Pukey the Clown Is NOT My Homeboy

by Ninja Master Mark Fisher

One of the newest fitness crazes sweeping the nation is a form of training called Crossfit.  Crossfit is a strength and conditioning program that focuses on achieving competency in a range of fitness qualities while purposefully specializing in none. Crossfit incorporates elements of gymnastics, olympic lifting, sprinting, and other training modalities.  You’re burning to know what I think about it, aren’t you?  Ok, FINE, I’ll tell you since I know your life will be incomplete without a thorough Mark Fisher Fitness analysis.

The Pros!

  • This may sound like faint praise, but anything that gets people moving is automatically of some value.  I’m happy to discuss the pros and cons (and, er… that’s literally what I’m doing), but with a full two-thirds of America overweight, I think it’s important to start with that.
  • Crossfit gets people training hard.  There’s something to be said for leaving your heart (and sweat and blood and tears and pancreas) on the gym floor from time to time.  No one will ever accuse Crossfit of not training people hard enough.
  • There are benefits to fostering a group mentality when training (it’s one of the reasons my Snatched in 6 Weeks Total Body Makeover is so successful).  Because of Crossfit’s built in competition with both other Crossfitters around the country and in your own Crossfit class, people can push themselves harder than they would if they are training alone.  Suffice it to say you’re gonna have a hard time reading an US Weekly while doing Fran (one of Crossfit’s “workouts of the day” consisting of thrusters with 95 pounds and pullups for time).
  • It can be fun!  Again, this is no small thing.  If you like this style of training and the camaraderie of the group setting, you’ll probably have a blast.
  • They hire some smart coaches to help them.  Fitness luminaries such as Mark Rippetoe and Louie Simmons have both been involved in teaching principles of strength training to the Crossfit legion.

The Cons!

  • No progressive program design.  Crossfit’s workouts are hodgepodge of exercises put together literally without any thought for design.  (“Go sprint for ten minutes, do 100 pushups, do 200 bodyweight squats, and then sprint again!” … WTF?)  Without thoughtful individualized progression, it’s hard to make continual gains in fitness qualities.  (To be fair this is a knock on any group class, which is why I maintain a good individualized strength training program should be the bedrock of anyone’s fitness activity).   If you’re weak to begin with and need to develop a base of strength, this is not an ideal way of doing it.  By definition Crossfit does not go in for specialization, but often times that’s exactly what a given trainee needs most.
  • Crossfit “Slop”.  Crossfit is notorious for allowing BRUTAL form and the term Crossfit slop refers to the allowance made for a certain amount of deviation from optimal technique.  Philosophically, I’m very much in the quality over quantity camp, and Crossfit way over emphasizes raw quantity.  Consequently, form is often atrocious.  Most well trained athletes have a hard time keeping good form with Olympic weightlifting when they are physically fresh and have been well coached.  A soccer mom with minimal body awareness and questionable movement may get through her power cleans at the end of the workout, and will probably lose some weight in the interim.  However, she may not be psyched about it when she has arthritis in her knees ten years later from all the insiduous wear and tear she was putting on her joint capsule.

Knee Surgery RULES!!!

  • Bravado bullshit.  Crossfit’s mascot is Pukie the Clown.  Again, while I appreciate people working hard, this sort of misplaced chest puffed out machismo is problematic.  Some may benefit from it if they need to push themselves harder, but more often than not I think it leads to poor decision making when deciding if the set should end.  If your knees are touching at the bottom of your overhead squat, STOP.  THE. SET.  And, as I discuss in more detail in the conclusion, fatigue does not equal results.
  • Wildly inconsistent instruction.  Again, all training modalities suffer this to some extent.  There are plenty of awful personal trainers, physical therapists, massage therapists, life coaches, coffee baristas, dragon defense professionals, etc. However, it is my opinion because of the higher risk with Crossfit style training, the ante is raised.  Johnny Pain of Strengthvillain.com was once a Crossfit instructor and his explanation of his resignation from Crossfit is definitely worth a read.

Now before I give you my final conclusion, let me give one qualification: I’m not Crossfit certified.  To the best of my knowledge, the above praise and criticism is fair and accurate, but… I’m not Crossfit certified.  Though I have read about over the years, researched it pretty extensively for this article, and chatted with folks who do it, I’m MORE than happy to chat further if any of you are happy Crossfitters and you think I’m being unfair.  Email me and educate me further and I’d be happy to print an update: you won’t necessarily change my mind, but I never met an educated opinion I didn’t like. And maybe you’ll convince me I’ve got Crossfit pegged all wrong because I completely misinterpreted what Crossfit is all about.

In Conclusion:

When I weigh the pros and cons, I honestly think Crossfit is a poor choice for most people most of the time.  Now if you already have a great base of strength and fundamental movement quality and you genuinely love training like this, you’d probably do ok.  And if you have a really great instructor, that’s going to help level the playing field for sure.  But even with a great instructor the institutionalized emphasis on quality over quantity is just not something I can ever get on board with.  I have too much respect for the human body, particularly those bodies who are entrusting me (and paying me) to take care of them.  Feel free to call me a wuss.  No worries!  I’ll still be happy to provide you with the number of qualified physical therapist when you blow out a disc in your low back trying to set a personal record of burpees with sagging hips in the pushup position.

And let me hammer this home again:

YOUR BODY DOESN’T CARE WHAT IT “FEELS” LIKE.  PERIOD.

While a certain segment of the fitness industry has gone down the route of namby-pamby one-leg-on-a-bosu-ball tricep kickbacks with a 1 pound pink dumbbell, it doesn’t justify going to the opposite end of the spectrum.  If your goal is health and hotness, the results should theoretically be what matter most.  You should be aware that if you’re craving that “holy shit I’m gonna die” sensation of a ball busting workout, you may have developed an addiction to your brain’s own opiates that is encouraging the reckless behavior of an addict.  As the always insightful Matt Perryman points out, “(d)on’t think that just because it’s a natural opioid that you can’t develop a kind of addiction.  Addiction to your own brain chemistry is why people overeat, sleep around, turn greedy and ruin the economy with derivative trading, and just about any other aberrant obsessive-compulsive type behavior you can think of.”  The next thing you know, you’re body is falling apart, but psychologically you can’t bare missing out on your visit with Pukie the Clown so you ignore that nagging pain in your shoulder until your body forces you to stop by breaking down.  

Um… seriously?

Again, this isn’t a knock on Crossfit alone (long distance runners who ignore your pain because you NEED to get your run in, I’m looking at you), although frankly, to my mind, they are one of the worst offenders.  When we prize fatigue over results, we do our health and hotness goals a disservice.  If you want to puke, go do a 30 second windsprint and 10 pushups back to back without a break for ten rounds. There.  That’ll be 100 dollars.  Here’s your receipt and thank you for your business.

Listen guys, anything you do is going to work for a while.  If you haven’t been working out and start doing ANYTHING, you will get results (to a point).  That doesn’t mean it’s the most efficient way to do it, or in the best interests of your long term musculoskeletal wellbeing.

Crossfit: there are some good things about it, but unless you have a good foundation of strength and movement quality and you’re only seeking general conditioning and you have a great instructor, it’s probably gonna be a train wreck.

There were a lot of qualifiers in that last sentence. 

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