Many people swear by the CrossFit exercise program, attributing their swift metamorphosis from chubby and unfit to svelte and powerful to the high intensity and constant switch-up of its workouts. Many athletes and military personnel use it to take their fitness to the next level. Some celebrities are reportedly fans, too, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Cameron Diaz, and Kelly Clarkson. Should you join the CrossFit craze—or sit it out and just watch the CrossFit games on ESPN?
The basics of CrossFit
With some 13,000 training centers (called “boxes”) worldwide, this uber-popular and uber-intense strength and conditioning regimen incorporates elements from different exercise disciplines, including power lifting, Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, and interval training, along with endurance activities like running and rowing. Participants do the “functional movements” in rapid succession with little or no recovery time in between. Aside from using your own body weight to power your workout, the program utilizes a variety of equipment, from barbells and medicine balls to jump ropes and elastic bands.
The idea with CrossFit—whose motto is “Forging Elite Fitness”—is for the extreme workouts to vary day by day to maximize your endurance, speed, strength, power, agility, and coordination. You’ll be coached through the “workout of the day” (WOD), which includes doing a certain number of repetitions of specific exercises as quickly as possible, or as many repetitions as you can in a set amount of time. You may do deadlifts, front squats, and shoulder presses on one day, for example, and box jumps and wall-ball shots on another. Classes, which last about 30 to 60 minutes, also include a warm-up, skill session, instruction for doing the movements, and cool-down.
CrossFit is said to be a philosophy, not just exercise. People who do it like the competitive atmosphere that pushes them beyond their comfort zone and the camaraderie and feeling of community that it fosters.
If you manage to stick to the program—which novices and athletes alike find grueling and exhausting—you’ll undoubtedly burn a lot of calories, reduce body fat, and get more fit. In a small study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise of people ages 20 to 47, men burned an average of 21 calories a minute during a CrossFit workout, while women burned 12 calories (more than your typical aerobics class), with heart rate climbing to 90 percent of their heart rate maximum (the higher end recommended for improving cardio endurance).
But with the benefits come risks—which is not surprising considering the emphasis on fast, high-intensity movements and a constant push to boost performance with even faster speeds and heavier weights. A paper in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine found an injury rate close to 20 percent in nearly 400 CrossFit participants, with shoulders, low back, and knees most commonly affected. Another paper, in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, cited an even higher rate of injury—similar to that of power-lifting and gymnastics.
Any exercise program, especially a high-intensity one, is inherently risky. What makes CrossFit potentially more so is that many of the movements require near-perfect form to prevent excess strain and injury—but you may not have the stamina, especially if you’re a newbie, to maintain good form, and you may not be coached well in proper techniques. Though one study reported that trainer involvement reduced injuries, the skills and ability of the trainers vary widely, since the only requirement to open a facility is to be CrossFit-certified—which involves taking a costly two-day course and passing a multiple-choice test; no other experience or education is needed. While many trainers might be more experienced and excellent, bad ones are out there, too. Moreover, the facilities operate as independent affiliates and have the freedom to create their own programs with little or no oversight.
This extreme program is not for the weak of heart—literally. We don’t recommend CrossFit if you have cardiac disease, pre-existing injuries (such as back problems, an old ACL tear or other knee injury, or elbow tendinitis), biomechanical issues, osteoporosis, or any other health conditions that might preclude vigorous, high-impact activity. And it is not a good beginner workout for people who are out of shape. If you have been sedentary or have health concerns but still want to try it, get your doctor’s okay first. If you get the all-clear, you can take an introductory class, usually free.
Crucial to keeping it safe is to evaluate the skills, experience, and attentiveness of the trainer—and scale the workouts to your own ability and pace. That is, don’t get caught up in the competitive nature of the CrossFit culture. And don’t buy the claims of the Paleo diet that CrossFit endorses on its website. You can find locations at map.crossfit.com; the website also provides resources, including the WODs and demos of the exercises. Good luck!
Also see How's Your Cardiovascular Fitness?