The backlash against CrossFit, the hottest and most controversial fitness program since Suzanne Somers and her Thighmaster, is as intense as any Workout of the Day. In spite of the hate thrown CrossFit's way by commentators, the program and business continue to grow — from 13 gyms in 2005 to 8,000 in October 2013, and then surpassing the 10,000-affiliate mark worldwide in July.
But a relentless stream of criticism and even outright hostility has accompanied the growth of CrossFit. Headlines like "Can CrossFit Kill You?" are not exactly neutral. Stories like these are recycled endlessly throughout the media.
The issue: CrossFit is misunderstood. People read the rehashes of the same stories (not to mention comment trolls echoing one another), see the elite CrossFitters on ESPN and then think they know the sport. They don't.
It's time to clear up the most common misconceptions so people can see CrossFit for what it truly is:
1. CrossFit is dangerous and you will injure yourself.
"There's an assumption that you're going to get hurt or get sick to your stomach," said Tom Higgins, coach at CrossFit Victory City.
CrossFit emphasizes technique and safety, yet the misconception that injuries are inevitable runs rampant. Unfortunately, at this point, there are few studies to verify this. The one peer-reviewed study included only 43 participants. Another more in-depth study is in process, and early results indicate that CrossFit's injury rate is no different than general fitness workouts and even Olympic and power weightlifting.
Mikel Blount, a coach at CrossFit X-Factor, says in four years of being part of CrossFit she has yet to see a major injury. "As a coach, we spend a lot of time watching people and their movement, making sure that people don't get hurt. Making sure that you're lifting something you're capable of lifting. You're doing things in the best way possible so you don't get hurt."
Between the available data and the reports from local CrossFit coaches, accusations of OMG, you are going to get injured! don't seem to hold up. And yet accusations of CrossFit leaving a trail of broken bodies across the American fitness landscape fill the Internet.
2. CrossFit is too hard for the average person.
The 2014 CrossFit Games were broadcast on ESPN and presented $2 million in prizes, whereas the first games in 2007 were held in a side lot and drew only a few dozen competitors. This year's athletes were incredible physical specimens capable of superhuman feats of strength, speed and power. The announcers, gushing over the performances and the athletes, repeated the message endlessly: This is CrossFit.
No, that's not CrossFit. Those were elite athletes competing in CrossFit events. CrossFitters are as varied as the populations of the cities and communities where the gyms are located. The idea that you have to be in shape to do CrossFit is a myth borne out of the ESPN broadcasts and other media featuring the top athletes. Darsey compared that attitude to watching the Olympics and thinking you couldn't be a runner.
Many gyms now insist that new members complete some kind of introductory program (often called "ramp-up" or "Elements"). CrossFit Portland's intro program is more lengthy than most — two-to-three months for many athletes — but co-owner Xi Xia said he was surprised by how many prospective members said something along the lines of, "I can't do this because I'm not in shape. I should get in shape first before I do CrossFit." Because CrossFit demands not just strength and fitness but technical skill, these introductory programs help new CrossFitters learn what they need to be safe and to enjoy the full CrossFit program at their gym.
3. CrossFit only works if you're on a diet.
Because so many CrossFitters do follow the Paleo diet, and Paleo devotees also have a tendency toward over-the-top evangelism, the myth has grown that the Paleo diet is a required part of CrossFit. And by "paleo" many people think that means meat. Lots of meat. Nothing but meat. With kale for dessert.
This one is just silly. CrossFit does not officially endorse any diet, though both the Zone Diet and Paleo are acceptable. Paleo "is perfectly consistent with the CrossFit prescription" of a preferred diet of "garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar." Like the Zone Diet, Paleo (and CrossFit) preaches an avoidance of high-glycemic foods — foods that develop sugars and can lead to diabetes.
4. CrossFit is an impersonal, faceless conglomerate.
There are more than 5,000 CrossFit affiliates in the United States, yet the idea persists that they are all the same. J.C. Herz, author of Learning to Breathe Fire, provided an apt analogy: CrossFit gyms "are as similiar to each other as microbreweries are."
CrossFit does not tell affiliates how to run their gyms. "Every gym has its own expertise, its own specialty," said Dré Williams, owner of M.O.C. CrossFit. There are no corporate directives on what equipment to own, hours to keep, rates to set or workouts to program. This is in keeping with the operating philosophy of CrossFit founder Greg Glassman who claims to be a "rabid libertarian," despite building his empire on government money with first responder and military clients, the Internet and public infrastructure.
The lack of corporate standards ties directly into what isn't so much a misunderstanding about CrossFit as an area of concern to those inside and outside of the program: the qualification of those running CrossFit gyms. A Level 1 certification and a $3,000 franchise fee are all that is required to hang up a CrossFit shingle. Level 1 does not have a physical achievement component. It's a weekend seminar and a 55-question written test. Hartmann spoke of a couple who took the Level 1 at the same time he did. Neither had done CrossFit before, but saw it as a great business opportunity.
"The biggest challenge CrossFit is going to have [as it grows] is to educate their coaches appropriately so that people are coached well," said Tom Higgins of CrossFit Victory City. CrossFit has taken up this challenge. In July, they announced a restructuring of their trainer and coaching certifications, with four levels that now include demonstrating the ability to do what they coach. Darsey voiced optimism about the changes, but he insisted that improvements will require CrossFitters themselves to "police" standards and move others forward.
5. CrossFit is a group class and you have to follow the group instructions.
CrossFitters work out as a class, but few are doing exactly the same workout. Whether it's the amount of weight lifted, the kind of movement performed (plank pushups vs. from the knee, strict pullups vs. assisted, etc.) or the pace of workout, each athlete does what he or she is capable of. "The biggest thing when it comes to CrossFit that people don't quite understand is, it's not about intensity," said Joon Howard, a coach at CrossFit Stumptown in Portland. "It's governed by the person and their abilities."
CrossFit's gospel is about constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensity in a communal environment. The workouts rarely repeat, and few gyms are doing the same program as any other. The workouts are built from the same basic materials — weight lifting, calesthentics, gymnastics, running — but are designed as a coach sees fit for his or her athletes. CrossFitters are urged to go as fast and hard as they can, whether it's a five or 20-minute workout. But as Howard emphasized, the key isn't merely "fast and hard." As he put it, "Be stupid and go harder!" is not the CrossFit way.
6. CrossFit is just a passing workout fad.
At its present rate of growth, CrossFit is likely to double in size in just a few years. As Hartmann noted, "CrossFit is everywhere. It's the trendiest, most searched-for fitness program." With growth comes growing pains, and some, such as trainer certification, are being addressed by CrossFit. Other problems will be resolved, as Darsey suggested, by CrossFitters themselves. The war of words about CrossFit, both pro- and anti-, will go on. Especially because it makes great fodder for the media.
And because, as goes the new saying that's making the rounds, the first rule of CrossFit is to always talk about CrossFit. Most CrossFitters are happy to comply, and the critics are more than happy to retort.
As Hartmann put it: "There's always going to be haters, especially when something seems faddish."