Ranger Up Fitness: Crossfit
23 May 2007
Alex versus Crossfit
I enjoy your comments on the RangerUp website. Thanks for giving out straight talk. I especially liked your recent post about nutrition. My wife got a kick out of it also.
I’m a grad student at A&M who’s going back to West Point to teach Physical Education. Some friends of mine have been trying to evangelize me into the “Crossfit” system. They have a pretty slick website and their workouts will definitely smoke someone who’s not all around fit, but I haven’t totally bought in. I wonder if their system does enough cardio. Background on me: I’m a runner (if you didn’t guess from my question.) I’ve recently made an effort to run less and strength train more, so the CrossFit idea intrigues me. However, they don’t do a structured weight program and I wonder if their Workouts of the Day are enough if you’re not already fairly muscular. What’s your take on CrossFit?
Ok, I’ve been putting off answering the slew of Crossfit questions for months. Yeah, months. Why? It’s a touchy subject with some people, especially true Crossfit aficionados who believe it’s The Answer. The Answer to what, exactly, I’m not sure. But nevertheless it’s The Answer.
To start off, if you’re not familiar with Crossfit, I could type out an explanation, but your best bet is to go to their website, http://www.crossfit.com/ , check out the descriptions there, try a few of their workouts of the day, then report back.
Long story short, Crossfit is GPP (General Physical Preparedness). It’s essentially circuit training for those who don’t want to call it circuit training. Of course, given my opinion on circuit training, one might expect a smartass dismissal of Crossfit and all its offshoots. Not this time. Crossfit is good shit.
It’s essentially a scalable framework. The workouts can vary in difficulty (both physical and technical), and can be adjusted to any level of fitness. It’s hard to point out pros and cons of a system that can be adapted to any trainee without looking at the specifics. And to its credit, Crossfit emphasizes some very, very important aspects of training that set it apart from any normal circuit routine:
1) Actual cardiovascular conditioning. Crossfit-style circuit training is not about going from machine to machine. Rather than trying to make lifting into a cardiovascular activity, (worthless; different metabolic pathways,) it incorporates actual RUNNING (usually 400-800 meter runs) to build up your cardio conditioning. Granted, this isn’t the same as running the two miles on your PT test, but it’s closer than doing fifty reps on the leg press. Additionally, the remainder of the workouts are generally structured so that the weights you’re lifting are not so heavy as to require a major break between sets. This actually DOES keep the heart rate up.
2) Emphasis on Olympic/bodyweight movements. Crossfit does not want you on the leg extension machine. In fact, if you ever even consider incorporating a leg extension into a workout of the day, a Crossfit coach somewhere goes blind in one eye. True story. So don’t try it. Instead, you’ll do things like muscle-ups, pull-ups, overhead squats, push jerks, and other exercises that actually require you to stabilize yourself, stabilize a weight, and otherwise use every muscle in your body in unison. This is a good thing. This is true athletic training, and for almost any real-world application, building this kind of bodyweight strength and coordination, as well as being able to repeatedly handle medium-weight loads, is much more useful than maximum power output or hypertrophy training. Speaking of which:
3) Real-world application. Think about it this way: In a typical Crossfit workout, you may go directly from running 800 meters to repeatedly lifting about a hundred pounds over your head, to performing multiple pull-ups, and then taking off running again. If you extrapolate that into real-world situations, you can start to see why this system is so popular in law enforcement, emergency services, and the military in general. If you can do thirty pull-ups in an air conditioned gym while listening to the Rocky theme (or some other cheesy shit) on your iPod after taking a fifteen minute sit-down break with a glass of cold water, that’s great. If you’re ever out in the field and find yourself in a situation where you need to mantle some high barrier with fifty pounds of gear on your back after having just run 100 meters from your last point of cover, I’m sure everyone around you will appreciate holding your stuff while you catch your breath and figure out how to get the trendy little earbuds in under your helmet.
Sounds good, right? There are definitely more good points to the system. However, (and this is where I’m sure I’ll get plenty of disagreement,) I don’t think it’s the ONLY form of routine you should follow.
Like any circuit-based routine, (it IS circuit training – you know it’s circuit training – man up and admit it,) Crossfit leaves a little room for improvement on the extremes. Crossfit alone will build a well-rounded individual that truly excels at certain types of physical activity, but not at all types. There’s still room for pure power training and for extended cardiovascular training. If you were to do a Crossfit-style workout two days out of the week, I’d still incorporate one or two days of solid lifting (again, compound movements, but higher loads with longer rest periods), and at least one day of more consistent cardiovascular training; say for example, distance running.
So, bottom line, you can build some limit strength on Crossfit, you can build mass, you can build aerobic endurance, but alone, none of these are really the point of GPP, and these are not what it excels at. The goal of the system is to build a good overall athlete. It is an excellent adjunct to traditional training, but it is not the only form of training you should do.
So to answer the question (finally), by all means, do some of those workouts; try to do one or two a week. But I would say, if you can, spend at least one day doing some deadlifts, heavier squats, and a few heavy, compound, upper body movements. Always be a little wary of people who proclaim ANY one routine as the solution to the world’s problems; a lot of advocates don’t leave much room for disagreement. Here’s a quick tip when evaluating the quality of any routine: Ask an advocate of the routine what the shortcomings are. If they give the old job-interview style shortcoming (You know, that whole “I’m organized to a fault and too much of a perfectionist!” complete bullshit response that we’ve all given several times in our lives), then you know you’re not dealing with somebody who’s going to give you a straight answer. If they are very clear as to why SPECIFICALLY the system will help you, but are also very clear in letting you know what the system WON’T do, then that’s probably someone you can trust.
And next column… Training around an injured back, and why you should avoid artificial sweeteners and beer. (Quick preview: You shouldn’t. I live on aspartame and Yuengling.)