CrossFit has exploded into the fitness world. You can’t enter a gym, or pick up a fitness magazine without some reference to the WOD, a new kettlebell swikettleng, or directions to the latest “box” that has popped up in your community. Fitness fanatics, gym rats and those who haven’t yet given up on their New Years resolution all seem to be jumping on the CrossFit bandwagon. This high intensity, “broad, general and inclusive fitness” routine has taken over.

Cross fit was developed and founded (yes, it is a fitness company) by Greg Glassman in 2000 and incorporates weight lifting, cardio and multi joint exercises into any given workout.  The workouts are usually based on a set time period for completing a certain movement. The CrossFit guide explains the workout programs as “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movements that will optimize physical competence in ten physical domains: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.” There are currently over 3,000 CrossFit gyms worldwide… and that number is growing. People of all backgrounds, athletic levels, and ages are gravitating towards the CrossFit world. And I must admit, I am torn as to my feelings on this most current fitness fad.

As an athlete… I love it. It’s high intensity, feel the burn, efficient, group workout is exactly what I am looking for.

As a physiotherapist… not so much.

And here is why…

To begin, anyone who claims they are “training through CrossFit” is fooling themselves, or isn’t aware of what the term “training” means. A CrossFit workout is exercise. Yes, no one is arguing that. But to call CrossFit “training” is not accurate. In fact, there is a big difference between “exercise” and “training”.

Let me attempt to explain this difference.

Exercise is about today. The effects, the good, the bad, the feelings you get are for today. You produce the effects today, and they last for today. Training is more long term, the work you put in today is for a result later on. It is a process to achieve a goal or reach your maximum potential. In training, the workouts you put in today are to benefit you tomorrow (or the next day, or a year from now). Training is a process for a specific result that will be recognized later on. Whereas, exercise is for today, for the right now, for the present.

A defining characteristic of a CrossFit workout is to randomly expose your muscles and body to a variety of exercises, actions and movements (usually done for a set out time period). This random nature that defines CrossFit and differentiates it from other standard workout protocols makes it exercise, not training.  Training is a set out protocol with an end goal. Training is not random.

Another way to understand the difference is like this. Depending on the physical task you attempt, different physical adaptations must occur. Running a marathon is very different from participating in a long distance swim is very different from entering an Olympic weight lifting competition. Each “task” requires different muscles, body systems, nutrition and mental protocols. You must develop programs that stress those specific systems required in the task in order to succeed. If the program is not aimed at improving your systems for that specific goal then it is not training. It is exercise.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Exercise is great, and I encourage any form of exercises at any time. However, as a physiotherapist, I focus on achieving goals, completing tasks and reaching targets, and the process involved to get there. As such, I was taught to focus more on the training component- putting a program together that adequately and effectively stresses the correct systems to achieve a task. With every single client I work with there is a task or goal that we want to reach. As part of their plan, we implement a specific program to get them to be able to achieve that task. These goals don’t happen as a direct result of one exercise or one workout. They are processes, which must evolve and develop in order for one to be successful. They are designed to stress the specific component that needs to be stressed in order for adaptations to occur and for an end goal to be reached. CrossFit does not do this, and although it is exercising, it is not always able to stress the systems in your body that need to be stressed in order to achieve a task. Many people are mistaken when they think CrossFit alone will make them fit enough to run a marathon, or strong enough to go into weight lifting, or healthy enough to ignore any other form of fitness or wellness.  CrossFit is exercise, not training.

To continue, I mentioned one of the defining characteristics of CrossFit as being “randomness”. Another defining characteristic of these workouts is the high intensity, high velocity, high volume of the tasks that are required. Random exposure to these high intensity exercises is an accident waiting to happen. It is simply not sustainable for your body  in the long term. Certain exercises, especially the Olympic lifts, are meant to be done in moderation. The randomness and repetitiveness can cause muscle fatigue, tendon inflammation and serious injury. CrossFit coaches are trained to motivate and encourage their athletes, but to push them to the edge on every set. The debate of pushing to muscle failure is a consistent one, but pushing your muscles to failure regularly can lead to serious health risks and injuries. It is especially dangerous for beginners who are drawn to the workout because of it’s intensity, social component, and efficiency. These people do not understand the subtle difference between muscle fatigue and a good workout. These are the people that end up in my office with a slipped disc, or torn Achilles. Furthermore, the technique involved for many of the exercises is quite advanced. Good CrossFit coaches will teach, critique and evaluate their athletes technique. Poor form will result in injury. Poor form, and fatigue will result in serious injury.

Finally, perhaps a bit extreme, but nonetheless something we must be aware of.  Rhabdomyolysis is a kidney condition that is commonly induced by exercise. It is a condition that is likely for CrossFitters given the CrossFit regime. When muscle breaks down, myoglobin is released into the blood stream and can essentially clog the kidneys and poison them. CrossFit coaches are trained to be aware and cognizant of such a condition, however the mentality in many CrossFit gyms and sessions is “harder is better”. CrossFit preaches to push the edge of every set, every rep, until there’s nothing left in the tank. Like I said, training to muscle failure is debatable, but regularly pushing your body to failure can lead to rhabdomyolysis.  It is rare, but a workout that increases your risk of such a condition is one to be weary about.

To sum up…I am not anti CrossFit. I have participated in a few CrossFit sessions, have friends who are addicted to it, and in fact some of the people I respect and admire most in the fitness industry are CrossFit coaches and advocates. When done correctly, CrossFit is not inefficient or bad. Despite my reservations and concerns, I acknowledge it has done wonders for the fitness world and for communities. It is a business model- gyms, competitions, certifications, clothing- but it is one that is pushing people to be active. I applaud anyone who wants to give it a shot. It has made weight lifting “cool” again and has encouraged many people to start exercising. I just caution you to be aware and to be careful. The growing demand for CrossFit has meant some CrossFit gyms have been “diluted”. A two day course and a multiple question test is all one needs to become a CrossFit trainer- that’s it. I encourage you to do your research, pick the right spots, the right group, and the right program for you. Get a coach who is knowledgeable and takes the time to demonstrate and explain exercises. A coach who can answer your questions, address your concerns, and who will motivate you to work hard without putting yourself in danger. Understand what you are getting into, what it requires of you physically, and what your goals for fitness are. Listen to your body and be smart. 


– Charlotte Anderson