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Crossfit Training: Maximum Intensity or Maximum Risk?

Posted May 12 2009 6:02pm


"I'm doing Fran today."

Crossfit Training

Crossfit Training

This statement would sound derogatory to any normal, average human being who has never picked up a muscle mag or has ever wondered how the guys in the movie "300" trained. But to a lot of athletes out there "I'm doing Fran today," causes fear, panic, excitement, and nervousness all at the same time. Fran is one of Crossfit's most famous Benchmark workouts. The workout involvs doing 21-15-9 repetitions of 95lbs Thrusters and Pullups in a superset fashion.

Introduction to Crossfit Training

A benchmark workout is a workout that is repeated throughout the Crossfit programming. When a non-crossfitter looks at the main website, all they see is a collection of really high intensity workouts with no structure. Apparently there is a structure to Crossfit programming, however the structure is a closely guarded secret in founder Greg Glassman's mind. Coach Glassman is the "genius" behind this "revolutionary" training program. He loves using the words "efficacy" and "power." In fact, that's all he really talks about.

Every time Coach Glassman speaks, you are either forced to listen carefully at his words, trying to decipher his SAT-ish language, or marvel at how much someone can talk without actually saying anything. Take, for example a passage from an an interview he gave in Girevik Magazine:

"First of all, what is unique about your Crossfit approach to training?

I think we are unique in both the efficacy of our regimen and our methodology. In terms of approach, I don't know of another program utilizing gymnastics skills and drills, Olympic Weightlifting/powerlifting, and multi-mode sprint work. Our hallmark of combining these elements in single workouts may be globally unique - we're still searching.

In terms of efficacy, of course our results are due to our methods - this is true of every program, but more to the point we have spent literally thousands of hours honing our definition of fitness. It is our definition of fitness that has refined our approach, and, in turn, forged our results. For CrossFit the specter of championing a fitness program without clearly defining what it is that the program delivers combines elements of fraud and farce. The October 2002 issue ("What is Fitness?") of our magazine, CrossFit Journal, is an eleven-page manifesto of our view and standards of fitness."

Here's what that means:

  • Crossfit combines gymnastics, Olympic Weight Lifting, and GPP into a single program.
  • We spend countless hours defining the term "Fitness."

You can go and read the 11-page "manifesto" of Crossfit, but it'll probably just confuse you more. I know I had to read it at least 5 times to make sense of it. And even then I had a ton of questions. In my quest to simplify my life, Greg Glassman was just throwing random words at me that meant nothing. The purpose of this article to clear up a lot of the "hoopla" surrounding Crossfit, and to give you guys a real taste of what Crossfit really is without all the confusing jargon.

Who is Greg Glassman?

According to Girevik Magazine, Glassman started off as a gymnastic coach in 1974 at a Y.W.C.A gym in Pasadena, California. He went on to train a variety of athletes from various sports, backgrounds, and professions. Coach Glassman soon realized the drawback of traditional body building and endurance athletes when it came to the demands of law enforcement personnel and high intensity athletes. After much experimentation, he found he was able to produce better results with his clients by combining heavy fundamental movements (compound and olympic lifts) with high intensity training (sprints, circuit training).

Out of all the clients and athletes Glassman has worked with, he claims to have a special place for law enforcement and military personnel. It makes sense why this group of athletes would be so keen to make Crossfit a regular part of their training. Crossfit is randomized and challenges a broad spectrum of fitness goals - perfect for law enforcement and military personnel who need to be ready for anything at any time. Crossfit is also extremely popular with Mixed Martial Artists, however, it can be argued that Mixed Martial Artists have been performing Crossfit-esque workouts long before Coach Glassman branded the training style.

So…What is Crossfit Training?

Crossfit isn't as complicated as Crossfiters and Greg Glassman want to make it seem. We can start with the fact that Crossfit effectively combines gymnastics, Olympic lifting, and high intensity training. Let that sink into your mind first before we continue.

Moving on, the goal of Crossfit programming is to be as general as possible. Glassman believes that the needs of athletes and every day citizens are nearly the same. We all require exercise in the following ten aspects of fitness:

  • Cardiorespiratory Fitness
  • Stamina
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Speed
  • Power
  • Coordination
  • Accuracy
  • Balance
  • Agility

I have yet to figure out how Crossfit helps you with flexibility, coordination, accuracy, and balance. However, I do agree that the other six can be easily accomplished with Crossfit. However, because this is a general approach to all-around fitness, you'll be strong - but not the strongest. You'll be fast - but not the fast. You'll even get bigger and leaner - but you won't be the biggest and leanest. Get my drift? After a certain point, if you really care enough, you need to specialize for your sport.

The most popular question out there is how are the Crossfit workouts created? Well, I'll let Glassman answer that question himself:

"Our view of what fitness is and isn't creates, in effect, a theoretical template that guides the selection of exercises, their rep range, frequency of occurrence, length of workout, etc. Come to know our standards and aims and the rationale behind our workouts' architecture becomes somewhat self-evident. The workouts themselves are a near perfect expression of our vast experience building the world's toughest athletes. This question is great but somewhat like asking Tiger Woods, "How do you do it?"

That being said, the process is without a doubt part art. In fact, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, that august non-profit arbiter of exercise science admits in its Essentials of Strength and Conditioning that exercise programming is still more art than science. At CrossFit we call it the choreography of exertion. Our routines display balance, symmetry, theme, composition, and an aesthetic cultivated over decades of experience - including successes, and failures. The workouts are designed to maximize human physical capacity, period. That being the case, they are universally regarded as being the toughest workouts in every athlete's experience.

Finally, I cannot discount the utility of posting workouts to the site and getting feedback from hundreds of elite athletes around the world. This would prove invaluable to any strength and conditioning coach or program."

I have to agree with Glassman on this one, although he could have said what he said with fewer words. I have lots of articles on my site talking about program design, but I still get questions about program design. There are people who can come up with some challenging and effective programs (like me) and those that struggle with it. This is what separates the trainers from the enthusiasts.

Is Crossfit Training Safe?

I'm going to go to the Crossfit site right now and take a look at the first workout and tell you whether or not I think it's safe:

" Grace "

135 pound Clean and Jerk, 30 reps

This workout is obviously not safe for a complete newbie. It's not even safe for me since I can barely clean and jerk 135 for a single rep. Here is how I would tackle this workout:

  • Drop the weight to 95lbs and perform 30 Power Clean and Jerks
  • Work upto 135lbs
  • Drop the weight again to 95lbs and perform 30 Clean and Jerks
  • Work up to 135lbs

We just covered the first reason why Crossfit might not be safe: technical exercises performed at high repetitions. Cleans and snatches require near-precision technique. One small mistake can injure you for good.

The second reason why Crossfit might not be safe is the high intensity nature of the workouts. These workouts cause something called rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo). Rhabdo is a condition where the breakdown of muscle fibers result in the release of muscle contents into the blood stream. These contents (myoglobin) can be harmful to the kidneys and may result in kidney damage.

In a recent Crossfit Journal article , five of the first cases of rhabdo were presented. All five patients recovered fully from their condition within a few weeks, and most went right back to Crossfit. These five individuals were active athletes, but relative beginners to Crossfit. Their condition results in too much Crossfit too fast.

Rhabdo can occur with any sort of high intensity program. A mixed martial artists can get rhabdo from his training, and so can a military personnel. However, cases of rhabdo are higher in Crossfit because of the incredibly high intensity nature of Crossfit. If you underestimate it, it'll get you.

Later in this article I will show you how to get started with Crossfit without risking rhabdo.

Is Crossfit Training for Me?

Before we get into how to follow Crossfit safely, I think it's important to determine whether or not Crossfit is for you. Crossfit is for individuals who want to achieve a more well-rounded level of fitness. Here is a problem I've experienced in the past: Each time I tried to get bigger and stronger, I got slower. Once I started working on conditioning, I lost some size and power. I was always trying balance between these two ends of the fitness spectrum.

The solution to these problems is Crossfit. In my opinion, everyone should have a taste of Crossfit. However, after 3-6 months, or however long it takes you to get a real taste for it, you should modify it for your own needs. If your main goal in life is to be the biggest guy in the gym, you can probably use Crossfit to shed some fat real fast or maintain cardiovascular conditioning, however don't deviate to far away from what ever it is that's helping you pack on size.

How to Get Started with Crossfit Training

On the main Crossfit site, they tell you to spend a month getting to know the movements. Start the program, substituting the exercises that you don't know with the exercises that you do know. This is a pretty good approach. I've experimented with Crossfit in the past, and to tell you the truth, it can get really frustrating really fast. If you have the money and time, I suggest going to an affiliate. Crossfit has a list of local affiliates on their website.

I've never been to an affiliate. But I can tell you one thing: if you're not familiar with Cleans, Jerks, Snatches and other complex, high intensity moves - be careful with them. I'm not an expert at these movement, but I was able to learn the "power" versions of these rather quickly. By this I mean power cleans, push press, and power snatches. You can also substitute these movements with a dumbbell or kettlebell. Using a dumbbell or kettlebell is probably safer than trying to heave a huge barbell over your head.

A few more tips to help you get started without risking rhabdo:

  • Start with a lower frequency than the one recommended (3 on, 1 off). Try three days a week and steadily move up to four or five days a week.
  • Be prepared to eat. After my first week of Crossfit, my metabolism was on fire. I just kept eating everything in site (this can get dangerous in the long run).
  • Take longer rest periods than you think. For example, if you're doing Fran, maybe work in a minute rest periods between each set, even if you don't need it. This will help you get used to the idea of moving back and forth between two big, compound movements.
  • Time and record everything. Without a training journal, you'll never know if you made progress with this program.
  • Don't be afraid to deviate from the program. People on the board will yell at you, but who cares? I personally don't follow the Crossfit programming because it does not match my needs.

Points of Review

  1. Crossfit is the perfect, well-rounded program designed to boost your level of fitness.
  2. The high intensity nature of Crossfit can be dangerous and be potentially fatal.
  3. You should start slow and steady with Crossfit. Seek out a good coach.
  4. Greg Glassman is hard to understand, but that doesn't mean you should ignore him.
  5. In conclusion, I'd say that Crossfit training is a good addition to your current program. There's a lot to learn from this system. They have one of the best online journals I've seen. For just $25 a year, I'm getting better fitness education than any certification out there. This education is better because it's evidence-based. You can see in front of your eyes. They tell you what it is, and they go and apply it in their workouts. Your job is to take what you learn, and apply it into your own training.

    About the Author

    Parth Shah is an average joe who’s tired of all the nonsense he sees in mainstream health and fitness media. His thoughts, ideas, and philosophy can be found on his website, ShahTraining.com. ( RSS Feed )

    Do we have any Crossfitters out there? What do you like and/or dislike about Crossfit training?

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