THE BLOG
03/14/2013 08:17 am ET Updated May 14, 2013

The CrossFit Boogeyman

In his recent critique of CrossFit, Blogger Matthew Basso succeeds in warning readers of an alarmingly dangerous, unorthodox, and ineffective fitness program. The only drawback to Basso's article is that he critiques a program that doesn't exist.

To put it simply, Basso attempts to criticize CrossFit without understanding it. Not only has Basso presumably never attended a CrossFit Level One course, the only primary source CrossFit statement that he engaged with in his entire article was a five-word phrase: "Our specialty is not specializing."

While this is an accurate slogan, it's only that.

Basso doesn't address CrossFit's definition of fitness (work capacity across broad time and modal domains), methods for achieving it (constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement), nor the feedback loop that CrossFit affiliates engage in in the pursuit of ever-greater levels of fitness (the open source model). In fact, Basso succeeds only in demonstrating a complete ignorance of these core concepts of the CrossFit program.

Convenience is no excuse. Greg Glassman has explained the foundations of CrossFit in several CrossFit Journal articles available for free on CrossFit.com. (The "Start Here" section on the CrossFit Journal would have been a good place to look.)

Basso has difficulty comprehending why CrossFit does not specialize in any particular aspect of fitness. As Greg Glassman has written, "True fitness requires a compromise in adaptation broader than the demands of most every sport." Even professional athletes such as Ray Rice of the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens have found value in improving their general fitness through CrossFit. Beyond specialist sports, the unpredictable demands of life -- shoveling snow, self-defense, moving furniture, etc. reward a broad and inclusive fitness and punish specialists. You don't have to compete in the sport of CrossFit for this to be true -- over a million people do CrossFit and less than 100 compete in the individual finals of the CrossFit Games. You can either assume that the legions of CrossFitters have fallen victim to mass delusion, or take them at their word -- that CrossFit has better prepared them for the physical and mental demands of life.

Basso's next misunderstanding is the "caveman story." He thinks that the CrossFit methodology is based in doing what cavemen did. CrossFit teaches people to work hard on functional movements because those are the movements that we've found yield the greatest gains in fitness. CrossFit defines functional movements like the squat, deadlift, sprint, or pull-up by their ability to move large loads, long distances, quickly. In other words, they get a lot of work done, fast. CrossFit measures the power output of the human body in the same way engineers do for any simple machine. Efforts that allow an athlete to produce more average power (intensity) drive favorable adaptations better than those that don't. It's about physics, not historical reenactment.

According to Basso, improvement in endurance requires specializing in endurance. If this were true, it would be impossible to improve in multiple aspects of fitness at once -- say running faster while also lifting more weight. We have seen so many people develop multiple aspects of fitness at once that this is a laughable proposition -- one need merely look at the CrossFit Games website to see how many people are concurrently developing maximal strength, stamina, endurance, power, speed, and more. Beyond CrossFit, Basso is really attacking all strength and conditioning programs.

If Basso understood the goal and methods of CrossFit, then he would have also understood CrossFit's use of the Olympic lifts. Basso states: "Worldwide, the protocols of an Olympic lifting program agree on a main principle: higher weight, less reps. CrossFit does the exact opposite."

It is true that Olympic lifting specialists lift for fewer reps than CrossFitters often do, but this is for a simple reason. Olympic lifters specifically prepare for weightlifting competitions in which they attempt to lift the most weight for a single repetition in both the snatch and the clean and jerk. CrossFitters, on the other hand, train to improve fitness. Since CrossFitters want improve their capacity at low, medium, and high repetition ranges, they train the Olympic lifts (and all other movements) in a wide variety of repetition ranges.

The centerpiece of Basso's argument, or what he labels his "dealbreaker," is safety. He claims that CrossFit puts clients at an unacceptable risk for injury. What support does he provide for this claim?

Referring to the use of CrossFit by Bob Harper on the show The Biggest Loser, Basso says: "Bob's team -- while doing very well in the competition, also happens to be the only team with an injury. Coincidence?"

Yes, actually, it is a coincidence. Bob Harper himself remarked to me via text message that "it [the injury] was preexistent. He was on crutches before we ever did a CrossFit workout."

Other than the evidence-less claim that exercising while fatigued causes injury, the only external source that Basso cites is a local news outlet that also failed to cite a single actual case of injury. This is the fatal blow to Basso's argument, and exposes it as nothing more than baseless fear-mongering.

We won't claim that CrossFit is an injury-less program. No fitness program can make that claim. But people who claim that CrossFit is dangerous must provide evidence that CrossFit injures athletes at a higher rate than other physical activities and fitness programs. As is typical of these claims, Basso falls far short.

CrossFit has provided a measurable definition of fitness and taught thousands of trainers how to effectively, efficiently, and safely achieve fitness. If Basso is interested in self-promotion through creating controversy, he's done an excellent job. If he wishes to intelligently engage with CrossFit's goals and methods, he needs to first make an attempt to understand them.

For more by Russell Berger, click here.

For more on fitness and exercise, click here.

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