What is CrossFit (CF)? In a nutshell, it's performing movements and/or exercises under time that are continuously varied from workout to workout. Started in the mid 1990s, this training system does have value in improving your fitness level, but the claims made on the CrossFit website are unsubstantiated and untenable.
CF's upside, according to its proponents, is being a total-body conditioning workout that is purposefully varied to help avoid boredom. I think it's a home run for fitness enthusiasts because the workouts are challenging and competitive. CF's inherent difficulty (notice I said difficulty, not intensity) also benefits the average person because most people do not train hard enough to elicit any measurable result.
The seemingly illogical CF programming is an effort to challenge as many movement patterns and energy systems as possible. "CF is not a specialized fitness program but a deliberate attempt to optimize physical competence in each of the 10 recognized fitness domains. They are cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy," says founder Greg Glassman, who is also known for his outrageous unsubstantiated claims about the benefits of CF.
It's the lack of specificity that gives CF its upside as well as its downside. Because the body is receiving multiple forms of stimuli, the body never excels at any of them. Someone who starts out as a CrossFitter, and was not strong or muscular through previous training, will not make appreciable gains in strength or muscularity.
Intensity and duration exist in an inverse ratio
In other words, as the intensity while performing an exercise increases, the amount of time you can perform the exercise decreases. CF proponents claim their program utilizes a high level of intensity. Well, there is no such thing as performing a movement or exercise for 5, 10 or 30 minutes and training with high intensity. This is a physiological fact, not a choice, and certainly not something you can "build" up to. Is CF difficult? You bet your ass. Is CF Intense? No. Any type of endurance event, and that's what CF is, is by its very nature of low intensity.
In order to get bigger, stronger muscles a precise stimulus is needed. That stimulus is short, intense training sessions. Why short? Because we have known for centuries the body can either train long or train hard. A perfect example is to compare distance runners to sprinters. Because of the types of training, one is emaciated looking and one is muscular. Remember you cannot sprint a mile. Is it difficult to run a mile? Yes, but it is impossible to run a mile with 100 percent intensity. And intensity is a prerequisite to gaining strength and muscle.
You'll never get truly strong performing CrossFit
No matter what Glassman or other CF coaches claim, it's not going to happen. A CrossFitter will never be able to achieve strength gains anywhere near the level of a powerlifter, or even a strength enthusiast. The vast majority of CrossFitters have no appreciable strength whatsoever. The CrossFitters who are fairly strong or muscular are former bodybuilders, powerlifters and weight lifting enthusiasts. Training that targets endurance "strength," which is the hallmark of CF, doesn't increase maximal strength. Training for maximal strength, however, naturally increases your strength endurance. If getting stronger, especially maximal strength, is your goal, CF isn't for you.
You will not attain any measure of lean mass
CF's founder Greg Glassman claims CF, for the natural athlete, is better at building muscle than traditional hypertrophy weight training. As with most of his claims there's no science to back this assertion. While touting the muscle-building capacity of CF he fails to explain the lack of muscularity among most CF athletes, especially their legs (except for those who are former bodybuilders or powerlifters). Every single bodybuilder or powerlifter I've seen who has started to do CF has lost a large percentage of muscle and strength; this is a physiological inevitability.
Contrary to Glassman's outlandish claim, CrossFitters don't come close to the muscular development of a natural bodybuilder. At best, some CrossFitters look athletic, which is great, if that's your goal. Some CrossFitters look phenomenal. But if you want to be muscular, not just athletic, CF is not for you -- especially if you're a hard gainer.
It's been well documented within the fitness industry for decades that brief high intensity muscular contraction is the most important stimulus for building muscle and strength. The duration of the exercise or movement is crucial, but can be counter-productive. Sets lasting 5, 10, 30 minutes are completely out of the realm.
The training program is the sport
The CrossFit Games is CrossFit's biggest strength. July 2010 marked the fourth year of this international event. The CrossFit Games market their athletes as the fittest in the world. Can anyone say "Ironman"? Anyway, there is no question these are superb athletes, who are part of a fast action sport with huge audience appeal. I believe CrossFit Games will be a huge investment opportunity for sports sponsors in a short period of time.
In much the same way as with the Olympics, I think CrossFit can capture worldwide attention. Am I comparing Olympic athletes to CrossFitters? Not at all. However, though not nearly as gifted or skilled in one particular event, top CrossFitters can wield a similar emotion in an audience. Many people are very intrigued with physical prowess and ability, even though they may not even participate themselves. With the right marketing, a seemingly unpopular athletic event can evolve into a huge commercial success. Case-in-point: The Ultimate Fighting Championship and Strongman Competitions.