Either way, come along for the ride. Unless you're thin-skinned, self-serious, and/or have knickers that easily twist.
The short version
CrossFit has exploded in popularity over the past few years, blowing past the tipping point from niche to mainstream faster than you can say Camille Leblanc-Bazinet.
1. This is good! People need to do real training: barbell lifts, gymnastics movements, and HIIT; and learn what it feels like to push their body to new limits.
2. This is terrible! People never need to train until they puke, and under no circumstances should they pursue advanced training methods when they can't even hip hinge to tie their shoes and they still think they need 6 to 11 servings of bread and pasta per day.
When all is said and done, there are upsides and downsides. CrossFit has flaws (which I'll detail below), but its flaws are in no way unique to it. What's more, the spirit of CrossFit is solid, and we can't judge the entire system because of what a few pinhead coaches post on YouTube. On the contrary, some very skilled coaches and movement specialists are emerging from CrossFit, and the organization's leadership seems to have its head on straight.
Why CrossFit Sucks (A Retrospective)
Here are the reasons why, as a serious lifter and strength coach, I used to hate CrossFit:
1. Superhuman hubris, or "stupid shit"
For several years it seemed like all the stupid shit I observed going on in my gym or in YouTube videos was done under the banner of CrossFit. I'm not talking about "newbie-trips-on-treadmill-and-goes-flying," I'm talking about the guys who'd come into the gym, commandeer every barbell in sight, do 20 minutes of horrifying Olympic lifting, grunting and hollering with 115 pounds on the bar, mummified in kinesio tape, giving each other ridiculous and incorrect cues ("land on your toes!"), finishing their "WOD" and then having the balls to balk at other people's workouts, and generally possessing the grace, motor skills, and leg development of a newborn deer.
I could literally write a short book filled with examples of CrossFit-related gym hubris, as I have spent the past few years witnessing it, and if you're active in the strength and fitness community, you have, too. It stopped being funny a long time ago.
2. Without Obvious Direction
Another frequent and legitimate criticism of CrossFit is its foundation of constant variation. By trying to develop many athletic capacities at once (strength, power, work capacity, endurance), none is emphasized and all are short-changed. A blogger joked recently that WOD (workout of the day) really means "without obvious direction."
There are a few benchmark workouts (Fran, Grace, etc.), but generally each day brings something new -- different movements, widely varying rep schemes, timed sets, partner workouts. According to CrossFit programming director Dave Castro, anything and everything should vary, down to the athlete's footwear and the temperature of the gym.
Mainstream (i.e., uninformed) thinking would applaud this. "Don't let your body adapt!"
BULLSHIT. You want your body to adapt. Your body must adapt. Adaptation is change, and people train because they want their bodies to change. The key is to control the adaptation.
Lift heavy weights and the body adapts by getting stronger and increasing the metabolic rate. Perform load-bearing HIIT (kettlebell swings, battling rope, hill sprints) and the body adapts by prioritizing muscle tissue and mobilizing (burning) fat tissue.
This is so crucial and elementary, I want to scream it from a mountaintop. Or maybe a place where there are more people, so, like, a kiosk at the mall.
Variety is nothing. Consistency and progression are everything.
3. Made-up and modified lifts
CrossFit is mostly composed of classic lifts from strength training, gymnastics, and calisthenics. But it has a lot of wacky stuff thrown in, too, the most controversial of which is the kipping pull-up.
Ever seen someone do the worm? It's awesome on the dance floor, much less awesome on a pull-up bar. It's completely bizarre and pretty much useless as an actual upper body pulling exercise. Worse, it allows a person to hit an insane number of reps, which leads to people bragging that they can do 50 pull-ups. No, you can't. You can do 50 whatever-the-hell-that-was. You don't get to invent a new exercise, give it the name of an existing exercise, then brag about how many times you did it.
Even where the classic lifts are concerned, CrossFit has a tendency to take best practices and throw them out the window. I'm not talking about following conventions or eschewing innovation, I am talking about best practices; the practices which have proven, scientifically and anecdotally, to be the best.
Case in point: high-rep Olympic lifts. Anybody with basic knowledge of human physiology would understand that taking a neurologically demanding and technique-dependent lift and performing it to systemic fatigue is probably not a genius-level move. The Olympic lifts are awesome for developing raw, total body strength and power. They are meant to be done heavy and for low reps.
High-rep Olympic lifting makes about as much sense as going for a 1-rep max on a Thighmaster. And yet, it is the backbone of many CrossFit workouts.
4. Swagger, spawn of hubris
I went to a seminar at a CrossFit gym once, and later somebody asked me what I thought of the CrossFitters. I answered, "I've never seen a higher swagger-to-deadlift ratio in my life."
I love strength, and I encourage everyone to grow stronger. And I will never be so arrogant as to mock or judge a person for however many pounds they can lift -- unless that person puts on airs for a relatively measly deadlift. If you are a 170-pound man in otherwise good health, NOBODY GIVES AN ACTUAL EFF IF YOU CAN DEADLIFT 225. That's 130% of your bodyweight. Celebrate the advancement of your journey but do not thump your chest until you're over 300%, dude.
It's not just about pounds on the bar. It's also about having the patience and humility to master technique, too. When I think about those annoying punks I used to see at my gym, I know I would have been much more impressed by perfect form with a broomstick than by horrible form with 100 pounds. You have to earn advanced movements or you're just working your ego, not your body.
For a long time, it seemed that the only thing CrossFitters loved more than CrossFit was patting themselves on the back for loving CrossFit. "How can you tell if someone does CrossFit?" my colleague asked me once, setting me up. I asked him, how?
"He'll tell you." Zing.
This is the point in the article I've been waiting for: where I tell you how I was wrong. As a person who values logic and maturity, I can tell you I no longer hate CrossFit, but instead recognize:
Reasons Why CrossFit is Awesome
1. CrossFit does NOT have the market cornered on stupid shit
I realize now that I had a strong availability bias toward the stupidity I saw associated with CrossFit. Stupidity is sensational and memorable and gets attention, so I wound up overlooking all that is beneficial.
Let's be honest: the vast majority of regular people who do stupid shit at the gym have nothing to do with CrossFit. I see people do stupid shit trying to emulate what they've see bodybuilders or pro athletes do on TV or in magazines. People do stupid shit following P90X and Insanity. People come into the gym and make up their own workouts and generally do some form of stupid shit all day long.
In fact, I think an association with CrossFit decreases the odds you'll do stupid shit, because 1) if you're at a CrossFit gym, you'll at least have coaches there instructing you, and 2) even if you're at a commercial gym, by the very nature of CrossFit programming you'll be doing triple extension movements, interval training---the stuff that will actually make you more fit, if you can manage to do it correctly.
2. Consistent variety is better than constant variety
I stand by my criticism that CrossFit probably contains too much variety for most people. Time after time, I see people achieve better results when they put blinders on and focus on mastering just a handful of basic, total body movements.
To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Pavel Tsatsouline's "program minimum," consisting of two (and only two) lifts -- the kettlebell swing and Turkish get-up -- is renowned for its no-frills effectiveness. I am currently on the most productive program of my life using three (and only three) lifts at a time.
But even if CrossFit has too much variety, certain things are still constant: multi-joint lifts, loaded carries, bodyweight movements. These are the cornerstones of good strength and conditioning, and program directors of CrossFit stress sticking with one variation of a lift in order to gauge progress.
Compared to what most people do in the gym -- something between improv and ADHD -- this is a huge upgrade.
3. Every mode modifies
CrossFit did not invent the practice of modifying exercises. As bent out of shape as I might get over kipping pull-ups and "American" swings, every training mode modifies -- the words themselves have the same root, suggesting the only thing differentiating one mode from another is how it modifies movement. Powerlifters do things a certain way, as do bodybuilders, Olympic lifters, triathletes, MMA fighters, etc.
In my opinion, if you want to put a kettlebell overhead, you'd better snatch it, not swing it. And when it comes to pull-ups, once you can do 10, start adding weight, don't flop around like a dying fish in order to keeping adding reps. This is my perspective and strong opinion and that's fine. I can disagree with certain things about CrossFit, but I'm not allowed to tell them they can't modify exercises. That would make me a hypocrite.
4. Let's all swagger together
I have visited a few CrossFit gyms for various reasons, and I have to say: I have rarely encountered a more welcoming, outgoing, or enthusiastic community. Newcomers are greeted as if they're old friends. In a fitness world which has earned a reputation for being exclusionary and obtuse, CrossFit unifies acolyte and expert alike, and that warms my big stupid heart.
5. Bonus: clutch coaching
You know what began turning the tide of my opinion towards CrossFit? The way it has embraced and adopted the teachings of great powerlifters like Louie Simmons. It shows how deeply CrossFit cares about creating a diverse knowledge base. From where I'm standing, CrossFit seeks only to keep learning and refining, and we can never fault it for that. An army of extremely qualified, knowledgeable, and influential coaches is emerging from it. The more I read and see from Kelly Starrett and Dave Castro, for instance, the more I think CrossFit leaders are steering the organization in the right direction.
I recently watched a 60-minute lecture from Dave Castro on programming, and every other sentence out of his mouth resonated deeply with things I, too, believe -- that movement quality comes first, then consistency, then load; that science is important but often takes second place to application -- i.e., what works in the real world, on real humans; and that complementary couplets and triplets are the heart of effective programming.
In fact, I'm reminded of famous thrower Sergey Litvinov, decades ago, whose workout of choice was 3 rounds of:
A1. Front squat, 405x8
A2. 400 meter run
Was he doing CrossFit? Not exactly, but he knew -- as good CrossFit coaches do -- how to create a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts.
I'm a changed man! I no longer hate CrossFit, and I'm okay admitting that my initial dislike was nothing more than ignorance and prejudice.
Do I think CrossFit is the Holy Grail of fitness? Not really. I think it's better than pretty much every other mainstream fitness craze, though.
Am I going to start "doing" CrossFit? No. Am I going to get CrossFit certified? I don't know, maybe eventually; never say never.
Here's one thing I do know: CrossFit has accomplished something incredible, something which eluded all of us for decades, since the advent of the damned "Nautilus circuit." For the first time in a generation, the mainstream conception of "hard training" involves barbells, iron, and chalk. It is not watered down, sexy, polished, or prim. It's just you and the weight.