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Crossfit ... The Creationists of Fitness

In a conversation with a colleague this week, we discussed the lawsuit recently filed by Mitch Potterf, owner of CrossFit Affiliate Fit Club in Columbus Ohio, against an Ohio State University researcher and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. The discussion closed with the two of us in agreement and my own brand of glib sarcasm “Science? Who needs science? These people are completely in denial … they are the (expletive) Creationists of Fitness … It’s like this ‘Fran’ thing is your teenage daughter’s abusive boyfriend and the more you say ‘But there’s research … look at the math … look at the science!’ the more they slam the proverbial door and scream ‘You don’t understand, I’m in love!”

All joking aside, in an effort to educate, the following is designed to dispel some rumors, answer some questions and address some misconceptions about CrossFit.

My CrossFit instructor is really fit, and they CrossFit, so if I CrossFit I’ll look like them …

Let’s start by saying that looking and feeling great is best created with lifestyle habits, and most qualified health and fitness professionals should generally be in “good condition”. That said, being “in shape” no more qualifies a person to create a fitness program, than being a tea leaf qualifies one to run the East India Trading Company. How a trainer looks really isn’t much of an indicator of their qualification, and even less an indication of how your body will respond to the same training.

A CrossFit certification qualifies someone to teach CrossFit …

One would think that a CrossFit certification would qualify someone to instruct a CrossFit class. The truth is that a CrossFit certification is not nearly comprehensive enough to qualify and individual to instruct the compound Olympic lifts that are executed in nearly every WOD.

The following is an excerpt from outlining the level one certification requirements:

“Requirements for the CrossFit Level 1 Trainer Designation

Participants are eligible for the CrossFit Level 1 Trainer designation if they:

  • Are at least 17 years old at the time of the test;

  • Are in good standing with CrossFit Inc;

  • Attend the entire two-day course (approximately 9 AM-5 PM both days), to include:

  • 100% exposure to all lectures

  • 100% participation in all practical break-out sessions

  • 100% participation in all workouts (All workouts can and will be scaled appropriately for individuals with special needs)

  • Pass the level 1 test in person”

This essentially breaks down to about 14 hours of study and doesn’t include any kind of CPR/AED/First Aid Requirements. This is in considerable contrast to the National Academy of Sports Medicine which has programs that generally involve 500 hours of study through the National Personal Training Institute or the National Strength and Conditioning Association – Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist which requires a bachelor’s degree (preferably in a hard science) and recommends 100+ hours of additional study. The disparity between CrossFit and other organizations performing similar services is pretty dramatic, especially when considering that a number of the activities performed can easily result in serious injury.

CrossFit causes Rhabdomyolysis …

Is it possible for the exercises in CrossFit to cause Rhabdomyolysis? Yes, it is POSSIBLE … but does it really happen? The following is an excerpt from the CrossFit Journal Articles, authored by CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman in October of 2005:

“Since our first reporting on rhabdo five months ago, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has run articles in its magazine and presented experts on rhabdo at its events. The rhabdo described is generally correlated with exhaustion, dehydration, high humidity, high temperatures, and long practices. Mental confusion and salt deposits are offered as signposts. This is not the rhabdo that we have witnessed.

The rhabdo we’ve seen has come from sessions of twenty minutes or less, with mild or low temperature and humidity. The victims were not excessively panting, straining, grunting, or otherwise expressing abnormal discomfort from the workouts. The athletes who came down with rhabdo turned in marginal CrossFit performances and showed no signs of discomfort that were out of the ordinary. They left their workouts seemingly no worse off than anyone else. The environment and circumstances attributed to rhabdo in the sport and medical literature is so different from what we’ve experienced that we’ve termed the rhabdo we’ve seen as “cold rhabdo.”

In summary … CrossFit doesn’t cause rhabdomyolysis, but by its own admission CrossFit really likes the idea that it could, so much that its Founder Greg Glassman is willing to completely disregard science and the medical community and just make up his own terms like “cold rhabdo” … but who needs science?

The reality is that the “CrossFit causes rhabdomyolysis” myth is really a very slick marketing tactic. Glassman is creating a fragmented trendy verbiage to idolize the difficulty of the workouts, and in turn validating his consumers and giving them a culture with their own terminology.

CrossFit does more good than harm …

No matter how ugly you are, cutting off your nose to spite your face is never an improvement. There are numerous accounts of injuries related to Crossfit, most recent of which is the latest study by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and Ohio State Researcher Steven T. Devor PHD. The study states:

Participants of all levels of aerobic fitness and body composition were recruited from and trained at a CrossFit affiliate (Fit Club, Columbus, OH). Out of the original 54 participants, a total of 43 (23 males, 20 females) fully completed the training program and returned for follow up testing. Of the 11 subjects who dropped out of the training program, two cited time concerns with the remaining nine subjects (16% of total recruited subjects) citing overuse or injury for failing to complete the program and finish follow up testing

Dr. Devor’s publication was promptly followed with a lawsuit, even though these are far from the first results of their kind. European researchers Hak, Hodzovic, and Hickey published findings in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2013 that found:

“An online questionnaire was distributed amongst international CrossFit online forums. Data collected included general demographics, training programs, injury profiles and supplement use. A total of 132 responses were collected with 97 (73.5%) having sustained an injury during CrossFit training. A total of 186 injuries were reported with 9 (7.0%) requiring surgical intervention … No incidence of rhabdomyolysis were reported.”

CrossFit clearly has a very high rate of injury, amongst the highest of any sport, even higher than that of most contact sports. Where does this come from? Is it that lack of qualified coaching? Could it be a product of a culture that encourages overtraining? Or is it that there is no structured program design? The answer is that it’s a combination of all of the above.

It’s the opinion of many health and fitness professionals that the exercises and activities used within the CrossFit philosophy are productive. Olympic lifting and functional training, when used in combination with periodization, are critical parts of sports performance training. The conflict between organizations like the National Strength and Conditioning Association and CrossFit are primarily derived from a fundamental difference in how the activities are executed. Program design, the amount of supervision, the coach’s qualification and experience to instruct the proper form and technique based upon proven fundamentals of exercise science, are just vastly different.

Many trainers hold more than one qualifying certification, and it is important to note that there are CrossFit coaches out there that are knowledgeable professionals. It is however, equally important to understand the methodology, culture, and system that a fitness professional accepts as they join the CrossFit Nation.

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