CrossFit Training is a high-intensity, functional, full-body training that has rapidly grown in popularity. Before attempting to do it, have you wondered what are the pros and cons of CrossFit training? As the name suggests, becoming all-rounded or cross-functional. Better strength, mobility, agility, power, endurance, etc. But what about the potential over-training, injuries, or improper form? Strap yourself as we’ll have an interesting ride on the pros and cons of CrossFit training.
- What is CrossFit
- Pros of CrossFit Training
- Cons of CrossFit Training
What is CrossFit
CrossFit is a popular training method that incorporates strength training, mobility, aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. It combines so many different skills aiming at creating “the fittest version” of ourselves. This implies lifting heavy weights, running, biking, or rowing for long durations (or high intensity/both), mobility training, and doing many primal movements like climbing ropes, etc.
The creator of CrossFit is Greg Glassman (1996) and there are 15,000 + affiliated CrossFit gyms in the US. (1) While there are many CrossFit athletes, the general population that comes to train in so-called “boxes” is led by a licensed CrossFit instructor.
It’s a whole culture that combines a specific eating regime (the Paleo diet), having full community support behind it, training hard, being mentally tough, and even competing in competitive or friendly competitions.
WOD or Workout of the day
The WOD is the workout of the day that CrossFit athletes perform. This can be different depending on their goals, abilities, and phase of conditioning. WOD in CrossFit is usually written on a table, comprised of exercises done by reps count, or in a certain period.
The exercises WOD is usually comprised of are:
- rowing, biking, cycling, ski-erg, running on different machines (assault bike, rower, ski-erg)
- squats, pull-ups, deadlifts, overhead presses, bench press, lunges, push-ups, rows
- pull-ups, ring rows, air squats, dips, handstand push-ups, climbing ropes
- plyometrics, box jumps, burpees, ropes swinging, medicine ball throws
Usually, a WOD would incorporate some form of weightlifting or strength work, by either total reps or time to completion + a form of aerobic or anaerobic endurance like assault bike, or rowing for X number of calories or minutes.
Here are 3 examples of CrossFit Workouts:
- 21, 15, and 9, doing 21 reps of deadlifts then burpees, then 15, then 9 in the shortest time possible
- Push, Pull, Ropes 10x for 10 minutes (as much as you can) + Assault Bike 10 Min Max
- Burpee Box Jumps and Kettle Swings 8 Minute Cycle, perform 16 reps of each, as many times as you can repeat
CrossFit is a multi-functional workout that incorporates strength work, aerobic endurance, agility, mobility training, and anaerobic power. CF workouts are known as WOD, which incorporate some form of conditioning (running, biking, skiing, rowing) and strength exercises (squats, deadlifts, presses) for x amount of reps in total, or max. reps per given period.
Pros of CrossFit Training
As with many other forms of exercise, CrossFit training will lead to physical fitness improvements like strength gains, muscle growth, fat loss, and aerobic power. Let’s check the potential CF benefits.
1. Increase Muscle Strength, Growth & Endurance
Using your muscle to resist external load, whether by lifting weights, or doing bodyweight exercises will stimulate improvements in strength, growth, and endurance. The proportion of load, time under tension, volume, reps, and rest will decide which of those three is mostly improved. Since CF training is so different, it’s going to hit all three abilities to some extent.
CrossFit as a functional, all-around, high-intensity training is known to improve body composition, aerobic endurance, strength, and lean muscle mass. (2)
Compared to traditional resistance training, CrossFit lifter significantly improved upper body muscle endurance but fell short at improving lower body anaerobic power. All in all, both methods increased whole-body strength and lower-body general endurance in a 6-week training protocol. (3)
Both short-term and long-term CrossFit programs seem effective at improving strength and endurance, which is a combo of HIIT with strength training. (4)
CrossFit training, since it involves pushing against external load, will increase muscle growth, strength and improve muscle endurance. The total load, volume, rest, and lifting method will cause different improvements in strength, hypertrophy, or endurance. Overall CrossFit training is effective at improving body composition.
2. Increase in VO2max, Improves Aerobic Endurance
CrossFit training is essentially a HIIT or high-interval intensity training. This type of training requires pushing through high aerobic or anaerobic intensities for certain periods, followed by a rest period. It is by far the most effective way to increase VO2max, as it stimulates the lungs to function in a way that causes optimal adaptation.
Research showed HIPT, a Crossfit-based program to significantly improve VO2max, independently from body composition changes in both males and females, at all fitness levels. (5)
Interval training, especially, and high aerobic intensities is shown to be way more effective than lower-intensity training at 70% HRmax or lactate threshold, even at the same total work (volume). (6)
Point is, CrossFit training uses intervals of grueling activity, at pretty high aerobic or anaerobic intensities which is pretty effective at improving VO2max. CrossFit, I’d give you that.
The high-intensity aerobic activities in CrossFit are effective at improving aerobic endurance and VO2max measures.
3. Burning Calories and Fat-Loss
Performing high-intensity activities can burn a lot of calories in a time-efficient manner. That means per the same exercise time, high-intensity is superior to low-intensity in terms of burning calories. No surprise here.
CrossFit is very effective at increasing energy expenditure or burning calories. In males, for 8:23 min it burned 169.6 kcal, in females 117.2 kcal. Pretty impressive. (7)
CrossFit training can be pretty effective at making you a calorie-burning machine. Why? After such high-intensity work comes to the EPOC effect or the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. This means you burn more calories after the workout has finished. Also, adding muscle to your frame makes you more metabolically active, and burns more calories.
High-intensity training can improve both aerobic and anaerobic, improve glucose tolerance, and enhance fat oxidation in the muscle, which accelerates fat loss altogether. (8)
In overweight sedentary women, HIIT protocol with the addition of low-frequency ultrasound showed improvement in physical fitness, promoted fat loss (3%), and waist circumference reduction of around 6% in only 2 weeks. (9)
Combining high-intensity aerobic work with anaerobic weight can target fat loss from many angles. HIIT stimulates the EPOC effect while being pretty time-effective at burning calories. Adding muscle mass to your frame also makes you more metabolically active.
4. Socialization, Time Efficiency & Confidence
CrossFit isn’t just a type of training, it’s a whole culture. Training with other CrossFit friends, socializing and having fun, and creating your WODs, all have a positive impact on one’s overall enjoyment. That may actually be an important tool for increasing CF training adherence.
CrossFit workouts are usually group-based. According to the Integrated Theory of Health Behavior – change, social facilitation, self-regulation skills, and fostering knowledge and beliefs can support health behavior change. Participants feel a sense of community, and motivation is higher when training in groups. (10)
CrossFit participants reported higher levels of intrinsic motivation, part of which was enjoyment and affiliation (sense of community). This may improve long-term adherence to CF workouts. (11) Also, the challenging part of the workout may contribute to the participant’s confidence and self-image.
CrossFit workouts are also pretty time-effective. While you won’t become a pro athlete with a 20-minute workout, it’s impressive how challenging even 8 minutes at high intensity can actually be. For those pressed for time, CrossFit workouts might come in handy.
Overcoming physical challenges through CrossFit training may improve one’s confidence. The socialization aspect and sense of affiliation may influence one’s self-image and support positive health behavior change.
5. Mental Toughness and Stamina
Being able to sustain a challenging physical load and exert near-maximal effort over and over may alter your perception of how tough, strong, or durable you are.
By pushing through many, pretty-tough CrossFit challenges we may break out of the thinking patterns that we are lazy, not strong enough, and incapable of hard effort. This can translate to higher confidence, but also an improvement in mental stamina which allows us to tackle the next life challenge with higher confidence.
In a short-term study on 14–16-year-old participants, CrossFit workouts lasting 1 hour, 2x weekly for 8 weeks led to not just increasing their physical preparedness, but also self-confidence and mood measures. The increase in quality of life determined on the PedsQL questionnaire (which is subjective) was a whooping 10-15%. (12)
The challenging nature of CrossFit may alter our self-image, making us feel tougher, stronger, and more durable. This mental stamina can then translate into tackling life challenges with higher confidence than before.
Cons of CrossFit Training
It was all good news till now, but everything has its pros and cons. Now let’s see the bad side of CrossFit. Optimizing our training to minimize the negative side effects can be a great area for improving overall health and preventing injury.
The effects of CF training will be very individual. The point is to prevent overtraining, perform higher-quality reps with proper form and listen to your body. For some people 1-2 CF workouts per week will be great, for others at lower fitness levels, CrossFit workouts may disrupt the endocrine system, cause musculoskeletal injuries, damage the kidneys and spike up cortisol levels.
Point is, Individualization is important – HOW MUCH, HOW LONG, FOR WHO, WHEN, and WHY are extremely important questions when considering CrossFit Training.
1. Higher Risk of Injury
The biggest con or negative side of CrossFit training is injury. This isn’t just an occurrence in over-trained, professional athletes. Matter of fact, many new-comers in their 30s, 40s, and 50s aren’t properly fit to sustain such a physical effort. If you combine that with incorrect form (which IS the case with many) you get a recipe for disaster.
One of the best studies conducted to analyze the incidence of injury in participants training CrossFit is this 4-Year analysis. Out of 3049 participants, 30.5% experienced (reportedly) an injury in the past 12 months. That’s a third! 39% Shoulders, 36% back, 15% knees, and 11-12% wrists and elbows. (13)
Among 386 individuals training in CrossFit, the overall injury rate was 19.4, which is a lot. Males were more frequently injured than females, mostly the injuries took part in the lower back, shoulders, or knees. (14) Compared to traditional weightlifting, the CrossFit routine led to a 130% higher likelihood of injury. (15)
To prevent CrossFit injuries, special attention and instructions from coaches, physicians, and experts are required. Under the proper guidance of educated coaches, fewer injuries occur. (16)
CrossFit’s biggest con is injury incidence. Analysis shows a high incidence of shoulder, low back, and knee injuries associated with a higher frequency of CrossFit Training. A combination of vigorous intensity, improper form, and insufficient fitness level can increase the risk of injury.
2. Driving Stress and Higher Cortisol Levels
Cortisol is increased with HIIT or high-interval intensity exercise, there’s no surprise in that. In itself, that isn’t that bad. But when we overtrain, or continually push hard, without proper recovery this can chronically elevate cortisol levels which is a stress hormone.
Chronically elevated cortisol is one of the overtraining syndrome factors that can suppress immunity and be detrimental to physical performance. Overtraining also may mess with mood, decreasing motivation and increasing depression. (17) (18)
Once we are in that high-effort mode in vigorous intensities, the brain fires up sympathetic nervous system activity, and increases cortisol and adrenaline promoting a state of fight-or-fly. (19)
A study compared 40, 60, and 80% of VO2max training intensity for cortisol response. Even after controlling factors like circadian rhythm, diet, activity, and psychological stressors which all affect cortisol, moderate and high intensity promoted higher cortisol levels. (20)
However, it is important to showcase that cortisol increase during exercise may suppress cortisol response to psychosocial stressors, meaning we are better at managing psychological stress later on. (21)
CrossFit as a HIIT type of workout can spike cortisol levels. While this may not be detrimental acutely, and improve our ability to face psychological stressors later, chronically elevated cortisol puts us in an excessively stressed, hyperactive, fight-or-flight state. Point is, that too much HIIT can be detrimental to our health.
3. Improper Exercise Form, Too Many Repetitions
Performing lifts like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, or other compound movements with high loads, to compete against the clock is a terrible idea.
I understand people like me, with a kinesiology background would intuitively see why performing 20 reps of Olympic lifts is bad for you. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that GHD sit-ups will put excessive stress on the posterior part of the spinal vertebrae in a completely unnatural position, increasing the risk of injury and low back pain.
- The first problem is: you can’t perform too many reps of Olympic lifts, with high loads while being pressed for time.
- The second problem is: the biomechanics behind some CrossFit exercises are just unnatural for the body, and can be detrimental to joint health.
You’ll get at least a few reps wrong, which puts excessive stress on your joints. The point of these exercises is power, for which you need optimal coordination. Not 40 reps under a minute.
The GHD Sit-up for example and posterior vertebrae part. You can’t expect to do 100x handstand pushups hitting your head, compressing your neck, and have no spine problems later on (at least for not-so-fit people).
4. Sustainability and Long-Term Adherence
CrossFit is different from bodybuilding, powerlifting, or Pilates in many ways. But one specific thing that distinguishes CrossFit is the sport of CrossFit. Many athletes train to compete, and the metrics of the training make it a bit more “specific, numbered, competitive”.
Problem is, that CrossFit as a form of exercise is promoted to the general population, just as yoga, Pilates, or lifting weights is. This means the sport which is so high-intensity, pretty tough, requires a lot of skills, puts emphasis on conditioning, and incorporates heavy weightlifting pressed for time, is promoted to the average Joe out there.
The flaw in that is that the average Suzi, which is 40+ years old, has a hypothyroid function, and hip pain is put through a similar regime (adjusted for weight, time, and volume) as other people.
This hard, grueling, vigorous workout can be pretty detrimental for the average person. They can drive cortisol up, cause hormonal imbalances, cause the over-training syndrome, bone or joint pain, etc.
With proper individualization, volume, load, mobility training, no-rushing, and under the guidance of well-educated coaches, we can solve this problem and bring a modified CrossFit to the general population.
On the other hand, for people who really do enjoy that kind of workout, have fun doing it, have community & friend support, and find joy in CF workouts, that’s great!
The average population may be overwhelmed by the CrossFit intensity of such sport-and-result driven training. This is why modifying CF workouts to the individual (work, load, volume, reps, time, rest) that leads to higher adherence to training is crucial.
5. Training to Failure Can Lead To Health Risks
Usually the hard “no pain no gain” mentality or “go till you pass out” moto can be dangerous and lead to serious health problems, especially in the general, non-active population.
Excessive exercise or overtraining can cause musculoskeletal injuries, increase oxidative damage, and cause heart-related problems and reproductive dysfunction. If we go below our basal metabolic rate in terms of calories, problems like muscle degradation, osteoporosis, negative energy balance, and sleep disorders can arise. (22)
While it is crucial to be consistent and train hard to win the CrossFit Open, the general population may not benefit from the competitive nature of the sport.
Working out at an extremely high intensity for a longer duration can increase the risk of rhabdomyolysis, which is known to occur (rarely) in CrossFit trainees. It’s not the CrossFit itself, it’s the intensity of an activity that can cause exertional rhabdomyolysis. (23) (24)
Extremely high-intensity, as is the case with some CrossFit workouts can lead to overtraining, and negative energy balance, and contribute to hormonal imbalances, osteoporosis, heart problems, etc. With extreme workload (physically) rhabdomyolysis can occur and cause kidney damage or failure.
The Pros of CrossFit are an increase in muscle mass, strength, power, and muscle endurance. It also helps to burn calories effectively, shedding fat and improving body composition.
CrossFit can also improve aerobic endurance by boosting VO2max, as it incorporates high-intensity interval work which is most effective.
Besides being fun, CrossFit workouts can increase confidence, boost mood, alter one’s self-image, increase mental toughness, and help us gain a sense of community.
The largest con of CrossFit is the high injury incidence. Studies have shown that up to 30% of CrossFit trainees have experienced some form of injury in the past 12 months. Mostly shoulders, knees, and low back.
The competitive nature of CrossFit can put extremely high stress and workload on the average person, driving cortisol, stress, and inflammation up to a detrimental level. Individualization is necessary.
Biomechanically, some CrossFit exercises can be detrimental to the joints. Especially with Olympic lifts, when the goal is to lift heavy loads in the shortest time possible, form suffers, and joint pressure increases.
- CrossFit is an all-around sport that incorporates heavy weightlifting, aerobic conditioning, primal movements, and mobility.
- The competitive nature of the sport can increase cortisol and stress, increase injury risk, put pressure on the joints, and have detrimental health effects, on the average (non-trained) population
- CrossFit increases VO2max, muscle mass, strength, endurance, and mental stamina, burn calories and fat and boosts confidence. Individualization, well-educated coaches, proper guidance, and training optimization are key factors to reduce the potentially detrimental effects of CF.
- Emphasis should be put on correct form, avoiding fast, max. reps of Olympic heavy lifts, controlling workload, avoiding biomechanically unnatural exercises like GHD sit-ups, avoiding lifting for time (not rushing lifts), etc.