Crossfit: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If you want to be polite company at a dinner party it’s usually best to avoid emotional and polarizing topics like politics, religion, or Crossfit. Crossfit regularly sparks fiery debates in people that are similar to the level of intensity seen in discussing closely held beliefs. If you’re prone to getting angry from reading something that differs from your world view, then avert your gaze and find something that gives you a good laugh because you really need to lighten up.

Before moving forward I must say that the following is based strictly on informed opinion and anecdotal evidence. There is next to no research on Crossfit and the research which does exist is of questionable quality, so I will have to work with the information that’s available. I have my own personal biases, but I will attempt to be as objective as possible with my analysis.

What is Crossfit?

Crossfit is a fitness/strength and conditioning program which focuses on creating general physical preparedness by using constantly varying workouts, which focus on either general or specific fitness qualities for that day. These workouts are posted to the Crossfit website and some variation of this workout of the day or “WOD” is done by everyone who is following the program, often in a group setting. For more detailed information or to check out today’s WOD go to the Crossfit website at


The Good

– Crossfit builds strong communities. Creating a community which values and supports one another in the context of personal health is immensely valuable and its importance cannot be overstated. I truly wish that more people could find ways to facilitate such a wonderful social dynamic.

– Piggybacking off the first point, people who participate in Crossfit REALLY like Crossfit. They tout its benefits loudly and regularly, wearing the Crossfit brand with great pride. This is perhaps the greatest reason that the subject of Crossfit is so polarizing. To have people excited about taking action to improve their own health is fantastic.

– Each workout is treated as a competition where you try to beat both your workout partners and your own personal best. This keeps competitive people interested and also ensures that individuals are making progress from one workout to the next. Because of the competitive nature of both the community as well as the program, people are also pushed to work harder than they may on their own, yielding more benefit from their workout sessions.

– Exercise focus is extremely varied between workouts and within workouts. For many people this structure prevents boredom from doing the same routine day in and day out. This approach also allows for a focus on many qualities of what one might consider fitness as a whole. Some exercises focus more on absolute strength, others on cardiovascular endurance, others on gymnastic ability, and so on. There is a wide range of focus, which allows for a “well rounded” general fitness.

– Because focus is so varied, many people who are otherwise afraid of resistance training or performing explosive movements are introduced to these aspects of exercise. These aspects are very commonly neglected among many gym goers who are content to occupy the treadmill for an hour before hitting the showers. Resistance training in particular is extremely important for the growth and maintenance of muscle and bone density, which I think we can all agree is a good thing.


The Bad

– The culture of Crossfit encourages working ever harder, but it can easily be taken overboard. Many are proud because they work through pain or injuries, while others may be applauded for vomiting or fainting from exercise. Crossfit’s community has created two unofficial mascots (“Pukey the Clown” and “Uncle Rhabdo”) that are presumably facetiously mocking both the critique and/or the tendency for this to happen. I have heard it reported that some Crossfit gyms offer rewards to participants for vomiting from exercise, though this may be untrue.

– All goals are met with the same program. If you are capable of doing the WOD as listed, then that is how you will be exercising for that day within the confines of Crossfit. This can be problematic because there is no single goal everyone shares for exercising. Someone who wants to learn to run faster and jump higher should not be doing the same workout as the person who wants to slim down for swimsuit weather or the person who wants to safely return to exercise after physical rehabilitation. In my mind exercise should best facilitate the goal(s) of the participant in the most specific capacity possible.

– Because all workouts are so variable, it takes a large amount of time to achieve proficiency at any one exercise. I love the idea of being pretty good at everything for the general population, however the development of skill requires repeated deliberate practice. It has also been established that during (approximately) the first six weeks of any new exercise program the majority of adaptations which take place are neurological in nature. I question how much the variability in Crossfit influences the ability for muscular adaptations to occur as well as the ability to perform exercises with consistently good form due to lack of regular practice.

– The use of high repetition technical and explosive exercises just seems like it’s asking for trouble. I have no problem with anyone implementing technical or explosive exercise if the person performing them has the physical capacity to perform them safely. However, I doubt that most people who are performing Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk or the snatch have the requisite strength, mobility, and coordination to do these lifts with good form. Even if the participant’s body is physically able, their lack of regular devoted skills practice makes me uneasy. Performing heavy and/or high velocity exercises with questionable form for high reps sounds like an injury waiting to happen.

– Continuing from the last point, the nature of the competitive environment often encourages increasing weight on the bar, repetitions performed, or speed of exercise. Again, mastery of any of these exercises is difficult without supplemental dedicated skill based practice and to compound that issue you are constantly striving to do more in some capacity. While people are responsible for their bodies, when the culture surrounding them is constantly pushing them to do more, it is difficult to resist the encouragement of the people who are sincerely urging you to do better. This combination of factors once again seems to raise the risk of injury greatly.

– There is a tremendous amount of variability among Crossfit coaches. To become a Crossfit certified coach, all you have to do is attend a two day course and answer a 50 question multiple choice test based on this material. The health and fitness industry on the whole offers many certifications with equally lax standards, but the fact that so many others are doing it doesn’t make it a good practice. With the use of a wide array of technical skills done within the workout repeatedly and/or with large resistive forces, the presence of someone who is qualified is of the utmost importance, but it is currently a gamble when it comes to the quality Crossfit coaches due in part to the ease of attaining certification.


The Ugly

The following is an example of what can happen when well intentioned people in a Crossfit gym encourage the performance of a technical skill under load without the presence of proper coaching or physical capacity. This is not a joke, but it is hyperbolic in some sense. No one gets hurts (visibly) although it kind of hurts me to watch.


The Palette Cleanse

The following is a video of a Crossfit athlete and a coach working on the same lift while treating it as a skill. The athlete and coach are clearly both very capable.



The issues of both exercise safety and culture could be addressed if there are qualified instructors and coaches on site. This is not to say that there aren’t great Crossfit coaches out there, because there certainly are. However, among my peers Crossfit has developed a reputation for expediting injuries in participants that likely would not exist in the presence of a higher standard of coaching.

If you would like to participate in Crossfit I would advise taking steps to reduce the risk of activities. First, I would advise being screened for musculoskeletal risk by a qualified professional. Second, seek out a Crossfit coach who has training beyond Crossfit itself and who fosters an environment of safety in their gym. A good coach should be able to adapt workouts to less challenging exercises for those who are not yet capable of more technical or higher risk activities. Furthermore this coach will dedicate time to teach and refine exercise techniques as needed. Last, learn to take responsibility for your own body. Allow yourself to resist the urgings on of your peers when you feel something is unsafe, and dedicate time to practice the skills necessary for achieving technical proficiency.

Crossfit offers a variety of social and physical benefits, but these benefits must be weighed against the risk of participation from the perspective of the individual’s current health and future goals. Crossfit does not have exclusive rights to working hard or creating social support, nor does it own resistance training or variety in exercise. I would never dissuade anyone from taking steps to maintain or improve their body, but without quality supervision Crossfit has too much risk for a somewhat limited benefit, especially when considering that there are safer alternatives that may yield as good or better results.

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