CrossFit Review & Alternatives
In 2014, during my final year as a full-time personal trainer, much of the personal training community branded CrossFit as the gym with sloppy trainers who don’t check or correct form, with a program beloved by cultish zombies who know no better than to do as instructed. This reputation was only further solidified when CrossFit introduced everyday trainees to a rare overtraining condition: rhabdomyolysis – a training risk seldom mentioned in other sports due to its rarity; and, maybe more so, thanks to the injury-preventing standards embedded in many other training programs. For me, as someone who values proper form, injury prevention, and adequate training recovery, CrossFit was never tempting. The chummy, elitist culture is also repellent. Altogether, it was easy to guess what I’d get into: everything I don’t like about public gyms and group exercise.
Over the years, however, it appeared as if CrossFit began making an effort to clean up its image in the exercise science community. They started bringing in training consultants: gymnastics and powerlifting coaches, etc., to instruct on proper execution and technique. In my Instagram feed, I saw Olympic-level gymnasts and gymnastics coaches sharing videos of themselves instructing CrossFit trainees. At that point, I had been working on gymnastics skills independently at facilities that don’t cater to that goal. So, given the apparent changes CrossFit had undertaken and few gym options for adult gymnastics instruction, I gave CrossFit a try. Read on for the review of my experience or skip ahead for CrossFit alternatives.
While I won’t name the gym I tried CrossFit at, I will describe the facility and my experience of the trial. The critiques and comments below are solely based on my trial period at the facility, my preferences, and my education and experience as a personal trainer and athlete.
Unlike many gyms I’ve trained at over the years, the facility I trialed at was almost perfect for my gymnastics and calisthenic strength goals. It’d be too much to ask for a foam pit, trampolines, and tumbling aids. But there were many bars (although not of different heights), several squat racks, ropes, boxes, chalk – all the expected equipment – with no Smith machine or leg press in sight. A mirror or two wouldn’t have hurt, though, since the CrossFit instructor didn’t check our form. More on that later.
As a slowly recovering broke single mom, cost matters to me and is a defining factor in whether I’ll actually join a gym – rather than just trial it and take what I’ve learned and incorporate it in my personal routine: my broke-mom hack. Current CrossFit Membership averages at $150-225 or around $1,800-$3,000 per year. The rates at the gym I visited were between $75-179 per month, cheaper than normal CrossFit memberships because the classes are bundled into a package for the gym, which offers other programs. Still, those rates are higher than many other box gyms with comparable equipment; as such, for anyone practicing lifelong fitness on a budget or affordable fitness, CrossFit rates might be too high. The high cost kind of makes me buy into the classist hypothesis about CrossFit and why there is less diversity in the program than in many other popular training programs, like, say, MMA.
The WODs started with a warm-up of about five minutes, consisting of several multi-joint movements repeated until the warm-up time was up. Below is what I recall of one WOD, which was similar to the other three I participated in.
|Back Squats||Time-limited ~10 mins|
|Box Jumps and Dumbbell Deadlifts||50 reps|
|Pull-ups||Time-limited ~5 mins|
|Some other random, basic exercise I don’t recall||Illogically excessive|
We possibly did more, but I honestly don’t remember, only that it was repetitive. The entire time I questioned the logic of the high reps in the constrained time window and how that inevitably leads to degraded execution – you know, ATP replenishment windows and all. Then again, I expected high-volume training from CrossFit, but not on such a limited number of rather basic exercises; it was not as if the objective was mastering the movements, given that lasting the time limit or rep count were of the utmost priority.
Jack of all Trades, Master of None
I invoked this phrase in my F45 review. Both F45 and CrossFit similarly employ high-volume training to encourage a feeling of hard work in trainees. But as you read on, there are some logic deficits in this technique when it comes to resulting abilities.
Meeting a Serious CrossFitter
A couple years ago, gym-owner friend of mine gave me a free session with a CrossFit instructor to aid with my handstand holds. Besides vocally marveling at my ability to perform a falling roll to safely get out of a handstand, she was surprised that I could perform weighted dead-hang pull-ups. I, too, was surprised, because she had been doing CrossFit for two years and was an instructor, yet she was still stuck on kipping pull-ups and had yet to achieve dead-hang pull-ups. Conversely, I taught myself how to do pull-ups after reading Olympic coach Charles Poliquin’s principles, in which he wrote something along the lines of, “You’re not an athlete if you can’t do pull-ups.” When teaching myself, it never occurred to me to do half pull-ups or kipping pull-ups. Being a trainer, I knew better. And the falling rolls I did were part of progressions I studied out of a gymnastics training manual written for coaches. By always going straight to the top for knowledge on how to reach my goals, I learn skills in sensible and safe ways the first time.
But there’s more to this anecdote. Although the CrossFit instructor above could not perform a full-range-of-motion pull-up, she could do handstands. Not thanks to CrossFit training, but because she was a previously trained gymnast. This exposes another hole in CrossFit: an unevenness in skill level across the CrossFit community, which is more than what meets the eye. Some participants are formerly trained athletes (e.g., gymnasts, powerlifters) who have the advantage of carrying over skills learned under more structured conditions. This defines the unevenness in the abilities and physiques the come out of the training. Interestingly, this is also reminiscent of bodybuilding, in that one never knows a fellow competitor’s former sport or drug history, often leading to a false one-to-one competition. In CrossFit, newbies should be cautioned that they might not receive the quality instruction required to achieve the high-level skills showcased in the CrossFit Games, as some competitors, if not a healthy portion of the elites, could have developed those skills through previous participation in other formal sports. And, as with bodybuilding, they might have other advantages. The reality is, the average adult joining CrossFit may require corrective exercise before being safely capable of starting competitive skills. This is more likely if they have not exercised regularly for a long time or lack the advantage of a sports background. More on this below.
Overloading the Unconditioned
At the facility I trialed in, the instructor did not correct the form of those who needed it; instead, she broke a coaching cardinal rule and had trainees load more weight while still in poor form. The exercise was a CrossFit favorite, back squats. And a young woman with poor form was unable to keep her heels on the floor; she was “shutting the door,” as I call it: meeting her chest to her thighs, rather than lowering her body to an attainable level while keeping her chest lifted. In short, the young woman required instruction to achieve proper form, and possibly several sessions of corrective exercise to make that happen. Instead, the instructor doggedly followed the CrossFit scheme, and had the newbie load on weight. Worse, the prolonged time of the set, encouraged the young woman to keep adding weight until the time limit was reached. Injuries and aggravated muscle imbalances coming right up.
Quantity over Quality
While working as a trainer, I learned how common it is for trainers and training programs to abuse intra-workout recovery times and deploy high-volume training (HVT) to create the illusion of a tough workout. But, in the game of lifelong fitness, it’s not about quantity, but quality. So, when I know a trainer is employing the above shock-and-awe techniques to increase the feeling of exercise intensity, I give myself my own break and rep scheme. I refuse to follow like a sheep; I was once a shepherd. I prefer to build clients up, not break them down. Sadly, many trainees, ignorant of this trick deployed by trainers and bootcamp-like programs, have no clue about ATP recovery times and overtraining. Then again, lifelong fitness is unlikely on the goal list of people drawn to CrossFit. They impatiently seek the attainment of a certain image, with the hope of adoration and respect. They have a “right now” perspective. And they want it all, as fast as possible. I witnessed that attitude in my bodybuilding days. The result: steroid and prescription drug abuse. The people who “had it all” when I was in my 20s are now dealing with hormonal imbalances, wider waistlines, excessive hair (women)/hair loss (men), and so many issues beyond appearing to be fit and strong — which was all they wanted. I now have an inclination to avoid people who so outwardly and desperately seek validation from their training regardless of cost. In the case of CrossFit, the cost might not be steroid, drug, or PED use to the extent it is in bodybuilding, but the cost can be to one’s long-term physical health.
Insecure, Hypercompetitive, Combative People
“Being secure in your identity helps us avoid all the silly, meaningless competition and one-upmanship and desperate validation-seeking,” Greg Everett, author of Mental Toughness. When you’re secure in yourself, you can focus on doing you; free of concern with what someone else is doing, how well they do it, and if you can do it too. Security in your own skin and understanding your strengths and weaknesses is evidence of a mature, experienced person. After 19 years of facing and overcoming challenges while pursuing my lifelong fitness goals, I don’t concern myself with who is doing what at any gym. I prefer everyone to ignore me as completely as I ignore them. This preference is diametrically opposite of CrossFit culture and the type of people attracted to it.
Verdict on CrossFit
CrossFit and other exercise programs that emphasize high-volume over technique and quality are incompatible for people hoping to safely advance in exercise technique or skill. Performance is degraded by the often-rapid pace and excessive volume. When performance deteriorates, technique inevitably drops. The focus then shifts to survival (lasting the full set duration), particularly if you collapse under peer pressure or prioritize showboating over listening to your body. With CrossFit’s current training schemes, your best-performing set will always be the first set of every exercise; after that, it’s all downhill due to lactic acid build-up and limited ATP replenishment time. Further, because CrossFit routines are often full-body, recovery days from strength training outside of CrossFit can be interrupted – and were for me. CrossFit reminds me of P90X and other training programs people are drawn to for how intense they look, rather than for their long-term practicality. I believe these programs are best suited for stress-testing the body periodically, but not for year-round training.
Altogether, for a person with the lifelong-fitness-on-a-budget perspective, the combined in-your-face insecurities of trainees (and trainers), lack of focus on quality training, and the cost make CrossFit in its current form a no-win in my book. Unlike F45 Training, which I tried for about a month before returning to my personalized exercise regime, the holes in CrossFit were too great for me to grant it more than a few days of training. So, good riddance to bad rubbish.
Go straight “to the top.” That’s what I advise clients and anyone who asks how to stay fit long-term. This means seeking peer-reviewed, academic, and primary sources for information. Cut out the middleman who has deliberately contorted training schemes to create a new angle into the fitness world. Go straight to the top: books, articles, and seminars by elite coaches and the institutions that trained them. From there, learn the basics, the science, and don’t be fooled, misled, or forced into early exercise retirement caused by preventable injury. This route is not flashy, and it isn’t new, but it works and keeps on working. So below are some options – alternatives to the expensive and apparently still-developing CrossFit scheme. The below options offer the benefits of earned strength and skill, with attention paid to injury prevention and the recovery needs of body systems. Through these options, trainees aren’t encouraged to skip progressions in a rush to add impressive poundage; instead, they can show off (if they want to) their ability to perform an exercise with full range of motion and perfect form. These options can truly be followed for life.
Note: The examples below represent the types of gyms and training to look for but might not be in your locale. Search your area for options and/or select online offerings.
Adult Gymnastics Training
There’s a trend of CrossFit trainees seeking the aid from gymnastics coaches for more structured instruction on gymnastic skill attainment than what CrossFit instructors offer. These trainees have cut out the middleman (CrossFit) and went straight to the top. You can, too, by calling up local gymnastic studios to learn whether they hold adult training classes.
At-home gymnastics instruction: GymFit Gymnastic Bodies, BodyBible, Overcoming Gravity
Calisthenic Skills Training Facilities
These facilities are all about teaching the body to overcome gravity by scaling, hanging, jumping, and hand-standing on all and any objects. At these facilities, a strength and proper form foundation is built before jumping to other skills or adding poundage. This reduces the chances of injury.
Examples: Bodyweight Brisbane, ThenX, Calisthenic Movement
Mixed Martial Arts w/ a Strength Training Component
These gyms are more common than one might think: an MMA facility with weight rooms and knowledgeable instructors. Unlike CrossFit, the instructors at these gyms recognize the importance of maintaining healthy joints because MMA involves full-range-of-motion movements. You won’t be encouraged or peer pressured into loading weights on to poor form. In fact, you might be shunned for doing so – and that’s good for you in the long run.
Examples: STW Krav Maga, Capoeira
Functional Training Gym
Try ego lifting here. You’ll probably be admonished for your ignorance. These facilities often focus on corrective exercise and achieving free movement. Skills training might also be on the agenda. Trainers at these facilities will definitely be well educated and more than likely degreed. This is the exercise nerd domain, so don’t expect showboating here. These facilities focus on individual physical competencies and nuanced training to aid people into achieving free movement and full range of motion. This understanding of individual nuances of each trainee avoids an inherent flaw in competitive training: we all have imbalances, strengths, and weaknesses. These facilities seek to address those constraints at the individual level.
Examples: Onnit Gym, Austin, TX, SA Functional Fitness
Further Reading "5 Reasons Why CrossFit Probably Isn't Right For You." 23 Jul. 2013, https://www.12minuteathlete.com/why-crossfit-isnt-for-you/. “787. CrossFit.” 05 Feb 2013, https://www.unz.com/sbpdl/787-crossfi/ "CrossFit: elite fitness or pointless pain?." 14 Nov. 2014, https://theconversation.com/crossfit-elite-fitness-or-pointless-pain-33395. "CrossFit Membership Prices (Don't get ripped off in 2020)." https://fitatmidlife.com/crossfit-membership-prices/. "Functional fitness training: Is it right for you? - Mayo ...." https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/functional-fitness/art-20047680. "Who's Really Left Out Of The CrossFit Circle : Code Switch ...." 15 Sept. 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/09/15/222574436/whos-really-left-out-of-the-crossfit-circle. "Why Crossfit Sucks: 5 Indisputable Reasons | How to Beast." https://www.howtobeast.com/5-reasons-not-to-do-crossfit/. "Why You Must Do Chin-Ups | Poliquin Article." 21 Apr. 2014, https://main.poliquingroup.com/ArticlesMultimedia/Articles/Article/1161/Why_You_Must_Do_Chin-Ups.aspx.
As an athlete for over 19 years and a broke single mom for most of that time, I created brokesinglemomfitness.com, now LLAFIT.com, to aid anyone who believes the road to fitness requires a lot of cash or time. In reality, the way to fitness is paved with knowledge and firm principles; teaching readers how to master both is the goal of this site. LLAFIT – Lifelong Affordable Fitness