By Grant Stoddard Men's Health
"CROSSFIT IS GOING TO transform your body. It's going to transform your life in ways you can't imagine."
This wasn't a late-night infomercial. It was the ardent opinion of my former girlfriend. I had mentioned that I was thinking of trying CrossFit, and Becky, to my surprise, told me she was already a year into it, and that it had given her a "new lease on life" and a "whole new family." On every other subject she sounded like the same levelheaded girl I used to live with. But when she talked about CrossFit, she sounded like a lunatic.
Then she directed me to YouTube videos that showed her busting out pullups by the dozen and sporting the strong, sinewy physique of a martial artist. If that was madness, I wanted some. I scheduled a free demo session as soon as I hung up the phone.
THE APPEAL OF CROSSFIT—A CONDITIONING program that mixes Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, calisthenics, gymnastics, sprints, plyometrics, and a few hard-to-categorize exercises like rope climbing—is that the workouts are short, intense, and constantly changing. So they were nothing like the long, monotonous, and unsatisfying workouts I'd been doing for most of my adult life.
And CrossFit is everywhere now. I counted 10 affiliates near my apartment in downtown Vancouver. I decided to try CrossFit Westside, which is within walking distance.
Like the CrossFit facilities I'd seen in videos, this one didn't look anything like a traditional gym. No mirrors, no machines to isolate muscles, no stationary bikes, no display cases full of expensive powders and bars. The box, as they call each of their gyms, was mostly open space, with a rubber floor, high ceiling, and equipment—barbells and plates, kettlebells, medicine balls, jump ropes, rowing machines—stacked neatly around the perimeter. The walls were bare, save for stenciled quotations attributed to Greg Glassman, CrossFit's founder and frontman. "No, it doesn't get any easier," read one. "You wouldn't want it to either."
My initial assessment included a timed run through a typical CrossFit sequence during which I rowed, jumped, and did pushups and body-weight squats. The streams of sweat pouring off me left no doubt that I hadn't been bringing my A game to my self-designed workouts. The assessment was followed by a series of "elements" classes, during which my fellow rookies and I learned the basic exercises. Then it was time to try the real thing.
The highlight of each class was the workout of the day, or WOD. (A lot of these have been given women's names—anybody up for a Cindy? How about a Fran?) My first WOD consisted of 12 "chest to deck" pushups, 9 deadlifts with 225 pounds, and 15 jumps onto a 24-inch box. That was one round; the challenge was to complete as many rounds as possible in 15 minutes. The clock started, house music blared, barbells clanked, and my fellow CrossFitters grunted, groaned, and screamed encouragement at one another. Sweat flecked the gym floor.
"Back to pushups! Chest to deck, let's go!" screamed our trainer, Jenika Gordon, who also owned the gym. "Five minutes gone, so you're a third of the way through!"
I was oxygen-starved and confused after three rounds, and I still had 10 minutes to go. And I wasn't the only one suffering. Pushups around the room became increasingly bendy, jumps turned wobbly, deadlifts turned ugly. And even though some CrossFit crazies think vomiting during a workout is a badge of honor, I hoped I wouldn't erupt my first time out.
In my quarter-hour initiation, I'd made it through the three-exercise circuit—a "triplet" in CF-speak—just shy of six times. We called out our scores and Gordon posted them on a chalkboard. I was near the bottom of the class of a dozen men and women, some of whom outweighed me by at least 50 pounds. One of the biggest surprises in this and subsequent classes was the range of body shapes, which didn't seem in any way predictive of who would end up with the highest score. On any given day the doughy endomorph might outpace the cantaloupe-butt Amazon or the wiry guy with the anatomy-chart muscles.
We limped off as another group stepped up.
"How was the WOD?" someone asked.
"Fifteen minutes of sheer hell," I wheezed.
"Awesome!" he said, without sarcasm.
IT TOOK JUST A FEW CLASSES TO UNDERSTAND why my ex was crazy for CrossFit. As bad as it feels when you're halfway through a WOD, you know it'll be over soon. And you know you'll make it to the end because no one is allowed to quit. That's one reason it's so exhilarating. Another is the camaraderie. You're not really competing with your fellow CrossFitters as much as competing against yourself, and everyone in the room wants you to win.
But at the same time, you have to abandon whatever ideas you had about fitness being a linear pursuit toward a measurable goal—whether it's strength, size, or weight loss. Traditionally we're told to first define a goal, then find a program designed to reach the goal, and finally work toward a series of adaptations that will bring us closer to that goal. If you want to grow stronger, for example, your traditional program should help you increase your strength incrementally over time.
That's not how CrossFit works. The workouts aren't typically programmed. You jump from one hard thing to the next, with the goal of becoming better at doing hard things. The approach mystifies many fitness experts.
There's a randomness to the exercises in CrossFit that's really not ideal for the average fitness enthusiast, says David Pearson, Ph.D., an associate professor of exercise science at Ball State University. "But if you needed to run into a burning building, hoist a wood beam, and then run out with a person over your shoulder, this might be the best program for you."
IN FACT, EMERGENCY WORKERS WERE AMONG the early adopters of CrossFit. Glassman opened the first CrossFit gym in 1995 in Santa Cruz, California. He defined his mashup of weightlifting, sprinting, and gymnastics as "constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensity." That same year the Santa Cruz police department hired him and charged him with the goal of preparing its officers for what he called the "unknown and the unknowable." CrossFit's ensuing popularity with firefighters, SWAT teams, and special-ops personnel gave his ideas credibility that money couldn't buy.
It took a while for the public to catch on—just 18 affiliates were open in 2005. But since then, growth has been exponential. Today there are more than 3,000 affiliates, all of which help promote Glassman's definition of fitness: "increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains." Put another way, it's the ability to perform well in a wide range of activities over varying periods of time.
"You can accept that definition or offer a different one, and we're willing to engage in a competition with anyone else on any other notion," he says. To back it up, he hosts an annual competition, the CrossFit Games, and boldly claims that its champions are the "fittest human beings on earth."
"Fitness" has neither an official meaning nor a governing body, much less agreed-upon checkpoints. But Glassman has his own self-serving definition, and not surprisingly, his system aligns perfectly with it. But if there's one thing every non-CrossFit-affiliated expert I spoke with agrees on, it's this: CrossFit's one-size-fits-all methods are flawed, perhaps dangerously so. "If you're strong and healthy, you'll probably do okay," says Robb Wolf, who opened the first and fourth CrossFit affiliates and later became the brand's nutrition expert before falling out with Glassman. But according to Wolf, if you're prone to injuries or crazily competitive, CrossFit could be a terrible fit for you.
It's not just the intensity of the workouts that worries experts. It's the fact you're doing technically complex lifts for high reps in a state of fatigue, when form is guaranteed to break down. "It takes time to perfect certain movements, especially the Olympic lifts," says trainer Joe Dowdell, founder of Peak Performance in New York. "Not spending enough time teaching people how to perform these movements correctly is dangerous."
More worrisome is the way the CrossFit trainers themselves are trained. "If you have reservations about CrossFit going in, then attending a CrossFit certification likely won't make you feel any better about it," says journalist Bryan Krahn, C.S.C.S., who attended a weekend certification class on assignment for T-nation.com. "The seminars were well run and the speakers were very good. My problem had more to do with the CrossFit ideology itself. The programming doesn't make sense from a strength-training standpoint. The reality is, a lot of guys who go to the gym want to put on some muscle. CrossFit is not the optimum way to go about doing that."
Glassman scoffs. "If you came to me with a set of goals that looked like 'lose the fat, improve my musculature,' or 'move toward a better aesthetic,' I wouldn't do anything differently for you than if you came to me and said, 'I want to improve my work capacity across broad time and modal domains,' " he says.
To be sure, no one would ever say that or anything like it. So Glassman becomes specific about why CrossFit works the way it does. "Nature will punish the specialist," he says. "I want to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. Specialization is for insects. I'm looking for breadth of experience, and anyone who is at all wise realizes that being a specialist represents a compromised position."
He illustrates his point with a parable about a guy who can run a 4-minute mile and a guy who can squat 900 pounds. "What a 4-minute mile implies is that you've whittled away enough body mass that you're no longer strong by anyone's estimation. And by the point that you can do a 900-pound back squat—brother, you even walk funny. And to see you run is laughable."
These people are not functionally fit, he says. Instead, they've wedged themselves into a niche and made themselves useless outside of it. I can't disagree. But then again, I don't know anybody who squats 900 pounds or runs a 4-minute mile. Most of the fitness-conscious people I know just want to look better than they do now. Once again, Glassman asserts, the answer is CrossFit. "In the real world, the best physiques belong to people who have functional capacity," he says.
That contradicts my own observations at my local CrossFit gym. If Glassman's brand of functional fitness produces better aesthetic results than the traditional approach does, why did the gelatinous bodies at my gym often outperform those who appeared to be in better shape?
A MORE PRESSING CONCERN IS THE POTENTIAL for injury. CrossFit WODs sometimes use Olympic lifts, like the snatch, for high repetitions when lifters are in a state of exhaustion. That worries almost everyone I interviewed.
"The problem has to do with fatigue and going to failure," says Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. "Some exercises are conducive to this and others are not." McGill puts Olympic lifts in the "not" category.
"Repeating movements where form is compromised with fatigue really does not fit the philosophy of Olympic lifting to reduce injury risk and enhance performance."
Then there's the issue of coaching. "You can learn the mechanics of an Olympic lift in 2 days, but you can't develop enough of a proficiency to teach others," Krahn says. "The guy who's teaching you a complex movement may have very little knowledge about it."
Rhabdomyolysis is another health concern that's become associated with CrossFit over the years. "Rhabdo" can occur when muscles are worked so hard that the fibers break down, releasing the protein myoglobin into the bloodstream. In extreme cases, it can lead to kidney damage or even kidney failure. It's commonly seen in people with crush injuries, such as those from auto accidents.
Former U.S. Navy information systems technician Makimba Mimms was awarded $300,000 in damages from his local gym, the CrossFit affiliate training company, and his trainer for injuries he sustained during a CrossFit workout in 2005. Those injuries included rhabdomyolysis.
Rather than refute the association with potentially fatal injury—or at least try to change the subject—CrossFit has used it as proof of its intensity. The WOD that nearly killed Mimms was renamed "Makimba" and recategorized as a children's workout. The derision ignores not just the seriousness of Mimms's injuries but also the fact that no one is immune to rhabdo, including elite athletes. In January 2011, a local paper reported that 13 football players at the University of Iowa were hospitalized with rhabdo after a workout that included 100 squats with 50 percent of their 1-rep max. It wasn't a CrossFit workout, but it was in the same ballpark: a technically complex exercise performed for high repetitions under conditions of extreme fatigue.
But CrossFit's embrace of its worst qualities goes even further. One of its unofficial cartoon mascots is "Uncle Rhabdo," depicted as a beat-up clown connected to a dialysis machine, with what appears to be a kidney, his large intestine, and a copious amount of blood spilling out of his shorts and onto the floor around him. The other, Pukie the Clown, is shown crawling away from a loaded barbell and gymnastic rings, clutching his chest and projectile vomiting. The Phillie Phanatic they ain't.
"With Pukie the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo, they take the 'no pain, no gain' thing to a whole new level," says Alex Koch, Ph.D., an associate professor of health and exercise sciences at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina.
"I think exercise should be fun. Movement should be fun. I don't encourage the athletes I train to exercise until they vomit, not least because I don't want to smell it or clean it up."
IN MY 3 MONTHS OF DOING CROSSFIT THREE times a week, the closest I came to barfing was a 1,000-meter race on rowing machines. For some reason I really wanted to win, despite the fact that one of my opponents had extreme performance advantages. I didn't puke, but I also didn't win.
I did, however, lose 7 pounds in 90 days. That would've been a great result if I hadn't started at 141 pounds. The last thing I wanted was to end up skinnier. Nobody at my CrossFit gym knew about my weight loss, or cared. At no point was I asked what my goals were. If nothing else, I hoped that all the squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts would put some contours onto my tragically flat ass. Alas, my buttocks remained more or less the same.
I also discovered that I'm not the best candidate for group workouts. To my surprise, I was easily coerced into adopting a competitive mindset. It didn't matter if my rivals were nice middle-aged women; I was driven by the need to crush them. At first I thought it was good to move so far out of my comfort zone, but it didn't take long for me to realize why I'd been so comfortable in that zone. It wasn't just the intensity or the inappropriate competitive zeal that put me off CrossFit. The endless affirmations—all the clapping and grating exclamation points after "You're doing a great job!"—brought out my inner misanthrope.
The last straw came when I found myself in a class of 12, mostly women. They'd all finished, but I still had 3 sets to go. There's something uniquely humiliating about trying to squeeze out a fifth round of 10 pullups, completely red-faced and fatigued, with a group of women yelling encouragement. I finished 2 minutes after my nearest rival, stumbled through a forest of high-fives, and then went out the door and never came back.
A month later I bumped into a neighbor who'd joined CrossFit Westside around the same time I did.
"Where have you been?" she asked.
"Oh, I don't go to CrossFit anymore," I answered.
She was slack-jawed, speechless.
"You're still going, I take it?"
"Hell, yeah!" she said. "I'm an instructor now. It's the thing I love most in the world. Well, maybe my husband is first, but CrossFit is a close second, and the gap is getting narrower."
I laughed, but she assured me she wasn't kidding. It's like a cult crossed with a pyramid scheme, and the base is always widening. It brought me back to my first conversation about CrossFit with Becky, my old girlfriend. There's something about CrossFit that makes some people want to post videos of themselves doing pullups—while that "something" drives others like me away.
But if nothing else, the earnest zeal I saw in my 3 months of WODs gave me hope. Maybe someday I'll find a fitness regimen that hooks me the way CrossFit hooked them.
What have you heard about Zumba?