CrossFit is constantly varied, high-intensity, functional exercise, i.e. exercise that comprises of functional movements. The goal of CrossFit training is to increase work capacity (i.e. rate of work production) across broad time and modal domains. In this article, “mainsite programming” refers to the workout programming on the main CrossFit website.
For over 12 months, I did CrossFit workouts on my own. I never joined a CrossFit gym but, through my own research (namely, the CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide, articles on the CrossFit Journal website, etc.), I learned how to program my own CrossFit workouts, with a strength bias. In that time period, I learned a lot about CrossFit programming and completed many hardcore metabolic conditioning workouts (a.k.a. work capacity sessions).
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that CrossFit is not the most effective way to train, especially for strength or fitness novices. In certain respects, CrossFit is deeply flawed. In this article, I shall review the pros and cons of CrossFit, which I have learned through experience and research. Let us start with the pros. This list is not exhaustive.
1. CrossFit emphasizes functional movements: the back squat, front squat, deadlift, press, push-press, push-jerk, snatch, clean and jerk, push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, burpees, sprints, etc. At CrossFit gyms, trainers introduce and teach these functional movements to members.
2. CrossFit serves as an introduction and gateway to Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting. It seems many people, including myself, do CrossFit for a year or two, eventually realize that it’s non-optimal training, and then transition to dedicated powerlifting (strength training) or Olympic weightlifting.
3. Metabolic conditioning (“metcon”) workouts burn fat and help achieve weight loss. However, so too does dedicated strength training with smart cardio. And strength novices would benefit more from dedicated strength training than from metcon workouts.
4. Metabolic conditioning workouts are very challenging and help you develop mental toughness. You will constantly be sore, although eating Paleo and doing static stretches help significantly.
5. Whether mainsite or strength-biased, CrossFit programming is effective to some degree.
Whether you’re a novice, intermediate, or advanced athlete, you will set personal records (PRs) over time. In particular, you will improve your times on the benchmark workouts (e.g. Fran), assuming you’re doing the exact same workout (i.e. same weights and rep-scheme).
However, just because something is effective to some degree does not mean it is the most effective, i.e. optimal. In the list of cons below, I argue that CrossFit programming is not the most effective or optimal way to train.
5. If you’re doing bodyweight training (because, for example, you do not have access to free weights), then CrossFit-style bodyweight workouts can be a great option. Such workouts may include push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, burpees, dips, sit-ups, running, rowing, biking, jump-roping, swimming, etc.
And CrossFit-style bodyweight workouts are arguably safer than CrossFit workouts that include barbell movements. When your form breaks down on bodyweight exercises (e.g. push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, etc.), it’s pretty obvious and it’s not as hazardous as your form breaking down on barbell movements (e.g. squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, etc.).
However, you cannot build a high level of strength through bodyweight workouts. Doing high-rep push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, and burpees will not lead to a one-rep max (1RM) deadlift of 200% bodyweight.
6. Many CrossFit gyms promote the Paleo diet, which I also endorse. Among many other benefits, the Paleo diet significantly improves recovery and reduces soreness, whether you’re doing CrossFit, SEALFIT, Military Athlete, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, etc.
7. CrossFit gyms are supposedly very positive, supportive environments.
Having reviewed the pros of CrossFit, I shall now review the cons. This list is not exhaustive.
1. The metabolic conditioning workouts are constantly varied, i.e. random.
Random workouts give you random results. If your ultimate goals are X and Y, you should train systematically and progressively (not randomly) toward those goals.
For example, if your goal is to run a 6:00 mile, then you should do a weekly one-mile run for time and gradually and progressively decrease your one-mile time. So, if it takes you 8:00 to run a mile your first time, then, over time, work towards decreasing it to 7:30, 7:00, 6:30, and finally 6:00. In addition to the weekly one-mile run, you should run intervals once a week (e.g. 4 x 400m or 8 x 200m) and do resistance training.
In general, it is a fundamental principle of strength and conditioning that you should condition specifically for your sport or goal. That is, conditioning should be sport-specific, not random or constantly varied (unless it’s absolutely necessary).
For example, a marathon runner should condition specifically for a 26.2-mile race. In particular, he or she should do a combination of LSD (long, slow distance) runs, tempo or CHI (continuous, high-intensity) runs, and intervals. A 400-meter sprinter should condition specifically for the 400-meter event by doing sprints. A triathlete should condition specifically for triathlons by doing a lot of running, swimming, and biking. Even in the same sport, players at different positions should condition differently. For example, a football wide receiver and offensive lineman should condition specifically for their positions. The wide receiver will do a lot more sprinting, over longer distances.
Even if you’re an actual or aspiring CrossFit Games athlete, you should condition specifically for your sport, i.e. CrossFit. CrossFit is essentially the sport of metabolic conditioning, and so you should do random, high-intensity, metabolic conditioning workouts (in addition to intensive strength training). In this case, it is absolutely necessary to do random or constantly varied conditioning, because that is what the sport requires.
2. Overall, CrossFit programming (especially mainsite programming) over-emphasizes metabolic conditioning and under-emphasizes strength.
CrossFit is essentially the sport of metabolic conditioning, and greater functional strength improves performance in any sport, up until a certain point. Thus, functional strength improves and largely “drives” performance on metcons. All else being equal, the stronger you are, the better you will perform on the metcons.
To prove this point, just consider the strength numbers of the top 10 male and female athletes in the 2013 CrossFit Games: their 1RM deadlift, back squat, clean and jerk, and snatch. See this spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is based on the data posted on the official CrossFit Games website in August 2013.
On average, the top male athletes in the 2013 CrossFit Games can deadlift 270% of their bodyweight (BW), back squat 220% BW, clean and jerk 170% BW, and snatch 140% BW.
On average, the top female athletes in the 2013 CrossFit Games (plus Annie Thorisdottir) can deadlift 240% BW, back squat 180% BW, clean and jerk 140% BW, and snatch 120% BW.
Thus, the top CrossFit Games athletes are pretty strong. And their functional strength is largely driving their performance on the metcon workouts. This is exactly why CrossFit Games athletes (or aspiring ones) devote so much time to strength training: powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting.
3. Mainsite CrossFit programming (as well as many CrossFit gyms and trainers) does not differentiate between strength novices, strength intermediates, and advanced strength trainees.
Novice, intermediate, and advanced strength trainees should not be doing the same strength program or strength workouts. In particular, strength novices should not be doing a strength program that is based on percentages (e.g. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1).
Ideally, before they do any metabolic conditioning, strength novices should complete a barbell strength program that involves a linear progression (e.g. the Starting Strength Novice Program or the Greyskull Linear Progression). Once they exhaust the linear progression, they will be much stronger and thus will perform much better on metcons, once they adapt to the high-intensity conditioning.
In other words, if CrossFit gyms were truly concerned about maximizing long-term performance on metcons, about “forging elite fitness,” then they would place all able-bodied strength novices on a dedicated strength training program that involves a linear progression.
But how many CrossFit gyms actually tell their novices the following? “You are deficient in terms of strength. You should do dedicated strength training for 4-6 months under our supervision and get much stronger. And then you can start doing our metcons, while you continue to train strength.” Few.
4. CrossFit metcon workouts are difficult but not necessarily effective.
Just because something is (very) difficult doesn’t necessarily mean it’s effective or optimal. It may or may not be effective, but it depends on your goals.
For example, suppose your goal is to cut the grass on your front lawn. You could spend 12 hours trimming each individual blade of grass with scissors. This would be very difficult and tedious, but it’s not an effective method to achieve your goal of cutting the grass. It’s smarter, easier, and more effective to use a lawnmower.
Similarly, suppose you’re a complete strength novice and your long-term goal is to achieve a 1RM deadlift of 200% BW. You could do CrossFit without a strength bias (e.g. mainsite programming). You would spend most of your time doing random metabolic conditioning workouts and limited time doing random strength workouts. However, if you took this approach, you would never achieve a 1RM deadlift of 200% BW. This approach is difficult in terms of the metabolic conditioning workouts, but totally ineffective in terms of achieving your goal.
Alternatively, you could do strength-biased CrossFit (e.g. CrossFit Football or CrossFit Strength Bias). In particular, at least thrice per week, you would do a workout that consists of (1) a short strength training session and (2) a short or medium-length, random metabolic conditioning session. Now, if the strength-biased programming is smart, you may eventually accomplish your goal of deadlifting 200% BW, but it will take several years. This is not the most effective way of accomplishing your goal.
Finally, you could do dedicated barbell strength training: a novice strength program that involves a linear progression (e.g. the Starting Strength Novice Program or the Greyskull Linear Progression), followed by an intermediate program (e.g. the Texas Method or Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1). In fact, this is the smartest and most effective way to achieve a 1RM deadlift of 200% bodyweight.
5. Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, disparages segmented training, but segmented training works well and arguably works best.
Segmented training is doing (1) resistance training and (2) cardio (or conditioning) separately. Contrary to what Glassman says, training strength and conditioning separately is effective and optimal. Even strength-biased CrossFit is segmented in the sense that the workouts have (1) a strength segment and (2) a conditioning segment (i.e. the metabolic conditioning workout). And strength-biased CrossFit is better and more effective than mainsite programming.
6. Many people (including athletes) do not need and arguably should not do high-intensity metabolic conditioning.
Powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters neither need nor should do high-intensity metabolic conditioning. The same is true for those who are doing dedicated strength training or Olympic lifting and who wish to maximize their strength or power gains.
Similarly, total fitness novices, totally deconditioned people, obese (not just overweight) people, and elderly people neither need nor should do high-intensity metabolic conditioning (at least initially). They should start with lower-intensity conditioning and, if they desire, they can eventually progress to high-intensity conditioning.
Indeed, I think the only people who truly need high-intensity metabolic conditioning are (1) actual or aspiring CrossFit Games athletes and (2) those who are training for the military, especially SOF (special operations forces). This is because their respective sports or events (i.e. the CrossFit Games or the relevant military school) involve high-intensity metabolic conditioning.
7. If you’re doing a high-intensity, high-rep, metabolic conditioning workout for time, and this workout includes barbell movements (especially Olympic lifts: snatches, cleans, and jerks), your form will inevitably deteriorate to some degree or other.
On a 0-100 scale (where 100 is perfect form), if your form deteriorates from 95 to 85, then it isn’t really a big deal. However, if your form deteriorates from 95 to 50, then it is a big deal. You’re just practicing sloppy form at high reps and thereby reinforcing that sloppy form as a movement pattern. This is especially true for snatches, cleans, and jerks.
Sloppy form not only increases your risk of injury but also limits you in terms of strength or power training. If you have sloppy form in terms of the back squat or snatch, then you cannot increase your 1RM back squat or snatch to the same degree as you would if you had perfect form.
8. CrossFit promotes kipping pull-ups. CrossFit allows for them because it emphasizes high-intensity metabolic conditioning and you can do 100 kipping pull-ups faster and more easily than you can do 100 deadhang pull-ups. However, kipping pull-ups do not improve your ability whatsoever to do deadhang pull-ups (bodyweight or weighted).
9. CrossFit promotes touch-and-go deadlifts. A touch-and-go deadlift is when you deadlift the barbell, lower it to the ground, quickly bounce it off the ground (touch and go), and then immediately perform another rep. In contrast, a deadstop deadlift is when you perform each deadlift rep from a deadstop position: the barbell is fully on the ground for at least one second. In fact, the ‘dead’ in ‘deadlift’ means deadstop.
CrossFit allows for touch-and-go deadlifts because, again, it emphasizes high-intensity metabolic conditioning and you can do 10 touch-and-go reps of 135lb deadlifts faster and more easily than you can do 10 deadstop reps of 135lb deadlifts. However, deadstop deadlifts are much better than touch-and-go deadlifts for building strength. Even if you’re doing deadlifts as part of a metabolic conditioning workout, you should still do deadstop deadlifts.
In summary, CrossFit has its virtues: for example, CrossFit gyms teach and emphasize functional movements; they promote the Paleo diet; and they create positive, supportive communities. However, CrossFit also has serious drawbacks: for example, the metcons are random; the programming tends to over-emphasize metcons and under-emphasize strength; and the programming does not differentiate between strength novices, intermediates, and advanced trainees. Overall, I believe the drawbacks outweigh the virtues. Therefore, I do not recommend doing full-blown CrossFit (i.e. high-intensity, constantly varied metcons that include barbell movements) unless you’re training specifically for the CrossFit Games or the military (assuming the relevant military school makes you do metcon workouts). However, if you choose to do CrossFit, make sure it is strength-biased. Remember that strength largely drives performance on metcons.
Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker, Practical Programming for Strength Training (Third Edition)
Last revised 12/9/2014