Every day, hundreds of thousands of CrossFit fans lace up a pair of the best cross-training shoes and do a Workout of The Day (or WOD, as the connoisseurs call it) — but is CrossFit bad for you?
The training methodology is synonymous with forging some of the fittest individuals on the planet through hardcore workouts. However, this reputation has led to some people associating even beginner CrossFit with negative effects like high injury rates.
Luckily, that’s not necessarily the case, as we found out in conversation with Jess Rosart (opens in new tab)Studio manager and trainer at Wit Fitness (opens in new tab), about the training method. And Cody Mooney (opens in new tab)a two-time CrossFit Games athlete and Director of Performance at Pliability (opens in new tab)explained how the right preparation and coaching can nullify these unwanted effects so you can enjoy a fun and functional workout.
So is CrossFit bad for you? While all sports, from table tennis to soccer, involve some level of risk, the short answer is no, not if you approach it the right way. You can find out how to do this below.
Cody has been a coach since he was 16 and has a passion for transforming people’s lives through the power of movement. He is also the Director of Performance at movement enhancement app Pliability, which helps athletes improve their mobility and recovery through short, guided videos.
As a two-time CrossFit Games athlete, Cody has first-hand experience with this popular training method. Therefore he is well equipped to show how and why people who use this training method need to maintain their bodies through mobility and stretching.
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit succinctly describes its workouts on its corporate website as “constantly varying functional movements performed at high intensity.” This may sound similar to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and the two training methods have a few things in common. However, the “diverse” element is what really sets CrossFit apart.
“Fitness equals work capacity across wide time and modal ranges,” explains Mooney. That means CrossFit workouts can last anywhere from a few minutes to over an hour and include any activity — be it rope climbing, kettlebell swings, or swimming.
If you’re looking for a plan to get you started, these workouts from the 2020 CrossFit Games are a good place to start. There are five challenges you need to complete to get a feel for how CrossFit workouts are structured.
“Essentially, CrossFitters want to maximize their physical ability in all aspects of fitness (cardiovascular endurance, endurance, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy).
Therefore, you can expect a CrossFit training session to complement any combination of these aspects expressed through functional movements.”
“That’s why people stick around for so many years,” adds Rosart. “You’re always learning something new and constantly challenging yourself.”
In fact, from its humble beginnings in 2000, the practice has grown so popular that there are now more than 12,500 gyms (or boxing, as it’s known in the CrossFit community) around the world.
What Are the Risks of CrossFit?
Not long after its conception, CrossFit became the subject of debates about increased rates of injury and illness caused by the intense nature of the workout. Mooney points to a specific New York Times (opens in new tab) 2005 piece titled “Getting Fit, Even if it Kills You” which “painted the sport with a brush that was difficult to remove”
However, a 2018 meta-analysis (a review of published studies) was published in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation (opens in new tab) found that “current evidence suggests that the risk of injury from CrossFit training is comparable to that of Olympic weightlifting, long-distance running, track and field, rugby, soccer, ice hockey, soccer, or gymnastics.”
However, the researchers note that “injuries to the shoulder(s) appear to be somewhat common in CrossFit.” An independent study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine (opens in new tab)which CrossFitter followed for four years, found that injuries were most common among beginners in their first year of training.
“CrossFit involves skills and movement patterns that other sports don’t typically have (e.g., tilting movements and overhead positions with weights),” says Rosart. “If you have someone who has been unfit for years, has no mobility, and starts these types of movements too quickly with weights and reps that aren’t right for them, injuries can happen.”
This underscores the importance of starting slow and finding a good trainer when starting out in CrossFit, Mooney says. “Athletes should always participate in an ‘On Ramp,’ where they learn the moves and terminology of our training while slowly gaining experience with the training format. This allows an athlete to build tolerance while gradually increasing the intensity.”
“A good trainer will emphasize CrossFit’s focus on quality movements and not on weightlifting or achieved reps. Every movement in CrossFit is quantified using movement standards that, when followed, ensure maximum biomechanical efficiency and effectiveness.
“A trainer should never pressure you to lift heavier weights or attempt movements that you are unsure of and cannot meet movement standards. When that happens, injuries are a real risk.”
Mooney also cautions against overtraining, which can increase your risk of injury. Instead, he advises spending a maximum of three days with one rest day to give your body ample time to rest and recover.
Jess is a facility manager and trainer at London-based CrossFit gym WIT Fitness and has over 14 years of experience in the coaching community, including gymnastics and CrossFit. She first tried CrossFit in 2011 and was immediately hooked because she knew this workout was right for her.
Alongside coaching classes and 1:1 personal training sessions, Jess leads nutrition challenges and leads women-only workouts as she loves to see others achieve what they never thought possible and reach their full potential through her coaching .
What are the benefits of CrossFit?
Done right, CrossFit can be the key to a plethora of health benefits. A 2019 systematic review published in Sport Sciences for Health (opens in new tab) concluded that this training method improves cardiovascular endurance, endurance, strength, flexibility, power, and balance.
“Increased energy, mobility, fitness, and strength are just a few you’ll notice in the first few months,” says Rosart, adding that many people also enjoy the social and community aspect of class training.
Mooney says CrossFit training, coupled with a nutritious and balanced diet, is likely to result in “a decrease in body fat, increases in strength, power and endurance, and the learning of a variety of new skills.”
“Every CrossFit gym has an example of someone who has lost hundreds of pounds and rediscovered their fitness… While the performance benefits of CrossFit are numerous and well known, they are the greatest benefit of all [improve your] Protection against chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, obesity and heart disease.”
How do I get started with CrossFit?
When it comes to getting started with CrossFit, Mooney and Rosart agree on their most important piece of advice; join a box.
Look online for a local CrossFit gym and give it a try, says Rosart. “Book a free trial lesson and hit the road. It’s important to note that every single CrossFit gym is different; the owners and trainers set the programming and feel of the space. So try a few before you decide which one to watch suits you best.”
Mooney also recommends finding a box of knowledgeable trainers who can help you move well and perform each move with proper form, reducing the risk of injury. “When you decide to join a CrossFit gym, the number one thing to look for is the trainers,” he says.
“You should ask about the qualification levels of the trainers – they should have at least their Level 1 CrossFit training certification, but ideally you want to see Level 2; everyone with their L3 or L4 has seriously invested time in their professional development.”
“If you’re talking to the trainer, they should also spend a lot of time understanding your training history, guiding you through a specific ‘on ramp’, and giving you constant feedback throughout the session.” Just make sure you’re with Understand the differences between cross training and CrossFit so you know what to expect.