From AMRAPs to WODs, Elite Personal Trainer George Toohey explains how the CrossFit phenomenon has come to conquer the fitness world.
I have sweat pouring out of me, my T-shirt is dirty from dropping to the floor for countless burpees and my hands are in tatters. Jumping down from my last rope climb I approach an Olympic bar and set up for my Clean and Jerk. Breathing heavily, I check the time and absorb the words written below the clock in vibrant graffiti. CROSSFIT: CONSTANTLY VARIED. FUNCTIONAL MOVEMENT. HIGH INTENSITY. UNIVERSALLY SCALABLE.
When myself and the rest of the men and women training that day finish there is a sense of camaraderie, euphoria and a very real sense of relief that it’s all over. We are a team. And still that mantra plays over in my head. Here I set out to explain why these words ring so true.
What Is CrossFit?
Greg Glassman CEO and founder of the CrossFit brand had grown weary with the tired norms of the health and fitness industry. Still centered on the bodybuilding culture made famous by Muscle Beach in the 1980s – little had changed for over two decades. He set out to create a new fitness culture. His aim was to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way: increased work capacity across a broad spectrum of challenges. Coach Glassman therefore focused the structure of the CrossFit workouts around one main premise – complete the most amount of work in the shortest amount of time.
CrossFit is a growing phenomenon. CrossFit Boxes: small spaces that are used as gyms by CrossFit enthusiasts have grown by 10 fold in the last decade in the USA and are still growing quickly across the UK and Europe. The pseudo-religious nature of CrossFit and fanaticism the brand has created has also lead to a very lucrative business for Reebok and CrossFit Inc who generated $4 billion by 2015. And it’s not just CrossFit Inc that’s raking it in, but the CrossFit Boxes, too. Owners are able to charge 5-10x the average gym membership in the UK at an average of £200 per month for a no frills experience based solely around training and community.
Coach Glassman designed the CrossFit training protocol firstly around the athletic movements of the human body: push, pull, hinge, squat, run and jump. He then employed a set of “standard movements” from the varied disciplines of gymnastics, Olympic weight lifting, power lifting, rowing and calisthenics.
This is where the “Constantly Varied” approach shows its strength. CrossFit Coaches are able to get the most out of the athlete’s training by combining an Olympic Lift with a bodyweight movement one day and a handstand walk followed by maximum weight deadlifts the next.
This type of random programming was heavily criticised in the nascent years of the CrossFit movement for its lack of structure. People questioned how it could be successful. However, some of the best-known athletes in the sport obstinately avoid any kind of planning. They get up everyday and pick their workout based on feeling. And it pays off. Just ask 3x CrossFit games winner Rich Froning Jr.
If your training requires more structure, there is another school of thought. The other side of the CrossFit camp is filled with online coaches like Ben Begeron from CompTrain.com who programs for 2x female Winner Katrin Davidsdottir or Jami Tikkanen from thetrainingplan.com who programs for 2x female Winner Annie Thorsdottir. They create training plans that are periodised across the CrossFit season, going up through the gears from the CrossFit Open through the Regionals and ultimately the CrossFit Games. You will know exactly what to do on every day.
Some criticism surrounds this type of programming because of its one-size fits all policy. It does not take into account the personal needs of the individual. But with so many exercises pushing you to become a well-rounded athlete, this sport questions whether that is really necessary.
The Functional Movement Debate
There is no denying that high-level CrossFit athletes and enthusiasts are in extremely good physical condition. They are able to build total body strength and fitness using running, jumping, lifting, throwing and power based movements. In fact, most amateurs in the CrossFit community are lifting far heavier than their standard gym counterparts across comparative lifts.
Interestingly, the CrossFit community were again heavily criticised for using the term ‘functional movement’ to describe their sport because nearly every exercise is performed in the sagittal plane. That means facing forward or moving forward. There are no transverse plane (twisting motions) or frontal plane (sideways motions) movements performed in CrossFit. Equally interesting was CrossFit’s response. They reasoned that movement standards have to be set in the sagittal plane to make it easier for judges to assess competitors to universal standards.
This does not, however, help your average office worker who would benefit greatly by stepping out of the sagittal plane and challenging their body in different planes of movement.
Raising The Bar Of High Intensity
As previously mentioned, all CrossFit workouts are either based on a time limit or performing a task in the fastest time possible. This means that every workout must be completed at your absolute maximum. There are no easy days. It’s what creates the competitive nature of the CrossFit movement. Cornerstone workouts like Fran (21-15-9 reps of pull ups and Barbell Thrusters) have become benchmarks in every Crossfitter’s life. CrossFit Inc describe Fran as the 100m sprint of the CrossFit movement.
“What’s your Fran time?” is like asking a body builder “what’s your bench?” Fran done correctly as hard as you can will leave you laying on the ground gasping for air, reeling in pain. As will most other WODs performed as prescribed.
The notion behind the high intensity programming is very simple: CrossFit is a sport and in any sport there has to be a measure of success. Time for a Crossfitter is the knockout punch for a boxer. Whatever the workout, every method will lead to increased heart rate, tidal breathing volume and caloric expenditure. Not only that, they lead to an incredible surge of exercise post oxygen consumption (EPOC), which prolongs the fat-burning benefits long after you’ve crawled from the Box floor.
Everyone’s Invited And Everyone Can Benefit
CrossFit is a sport for the everyman/woman. Each WOD and training session can be scaled to each individual’s skill level and needs. Not everyone can snatch straight away so the snatch may be regressed to an overhead squat. These regressions and progressions are ubiquitous. Whoever you are, you’re going to sweat.
This is why CrossFit is so popular. It does not exclude anyone based on their talent, aesthetics or athletic ability. If you’re looking for a new challenge, CrossFit Boxes provide a platform for learning new skills that everyone can reap the benefits from. Not only that, you can return to your gym with those new skills and continue to progress at your own pace. The barbell awaits.