November 07 , 2011

Aaron

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One of the things that we enjoy doing for our continuing education as fitness enthusiasts and personal trainers is to experiment with and evaluate a wide variety of training methods in order to gain a broader scope of experience.  For the month of October (a.k.a. CROSSTOBER),   I embarked on one of these training experiments by exclusively training using CrossFit workouts.  Though I have been a big fan of CrossFit for a long time, I hadn’t ever gone out of my comfort zone and worked out with CrossFit consistently, so I was excited to get started.

On my first day of CROSSTOBER, I eagerly logged into the CrossFit website as thousands of people do every day in order to see what the workout of the day (WOD) was.  Glancing over some of the posted completion times for the WOD, I noticed they seemed to be in the 20-minute range.  Being that I considered myself to be in pretty decent shape, I figured I could complete the WOD in the 30-minute range.  Oh, how naive I was.   This first WOD would turn out to be one of the most humbling workouts I have ever attempted because I was unable to finish the workout.   By the time 45 minutes had passed, I was not even halfway through and I could not physically continue without risking injury.   I’m glad to say, however, that the remainder of the month went very smoothly, and I saw some great results.  Here are the main points that I have drawn from my experiment:

Results! (+)
(+) I definitely saw an improvement in body composition shortly after beginning CROSSTOBER, as I don’t recall visually seeing myself with this much lean muscle while having this little body fat.  I’ve definitely been “bigger”, and I’ve definitely been “leaner”, but I’ve never had the best of both worlds to this extent.  Furthermore, I set several strength PR’s (personal records) throughout the month in exercises including the snatch, front squat, overhead squat, handstand pushup, overhead press, and deadlift.

Motivation/Intensity/Variety (+/-)
(+) One of the things I really liked was that it was almost like I had a personal trainer of my own telling me what to do.  I would make up each day not knowing what WOD would be thrown my way, and no matter how daunting the workout seemed, I had no choice but to shut up and do it.  Similarly, the competitive aspect of wanting to complete the WOD in a respectable time and the stopwatch ticking away while I performed my workouts was like having a personal trainer constantly shouting encouragement, which definitely pushed me to a level of intensity that I would normally not volunteer to reach.  The variety of the workouts CrossFit workouts is also very refreshing.  One day you can be gasping for air during an intense 40 minute metabolic conditioning workout, while the next WOD might focus on strength, lasting a mere 10 minutes and consisting of only ten total reps.

(-) On the contrary, although the level of intensity pushed me to new limits, I found it difficult to keep this intensity up, especially towards the end of the month, and my motivation started to trail off. (This should be taken with a grain of salt, though, because sometimes I performed two WODS in one day in order to make up for a workout that I missed, and this undoubtedly contributed to a lack of physical energy…or just extra soreness.  Moreover, nutrition and rest also play a vital role in recovery, so it is unfair to attribute this purely to the high intensity of CrossFit workouts).  Also, the further I got into the month, the more I wished there was a bit more consistency in terms of exercise selection because it seemed like if some of the exercises came more frequently, I would have been able to improve my technique or strength in a particular exercise faster.  (However, I suppose this contradicts the constantly varied, total fitness approach that CrossFit takes).  I also simply missed doing fun exercises that aren’t part of CrossFit’s core, such as bench pressing, pushup variations, and upper body plyometrics.

Lack of integrated scaling (-)
(-) Probably the biggest criticism of CrossFit is that athletes often get injured while participating in the WODS.   In fact, one of the opinions I came across stated that CrossFit was nothing more than circuit training with the most dangerous exercises.   While this is an uneducated and oversimplified opinion, it is true in that several of the core CrossFit exercises have an inherently higher risk of injury due to the technical skill required, and this risk is exacerbated when the mindset is to perform the workout as quickly as possible.  While it’s true that all CrossFit workouts can be altered to suit one’s ability level, the onus is up to the athlete to be wise enough to scale the workout so it can be performed safely (as a result, if one gets hurt during a WOD, blame the person doing CrossFit;  don’t blame CrossFit itself).

Nevertheless, CrossFit WODS prescribe (Rx) a weight for its participants.  For example, a WOD might Rx a 225lb deadlift, or a 185lb clean, and even though one might be able to perform these exercises at these loads on their own without issue, it might be dangerous or impossible to do so when strung together in a CrossFit WOD.  Furthermore, the athlete may not have enough fitness experience to know to scale it (or he/she might have too big of an ego).  What I would prefer to see instead is for scaling to become integrated into the CrossFit prescription as a percentage of your one-rep maximum for a given exercise.  For example, deadlift (70% 1RM), clean (60% 1RM), etc.   This way, it would leave the guesswork out of scaling, and WODS would truly be tailored to an individual in the interest of safety.

Conclusion
After CROSSTOBER, I have gained a tremendous amount of respect for CrossFit and anyone who is brave enough to make it their sole training method.  I wholeheartedly believe that elite CrossFitters are the fittest athletes on the planet, and while CrossFit is not at all necessary to achieve above-average fitness, it is a great way to see fast results in body composition and physical strength and fitness, and inject intensity and variety into your workout routine if (and that’s a BIG if!) the athlete has the physical mobility, skill and discipline to perform the exercises correctly and safely.   I, for one, am honestly looking forward to taking a break from CrossFit and going back to my regular exercise routine for a while, but after my CROSSTOBER experience, I will definitely be incorporating CrossFit into my routine on a regular basis.

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