CrossFit has been on the receiving end of a lot of negative press lately. Scroll through any major media outlet or message board, listen to a prominent health and fitness podcast, or scroll through a fitness "influencer's" Instagram feed and you will probably find anti-CrossFit material. From risk of injury, to burnout, to unsustainability, to risk of rhabdo and everything in between there are constant detractors. And yet the fitness movement continues to grow and it's followers are more demonstrative than ever. How does it continue to grow despite all of the negativity? And why are it's followers so devout? In this article I want to explore what makes CrossFit so effective and why, in my opinion, it is the best fitness program out there and will continue to be so.
If we are going to have a discussion of fitness then first we need to define it. Ask 10 different fitness "influencers" and you will probably get 10 different answers. I have yet to see a better definition of fitness than how CrossFit defines it. CrossFit defines fitness as "work capacity over broad time and modal domains." This means that you are good at everything. Need to run a mile? How about a marathon? Need to pick up 100 pounds? How about 300 pounds? Swim? Bike? Pullups? Pushups? The fitter you are the better you will be at ALL of these categories. Most fitness regiments focus on specializing. They get you really good at a few things. Running gets you really good at one thing. Running. Sure the guys who run a marathon in under 3 hours are impressive. But put a 200 pound rock at the starting line and tell them to pick it up before they run the race. I guarantee you that a good CrossFit athlete would be able to finish that marathon before the runners could pick up that rock. Does that make the CrossFit athlete fitter than the marathon runner? According to that definition then yes. The same applies to a power lifter who can deadlift 1000 pounds but can't run 400 meters without stopping. Or a bikini competitor who is so depleted on stage that they don't have much more energy than to walk up and down the steps. Or a football player who can bench press 225 pounds 30 times but can't touch their toes. All of these examples are extremely good at what they train for but they have gigantic holes in their fitness. They are specialized for their sport.
We can also look at this another way. The 10 general physical skills are endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. Someone who is truly fit is good at all of these. Most fitness programs focus on some of these, but not all of them. If you have world class endurance but elementary level strength then you are not truly fit. You are specialized. Fitness is being ready for whatever life throws at you. An 800 pound back squat isn't going to help you if a thief snatches your wife's purse and you have to run him down. A 4 minute mile isn't going to help you move a sofa down three flights of stairs. A 40 inch vertical isn't going to help you ride 10 miles on a bike with your kids. A truly fit person is prepared for anything and everything.
Now that we have defined fitness let's make the Case for CrossFit as the best fitness program in the world.
1. The fittest people in the world do CrossFit
If we take that definition of fitness and compare it to the best in the world in a given pursuit, who is the fittest? If you line up the best CrossFit athlete in the world, the best marathon runner, the best powerlifter, the best Boot Camp Challenger, the best yogi, the best (insert fitness trend, sport, or anything else), and give them 20 challenges, who will win? Who will do the best across all of the challenges? No matter what the challenges are then I can guarantee you that the CrossFit athlete will win. There is no physical challenge in the world that does not have at least 1 of the 10 general physical skills involved, and no fitness program in the world works on all 10 of these physical skills like CrossFit. The winner of the CrossFit Games every year is declared "Fittest on Earth" and, in my opinion, they have a legitimate claim to that title.
2. CrossFit puts a premium on health
At the CrossFit Level 1 course you learn about the sickness/wellness/fitness continuum. The farther you go towards fitness the farther away you get from sickness. As your fitness increases (you can lift more weight, you can run longer, you become more flexible, etc.) you create a further buffer from chronic sickness. Think about the people that who know who have chronic illness. How much strength do they have? Flexibility? Stamina? Coordination? They are probably very low on all 10 of the general physical skills. Now take someone who is high in all 10 categories, like a consistent CrossFit athlete. Do you think they are close to developing a chronic illness? Probably not. They are probably the healthiest person that you know.
CrossFit isn't just about the workouts. Anyone who has looked into CrossFit knows that at the base of the fitness pyramid, according to CrossFit, is diet. More important than what you do in the gym is what you do in the kitchen. This focus on diet leads not only to very fit people, but to very healthy people. Check the blood work of any consistent CrossFit athlete and you will most likely find very good results. This culture of healthy eating that is prevalent in CrossFit makes for a culture that puts a premium on health.
3. CrossFit has a culture of improvement
If you have been inside a CrossFit gym then you know that every workout has a score. Whether the workout is for time or for load, each athlete gets a score on the board. Detractors will say that this causes people to over exert themselves and leads to injury. I can see that in the wrong environment and with the wrong coach that this could happen. However, with the right coaching and supervision then this can bring the best out in an athlete. This will make them examine every aspect of their life in order to get a better score. If they aren't happy with their results on the board then they might look at their diet, or their sleep, or their stress levels, or anything else to see how they can improve. This has created a culture of improvement. CrossFit athletes are always on the cutting edge of health and fitness. They are always looking for an edge. They are leaving no stone unturned in their quest for improvement. This starts at the elite level and trickles it's way down. The amount of health and fitness knowledge that an average CrossFit athlete has is light years ahead of what a fitness professional knew 20 years ago. And the bar continues to get raised. Adding a competition aspect to fitness has revolutionized the industry more than anything else ever has. The fitness landscape has completely changed in the last 20 years because of CrossFit, and it will continue to change for the better in the future.
4. CrossFit has world class trainers
This is one of the biggest arguments that CrossFit detractors make. "Anyone can go to a weekend certification and open up a CrossFit gym" they say. Ok. Yes that is true. There are some bad trainers out there. But the best trainers in the world are also CrossFit trainers. If you have been to a CrossFit seminar then you will have experienced first hand what a world class trainer looks like. Their knowledge base, teaching cues, and people skills are second to none. They also walk the walk. They are all incredibly fit. These trainers have set the bar that most affiliates are striving to reach. We discussed earlier about CrossFit athletes always trying to improve. This applies to trainers as well. If you go to any well known CrossFit gym around the world and you will find incredible training. The nature of CrossFit is that trainers will constantly be up to date with the latest health and fitness science and will be implementing it into their gym population. They will always be improving.
The beauty of the free market economy also ensures that the bad trainers will not be around that long. The CrossFit gyms that never spent much time improving themselves are starting to close. The days of the CrossFit gym opening up in a garage are over. The cream is rising to the top and the rest is going away. This is a good thing because the best CrossFit coaches are constantly broadening their membership base. They are able to have a larger impact as they come in contact with more and more people. The level of excellence expected out of a CrossFit gym continues to rise and with it the level of the trainers. Sure there are bad trainers out there. But there are also bad doctors, bad dentists, bad lawyers, and bad people in every industry. These bad trainers will eventually lose out in the long run as the good trainers continue to grow their businesses.
5. CrossFit is sustainable
People don't do CrossFit for 3 months. They do it for years. They do it for decades. What other fitness program keeps people coming back for such a long period of time? The wide range of workouts, the repeatable and observable results, the body changes, and the health improvements keep people engaged for a long period of time. So many of the fitness programs out there right now are are not sustainable. After a while they get boring. No matter how motivated you are, doing the same thing over and over again gets old after a while. Working the same muscle groups the same way over and over again creates imbalances. One of the beauties of CrossFit is that there is a constant variety in the movements. Sure everything is based on functional movements but the expression is constantly different. Take front squat for example. One day you might do 5x5 and go heavy. Another day you might pair it with running and do 50 reps at a light weight. Another day you might go heavy and mix it with jump rope. The possibilities are limitless. CrossFit is also infinitely scaleable. No matter your goal or fitness level you can participate. You might go through a season of life where you want to compete and push yourself with heavier weights and higher skill movements. There might be another season of life where you are very busy and stressed outside the gym and need to go light with light skill movements. If you don't feel good one day then you can go at a slower pace and get your work in. A good gym and a good coach will meet you at your level.
CrossFit works. There is no denying that. Go to any major CrossFit event and you will be surrounded by thousands of the fittest people you have ever seen. Detractors want to point to this reason or that reason for why it's bad but at the end of the day these statements are coming out of fear. CrossFit has changed and continues to change the fitness industry. CrossFit is a threat to the status quo. If CrossFit didn't work so well then no one would be talking about it. No one would be defending it and no one would be attacking it. The fact that it is so polarizing is the biggest argument for it's effectiveness. The nature of CrossFit and it's culture of constant improvement means that not only is it the best now, but it will be the best in the future too. CrossFit athletes and coaches will always be at the forefront, adopting the newest and most successful methods and leaving the methods that don't work behind. If you haven't tried CrossFit yet because of what you have heard then I would encourage you to find a good gym and give it a shot. It's not going anywhere.