Q: Coach, in your last column
you talked a little about CrossFit, saying that "no athlete has ever gotten any good training like that." Have you had a chance to look a little deeper into the method?
A: A lot of individuals love CrossFit. Many of them believe it's the perfect program to achieve their goals. They're very satisfied with their progress. And I have no doubt that some individuals have never been injured from CrossFit.
That said, I have six major issues with CrossFit-type training:
1. Lack of sufficient testing protocols
When I looked over detailed notes from a CrossFit certification, I saw protocols for beginning, intermediate, and advanced workouts using multi-joint movements. But I didn't see any protocols for testing trainees for structural-balance issues.
I've worked with Olympians in 23 different sports, along with lots of professional athletes. Before having any of those athletes do their first power clean or squat, I do a series of tests to red-flag muscle imbalances that could increase the risk of injury.
And if there's a history of injuries with that athlete, then of course that's addressed in the workout design.
I'll give you an example: Olympic shot-putter Adam Nelson couldn't do power snatches before I started working with him because he had adhesions in his rotator cuff muscles. After we addressed the injury with Active Release Techniques
(ART), Nelson was able to reintroduce the exercise in his workouts. Within a month he was handling personal-best weights.
Jim McKenzie, a professional hockey player I've trained, went from a 281-pound close-grip bench press to 380 pounds in less than four months by focusing on corrective exercises — and that's without doing any bench presses at all for the first three months!
2. Focus on a single training protocol
The protocols in CrossFit aren't appropriate for developing the highest levels of strength or power or speed. I doubt if you'll see any elite powerlifters, weightlifters, or sprinters using CrossFit protocols as their primary method of conditioning.
For example, when I trained [long jumper] Dwight Phillips for the Athens Games, we worked first on structural balance, and then on increasing his eccentric strength.
Besides winning gold medals at the World Championships in Helsinki in 2005 and the Olympic Games in 2004, in training he beat some top-ranked sprinters in the 100 meters. I didn't accomplish this by having him superset high-rep push-ups with mile runs.
Coaches often overemphasize energy-system training with athletes, to the detriment of other physical qualities. Check out any exercise physiology textbook and look at the studies performed on elite athletes and their VO2 maxes. It's not necessary for a baseball player — or a basketball player for that matter — to have a VO2 max of 70. [A VO2 max in the high 50s is considered outstanding for a male in his late 20s.]
The promotional materials I've read about CrossFit imply that this type of training addresses all the strength and conditioning needs of an athlete, but the concept of specificity tells us that if you try to excel at everything, you aren't likely to reach the highest levels at anything.
This is why we don't see individuals who can run a mile in four minutes flat that can also bench press 500 pounds.
3. Insufficient instruction for teaching complex training methods
It takes more than a single weekend seminar to develop the competency to teach certain types of exercises, or to prescribe protocols for complex training methods. I'd include Olympic lifts, strongman exercises, and plyometrics in this category.
These training methods are sometimes criticized as dangerous by strength coaches. But when you look at why athletes become injured, you can often point to poor technique.
Interestingly enough, my first comments about CrossFit got a lot of business for my PICP coaches
. They got calls from CrossFit practitioners who wanted to learn how to lift properly.
4. Inappropriate repetition brackets for complex exercises
Although high reps and short rest intervals can be used to develop muscular endurance, these protocols shouldn't be used with some exercises.
This is especially true with Olympic lifts, where it's difficult to maintain proper technique with high reps. And it's especially difficult when supersetting Olympic lifts with deadlifts, or any other multijoint exercise. If you want confirmation, just watch CrossFit trainees do these lifts in videos on their website.
The Olympic lifts should be used to develop power. If you want to develop muscular endurance, you should use simpler movements.
5. Inappropriate exercise order
In the CrossFit "Linda" workout
, what's the logic in fatiguing the lower back with deadlifts before doing power cleans? Not only does it prevent you from doing the power cleans with optimal technique, it makes it more difficult to activate high-threshold motor units. That's why you should do all your sets of power cleans before you do deadlifts.
Another problem is that combining weight-training exercises with sprints places an athlete at a high risk of injury, especially to the hamstrings.
6. Endorsement of controversial exercises
On one website of a CrossFit affiliate, I saw video clips of athletes jumping onto cars and standing on Swiss balls. I appreciate the need to use a wide variety of exercises with clients, but not if they're high-risk exercises.
Because of these six concerns, I can't recommend CrossFit training, especially for those seeking the highest levels of athletic performance.
But in the interest of being open-minded, let's leave it at this: Despite its shortcomings, the CrossFit system is continually evolving. It'll be interesting to see how it changes as more athletes, along with nonathletes, participate in the program.