I am often asked as a personal trainer about different fads in the industry.  Lately, the most common is “what do I think about crossfit.”  For those who aren’t familiar with crossfit, it is high intensity bouts of exercises arranged in a way that can be scored for competition, and it is becoming very popular. People are intimidated by its intensity. However, they want to know if it is something they should try. Crossfit has marketed itself as an evidenced based fitness program.  Although there is scientific evidence supporting the benefits of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), crossfit is missing several very important elements to a quality overall fitness program. My response to most people is that it isn’t right for them (at least not immediately). As a matter of fact, I would define crossfit as a sport, not a workout. But even more importantly, the injury rate for HIIT is much higher than traditional training due to the loss of proper movement patterns, usually during the latter part of the workout when you are fatigued, or the inability to perform a movement properly due to restrictions in the joints.

strength pushup with dumbbell in a fitness workout

There are many great aspects of the crossfit program.  There is an element of winning and losing that drives competitive people to push themselves harder than they thought they could. They have developed an environment that gets you to push yourself beyond your perceived limits and create a new level of ability. However, there is no specific physiological goal, only to beat the person next to you. That is a sport.

In my opinion, the number one job of any trainer or coach is to keep your client or athlete safe and free from injury. The problem that I have with crossfit (and many other at home HITT programs like P90X or Insanity) is that it can lead to injury very easily. The goal is simply to push as hard and as fast as you can.  There is no consideration for previous injury or joint limitations, and many of the crossfit “coaches” (not all) have very little regard for the importance of proper form.  I have spoken to several crossfit owners about Olympic style lifts and they are adamant that they can teach you how to do these lifts in a day, when in fact, Olympic lifts can take weeks or even months to get right. I recently spoke with a crossfit trainer and she went on and on about how her client (a 62 year old obese client) wouldn’t squat low enough.  In our conversation, she had the firm belief that “the human body is made to squat all the way to the ground and not just to the standard ninety degrees in the knees.” Although this may be true in a healthy human, physical limitations do set in over time and adapts to what we do the most.  In the American society, that tends to be many long hours of sitting, leading to a shortening of the quadriceps musculature (as well as other areas) and thus, leading to muscle imbalance and compensated movement in the squat pattern. If we then add load to the movement, it exacerbates the issue.

Crossfit athletes
In my experience with crossfit trainers, this seems to be consistent. I witnessed another crossfit trainer tell someone that in order to do a pull-up, they needed to kip first (performing a pull-up by swinging on the bar first creating a pendulum with your body).  Unfortunately this person didn’t have the flexibility in the shoulder to extend the arms behind the head and sure enough, he compensated for the lack of flexibility and arched his low back to catapult him into the pull-up. He ended up with a disk issue in the lumbar spine as a result.

Muscle imbalances also form and contribute to injury due to the repetitive nature of the workouts in crossfit.  Most movement occurs in the sagittal plane (moving forward and backward) and uses very little rotation.  To this day, I have never been able to find a crossfit coach to tell me why this is ignored in the program design.

I have read some reports claiming as much as a thirty-six percent injury rate in the HIIT programs.  With that said, I do think there is a place for HIIT workouts.  There are mountains of studies and evidence that it is beneficial. However, it needs to be just a part of your exercise routine, not the entire program. It is vital that corrective exercise (or even physical therapy for those who were injured) be incorporated first.  Only after the acceptable range of motion for the movements used is achieved, should these workouts be incorporated into the routine. Movements should be incorporated into alternate days that aren’t included in your crossfit workouts (like rotational exercises).  In addition, everyone should incorporate some low intensity workouts and even rest days.  The body is a complex machine that needs to move in all directions and be allowed to recover after it is pushed to its physical limits.

Bill DanielsAbout the Author:  Growing up Bill Daniels played many sports and as he entered his High school and college years and was introduced to fitness and nutrition through the weight room coaches and ultimately inspired to study health and fitness. Bill went on to attain a BS in Massachusetts at Merrimack College (2002). Today, Bill works with many adults struggling to lose weight and ultimately improve their quality of life. Bill has lived and worked in Northern California for the past 10 years working as a personal trainer and holistic life coach.