During the last few years, ultra-intense workouts have been gaining popularity—and not just among athletes or hardcore exercisers who are gluttons for self-punishment. Even the relatively unfit and overweight are jumping at the chance to push their bodies to their limits. Why? Some consider it fun. Others feel that is the best (or only) way to really get in shape. Whatever the reason, intense workout programs are attracting a wide variety of participants who have a variety of different goals (whether strength, speed, power, health, muscle tone, weight loss, or looking better naked).
By now you've probably heard of CrossFit (the "sport of fitness") or know someone who has tried it. I stumbled upon CrossFit videos on YouTube a few years ago and was immediately intrigued. I would spend hours a night watching people work out competitively and was in awe of their strength and capabilities—not to mention their physiques! I've learned a good deal about CrossFit since then, through my husband and sister-in-law (both of whom are certified CrossFit trainers), friends who do the workouts, and my own research and reading.
As a certified fitness professional with a traditional background (and without any firsthand experience in an actual CrossFit gym), I can certainly tell you that CrossFit is unlike most other workouts and workout programs out there. It strives to be the total fitness package—to help people achieve optimal health and fitness across all measures of strength, agility, speed, power and endurance. (Read CrossFit's full description here.) It combines Olympic powerlifting + gymnastics + plyometrics + speed work + weights + time + competition in a way that continuously challenges one's body in new ways. And although it has a reputation of being intense (which it certainly is, no doubt about it), proponents also claim that it's completely "scalable" to every individual's fitness level.
Sounds great, right? Well, could it be too good to be true?
I get asked all the time, "Have you tried CrossFit yet?" "When are you going to come to CrossFit?" "What do you think about CrossFit?"
Although I am more than impressed at the results I've seen in countless people who have committed to CrossFit, I've never been compelled to try it myself. Do I think CrossFit could help me get fitter? Yes. Do I think that CrossFit could make me stronger? Of course. Do I think CrossFit would help me look better naked? Absolutely. So why am I not doing it?
I hesitate for a few reasons.
- I already love my workouts. I love to run. I love Pilates. I love kettlebells. I love Spinning. I love hiking trails with my dog and trying new workout DVDs. I don't dread these workouts or do them as a necessary evil. I’m already happy with my routine. I've been told by all my CrossFit friends that once I try CrossFit, I'll lose interest in all these other pursuits. And that might be true. But most of the people I know who have fallen in love with CrossFit never really enjoyed the other workouts they used to do in the first place—they simply suffered through them. Then they found CrossFit, which was new, less boring and totally different, and they became hooked. But I wonder: Would the same happen to a person who really likes their routine as it is? If it's not broken, should you try to fix it?
My sixth "bonus" reason why I've never tried CrossFit is that it's so cost-prohibitive. I've never come across a CrossFit "box" (their word for gym) whose membership rate is lower than $150 per month. Some are upwards of $200/month or more--and you're not paying for fancy locker rooms or scented towels. CrossFit gyms are often dirty, bare-bone, and don't even have air conditioning or heat. I'm not sure any form of exercise is worth that cost to me or that CrossFit offers something above and beyond a traditional gym, which is a fraction of the cost. Ultimately, anything you find that you can stick with will give you results based on what you put into it.
- The injury risk of CrossFit exercises is much higher than traditional forms of exercise. (Read this intriguing piece on CrossFit safety from TriFuel.com.) I know all the CrossFit trainers and enthusiasts are going to try to tell me this isn't true, that when you do the exercises properly and work underneath a good trainer, you are safe and not likely to injure yourself. I beg to differ.
Lifting very heavy weights increases injury risk exponentially—it's simple the nature of it. Heavy weights can compromise your form at any time despite your best efforts and intentions to do it right. And when you add speed or competition to the mix—which is what CrossFit workouts tend to do—people are that much more likely to skimp on form in order to go faster or get one more rep done. I know countless people who have had both minor and major injuries (including debilitating back pain and even surgery) because of injuries sustained during CrossFit workouts or as the result of the overuse from CrossFit workouts. Sure, injuries can happen during any movement, even walking or even yoga, but for me, the risks seem to outweigh the benefits at this point. Safety is #1 in my book, and I'm unwilling to put myself in a position that could raise my injury risk whatsoever. And I think that a lot of people downplay the risk involved in these types of exercises. They are not for everyone. While you can scale down, go slower or not push yourself as hard during CrossFit, it kind of makes you wonder: Is that modified version even really "CrossFit" then?
- Third, to be completely honest, I'm pretty intimidated by CrossFit. I'm a generally fit person who is capable of doing a lot of physical pursuits relatively easily. But I can pretty much assume that I'd suck at CrossFit. I know a lot of people at the local CrossFit gyms, and I also know how welcoming and community-oriented CrossFitters tend to be. They want everyone feel at home. But I'll admit it: I am downright scared of some of the moves I've seen them do. And tearing my hands open doing pull-ups? That sounds about as appealing as...tearing my hands open during pull-ups. Ew.
- There are a lot of smart concepts and theories behind CrossFit that I think make a lot of sense. CrossFit also has a lot of things going for it that other workouts lack. But I have to say that the way many (not all) CrossFit trainers and enthusiasts act—as if CrossFit is the one and only thing worth doing and is superior to everything else out there—is pretty off-putting. A lot of their own marketing materials essentially make fun of anyone who does traditional forms of exercise (like riding a bike or taking Zumba class or doing biceps curls). I mean, really? I find it all to be a little short-sighted and presumptuous to think that this one mode of exercise with a very short history and no long-term research behind it really is that amazing in every possible way.
I don't believe that any single form of exercise is all a person needs to be optimally fit and healthy. And I also believe all intensity levels can help people achieve their desired results in health and fitness. Variety is the spice of life! No workout is necessarily "better" than another. Overall, I think the emphasis should be on doing something—anything really—to get moving, stay strong and be active throughout your life. If CrossFit does that for you, great! I'm thrilled. If yoga does it, I'm just as happy for you! If you love sweating in a Jazzercise class, who am I to say that you are wasting your time and should try something "better"? Overall, I'd say that the more different things you can do, the better off you will be. Every intensity level creates positive adaptations within your body. We need low-, medium- and high-intensity workouts, just as we should lift light, medium and heavy weights, just as we benefit from short-, medium- and long-endurance workouts. In my opinion, CrossFit falls short on some of those areas by tending to emphasize so much intense, heavy and short workouts.
- I wonder: Aren't I already fit enough? Does the average person really need to be "optimally" fit like an athlete like CrossFit believes they should? Isn't it good enough for you and I to work out just enough that we're able to experience life, free of chronic disease, and independent and pain-free? Ultimately, I'm pretty happy with my current status of health and fitness. I have no health issues, no injuries, no musculoskeletal problems, and no hurdles standing in the way of living the life I want to live. I can fit exercise into my life in ways I enjoy. Maybe a different definition of fitness—being good enough and healthy enough—is what really matters.
But I'll never say never. In fact, there are a few reasons I think I may try CrossFit soon despite my hesitations (a lot of which, I realize, are me being kind of wussy).
Without trying it for myself, I can only form an opinion based on what I know as an outsider. Sure, I'm using my fitness expertise and credentials to form my opinion, but I know that I could be wrong or that my thoughts on the subject might change with time and experience. But since I am an open-minded person, I think I'm finally ready to jump in and give it a try. I don't believe CrossFit will ever be the only thing I do for exercise. I don’t plan to stop all the other workouts I enjoy. And I definitely do plan to go at a pace and level that makes me feel secure and safe to avoid injury. So am I totally nuts? Time will tell!
- I could use the additional weight-training. I've been so bored with traditional strength training lately that I do a minimal amount of it, which I hate to admit. I have lifted very heavy weights in the past, but it's been a while since I've challenged my body that much. To me, one of the best things CrossFit has going for it is its emphasis on heavy lifting—for both men and women. Since I'm turning 30 this year, I'm getting more concerned about my muscle mass and bone strength, both of which will diminish without consistent, challenging strength training. Since I've been having a hard time motivating myself to do the strength moves that I find to be both boring and difficult, the CrossFit format could work well for me.
- Variety is key! Like I said above, a wide variety of activities, movements and intensity levels is ideal for optimal health and fitness. I've been doing a lot of the same things these last few years, mostly at a moderate to somewhat challenging level. I could use more intense workouts here and there. Plus, every few years, I take on a new fitness pursuit out of curiosity and simply for variety. CrossFit seems like it will fit the bill there.
- I'm ready for a challenge. I am naturally competitive. I played a lot of sports when I was younger and I'm a driven person who likes to reach goals. Even if I'm just competing with myself, I think I'd really get something out of pushing myself to a new goal, especially when it comes to getting stronger.
If this blog has you curious about CrossFit, I encourage you to watch the CrossFit Games this weekend. (My sister-in-law will be competing with her amazing team from CrossFit Atlanta—WooHoo!) The Games start today (Friday, July 13) and you can watch online as the most elite CrossFit athletes from all over the world compete in days of back-to-back athletic competition unlike anything you have ever seen before—trust me on that one. It is worth seeing at least once, but I warn you: Watching these athletes will make you feel like a lazy lump on a log…which could be good or bad depending on whether that motivates you to get moving or drives you to the freezer for ice cream. Honestly, my own reaction is often a mix of both!
What are your thoughts on CrossFit? Have you tried it? Would you?
Would you be interested in reading more about my CrossFit journey in the coming weeks? Note: I welcome different perspectives and opinions than mine, but please keep your comments respectful and constructive.
Photos courtesy of CrossFit, Inc.