others as a way to finish workouts, a real sense of community and family mentality occurs, making people work harder than they would if they were by themselves.  For many people this sense of family helps them push through difficult workouts and motivates them to return day after day.  Many people may be missing this sense of community especially if they may be new to an area, have a limited social group, or difficult home life.  But for many people CrossFit is great to be social and to make some new friends.

Physical and Mental Impact on Health

Improved self confidence both within the gym and outside the gym is one of the biggest pros of CrossFit.  Although this is not solely due to CrossFit, most people who partake in any type of exercise program reap the rewards of improved self confidence.

Even those people who doubt the validity of CrossFit cannot argue with CrossFit’s beneficial effects on health.  These improvements include decreased resting heart rate, decreased risk of diabetes/ improved fasting blood glucose, improved oxygen efficiency (VO2 max), fat loss, muscle gain, and many more.

Although, CrossFit is not the only exercise program that successfully improves both people’s mental and physical health, it does deliver positive results and has helped many people live much healthier lifestyles.

Making Weights and Muscles ‘Cool’

CrossFit needs to give itself a pat on the back for introducing people to weight lifting and resistance training, especially women.  Before CrossFit you would see some women who liked to dabble in the weight room at the gym, but mostly they stuck to their cardio machines either out of fear or using weights, not knowing how, or being afraid they would “bulk out”.

Since the inception of CrossFit there has been a revolution, where women now realize the huge benefits lifting weights can have not just not their health but on their appearance.  Having women with strong and sculpted muscles is now mainstream and is seen as a positive attribute by many people, which is radically different to how muscular women were perceived even 10 years ago.  No matter what people may think of CrossFit, the positive effect it has had on women’s outlook towards health and fitness has been amazingly positive and productive, and has dragged women away from being “cardio queens” and to the weight room.

Nutrition

One of the aspects that is most admirable about CrossFit is the emphasis put on nutrition.  Many workout schemes do not place a large enough emphasis on the importance of quality nutrition.  CrossFit is very straightforward and truthful when preaching to it’s participants that nutrition is what will make or break your physical performance, and physical appearance.

CrossFit supports a clean way of eating and originally encouraged the Paleolithic Diet, but recently it seems to also encourage the Primal and Zone Diets as well.  For their emphasis on healthy eating as one of the core principles of CrossFit they should be applauded.  Although every diet or way of eating could be nitpicked and analyzed for their pros and cons the Paleolithic, Primal, and Zone eating habits are on the whole better than a traditional “Western diet” and will help people to lose weight and gain muscle.

The Cons

Injuries

One of the biggest problems plaguing CrossFit is the injury rate.

A study with nearly 400 CrossFit participants based in cities in Pennsylvania and New York found that the rate of injury for men was nearly 20% and for women was around 14%.  The most common injuries were shoulder (25% of injuries), low back (14% of injuries), and knee (13% of injuries), with the rest of the injuries being a mix of different problems.  The large majority of those who sustained injuries had never had a prior injury or discomfort in their injured area.  Having trainers involved and closely supervising those exercising significantly decreased the chance of injury.

However, an online study for CrossFit participants found that of the 132 responses around 73% reported having been injured from CrossFit with 7% requiring surgical intervention.  This equated to about 3.1 injuries per 1000 hours trained which is similar to the injury rate found with Olympic weight-lifting, power-lifting and gymnastics, which are essential the exercises that CrossFit promotes.

Many people would argue that anyone can get injured doing any sport or workout, which is true.  But because CrossFit requires people to do ballistic exercise at an extremely high intensity, usually with heavy weight, and done until exhaustion every single class this creates a recipe for disaster, a ticking time bomb if you will.

Peer Pressure

Camaraderie, which was also mentioned as a pro, can ironically enough also be one of the negative things about CrossFit.  That same camaraderie, that makes people so excited and willing to go to their workouts can also backfire spectacularly.  Most people who have worked out in the past know their limits when exercising, but even those who have had prior training can have be pushed into an injury when having a large group cheering them on.

This sense of peer pressure could be why men are more susceptible to injury then women.  This peer pressure is unlike anything most middle aged men have been a part of since they were in high school or college and when they are again put in a high testosterone environment of team camaraderie they may forget that they probably do not have the fitness levels of their younger selves.  Men may be trying to relive their “glory days” from the past, and forget that their bodies have aged 20 maybe 30 years and that they can no longer physically do what they once were able to do.

Even scarier is the fact that CrossFit deems anyone can try CrossFit no matter their fitness level.  Many people who have never been physically active in their life may be working out for the first time and not know their limits.  A novice at exercising does not know their limits, or know when to listen to their body, and you does not know the fine line between the strain of difficult workout and pain that could signal an injury.  Amateurs get pushed beyond their limits due to the high energy environment which could ultimately lead to injuries, some of which could require invasive surgery.

Lack of Supervision

Another large problems surrounding CrossFit is the lack of supervision and trainers.

No matter how big or small the CrossFIt gym there will most likely never be enough trainers to individually supervise each and every CrossFitter.  This can be extremely dangerous because many of the exercises require a high level of technique and proper form to prevent injury.  If a class is comprised of many people who are new to CrossFit and have little knowledge of proper technique and a low level of fitness level, there is a higher possibility of someone getting injured.

Another problem can be the lack of knowledge or experience of the trainers.  Now don’t get me wrong, some trainers can be fantastic teachers and can meticulously watch everyone’s form and know everyone’s strength and weakness in the class so they can help modify exercises for certain people.  But for every good trainer, there will probably be one that is not a good teacher, does not pay attention and has a lack of experience and knowledge.

To be a CrossFit level 1 trainer you are only required to do a 2 day seminar, 2 days to learn the correct form and technique for numerous exercises.  There are level 1 trainers who are amazing and have a lot of prior experience and knowledge regarding fitness and are great at teaching.  But then there are the level 1 trainers who may just be looking to get a free gym membership or a membership at a discounted rate.

There are some programs and opportunities for those new to CrossFit to have one on one sessions and to learn the correct way to do the exercises- which should really be encouraged to all beginners.

Overtraining

Yet another problem of CrossFit is the propensity for overtraining.  As most athletes will know overtraining can actually be extremely detrimental not only to performance but can increase the risk of injury.  Many CrossFit gyms encourage participants to workout most days of the week, with many people priding themselves on 5+ workouts per week.

Because CrossFit includes weight lifting/ weight bearing exercises in most of their exercises someone could be training the same muscle or group of muscles almost everyday with no rest.  This can be really dangerous because muscles need time to heal, and overnight is not nearly enough time.

To put it into perspective, most bodybuilders typically only train a muscle group two times or less per week, with many believing that training each muscle group once per week is plenty.  If gaining muscle is your end goal, doing less actually creates bigger gains, and one of the most common mistakes is training too often with not enough rest.

Kidney damage

Exertion rhabdomyolysis, aka exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis, is a side effect, although rare, that has haunted CrossFit.  Exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis is caused when muscle is broken down due to extreme physical exertion and can cause kidney failure and therefor can be fatal.  

The main reason why CrossFit has come under fire is due to their sometimes nonchalant attitude towards exertion rhabdomyolysis.  CrossFit gyms actually have a cartoon of clown called “Rhabdo” hooked up to a dialysis machine, looking close to death, with his kidneys and intestines on the ground.  Although, CrossFit maintains that it is very aware of the potential of exertion rhabdomyolysis and warn CrossFitters of its dangers.  CrossFit is also happy to point out that exertion rhabdomyolysis is not solely seen in CrossFit but is also seen in high level athletes especially those who are not properly hydrated, which is a valid point.

Although stats on the incidence rate of exertion rhabdomyolysis from CrossFit are not well documented and may be misreported, it is still a valid concern and something that every CrossFitter should be aware of and should be educated on how to prevent and spot the condition.  

Price

A very large factor that although may not hurt your health, will certainly hurt your bank account, is the price to be a CrossFitter.  Most

CrossFit gyms (or “boxes” as they call themselves) cost $100+ per month for a membership depending on where you live, and some reports of an eye watering $300+ in certain cities.  Comparing that to a regular gym with free weights and cardio machines, which can be found for as little as $10 per month is a very large difference and is worth mentioning.

Mrs Nutritionist’s Thoughts

As a lifelong lover of working out, especially weight lifting, CrossFit intrigues me but at the same time makes me wary.

I really like the principles and underlying core principles of CrossFit including weightlifting, flexibility, calisthenics, and HIIT, which are all incredibly great workouts, but the constant high intensity of the workouts may not be sustainable as people age, and may promote injuries.

Even though CrossFit may deliver some pretty amazing results for many people, it may not outweigh the risks, especially when there are other ways of working out that can provide similar results without the added risks.

However, if you are already in great shape with experience in weight lifting CrossFit may provide a way to mix up workouts, if done once in a while.

Who Should be Doing CrossFit?

  • You are already in good shape and are able to train at a high level of intensity.
  • Looking to diversify your workouts once in a while.
  • You do not have any pre-existing conditions or injuries.
  • You know how to properly lift weights with correct form.

Who Should Not Be Doing CrossFit?

  • Suffering from a pre-existing injury.
  • Have a pre-existing heart condition.
  • Are out of shape and have a low/ medium level of fitness.
  • Have not consistently lifted weights and do not know proper form/ techniques.

If you have experience with CrossFit or are considering trying CrossFit leave a comment below and let us know what you think of this article and or if you have any comments or questions.

If you enjoyed this article please feel free to share it with your social media friends and family!

References

Crossfit.com. (2016). What is CrossFit – CrossFit: Forging Elite Fitness. [online] Available at: https://www.crossfit.com/what-is-crossfit [Accessed 6 Apr. 2016].

Hak, P., Hodzovic, E. and Hickey, B. (2013). The nature and prevalence of injury during CrossFit training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, p.1.

Smith, M., Sommer, A., Starkoff, B. and Devor, S. (2013). Crossfit-Based High-Intensity Power Training Improves Maximal Aerobic Fitness and Body Composition. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 27(11), pp.3159-3172.

Weisenthal, B., Beck, C., Maloney, M., DeHaven, K. and Giordano, B. (2014). Injury Rate and Patterns Among CrossFit Athletes. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 2(4).

6 Comments

  1. Robin Hudson

    This was very informative and helped me to keep right on driving by 2 Crossfits on my way to work. I am 59, in decent shape and know that this would not be a good match for me. I am far to competitive and would surely die. hahaha! anyway….Thanks

    Reply
    1. Maggie (Post author)

      Hi Robin,
      Really glad that this was helpful to you! It is very wise of you to admit to yourself that your competitive edge may push you into an injury.. or worse! No exercise is one size fits all.

      Sincerely,
      Maggie

      Reply
  2. Jaron

    Awesome post! I have been looking into different work out programs to get into shape (lost 10 pounds last month but did not build muscle). I’ll be sure to keep your post in mind if I choose to look into crossfit as an option. You bring up many valuable points.

    Reply
    1. Maggie (Post author)

      Hi Jaron,
      Congrats on the weight loss, keep up the good work!
      Maggie

      Reply
  3. Andy

    Great post! I was actually thinking about CrossFit but never actually got motivated enough to do it especially since it’s expensive like you said. I never knew that it’s been around for over 15 years already!
    I wish I knew someone who’s doing CrossFit to train me so I can get a taste for what it is.

    Reply
    1. Maggie (Post author)

      Hi Andy,
      Thank you for your comment. Yes, the price can be a deterrent for a lot of people, and understandably so. You can also look and see if your local CrossFit has a one on one session for beginners, which may help you get a feel for it and teach you proper technique.
      Sincerely,

      Maggie

      Reply

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