Thursday, 1 August 2013

CrossFit - Love It Or Hate It?

I admit it, I'm a big fan of CrossFit, though I'm not doing it at the moment. I had a previous post about my training, though it seems to have disappeared.

I first heard about CrossFit on rowing forums. Rowing requires a huge amount of strength, fitness and endurance which is difficult to build up and maintain. It requires a large amount of cross training to include the arms, legs, back, core, speed and stamina. I had just finished my rowing season, but wanted something in the off season that I could do to keep in reasonable shape. So I followed the link to look at the official CrossFit website.

The things that stood out for me for this type of training:
1. It was made for those who needed high levels of functional fitness: the defense forces, police, firefighters, etc. This was a good sign to me that people who really needed fitness turned to this type of training, and stuck with it.
2. It was a 'minimalist' exercise, using functional movements and not requiring lots of specialised/expensive equipment. The workout of the day could be done almost anywhere using substitutions. I used my local park, and just bought myself a $5 skipping rope and stole a dumbell from my brother.
3. It focused on complete moves, so didn't build up individual muscles at the risk of weakening the the supporting stablisers etc. This was a big thing I had seen with machine weights, that overall functionality wasn't improved because the rest of the muscle groups weren't developed to the same level as the individually targeted muscles.
4. Everything was scalable, and the emphasis (on the website) was on keeping good form. 
6. There was a wide variety of workouts. Some were of a seriously high intensity, but there were others which were slow but heavy weights, and others which were just a jog, etc. Some focused on time, some on number of reps, some on weight/distance.
5. It was damn impressive. I had always been told that girls could only do a few chin-ups, that was it. Then I saw these women doing 50.And if they could do it, why couldn't I?

So I tried the workouts myself at home, scaled as I could, and saw some serious improvement in strength. However, I then moved, started a new job, got distracted and didn't continue.

It was probably about a year later that I actually found a CrossFit gym near me. The owner was unassuming, but could just flick up and walk along on his hands, then bounce back. It was strength for the pure enjoyment of moving and working your body, not for puffing up your muscles to make walking difficult.

I only did it for about a month (again, for various reasons), but out of all the workouts and fitness activities I've tried, it is still my favourite. I felt I was building up real strength, and it gave me confidence to accept any challenge. Friends wanted to go rock-climbing? I knew I would have the arm strength to keep up. Going skiing? My quads and knees would be just fine.

So, why do I bring this up now?

Well, the Guardian released an article a few weeks ago questioning CrossFit. To be honest, the title was more contriversial than anything actually said in the article. However, it did raise questions about how safe the training was. So, I thought I would look at the two major questions raised.

1. "Some declare the inevitable machismo associated with workouts that leave people floor-bound, sometimes vomiting, both ridiculous and unsafe."

Having been in rowing for a long time, let me just say that any workouts with boys usually leads to some of them competing until they throw up. I know of a boys school in Sydney that if you don't vomit during your trial erg, you don't get in because you weren't trying hard enough. So if you are looking for an activity without any machismo, go to an all girl gym.

Having said that, it's not just boys, it's the nature of some types of training. I have done work outs where I couldn't actually get myself off the erg after finishing, or couldn't get myself home because I was too weak to move.
Here is the youtube video of the time trials for the British rowing four. Every one of them can hardly move when they finish, and Sir Steve Redgrave passes out on the erg:

Any sport that needs to build endurance will require you to do at least one workout a week at this sort of level. Therefore, I don't think it is ridiculous, and it doesn't necessarily have to be unsafe.

Of course, it could be both these things, but the types of individuals that would push themselves and practice moves unsafely, would do the same in any sport or exercise. The issues are based on the individual doing it, not on the actual sport. 

2."There's some anecdotal evidence, however, that overuse injuries are not uncommon amongst Crossfitters and an unobservant or undertrained coach could cause members more harm than good – for example by promoting heavy lifting over good technique."

Not to be defensive, but 'overuse injuries' are common in every sport. Even just regular jogging can stuff up your joints.  Every type of impact exercise, done regularly to a high level will leave you with joint problems. However, this can be minimised by being sensible, or maximised by being an idiot. For example take ballet. Even the ballerinas with perfect technique destroy their feet and joints, but they still think it is worth it. Many feel the same way about functional fitness, and the risk is much, much lower. 

The second point about undertrained coaches is true... for every sport/exercise. I've watched gym instructors training people on rowing machines where I've just had to step in and say 'actually, if they do that, they will damage their backs.' No one should be training other people in something they don't know about. You always need to check out your instructors to make sure they know what they are doing, and you need to take responsibility that if it is hurting, you stop.

What do we learn from this?
Don't be an idiot.
Do maintain proper technique and remember to recover.
To get the highest levels of endurance fitness, you do need to push yourself in safe ways. 
CrossFit - doesn't have to be the way for you, but functional fitness is necessary for better health later in life. (No using CrossFit issues as an excuse not to exercise!)

How to Tell You Are At A Good Cross-Fit gym?
So, I'm leaving it up to you to see if you are at a good CrossFit gym. The following 10 points can be associated with any personal training.  
1. They take the time to teach you proper technique before each session.
2. The attitude of the participants - is there a culture of encouragement or aggression? If everyone seems like a jock, find yourself another gym with a good vibe.
3. They always check if you have any injuries and show you how to scale all workouts.
4. Group sizes should be small. This is technical work, and needs more supervision than a normal gym class.
5. The trainer corrects your movements as you do the workout, instead of just wondering off or doing his own thing.
6. They should always remind you to only go until technical failure (where you can no longer maintain proper form for the exercise), not muscular failure.
7.  The workouts across the week should vary from high intensity to technical work.
8. They don't let you do something you are not strong enough or ready for.
9. Other participants are not missing because of injury.
10. Finally - take some responsibility for your own body. If it hurts, stop. If it doesn't feel right, ask for more guidance. If you've hurt yourself by being an idiot, don't blame CrossFit.

Now, all these things should be obvious at a CrossFit gym, can you say the same for your normal gym? Does anyone tell you if you are using a piece of equipment incorrectly? Does anyone show you how to use the new equipment? Just something to think about.