The first rule of Crossfit: you always talk about Crossfit. Accordingly, it did not take me long to hear about Crossfit, and boy did it change my life! Not as a Crossfit participant, but as a health professional. You what now?!
Yes, as a physiotherapist I would often loiter out the front of Crossfit gyms as I knew I would drum up some business. And business had never been better! Deconditioned bodies being thrown into Olympic style lifting with minimal rest, heck I couldn’t have written a better recipe for injury myself.
As you can now tell, it’s exceptionally easy to poke fun at the Crossfit cult. But does Crossfit actually deserve all the flack it gets? Or is it truly an innovative, superior form of exercise? To find a definitive, unbiased answer, I have based this research on peer reviewed scientific articles, rather than those published in the unbiased- extreme sarcasm alert – Crossfit Journal.
Was business really that good? The science says maybe not. About 73% of individuals sustained an injury performing Crossfit. Yes that does sound high, but this rate of injury is comparable to that of: power lifting, Olympic lifting and gymnastics, and even lower than contact sports like rugby (1).
Surely that study was an anomaly? Nope, in a group of soldiers, half were asked to perform normal training, while another half performed high intensity functional training similar to Crossfit. Injury incidence did not differ between the two groups (2). Back to the rugby club for me!
Another suggested benefit of Crossfit is that it motivates people unlike other forms of exercise. A study compared a group of people who started an average gym based exercise program to those who started a Crossfit exercise program. Those that performed the Crossfit program were more likely to continue exercising after completion of the study, suggesting it likely is a more motivation yielding form of exercise (3). I can’t believe what I’m reading. Crossfit is winning.
The physical benefits:
Alright, alright, alright let’s not get carried away, we haven’t yet demonstrated the physical benefits of Crossfit – the most important part. So let’s have a look. Let’s have a bloody good look!
A Crossfit program was shown to improve aerobic fitness and decreased body fat percentage (4). A further study mimicked these findings in a group of individuals performing high intensity interval training, like that utilised by Crossfit (5). So while you’re performing resistance exercises you are actually getting a response like you would get performing cardiovascular exercise. Not bad, Crossfit!
Strength, power and muscle mass:
Do these aerobic benefits come at the cost of: strength, power and muscle mass? Probably. While not directly proven, rest periods of 30 seconds or greater have been demonstrated repeatedly to maximise muscle hypertrophy (size), while rest periods of 3-5 minutes have been shown to maximise muscular strength and power (6). So while Crossfit will no doubt improve strength, power and muscle mass, larger rest periods would likely further these increases to levels seen in traditional resistance training programs.
Unsurprisingly, Crossfit is quite efficient overall. When it was compared to traditional gym exercise: two cardio sessions and three gym sessions (60 minutes each), Crossfitters spent less time exercising (30 minutes per session) for fairly similar benefits (3).
Is it healthful?
Yes. I wouldn’t get your grandma to dive straight into Crossfit straight away, but with common sense and slow progression it is safe. Despite its high intensity, Crossfit may motivate you to stick with it for longer than other forms of exercise. Additionally, while you won’t get as ripped as doing well programmed weights, or as aerobically fit as a marathon runner, you will get a nice combination of both for less of your time invested.
Our verdict: I hate to say it, but moderately to very healthful! Although, you could probably perform a similar style program in a gym with professional guidance.
I hope this has been healthful.