Crossfit’s identity crisis

I have always been critical of Crossfit, so much so that seeing Crossfit participants in their active (insert Reebok here) wear at my local breakfast spot, talking about ‘Fran’ ‘Linda’ and ‘Mary’ used to drive me crazy. As a scientist, I’m naturally skeptical. I’m always reading articles and looking for information that might impact what I have come to believe about effective exercise prescription. I am yet to find a substantial argument to change my views about Crossfit. I penned a review on it back in 2013 not to marginalise myself, but to shed light on the positive and negative evidence and to provide a holistic view in order to provoke thought on the topic. In this article I’m going to share my opinion on how Crossfit has evolved since 2013 and how I think they’ve lost who and what they are.


Over the Christmas break Crossfit and I crossed paths again when my wife and I needed to get a workout in to try and balance out our bodies from the 8 tonnes of sh*t food we had eaten; the local Crossfit box (the owner of which we were familiar) was only around the corner so we decided to go and get belted.

We went to the session and were pleasantly surprised with the friendliness of everyone involved. The staff were great and welcoming and when it came to tutelage, the session was described soundly, particularly in the sense of a group teaching format. However, my biggest and constant concern with Crossfit rather unsurprisingly come to fore again, namely the programming and exercise prescription. Inherently, Crossfit follows sound science; it is basically metabolic conditioning or energy system training, an extremely effective training modality that is one of, if not the best, ways to increase lean muscle and strip fat. However, modality aside, this isn’t the issue; it is the way it is conducted which has and always will be the fundamental flaw with Crossfit.  This is highlighted in the session we did:

  • 7 x 2reps power clean with 1:30min rest (normally, O-lifting like this requires anywhere from 3-5mins recovery between sets, particularly if working at intensities this high); and
  • Then, for time, 3 rounds of:
  • 21 toes to bar;
  • 400m run; and
  • 9 power cleans at 80kg.

To be fair to this particular box, they did have alternatives for the guys who weren’t comfortable with cleans or toes to bar and they subsequently did a different couple of exercises in the same format. However, regardless of the teaching provided, there was no way that we, experienced or not, were going to maintain safe form throughout this workout. It was a bloody tough workout but when I think about risk vs reward, there was way too much risk involved especially when performing cleans under fatigue.

Since performing this session it got me thinking: has Crossfit really evolved at all since its inception 8-10 years ago? So I did a little research and it does seem that most boxes are slowly moving away from the staples that Glassman (the owner and creator) has preached since its creation. Most Crossfit boxes realise that Glassman is too polarising and that his training ethos and more critically, his business ethics, aren’t something they particularly want to be associated with. However, as a brand Crossfit is continuing to experience astronomic growth, so it is more lucrative to remain aligned and affiliated with the Crossfit brand. Its business model is attractive, designed around minimising outgoings through minimal staffing levels (compared to standard gym facilities), little to no need for big expensive equipment and the ability to charge one on one rates in a group training format. These conditions provide favourable margins by leveraging the hours of operation with the reduction of the outgoings associated with traditional gym ownership.

The appeal is obvious to many health and fitness business owners or future entrepreneurs. However, it is important to consider whether the appeal in a pure economic sense outweighs the obligation to provide a training environment where the quality of training is paramount. My original opinion of Crossfit was not changed by my experience in the holidays, if anything, it reinforced that opinion – while the guys showing us how to do the exercises were very good and quite knowledgeable, the original problem remained: ‘exercise prescription and periodisation’.

So I began to research the bigger boxes around town, reading articles written by owners and Crossfit coaches about how their box is different: for example, how they focus on structural balance work (prehab or mobility training) to reduce their incidence of injury. There were a few that really emphasized a focus on safe training methods and how they focus on technique. What struck me was that the articles on safe training and proper technique indicated that owners were aware not only of the stigma of high injury rates associated with Crossfit but that stigma was manifest in reality. Otherwise, why else am I continuing to read about how much prehab work they do or how much mobility and stretching they do? It became apparent that even the most ardent supporters are aware that the traditional basis of Crossfit is littered with unsafe practices.

I then came across an article from one of the boxes about programming. This is what really interests me about Crossfit’s evolution from its inception. The article proceeded to highlight that a participant cannot move from workout to workout randomly and that the previous workout must have the purpose of accentuating the workout before; or, in simple terms, basic periodisation. The article then suggested that random programming or “training for the uncertainty of life” did not enhance performance parameters to the same extent as correctly periodised, outcome driven programming would.

From my reading of a few Crossfit boxes websites, articles and blogs, I have noticed a distinct departure from the traditional Crossfit ethos of ‘training for uncertainty of life’ through random daily exercise selection. The inclusion of structural balance/prehab/mobility (insert buzzword here), along with the notion of actual programming in Crossfit boxes is a distinct sign of the Crossfit movement evolving for the better.

However this begs the question: is Crossfit really evolving? Or has the marvel come full circle by incorporating the normal, science based strength and conditioning methods which has been the foundation of non-Crossfitter for years? You know, the methods that have been tried, tested and developed throughout years of research, the likes of have been and which will be continued to be used until further independent based research dictates otherwise. Dramatically, there has even been rumours that Crossfit’s most coveted athlete Rich Froning has trained with a periodised strength program and added metabolic conditioning as a supplementary prior to competitions.

So, is Crossfit evolving? While it seems that the movement is changing, that change is nowhere near revolutionary in its change. In fact, it appears to be attempting to reverse years of poor practice by re-joining the fold with the majority by implementing solid, science based periodisation techniques. By peeling back the veil and looking past the rhetoric, perhaps the lustre is finally starting to dull on the juggernaut that took pride in its uniqueness; because remember, “I don’t workout, I Crossfit”. Judging by these changes though, it doesn’t seems so special now, does it?

By Matt Ham

Comments (2)
  1. Tito Reply

    Good read Matt. Tried the ‘fad’ out a couple of years back for a few months. Found the movements were making me sore for longer, be it from not moving properly or just rushing to get through the amrap. Enjoying the work I get out now more than trying to beat a clock.

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