Happy Monday guise!
Last week I threw in some recent experiences with CrossFit for a blog about weight loss, stating that I actually increased my fat storage due to a stress response via over-exercise/exhertion in relation to a lack of calories to meet my body’s energy demands (I wasn’t eating enough in relation to my work out intensity). This week I want to dive further into my CrossFit experience, functional exercise, and what I can offer those who are considering this program or something similar that involves high-intensity, full-body workouts with short-to-no rest periods.
For those who aren’t familiar, CrossFit is a workout program used by the armed forces and trained athletes that has made a name for itself amongst the layfolk because of the kind of resulting functionality it breeds. Resulting functionality: functional movement patterns that can be transposed into all aspects of life such as squatting, bending, picking up, tossing, throwing, heaving, standing, twisting, running, and extending. The exercises CrossFit uses are demanding and require the use of proper technique/form. Yet, because of this, they also offer a degree of correction because proper physiological function cannot exist without proper form and kinetic chain movement. And, when these types of exercises are performed at high levels of intensity and in high volume, form is extremely important and it naturally becomes an obvious checks-and-balances. The resulting benefit is that the body has very little choice but to respond anabolically and metabolically, thus creating a more fit, able, and physically-apt person. I really enjoy the full-body, universally adaptive functional approach of CrossFit rather than the cliche muscle-isolation and body-sculpting exercises that a lot of training programs offer.
My favorite realization after CrossFitting for a little over a month is the foundation of every single functional exercise that CrossFit incorporates: they all involve the hips. The stability, momentum, and power derived from the hips are what we rely upon for movement every single day in our lives. And there isn’t one specific isolation exercise found in a CrossFit routine. Each exercise, although it may target one area or rely upon an area more than the rest, still involves a whole body movement and will always be dumbed down to the functionality of the hips. Here are some of the exercises…
- Squats – Bodyweight, front-loaded, back-loaded, over-head, kettle bell
- Lunges – Bodyweight, front-loaded, back-loaded, over-head, kettle bell
- Snatch – Ground to Overhead Snatch, Hang Snatch, Snatch Squat
- Clean – Ground to Shoulders Clean, Hang Clean, Clean Squat, Med Ball Clean
- Clean & Press/Push/Jerk/Split Jerk
- Deadlift and Sumo Deadlift High Pull
- Push Ups and Burpees
- Muscle Ups and Dips
- Rope Climb
- Jump Rope
- Kipping Pull Ups
- Kettle Bell Swings
- Wall Balls
- Kipping Hand Stand Push Up
- Toes to Bar, Head and Toes, Reverse Hyper Extension, Glute-Ham Raise
All = Hips for stability, momentum, and power
This realization really put things into perspective for my own exercise and weight lifting trials since I began in 2004. For the past 8 years I was caught up in isolation movements, body-building techniques, and feeding my ego. Even when I adopted the CHEK Institute’s program in 2010, which incorporates functional movement patterns and I managed to see some progress with their correctional exercises, it still didn’t register that function is THE foundation. I think because CrossFit is such a high intensity exercise and that correct form is an absolute must-have otherwise flaws will be highlighted, I was able to truly see the value of functional movement and its place in my life. Since the start of 2010 I kept my exercise program very light after years of not really knowing what the hell I was doing. I stretched and performed low-intensity correctional exercises without any weight-load so my body would not be over-stressed and, in theory, it would eventually find its way back to square one so I could take on a greater workload. While that is a well-researched and well-used approach, I believe that the use of weights and the extremely important awareness of good form for high-intensity, full body exercises CrossFit provides is possibly a better approach IF used properly. And I say better by my definition and by my realizations with my body.
There are some stipulations and some cons with all of this good that I am reporting. I do believe that CrossFit can be for anyone at any age and at any level of conditioning. However, those who are newcomers and those who are not familiar with weight lifting, Olympic lifting or the movement patterns that coincide should yield some caution when first starting such an in-tune program. This is one big spot where my eyebrow finds itself on the up and up. I have tried out two CrossFit gyms (known as “Boxes”) and each gym only had one coach teaching a class of 8-10 people (I know that some gyms have more than one coach for a class so bear with my example). I’ve attended about 8 classes and each had various levels of CrossFitters – from literal first-timers to 4-year veterans. In those classes I was able to categorize people into good form and poor form. Now, I didn’t really know who were the beginners or veterans, I just knew that some people were moving properly while some were not. And with only one coach in the room, form is more apt to slip-by for the sake of finishing a workout. Yes, CrossFit’s exercises can force proper movement patterns but only if individuals in-need/without much form knowledge can get the attention that they require when first programming these exercises into their body’s learning system. The body can learn correct movement patterns… oooor it can learn incorrect movement patterns. For about a year I was performing deadlifts with poor form by not using my hips correctly and by increasing the weight-load beyond my strength abilities which eventually lead to my body cutting corners in form. It resulted in my hamstrings firing before my glutes and that lead me on a path of low-impact, correctional exercises for about 20 months. I saw some progress and I also saw annoying regression if I didn’t keep up with my stretching and specific movements on an almost daily basis. BUT, within a month+ of CrossFit I was able to significantly correct my movement pattern because I was taught proper form. I retained that awareness and my body adapted accordingly! Regardless of my story, the need for more coaches or more individual attention in my short experience at CrossFit is a make-or-break factor when it comes to performing these kinds of exercises without injury and with benefit.
Another con is the exercise approach of “performing as many rounds as possible for time,” known as an “AMRAP.” Form and fatigue rarely go hand-in-hand. I don’t like the stipulation of racing in the presence of fatigue with a great need for proper form in all movements. At my last CrossFit class experience I tweaked my right, lower back during what’s called a “Chipper.” That day, the Chipper was 200 collective reps of 10 exercises yielding 20 reps each. And these weren’t bodyweight exercises; they were Olympic lifting, advanced exercises. I had to freakin’ stop before I could finish the workout so where did that get me? Yes, the argument that “everything is scalable” from one person to the next exists. For each workout there is a prescribed weight, an “Rx,” and then for those who are new or not as strong it is allowed/recommended to use less weight or assistance bands. But poor form will still show its face with or without weight, and it will show especially when a person is fatigued and pushed beyond their limits and/or are unaware of their movements. On similar note, let’s say that a person is fairly well-conditioned and can get through such a work out front to back, but since they’re racing against the clock they may cut corners on form just to finish quicker. How is that beneficial? Great, you have a fast time and you’re out of breath, but what benefit do you get from performing poorly? One coach cannot see all and quantity should never come before quality!!!
Another-another con is over-training and how easy it is to push beyond one’s limits at CrossFit. I would hope that everyone has a decent sense of their limits and a decent idea of how much they can push themselves, but that can get clouded when there are specific rounds and time limits in a work out (plus we can’t forget that thing called the ego). It’s very easy to “red line” at the beginning of a work out and, from what I hear, most first-timers puke within their first week. If you are throwing up from a work out that is a huge warning sign that your body is literally rejecting what you are putting it through… “Remember… crazy; not stupid.” Vom aside, the frequency vs. rest days is super important. I know of some CrossFitters who train 6 days a week on top of a full-time job and may not get a full 8 hours of sleep each night. If that’s not a recipe for over-training and a slow degradation of the human body, then I need to re-check my facts (advanced athletes aside). Of course, that’s an extreme example but it’s important to pay attention to your body’s need for rest; that includes rest days AND enough hours in the sheets. Even if you cannot sleep throughout the night to get that “good night’s rest,” at least lie there, relax, and try to put your mind to rest through breathing exercises or meditation. Our brains need as much down-time as our bodies do and the adverse effects are certainly obvious.
Yes, I have one more con that I’d like to point out… the Paleo Diet encouraged by many CrossFitters. So, after that Chipper workout I mentioned earlier, I didn’t bring enough sugar-water along to replenish my glycogen stores, but luckily there was a pot-luck dinner where everyone brought food for after the workout. Unfortunately for my poor plumetted blood sugar levels, it was purely paleo food with as few carbs possible. I completely support carbohydrates and NEED simple sugars after any workout (and in daily life) to recover quickly and efficiently. So, I’m in the standard CrossFit recovery position with my hands on my knees in the parking lot trying to regain consciousness and my friend comes out with a Paleo cookie saying, “Here, man, eat and get your blood sugar back.” I asked if it had sugar. He said, “Nah, it’s paleo, but your body will convert it to sugar so it’ll do the same job.” Red flags were raised and air-raid sirens went off everywhere in my brain. I couldn’t think of a more inefficient way to provide [recovery] nutrition to my body. I am going to give my TIRED-ASS BODY a nutrient that it has to CONVERT using MORE ENERGY just so I can elevate my blood sugar? The body can convert protein into sugar for energy if it needs to. The body can also convert fat for energy if it needs to. But any physiology-versed person will [hopefully] tell you that the body prefers to use sugar as energy because it can be used immediately, thus expending as little energy to provide itself with more energy. The concept of using energy to convert energy to provide energy is absolutely back-asswards to me. I understand why Paleo “works,” but I really think there are better ways of approaching diet and providing the body with what it needs in a more timely and cost-effective manner.
Whew. So, I know it sounds like this turned into a CrossFit bashing blog when it started out so nice, but my point is to raise some much-needed awareness for those who are considering CrossFit or for those who are already involved and could use some perspectives. I also wanted to emphasize the importance of using proper form along with highlighting a functional fitness approach to exercise. Tangent: I really dislike work out machines and any exercise that’s designed to isolate or target. Your body works as a unit – it is a system of systems. No way in hell will anyone ever achieve function on a machine that straps you in and to “protect” you from injuries… because that actually creates injuries by teaching your body how to not support itself and how to not work in unison. Anyway, I think CrossFit is a great workout and can do wonders for those who really want to learn how their body functions and how they can adapt that function to improve their every-day lives. But, like anything that requires awareness, there will always be some possible downsides if that awareness does not exist. Whether you are a beginning athlete or have a few years of experience and want to get into CrossFit, I highly recommend taking an Olympic Lifting class prior to CrossFitting so you can get that individualized attention and an education of proper form. I know some Boxes offer an introductory course with form education and some coaches offer one-on-ones on top of that. Form over physique, plz.