The Future of Fitness and Why You Shouldn’t Do CrossFit (It’s Not What You Think!)

By on August 18, 2014

Fitness is going through something of a transformation at the moment, possibly moreso than ever before.

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This is perhaps best exemplified by the introduction of CrossFit, which nobody had heard of a few years ago but is now massive. Then you’ve got movers and shakers like Ido Portal, movements like parkour and even new ideas such as barefoot running. Things like kettlebells and suspension straps are all the rage, and exercise in general is becoming much more mobile and much more dynamic.

But is CrossFit a force for good? Why are bodybuilders so resistant to the idea of CrossFit? And how else might we expect fitness to change over the coming years?

What is CrossFit?

So what precisely is CrossFit? Well it can be defined in a few ways, but one of the major concepts behind it is that it is a form of training that does away with specialization. If you have ever seen a massively strong bodybuilder who doesn’t have the flexibility to dress themselves and could run for the bus to save their life, then you have seen the ‘antithesis’ of CrossFit. The same goes for marathon runners with noodle-thin arms. CrossFit posits that for the average Joe, specialised training isn’t useful for effective and that it would make much more sense to train across ‘modalities’. Thus CrossFit workouts include running, bodyweight exercise, powerlifting and more. It’s a little like what I recommend on this site in fact. To demonstrate their inter-disciplinary prowess, CrossFitters then take part in ‘CrossFit games’ which are televised events that create poster-boys like Rich Froning.

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Me doing a somewhat CrossFit-inspired workout

Meanwhile though, that is not ‘all’ that CrossFit is by any means. At the same time it also has several other defining features. One of those would probably be the intense nature of the workouts which involve high repetitions (think 100-200) of powerlifting moves (deadlifts, clean and snatches), running huge distances and more. They tend to be quite short workouts 20-30 minutes, but they are known for making people vomit and, unfortunately, sometimes causing injury. This is somewhat compounded by the fact that to open a ‘box’ (an affiliated CrossFit gym) as a coach you only need to do a weekend course with no written exam…

Every day the CrossFit website puts out a ‘WOD’ (Workout Of the Day) which is generally a highly intense and somewhat random routine for those taking part to challenge themselves with. As I write this, the ‘workout of the day’ is ‘run 10km’. Yesterday’s was a circuit of 115lb overhead squats (x9), legless rope climbs up a 15-foot rope and 115lb bench press for 12 reps – repeated for a total of 28 minutes.

CrossFit was created by a guy called Greg Glassman who is an occasionally controversial figure due to his sometimes impatient interactions with the media (and doesn’t work out himself these days…). It has a huge following today, which some describe as cultish, but others enjoy as a supportive and helpful community.

CrossFit vs The Old Guard

Why do bodybuilders hate CrossFit?

When I first heard of CrossFit, it was through various bodybuilding-centric mediums and the image they were projecting wasn’t exactly a positive one. I quickly realised that the CrossFit and bodybuilding communities have found themselves at odds, and wondered why two activities essentially focussed on the same thing, would be antagonistic of one another…

(Note: this is about to get negative CrossFit fans, but read all the way through before you get too angry)

It turns out that CrossFit annoys bodybuilders for a number of reasons and vice versa. Perhaps one of the biggest issues that bodybuilders have with CrossFit though, is that Glassman claims CrossFit to be better for hypertrophy – building muscle size and strength – than bodybuilding (except when steroids are introduced). This understandably rubs bodybuilders up the wrong way, seeing as bodybuilding is built around building size and strength and has been honing techniques to that end for decades. That, and it’s also incorrect: CrossFit’s large amount of resistance/high-rep works means a lot of break-down of muscle is going to occur. The lack of isolation training means there’s no targeted micro-tears, and the WODs are too random to effectively build a balanced physique… I could go on. That’s not saying that CrossFit workouts aren’t good, just that they won’t build bigger muscle than bodybuilding workouts.

There’s also the matter of the injuries, which occur as a result of Olympic-style lifts being performed while fatigued. A CrossFit workout will often involve running a mile, doing 200 press ups then doing clean and presses. What this then means, is that you tire out all your muscles resulting in poor form, then do a movement that involves heavy loads right on the lower back muscles. This leads to things breaking, and bodybuilders have been in the game long enough to know this.

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CrossFit has had a lot of high profile injury cases, but the community just deny the accusations or work it into their image. People who are sick while doing CrossFit get free t-shirts saying ‘I met Pukey the clown’. There’s also a clown mascot for rhabdomyalysis, which is a potentially life threatening kidney disease caused by overtraining. That’s pretty untasteful…

And sorry, but the WODs themselves are pretty much just ridiculous. Apart from being all over the place, they suggest that complete beginners effectively should be doing the same workouts as the experienced lifters who have been at it for years. And they suggest that everyone should have the same training schedule and goals… You might not want to ‘specialise’, but everyone has different goals based on their preferences, body types, lifestyles and more. In an attempt to please everyone, the WODs end up pleasing no one.

But what really rubs the bodybuilding community up the wrong way – along with everyone else – is the really bad attitude of CrossFit on the whole. They’re very preachy, they’re very defensive and they won’t admit to any of their faults. They’ve been likened to Scientologists and articles like this one only further this belief – the link is an angry post by a CrossFit coach reacting to an ESPN article. It’s biased, it’s nerdy and it’s reactionary. In the comments one guy says politely how he got injured at a CrossFit event and there was no trained staff on hand to help, and he basically gets told he’s lying. Not every CrossFitter is like this, but many of the official representatives and a good portion of the community… well they’re a bunch of dickheads.

For their part though, CrossFitters have every reason to be defensive. There’s no doubting that bodybuilders also feel threatened by CrossFit which for all intents and purposes is the new ‘cool kid on the block’. Bodybuilders, marathoners and others don’t like these new upstarts muscling in on their territory and so they can sometimes be unfairly critical. And while bodybuilders and runners may look at CrossFit and think ‘dangerous’, CrossFitters can look at bodybuilders and runners and think ‘unbalanced’. The CrossFit argument is: why be strong and slow, when you can be strong and fast? And when people like Jay Cutler struggle to lie flat in bed because of the size of their traps, it’s hard not to see their point…

Are CrossFitters Right?

So then, who is right? The old guard? Or CrossFit?

Perhaps more useful would be to ask: what can we take away from CrossFit that would be constructive and helpful?

To be fair, there is a lot that CrossFit does right. For starters, moving away from specialisation for the Average Joe? That’s very good. Incorporating hand balancing, running, resistance work and more all into one workout is a great strategy. Resistance cardio meanwhile is great too: that means doing resistance work in the form of cardio (battle ropes, fast ‘kipping’ pull ups for hundreds of reps, kettlebell swings). This burns fat very quickly while protecting muscle and it’s the reason that CrossFit women are so famously hot and the men look so ripped. I also like the intensity in general – even when training for muscle gain I always make sure rest times are at a minimum. If nothing else this saves time and means my workouts take 10-20 minutes.

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CrossFit also places a good amount of emphasis on the lower back via its Olympic lifts and kettlebell swings. And actually high volume is perfect for training the erector spinae as it has a higher volume of slow twitch muscle fibre. As TC over at T-Nation points out, this is perfect for increasing lifting strength in power moves and good for preventing injury (assuming you don’t injure yourself in the process).

Bodybuilders too often focus on muscles that look good and forget the muscles that are functional. Really, muscle should serve function and provide power and athleticism – not just looks. CrossFit gets this right.

CrossFit also keeps things fresh by mixing up the workouts, it is challenging and it’s fun. It feels a bit like being in an awesome computer game in real life, which is really cool. CrossFit is highly watchable and it results in some powerful and dynamic athletes.

Why You Shouldn’t Do CrossFit

Despite all these positives, you shouldn’t do CrossFit. And actually, you shouldn’t do ‘bodybuilding’ either. At least, not the way that bodybuilding is classically done. Don’t do marathon training, don’t do anything…

One of CrossFit’s biggest crimes is claiming that they have a single training method that’s perfect for everyone. Which is just ridiculous. As mentioned, we all have different goals, different bodies, different preferences and different genetics. So don’t train the way any one set of guidelines tells you to: train the way that works for you. Try them all, record your results, and then work out what’s the most effective for obtaining the specific goals you want to achieve. Likewise think about which training methods fit best into your routine, and which are the most enjoyable.

This also prevents you from ending up getting tarred with the ‘CrossFit brush’. It means you don’t have to associate yourself with a community that praises people who are sick during workouts, or that uses heavy handed tactics to try and shut the media up whenever they’re criticised. Don’t be a CrossFitter, just be you…

Personally my training is a strange mixture of bodybuilding, CrossFit, hand balancing, sprinting, martial arts, rock climbing, parkour… As Bruce Lee said:

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

Ido Portal and the Future of Fitness

Bruce Lee is kind of a perfect example here, because he had very similar views with regards to Martial Arts. The style he created called ‘Jeet Kune Do’, was not in fact a ‘style’ at all but rather a process that involved trying to do away with the ‘classical mess’ of traditional styles to just get to the core of what works.

In a way that’s what CrossFit could have been, but then it got bogged down by its own success and own ego.

The same thing happened with parkour. Parkour, which is the practice of leaping around on building like monkeys do in trees, was invented by David Belle and Sebastian Foucaine in order to be a celebration of completely free movement through urban environments. Then nerds online started naming all of the moves (‘cat leaps’, ‘precisions’, ‘king kongs’) and telling people what was and wasn’t parkour. This eventually led to Free Running (which was originally just another word for Parkour) becoming its own thing that ‘allowed’ for the inclusion of flips. Parkour was meant to be about freedom and self-expression, and then people started arguing over semantics and they ruined it…

parkour-techniques

Thinking in terms of a ‘type’ of training or a ‘type’ of movement is only going to limit what you can do in service of your goals and health.

And Ido Portal is a guy taking this concept even further. He actually believes that the whole ‘health and fitness’ movement is actually damaging in many ways and perpetuates a lot of negative practices. He believes that all training should in fact be in service of movement. He himself was schooled originally in Capoeira (a Brazilian martial art that involves lots of handstands and amazing flips), but wanted to break away and look at more types of movements to become a ‘student of movement’.

With the internet providing easy access to examples of what the human body is capable of, more and more people are becoming interested in doing one-handed handstands, in doing backflips out of trees, and in moving gracefully and powerfully. CrossFit is one example of this, and so is parkour, hand balancing, ‘tricking’, extreme martial arts, breakdancing…

Meanwhile, more knowledge is leading to smarter training techniques. Steady state cardio has been replaced by HIIT for weight loss, running shoes are being replaced with minimal ‘barefoot’ style footwear and diets are becoming far more scientific than just counting calories. Technology is allowing us to become scientists of our own bodies with self-tracking and freer information.

This is the future of health and fitness. It’s going beyond labels and set protocols and moving towards setting your own goals, using self tracking, reading the science and all while training to make your body highly functional, healthy and dynamic. In short, we’re all become supermen: idealised ascended versions. Our idealised selves. And it’s my belief that brain training should factor in here too (apart from anything else, it really is inseparable from strength and performance training).

CrossFit is one useful stepping stone along the way, but it is not itself ‘the way’.

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