The CrossFit question

I've long advocated personal fitness and strength training as the single best way to build strength and muscle. It may surprise some to learn, though, that I'm actually fairly agnostic about the precise method used to build strength and power. I like Stronglifts 5x5 a lot, for instance- it's the program that got me started in powerlifting and got me great results- but if you watch me in the gym these days, what I do isn't remotely like SL5x5 anymore. I'm also fond of martial arts, which involves a lot of high-intensity movement, stretching, and compound exercises, but very little by way of real strength. Both have their time and place. They work well for me, but that's not to say that they will necessarily work for you.

The point is, if you're going to get strong and fit, you should find something that works best for you, and I'm all for people going into the gym or setting up their own home programs that are comfortable for them, give them the exercise that they need, and achieve the results that they want.

That said, I think it's about time I discussed CrossFit. Now I should make it very clear that I have not trained in CrossFit at all, ever, so I'm going to limit myself strictly to what I have observed from watching others and will not criticise the core elements of CrossFit. (That comes later in the post, from someone else who really does know what he's talking about.)

CrossFit appears to have experienced fairly explosive growth over the last few years in the wake of the whole Paleo Diet/Primal Living thing, and has spread to much of the East Coast; in fact my own gym offers CrossFit training at least once a week. As far as I can tell, here's what CrossFit comes down to:
  • Eat Paleo, almost to an extreme point (i.e. very little carbs of any kind)
  • Lift weights
  • Do compound exercises
  • Do everything really really really fast
This all sounds great in theory, and in fact in practice it does work; you burn fat at an incredible rate because of the sheer speed and intensity of the training. The big problem that I have with this approach is that it emphasises speed over form. This bugs the hell out of me. The last thing I want to see is some idiot turning up at the gym and doing squats or heavy deadlifts with terrible form. It angers me because I'm watching someone taking up valuable time in the power rack when I could be using the same weights, getting my own work done, and getting out of there.

See also:

Examples of really terrible form in CrossFit include:
  • Kipping rows - now these are just idiotic. If you're going to do a chin-up, DO IT PROPERLY. All the way up, chin above the bar, all the way down, full range of motion, repeat. None of this Kipping nonsense where you end up destroying your rotator cuffs and tearing open your hands just for the sake of doing lots of reps. In that second video, the guy doing those 108 Kipping rows didn't actually do a single real chin-up.
  • Burpees - either do pushups OR jump squats. Not one after the other.
  • Rounded-back deadlift - if you are going to deadlift like this, please do us all a favour and remove yourself from the gene pool. That sort of thing is horrifying to watch. If you do it intentionally, or you never correct your own form, you're an idiot asking for a hernia.
  • Vertical press - what the f*** is this??? I can't even... That's it, I give up, the FAIL is strong with that one.
For the record, I don't have anything against people doing high-intensity workouts in the gym- just please don't setup some sort of training circuit behind me when I'm doing squats. I do know, however, through long and sometimes painful experience, that your form deteriorates as your exhaustion builds. So if you're going to do weights, do them with this in mind- either high reps and light weights, or low reps and heavy weights. The end result of doing high reps with heavy weights will always be a nasty set of injuries.

There are also some other perspectives on CrossFit that might be useful here. This next one is from a bodybuilder's perspective. Normally I don't have much time for bodybuilders- to me, they're largely poseurs- but this guy's criticisms of CrossFit are reasonable and logical, and it's clear that he knows how to lift:

And here is one of the original developers of the CrossFit program talking about how it has become commercialised and has lost any and all sense of quality control:

If Rob Wolf is right- and I think he is- then you should be very, very careful before beginning a CrossFit program. Many gyms that offer CrossFit may well be the gym equivalent of a McDojo- more interested in making a quick buck than in teaching people how to be safe, healthy, and strong.

The bottom line is that if you have good form, you will build strength. It's really that simple. Better form = better results, every time. Get the basics right, then concentrate on more complex movements and exercises, or on more frequent reps.


  1. Did you ever see the pic of the guy doing back squats with his infant son in a Baby Bjorn carrier? Ridiculous, but you know, Crossfit is supposed to be a family venture. Gotta start em young!

    Crossfit gyms are incredibly expensive. My nearest box charges USD 135/month, and says right on it's website that it's expensive because it's elite and doesn't want any weaklings or half-assed people joining. It's an ethos I can't espouse, but I suppose it works for some people.

    I go for form over speed in my lifts. Currently we're not members at a gym, favoring home-based kettlebell and medicine ball workouts, and riding our bikes or running - we genuinely enjoy those activities and a fitness regime means nothing if you hate it so much you eventually stop doing it.

    I find there is such a heavy emphasis on lifting over "cardio" activities in many paleo/LC circles that the point of enjoyment gets overlooked. I tell you, riding your bike over 10 miles of hills will build muscle in your legs and is a hell of a calorie burner. Running over 5 miles of rocky trails (we live in a mountainous region) will get your whole body in great shape in no time, with all the scrambling, climbing, high-stepping, and agility moves needed to navigate a trail. But I've been criticized by some paleos as doing chronic cardio and that I must LIFT WAAAYYYYTTTSSSS! or else I'll be dead of a heart attack or be condemned to skinny-fatness all my life. In short, if you don't enjoy it, you won't do it. And, go for functional fitness over a ripped physique just because ripped. What good is a ton of muscle and a six pack if you can barely get through a 5 mile long hike over the Adirondack foothills?

  2. Did you ever see the pic of the guy doing back squats with his infant son in a Baby Bjorn carrier? Ridiculous, but you know, Crossfit is supposed to be a family venture. Gotta start em young!

    Could be worse. You could have seen this at your local CrossFit box.

    I find there is such a heavy emphasis on lifting over "cardio" activities in many paleo/LC circles that the point of enjoyment gets overlooked.

    True. There is a tendency to take the weights to an extreme sometimes. Personally I lift because I really enjoy it and it fits into my schedule well. As I said, what works for me won't work for everyone. And I know what you mean about biking- it's fun. I used to ride around the city a lot years ago, I still miss it. It was very enjoyable and relaxing (other than the mild anxiety created from dodging traffic, that is).


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