Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
One of the biggest complaints people have about exercise is that it is boring. For many people, exercise means walking on the treadmill for an hour, doing a circuit on the weight machines, or going through the same aerobics class again all in the name of losing weight and getting fit. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. The current trend of high-intensity exercise programs that emphasize shorter bouts of vigorous aerobic and strength training can hardly be described as boring and can produce even greater results than traditional exercise regimens.
Among these is CrossFit, a very popular and controversial strength and conditioning program. To devotees, CrossFit is more than just the “sport of fitness,” it’s a lifestyle. But others see CrossFit as dangerous and even cult-like. Since it was founded 15 years ago, CrossFit is now practiced in over 10,000 gyms or “boxes.” If you haven’t tried it, you may be curious to learn more about CrossFit and whether it, or other similar high-intensity training programs, may be right for you.
What is it? CrossFit is a branded exercise program that emphasizes high-intensity, functional movements that involve strength, power, aerobic conditioning, gymnastics, plyometrics, Olympic weightlifting, and sport-specific training. Many of the exercises require minimal equipment such as a pull-up bar, rope, or rings, and use your own body weight as the resistance. For example, the named workout “Cindy” consists of as many rounds as possible of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 air squats in 20 minutes. The Olympic lifts, a key component of CrossFit, and other resistance exercises involve free weights to add to the intensity.
The CrossFit program includes introductory sessions, called the on-ramp, in which the basic movements are taught under the supervision of a coach or trainer, with an emphasis on form and technique. Later, training sessions expand to include an almost endless variety of exercises – the workouts of the day (WOD) you may have heard of – that are typically done in a group setting. It is this environment that many new and veteran CrossFit participants find motivating, a key to success for many.
Is it effective? If you ask someone who does CrossFit, the answer is a clear yes! Aside from personal stories and anecdotal reports, there isn’t much research into the effects of high-intensity training programs like CrossFit. The research that has been done, though, suggests that CrossFit is at least as effective as traditional forms of exercise for improving fitness. Even as few as four weeks of CrossFit training can reduce body fat and increase strength and aerobic fitness. Not surprisingly, greater improvements are seen after additional sessions.
Since CrossFit involves vigorous exercise alternating with short rest breaks, on average it is about as intense as traditional aerobic or circuit weight training. The energy expenditure per minute is high, but since training sessions can be relatively short, you may burn as many calories doing less intense prolonged exercise like running. That said, subjects in one study who completed “Cindy” burned over 250 calories!
Is it right for me? For most people, there is little harm in trying some higher-intensity exercise. Whether CrossFit is right for you depends on several factors. First, exercise of this intensity is likely to cause some muscle soreness, at least in the beginning. You can make exercise more enjoyable by starting at an intensity that is consistent with your fitness level and progressing slowly. Second, exercising at a high intensity may be unwise if you are not already in good shape or have other health problems like diabetes or high blood pressure. Third, CrossFit may not be the best way for you to meet your exercise goals. For example, if you are trying to build endurance for a marathon or a long distance bike ride, you really do need to include prolonged exercise. Most of all, a willingness to challenge yourself is essential.
Is it safe? Any form of exercise can result in minor injuries including muscle soreness, muscle strains, and sprains, especially with more vigorous and prolonged training. CrossFit has been associated with a high risk of injuries, including rhabdomyolysis, a severe form of muscle damage that results from extreme overexertion. However, any strenuous activity can lead to this condition, so it is not specific to CrossFit, and it is extremely rare.
To be fair, injuries in CrossFit are not necessarily more common than other types of exercise. According to one survey, although about half of CrossFit participants reported suffering an injury in the previous year, the vast majority were minor injuries that did not require medical attention and most occurred in people who trained three or more times per week. To put this in perspective, as many as 80% of regular runners get injured in a given year. Based on this data, CrossFit is probably no more dangerous than any other type of training or sport, especially if it is done under the supervision of a qualified trainer or coach.
How do I get started? You can learn more about CrossFit, including a listing of gyms, online at http://www.crossfit.com. Beyond CrossFit, you can also try other forms of high-intensity training. Many group exercise classes at traditional gyms and home exercise programs such as P90X and Insanity are similar in that they emphasize functional training that uses body weight and minimal equipment. You may find that the variety of exercises in these programs can keep you motivated to help you lose weight and get fit.
Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken, South Carolina.