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The trouble with CrossFit

CrossFit is in the crosshairs for its unhealthy competitiveness, injuries and poorly trained instructors. Lounge gives you the lowdown on how to do CrossFit better

CrossFit stresses on hard work. But sometimes, pushing it too much leads to injuries. (Photo: istockphoto)
CrossFit stresses on hard work. But sometimes, pushing it too much leads to injuries. (Photo: istockphoto)

Helen. Angie. Karen. Cindy. Nicole. Isabel. Diane. These are not random names: They are CrossFit workouts. For example, Angie is 100 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, and 100 bodyweight squats. The Diane is made up of three sets of deadlifts and hand-stand push-ups. The first set has 21 repetitions, the second 15, and the last one, nine reps. It’s not just the workout names in CrossFit that challenge conventional gym beliefs, it’s also the routine. Popular WODs (workouts of the day) include AMRAP (as many rounds as possible), RFT (rounds for time) and EMOM (every minute on the minute).

CrossFit athletes don’t train in gyms, they train in “boxes”. These boxes smell of sweat, chalk, iron and hard work. You won’t see machines but there will be barbells, pull-up bars, giant hammers and huge tyres. As Priyanka Lahiri, a CrossFit enthusiast since 2016, says, “From the outside, CrossFit looks badass.” However, CrossFit is also controversial.

First, for the history of unacceptable behaviour from CrossFit, Inc’s senior management, like founder Greg Glassman’s tweets on George Floyd, the 46-year-old African-American who was killed during an arrest in Minneapolis, or chief knowledge officer Russell Berger insulting the LGBTQ+ community in 2018. Glassman was forced to resign; Berger was fired.

The biggest question, however, is about the workout itself: Does it increase chances of injury? For those who argue that it does, the main reason is its reliance on high-intensity, rep-heavy workouts in a competitive mode—a point contested repeatedly by CrossFit.

Many CrossFit WODs encourage athletes to either be the fastest to finish a workout or do the most number of rounds in a stipulated time. If these workouts include lifting, then there will also be a prescribed weight to lift (different for men and women). If it includes box jumps, there will be a prescribed height of the box. This is known as “Rx” in CrossFit.

“CrossFit is a very community-based workout. Everyone gets the same WOD so they push each other to finish workouts. One could be exhausted but still end up finishing a workout in the charged up atmosphere of the box. But this also means getting the form wrong and ending with injuries. My biggest tip to those who are doing CrossFit and those who plan to do so is to have no shame in doing scaled workouts (with reduced weights and fewer reps than the prescribed Rx). They are as intense. And everyone’s intensity is different according to how long they are doing CrossFit for. The other tip, of course, is to never skip your warm-up,” says Vicky K.R., an L1 CrossFit trainer who is now a calisthenics and functional training coach in Bengaluru. CrossFit is great for building an athletic foundation, he adds.

Most research so far, however, does support the argument that CrossFit can lead to more injuries than other high-intensity fitness routines. Yet CrossFit, Inc. won the day against the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) in the US in the 2014 lawsuit that is cited most often. The study it challenged had too small a sample size and was ambiguous. It stated that “there are emerging reports of increased rates of musculoskeletal and metabolic injury in these programs” but also noted that the workouts were effective in reducing body-fat percentage. As the certified strength and conditioning specialist and CrossFit coach Craig Marker wrote in a Breaking Muscle article, “The truth is somewhere between these two views.”

In 2019, a paper published in the Orthopaedic Journal Of Sports Medicine (OJSM) was also contested by the company. The paper says “athletes participating in CrossFit are more likely to be injured and to seek medical treatment compared with participants in traditional weightlifting. Despite these findings, the increased likelihood of injury may have less to do with the exercises involved with CrossFit and more to do with the intensity with which the exercises are performed, and thus increased awareness is needed to prevent further injuries.” Despite a later erratum published by the journal, OJSM said it stood by the original conclusions.

Those who swear by CrossFit are often caught between praising aspects of that worked for them, and those that seem alarming

Those who swear by CrossFit are often caught between praising aspects that worked for them, and those that seem alarming. “I joined CrossFit because I wanted to lose weight and this was something that seemed visually powerful. What attracted me the most was that there were no machines in a box. CrossFit gives you a great feeling about doing new things with your body. Over time, you feel like an athlete, start competing with yourself, and scaling up. I remember starting with a few reps of 30kg deadlifts and within six months of CrossFit I could do a few reps of 80kg deadlifts,” says Priyanka Lahiri, 40, whose first priority after shifting from Delhi to Bengaluru a few years ago was to look for a CrossFit box in her area.

Martin Serrano, a lawyer with the World Bank, took to CrossFit earlier this decade in Washington, DC. When he was posted to India in 2014, he joined CrossFit Himalaya in Delhi. The results were significant, but he followed a strict policy of not getting too competitive: “Every day is new in CrossFit and it forces you to learn new things. The biggest pull for me was the mix of being in a community, in a setting of healthy competition and camaraderie. Those who compete with you also cheer for you and celebrate every breakthrough: like your first muscle-up or your first handstand push-up. All this becomes addictive.

“In a matter of one year, it had significant results—my body started getting proportionate, helping my self-esteem and confidence. My cholesterol dropped, blood pressure became manageable, and the levels of stress went down. But I made sure I was never competing too hard: It wasn’t a problem for me to accept that the younger people would lift more and fast,” says the 46-year-old, who experienced some shoulder trouble after a CrossFit WOD that involved a lot of pull-ups.

Practitioners say that CrossFit is a great way to build fitness. However, always set your own goals, and don't follow those set by others. (Photo: Alamy)
Practitioners say that CrossFit is a great way to build fitness. However, always set your own goals, and don't follow those set by others. (Photo: Alamy)

Lahiri says CrossFit is worth the initial push to gain fitness, but certain things thereafter began to irk her: “Some workouts force you to go fast and compromise on form. Apart from injury risks, this doesn’t help with strength building.” In a box atmosphere, she says, failure to complete a WOD feels like a weakness. “People will say ‘it’s all in the head’ but it’s not, and you have to listen to your body. It becomes a situation where you try to accomplish goals set by someone for everyone,” she adds.

After suffering knee and tail-bone injuries due to WODs, Lahiri made CrossFit part of a larger fitness routine. This way, she says, she can control the intensity without having to suffer the “shaming of not reaching CrossFit Rx goals”.

Scepticism about the workout is fuelled by the fact that anyone who has a Level 1 certification can open a box and start teaching. The certification takes two days to complete, nowhere close to the time a trainer needs to understand the complexities of correct form. CrossFit, Inc. charges around 90,000 for this course and provides the study material.

While someone with an L1 certificate can open a box, they are not required to hire trainers who are also certified. Boxes can design their own workouts. This means that all the people opening CrossFit boxes may not be adequately qualified or experienced.

So if you are looking to get fit post-lockdown, be careful. CrossFit’s radical ways may seem attractive but Serrano, Lahiri, Vicky K.R. and other experts suggest a few thumb rules to ensure it’s effective and injury-free. Always arrive early to the box so you can warm up and do some mobility drills before starting the WOD. This way, you avoid a situation where you are quickly doing 20 burpees before hitting the main workout. Never sacrifice form for speed. Always cool down and stretch after a WOD. Never let the competitive spirit of CrossFit drive you to a point where you are exercising despite being exhausted. Finally, always listen to your body. For, the effects of CrossFit too differ from body to body.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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