What is CrossFit?
Bottom Line Up Front: There is a lot of confusion from those within the fitness community and from those outside it about CrossFit. I hope to clear it up so you know the answer next time someone asks “What is CrossFit?”
I learned about CrossFit in 2008. Once I figured out what it was – a blend of gymnastics, plyometrics, weightlifting, and cardiovascular movements all smashed together in various creative ways – I was hooked. It was what I had been trying to do for many years (since 2002) on my own. This formalized it and I loved it.
Then, over the course of many years, I started to get a little sick of “CrossFit” pure. It got a little bit too out of control for me when the workouts became so complicated you couldn’t remember them without writing it down. I haven’t done what I could consider “CrossFit” since 2011.
What Does CrossFit Say CrossFit Is?
There is an article from CrossFit called What is CrossFit? I will sum it up here with copying and pasting: CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains. All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more. The CrossFit program is driven by data. Overall, the aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness supported by measurable, observable and repeatable results.
The cornerstones of CrossFit are 1) Constantly varied 2) Functional movements 3) High intensity 4) Broad time and modal domains 5) Measurable and repeatable.
Reasons For the Confusion
- CrossFit basically came to represent anything that wasn’t conventional exercise because it was so revolutionary. I had never really seen anyone talk about a workout such as: As many repetitions as possible (AMRAP) in 10 minutes of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, 15 air squats. It isn’t that creative, but it just wasn’t done. It seemed like everyone was either bodybuilding, powerlifting, or running. You also had athletes who were doing combinations of those (running, lifting weights, plyometrics, etc.). Not many non-athletes were doing creative combinations for conditioning from what I saw. A lot of people ran and lifted weights, but not many did Olympic lifting. And very few were combining them like what I saw when I learned about CrossFit (snatches, sprints, and kettlebell swings all in the same workout). Since they cornered the market on this metabolic conditioning (METCON) type workout – combining a whole bunch of things from many disciplines together – it seems now that anyone who does anything like this must be doing CrossFit.
- CrossFit introduced Olympic lifting (snatch, clean, jerk) to non-athletes and the mainstream public. As recently as 10 years ago you would have had a hard time finding anyone who didn’t play college athletics or was an Olympic lifter doing snatches or cleans. This is common now thanks to CrossFit. Once again, anytime people see anyone doing an Olympic lift, they think CrossFit. Also, with Olympic lifting came bumper plates. CrossFit is the first place most people saw a bumper plate and people dropping weights. Thus, any time you see bumper plates, you think CrossFit.
- CrossFit introduced kettlebells to the mainstream. Kettlebells aren’t unique to CrossFit. In fact, they have been around far longer than CrossFit. But since most people had never seen a kettlebell without it being involved in a CrossFit workout or through CrossFit they learned about kettlebells, any time they see someone using a kettlebell, they think CrossFitter.
- CrossFit sparked the tactical fitness movement. A lot of military special operators got heavy into CrossFit early on. They did this because their physical training programs were lacking in intensity and complexity. CrossFit scratched right where they itched. These programs involved body armor, sandbags and tires. So when someone sees you doing a tire flip or carrying a sandbag wearing a weight vest, they think CrossFit.
- CrossFit brought the white board to fitness. Every workout is measured somehow (time, reps, weight, etc.) and can be recorded. In truth, this is only useful if you are comparing results over time. Otherwise it is just for fun or competition that day. In my experience, this is what most CrossFitters do. They may record benchmark workouts, but I would guess less than 10% of CrossFitters write down every workout and their score every time. In any event, when you see a whiteboard in a gym, you think CrossFit.
- CrossFit brought competition to exercise. Meatheads have been comparing bench press weights for 50 years. But no one was doing 30 snatches at 135 pounds for time and comparing with their gym buddies before CrossFit. Since all of the workouts are measurable, they lend themselves to competition. If you see people writing scores for a workout, you think CrossFit.
The largest piece of confusion is that since CrossFit is more or less cross training (a common known term), anyone doing cross training must be a CrossFitter. It is very similar to how we use Kleenex to mean tissue. Kleenex is a brand of tissue, but since it is such a dominant brand, it is also used as the common term. If someone asked you for a Kleenex, you’d know exactly what they meant and you’d find them a tissue of any brand.
Are You Doing CrossFit?
The only way to be certainly without a doubt doing CrossFit is to be training at a CrossFit gym or following exactly the programming of a CrossFit web site such as CrossFit.com (the main site). This is the corporation CrossFit (or a registered affiliate) telling you what to do, so that makes it CrossFit. It is like using real Kleenex tissue. It is an actual Kleenex.
If you are doing metabolic conditioning workouts you or a buddy thought up, doing Olympic lifting, squatting heavy, swinging kettlebells, and doing kipping pull-ups, you are doing CrossFit-style training. In my opinion, you can associate yourself with the CrossFit community (watch the Games and wear Rogue clothes, knee socks, Reebok Nanos, knee bands, and Oly shoes) and be on board with the tenets of it, but you aren’t doing CrossFit truly. This is like using Scotts brand tissue. It is just like Kleenex, but without the name on the box, it just isn’t Kleenex.
What is a CrossFit Workout?
There only thing that is a CrossFit workout is a named workout that CrossFit corporate names. Click here for some ideas. Otherwise, since CrossFit can involve anything, there is nothing that isn’t a CrossFit workout. 5 x 5 back squats? Heavy snatches? Sprints? Long run? Carry a sandbag 400 meters? Those all ARE and ARE NOT CrossFit workouts. What makes them CrossFit workouts? If they are involved in a CrossFit program. Otherwise, they are just workouts.
Things I Do That Are Anti-CrossFit
First, familiarize yourself with how I am training right now, a recent post on my current training.
- I do not follow the “constantly varied” principle of CrossFit. I follow much more structure in my programming than CrossFit. There is no discernible template for most CrossFit programming. I will do pure strength training every Monday. There is no “every Monday” programming in any CrossFit box. I do not think you have to constantly vary your training day-in-and-day-out to be able to do a multitude of tasks at any time. I proved this to myself many years ago.
- I do not score my workouts, write everything down, or compete every session. I did this for many years, but it was a lot of wasted effort. I don’t need to know I did 5 reps at 225 for my first set 3 months ago or that I did 30 handstand push-ups in 2 minutes and 20 seconds in July 2015. This isn’t to say recording details isn’t important at certain times. If I were doing a major competition, I would care more about details. There is a utility in recording scores on certain things to compare progress such as a one mile run or a max back squat to indicate if your training is making you better. Every workout, every time, counting every round, not into it.
Things I Do That Are Pro-CrossFit
- High intensity. I believe intensity is essential to maximal progress. I do not get out control with it though, sacrificing form or safety for more reps (bad reps).
- Broad time and modal domains. I do the spectrum of physical training – run, row, lift, throw, carry, etc. I think it’s vital to train all elements of physical fitness.
- Functional movements. I use these most all of the time. This is a no-brainer. Real life is complex and if you play hard, it demands functional skills. This means your exercise translates into real life movement patterns.
- White boards. I love them. I have to have one in my gym at all times.
I didn’t want to turn this post into things that annoy me about CrossFit, but I can’t talk about it without mentioning a few that I will not elaborate on excessively.
- For some reason, workouts have become more and more complex over the years. It isn’t enough to train hard. It has to be so confusing you need a four-foot high white board to write it all down. This is a waste of time. Simple workouts in terms of structure aren’t physically simple (easy).
- Using Olympic lifting movements and other complex skills (Turkish Get-up for example) while fatigued or as part of high rep sets is a very poor and unsafe idea.
- The need to compete and score your workouts drives many people to use poor form and unsafe technique. I get the idea that competition drives intensity, but in a large group, I watch poor form more often that I should see it.
- Coaches are trained to be Level 1 instructors with a weekend class, then go right into a box to teach technique they don’t really understand well. Some coaches are great, but some are barely more advanced than those they are supervising. I attended the CF Level 1 trainer course so I know exactly what happens in it.
- Far far FAR too many CrossFitters are wearing knee sleeves and Olympic lifting shoes. These are for high level athletes, like pro and college athletes, not a 32-year old guy who goes to his local CrossFit box to be in better shape. I see novice trainees who get this gear immediately upon beginning a CrossFit program.
- The worst thing about modern CrossFit is the need to constantly do a METCON each workout. It is OK just to run 5 miles. Or just do heavy squats. You don’t have to be out of breath and exhausted to have a good workout. The main site doesn’t program this way, but most “CrossFitters” I know find some way to add a METCON into everything.
- Lastly, the term WoD means “workout of the day”. So, that means whatever you are doing that day is the WoD. It isn’t complicated. But CrossFitters love to use WoD to mean a METCON. I hear people do some strength work first before their METCON of rowing, burpees, and box jumps. They only call the second half the WoD. Drives me crazy.
I love CrossFit, and it has gotten me to where I am today on exercise programming and physical fitness. It has moved along hundreds of thousands of people to something far more useful in their exercise than just jogging or doing knee extensions. Even at its worst, CrossFit is better than most things out there that are for mass consumption. I am aware that there were people doing what is now called CrossFit before it was CrossFit who got no recognition. I know Greg Glassman didn’t invent all of this stuff. He did, however, crack the nut on marketing and strategic communication. A qualified trainer working one on one is the best way to get into physical fitness by far, but knowing who is qualified and who isn’t and paying for it both aren’t easy. Overall, CrossFit is still the first place I would send you if you were looking to begin a formal, structured exercise program in a group setting.
QUESTION: What is CrossFit to you? Are you a CrossFitter? Why or why not? Post thoughts to comments.