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CrossFit

Hi Chris and Sean,

I have a letter that I wrote to the WSJ about CrossShit I mean CrossFit. The Journal didn’t run it but I thought it might be something useful to post on the blog.

We could start a “CrossFit” stream and then include my letter with an intro like this:

CrossFit–a nationwide ‘chain’ of affiliated gyms advertising ‘elite fitness’–has gained popularity including several locations here in Westchester. But before you drink the CrossFit cool-aid, you might want to check out what NL Speed Master Trainer Chris Wade said in response to a recent Wall Street Journal article about the CrossFit craze:

Dear Editors:
The Wall Street Journal would never report on a new financial product by simply quoting the high returns of a single neophyte investor while suppressing reports of high loses and controversy. Yet, in a half-page, picture laden article of more than a thousand words that is what the Journal did for a new and controversial fitness product. Not a single expert was quoted in Jen Murphy’s January 4th “Special-Ops: Getting in Shape the Military Way.” (D3). Instead, readers were offered glowing descriptions of where to train, bold faced “Fitness Tips” and “Quick Fixes.” All this praise and advice came from a single unqualified source: a woman who has trained at a local CrossFit for one month.
CrossFit boasts that its program is “perfect” for “any committed individual regardless of experience,” from “elderly individuals with heart disease” to “cage fighters.” Ms. Murphy’s article essentially endorses this view by describing “instant results” and “defined abs” without ever discussing the risks associated with these intense, boot camp style classes. As a former Marine infantry officer and an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach, I’ve often been asked to lead ‘boot-camp’ classes and have been happy to do so for clients who were apprised of the risks and screened for the level of fitness and skills that I consider pre-requisites for such demanding work. But no-one told Ms. Murphy’s readers that boot-camps had higher risks of injury than traditional exercise regimens, or that these risks are raised still higher by the particularly intense style and culture of CrossFit. She failed to tell readers that CrossFit’s high risk training culture has made it an outlier in the world of fitness. In fact, the risks are so pronounced that CrossFit has been unable to buy insurance (CrossFit Inc. and its affiliates have been forced to self-insure by creating their own Risk Retention Group). Nor did Ms. Murphy see fit to mention that CrossFit training is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. military after a rash of CrossFit related injuries.
Rather than giving over the entire article unqualified praise of a recent CrossFit convert, your reporter should have found room to explain that the CrossFit location described in the article is part of a much larger CrossFit movement and that that fitness professionals have started to raise concerns about its grassroots driven model. To be clear, CrossFit is a rapidly growing international business that markets its vision of “elite fitness” through a variety of licensed affiliates, media outlets, and proprietary certification courses. These businesses exist within a larger “virtual community” of locations and individuals who use an ‘open source’ communication style. All members of the community are encouraged to post their fitness results online and to develop and share new CrossFit training ideas and workouts that idiosyncratically borrow and take out of context just about every conceivable form human exercise. These borrowed exercises are then applied to what CrossFit founder Greg Glassman describes as the proto-typical CrossFit model: “mixing heavy fundamental movements with high intensity ‘cardio’ efforts.”
This open source model for developing intense forms of exercise is at the root of at least four issues that should concern your readers. First, there is an incredible problem of quality control. Though CrossFit licenses its affiliates, there are few coherent standards for what this affiliation implies or describes and the $3000 licensing cost is fairly low barrier for entry. Rather than building a defined curriculum, CrossFit describes its affiliates as unencumbered members of “an Internet-based grassroots movement” that encourages experimentation with “varied, intense, functional exercise.” Thus no one really knows what is going on at the 2,500 affiliates or the ever-growing legion of unauthorized locations that have stolen the CrossFit name. The anti-establishmentarian, grassroots ethos causes another serious issue that worries professionals like me: the use of exercises and volumes of exercise that may be counterproductive or unsafe. Consider, for example, the barbell snatch. The snatch is an extremely technical exercise in which a barbell is lifted from the floor to a position directly over the athlete’s head in single, swift and precise movement. Developing a good technique for the snatch takes years of training. As a USAW certified coach who teaches as well as performs the snatch in competition, I use the lift only after complete rest and in sets that never exceed six repetitions. These are standard protocols practiced throughout the sport of weightlifting and the professional strength and conditioning community where it is believed that exercises like snatch demand such rigorous, focused attention to form that it is unproductive and unsafe to perform them without rest or in high volume sets. But without regard to the wisdom of the athletes and professionals who specialize in this type of training, CrossFit workouts routinely include the barbell snatch in high repetition sets and as part of aerobically taxing circuits of multiple exercises performed consecutively without rest. The main CrossFit web site even offers ‘how to’ videos for those who hope to ‘teach’ the snatch and other complex exercises to themselves. Another egregious example of questionable CrossFit exercise advice comes directly from Ms. Murphy’s article where she reports on her subject’s abdominal training routine and all but suggests that readers perform the same high repetition sets of jack-knife crunches. As any professional active in the field today knows, these types of extreme, end-range hip flexion exercises put a tremendous stress on the soft tissues of the lower back and have little applicability to functional movements of life or even most sports. Indeed, Stuart McGill, the world’s foremost authority on the causes of back injury has described crunches as ‘back herniators’ and worked hard to have them removed from the lexicon of fitness because they so contribute to the growing epidemic of low back disorders. We can only hope that your uncontextualized, blind-leading-the-blind advice didn’t cause injury to one of your readers. But finally and most disturbing of all, is the manner in which CrossFit’s grass roots community celebrates excessive risk. Vomiting due to over-strenuous workouts—which most fitness professionals view as a sure sign of an excessive and counterproductive exercise load that puts the athlete’s health at risk—is considered a badge of honor in the CrossFit world. They even have a cartoon mascot of a vomiting clown named ‘Pukie.’ But Pukie isn’t nearly as bad as his mascot brother, a bleeding clown named ‘Uncle Rhabdo.’ He represents exertional rhabdomyolysis. A once obscure exercise injury, rhabdomyolysis is a potentially fatal condition in which the detritus of dead muscle cells enter the blood stream at a rate that damages and ultimately causes kidney failure. While CrossFit induced cases are hard to quantify they are not uncommon and, in at least one case, resulted in a large settlement being paid to a victim of a CrossFit induced rhabdomyolysis. Nor is this the work of a few bad apples: the web site for the Manhattan location that was so heavily praised in Ms. Murphy’s article, CrossFit NYC: The Black Box, has the co-owners and coaches of the facility joking about heart attacks and describing bouts of exertional rhabdomyolysis as the cathartic experience that sold them on CrossFit.
I don’t mean to denigrate or demonize everything about CrossFit. There are certainly many people who have enjoyed, even beniftted from participation in CrossFit. But if you are going to print praise for a radically different fitness facility whose owners make light of life threatening injuries that their practices can induce, I think you owe your readers a bit of that context. So, since you didn’t do it, I will conclude by advising your readers to seek the advice of both their physician and an experienced fitness professional to help them find an exercise regimen that is specific to their individual goals, commitment, physical readiness and tolerance for risk.
Regards,
Chris Wade,CSCS