The first time I tried CrossFit was in 2012. That first workout was punishing, but it also got me hooked. The philosophy of CrossFit (constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity), a sense of community and friends was a motivator. As was the new challenges the workouts threw at me, the feeling of satisfaction—mingled with exhaustion—after every session, the burning muscles, the confidence and pleasant surprise that came with completing a tough workout, the diminishing body fat percentage and increasing muscle mass and strength—I loved it all. I was a fan. And like other converts, I talked about CrossFit all the time too.
The primary reason to take up CrossFit was the fact that I had hit a plateau with a combination of running and strength training at a gym. I wasn’t making progress anymore, wasn’t lifting heavier or running faster. Just three months of CrossFit and I was already stronger, faster and had moved past that plateau. I didn’t just feel it, I had empirical data to show it. Running times had come down, weights on the bar had increased and the number of push-ups and pull-ups had gone up three-fold.
Almost a dozen years later I still like CrossFit, but I am not as big a fan as I used to be. Yes, it is one of the quickest workout routines to help you get fitter, get the heart rate up, lose fat and gain muscle. But it is also flawed on multiple levels, and it is rather risky. I have thrown my back just once, but have seen many friends pick up some serious injuries, especially shoulder and back injuries, while doing it.
CrossFit is a combination of gymnastics, calisthenics, Olympic lifting, HIIT and cardio. The problem is—and ask any gymnast, Olympic weightlifter, calisthenics athlete or an endurance athlete—that these different disciplines don’t really go together.
Gymnasts and calisthenics athletes spend their entire lives perfecting their bodies to be used as a machine. More often than not, they get their rippling muscles from honing their skills with just bodyweight movements, without much use of weights or machines. Also, the pull-ups and muscle ups that they do are strictly by the book, not with a ‘kip’ as CrossFit athletes do. Kipping is a hack whereby you use the momentum generated by swinging your body to haul yourself up for a pull-up or a muscle-up.
The pull-ups, muscle-ups and handstand push-ups performed with a kip won’t fly in a calisthenics competition, and will lead to point deduction in gymnastics, as it is not at all easy on the eye or the body. Kipping pull-ups are one of the most common reasons for shoulder injuries in CrossFit.
When it comes to Olympic lifting, the focus is on complete lift and being in control of the weight. I have watched many CrossFit Games competition videos. Many of the snatches and clean and jerks, that are counted as valid in CrossFit, will never get the three green lights from weightlifting purists. Olympic lifting requires the elbows to be locked, and one needs to be in complete control of the weight while holding it overhead for a wee bit of time. With CrossFit, athletes often get away with not locking their elbows or holding the weight overhead as long as Olympic competition rules mandate.
Then there is the high intensity component. One of the ways CrossFit achieves its results is by focusing on speed and form, while performing the prescribed repetitions of a variety of exercises. However, most people can either focus only on speed or form as the session progresses. And that leaves room for errors and, therefore, injuries. There are plenty of easily accessible HIIT and boot camp-style workouts being offered across India that have a much lower risk of injury than CrossFit, and are therefore safer.
Another problem—a much more minor one—with CrossFit is the unusually high repetitions that one finds in some of its benchmark workouts. For example: a 1.6km run, followed by 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats, and a 1.6km run is a standard CrossFit ‘hero’ workout. It should boggle your mind. Yes, I have done it, more than once. Each time, I was dying at the end of it but was also surprised that I was able to do it. It does make one push themselves and find out what their bodies are capable of, but this could also easily end with an overuse injury or, at the very least, extreme soreness for days.
CrossFit is fabulous as long as you are aware of its shortcomings and keep a level head and listen to your body while pushing yourself to improve. Get carried away and you will end up with an injury. No doubt CrossFit makes you stronger, fitter and healthier but at the end of the day, it leaves you as a jack of all and master of none. In the world of fitness, that isn’t a great thing.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.