Crossfit for Athletes

The subject for this month’s blog entry is crossfit for athletes.  For most strength & conditioning coaches/professionals out there, I’m probably not going to be offering up any novel thoughts or ideas on the subject.  However, with the exploding popularity of crossfit, it’s no wonder that some of our athletes are curious about it or are attracted to it, making it a subject that all of us have to deal with to at least some extent.  I’m sure all of us have been asked by some of our athletes how we feel about crossfit, or had to deal with an athlete who thought it would be a good idea to spend their summer doing crossfit.  I won’t get into my opinions about crossfit for the general population (although some of my reasons I share here would be true for anyone), but I will explain some of the basic reasons as to why I, as a collegiate strength & conditioning coach, choose not to do crossfit with my athletes, and would discourage my athletes from doing it on their own.  It’s not that I don’t believe crossfit can be challenging, because it absolutely is.  However, challenging does not necessarily mean that it’s an effective choice for athletes.  Hopefully this entry can be of benefit to some out there!

One of the major issues that I have with crossfit for athletes is the lack of specificity that it offers the athletes for their sport.  The premise of crossfit is to develop overall, all-around fitness, with the ultimate goal of making the participants competent in a very wide variety of physical abilities.  As it states in crossfit’s foundations document (http://journal.crossfit.com/2002/04/foundations.tpl#featureArticleTitle), there are 10 domains that crossfit tries to establish “competence” in: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.   On the other hand, athletes need to focus on specific physical attributes to be able to excel at their specific sport.  On top of that, athletes need to focus on developing different attributes depending on the time of year.  To give an example, let’s talk about a volleyball player during their early offseason.  The last thing that a volleyball needs to be working on during that time of year would be their cardiovascular endurance.  By training their cardiovascular endurance during the early offseason, the power development that would be so necessary for them to develop during that time of year would be greatly compromised.  Not only would some of the energy be wasted that should be dedicated to power development, but it’s been proven that cardiovascular endurance training can actually adversely affect the athlete’s power development both physiologically and neurologically.  Another simple example would be a baseball player.  Crossfit workouts are usually made up of lots of reps with little or no rest in between sets and exercises.  It’s true that muscle endurance should be touched on with any athlete, with the extent depending on their sport.  However, to have the basis of workouts for a baseball player be lots of reps and little rest, when that doesn’t resemble anything they ever do on the field, doesn’t make a lot of sense.  So, if you just want to be generally “competent” as they put it in a variety of physical areas, then crossfit could make some sense.  However, that would not fit the goal of any athlete that’s serious about competing at the highest level they possibly can in their specific sport.

Now to bring up another issue that I have with the lack of specificity with crossfit.  One of crossfit’s selling points is that the workouts are random and all over the place by design so as to prevent boredom with the participants, to hit all the domains we just discussed, and to create “muscle confusion.”  One of the problems with this approach is that if there is no progression or continuity with workouts, how does the body know what to adapt to?  As I just explained, an athlete has specific needs and goals that must be addressed with their training.  So, whether we are talking about the amount of weight lifted, complexity of movements, time or distance run, etc. – an athlete’s body should be progressively overloaded in whatever area is being worked to stimulate physiological and neurological progress in that area.  Obviously we shouldn’t over-train athletes by doing the exact same thing all the time and never offering any variety to the workouts.  However, crossfit takes that concept to the other extreme end of the spectrum to the point of confusing the body so much that it is too confused to progressively adapt to the stimulus that it is be subjected to.  There needs to be progressive overload in specific areas for an athlete to become great in specific areas, and that’s not something that crossfit offers an athlete. 

It’s obvious, as has been discussed, that crossfit covers a lot of physical abilities or domains as they are referred to.  However, I feel like there is one area that crossfit does not cover, which is absolutely imperative for athletes at any level, and that is sport specific injury prevention.  I have never heard of a crossfit workout that calls for ankle prehab work for a soccer or basketball player, or shoulder prehab work for a baseball or volleyball player, just to give a couple of examples.  These are just a couple of MANY examples of prehab work that could be given which absolutely can’t be overlooked in their importance for athletes.  We could also go into how crossfit does not incorporate movement prep and flexibility work that is extremely important to help them to be able to successfully and correctly perform the exercises in their workouts, and most importantly, to help them to avoid injury and perform sport specific movements successfully.  For instance, I’ve never seen or heard of a crossfit workout that incorporated some hip mobility work which is just something general that almost any athlete needs improvement on. 

Lastly, I would like to discuss the problems that I have with the method by which Olympic lifts are implemented in crossfit.  Before I go on, I want to make sure it’s understood that in this paragraph I am not attacking Olympic lifting itself, I’m only critiquing the way in which crossfit IMPLEMENTS it.  First an example.  I have written entries in the past discussing why I often choose not to use Olympic lifts with my athletes.  The primary reason I talked about was that with the technical nature of the Olympic lifts, and the amount of learning that needs to take place for them to be performed correctly, if you don’t have constant coaching taking place, it turns into an unsafe environment with a greater possibility of injury.  It also makes it so large amounts of time need to be dedicated to teaching these lifts so that they are performed correctly.  I incorporate Olympic lifts some into my own workouts, I have used them with smaller teams, and I can understand the use of them with bigger groups when there are many coaches available to help in the teaching and learning process.  However, this is not the case in a lot of situations.  To put it bluntly, there is not enough teaching and coaching going on in most crossfit environments for the Olympic lifts to be taught and learned correctly, leading to incorrect technique, and a high probability of injuries.

The argument with that could be if someone went into crossfit already proficient in Olympic lifting.  That leads to my next point.  I draw my answer from something I learned from a collegiate strength & conditioning coach that I know who has spent his entire career(15+ years), including some time at the Olympic training center, incorporating Olympic lifting in training his athletes.  In one of his many articles on the Olympic lifts, he says that Olympic lifts should be kept to 3 reps or less per set for a couple of reasons.  First of all, with the fact that the Olympic lifts are so technical (whether you are proficient with them or not), you will fatigue and your technique will break down faster than your average, more simple, non-olympic lift.  When in this fatigued state, you are more likely to hurt yourself by performing the exercise incorrectly than when doing a non-olympic lift in a fatigued state.  So, it does not matter whether you are a novice or a competitive Olympic lifter, we should never do more than about three reps per set of work to avoid injury.  In essence, high rep Olympic lifting is dangerous.  The second reason has to do with power development, which crossfit claims to develop amongst their 10 domains.  Olympic lifts are designed to develop power, and it’s obvious that power is something that all athletes want to improve.  However, crossfit often calls for high reps, often to failure, with little or no rest in between sets for all their chosen exercises, including Olympic lifts.  If we are doing more than around three reps per set, we are no longer training for power, but for power endurance.  So, let’s say you are an athlete who has a coach readily available to help you with the Olympic lifts, you are proficient with them, and by some miracle you are able to perform high reps of Olympic lifts without your technique breaking down (which is impossible to guarantee) – the big problem is you still won’t actually be training to develop power with the makeup of the workouts, so you would be neglecting developing one of the most important physical abilities for most sports.  Why would you want to work on power endurance without developing power in the first place? 

To sum it all up, as a collegiate strength & conditioning coach, I don’t feel like crossfit is a good option for our athletes.  The number one problem has got to be the likelihood of injury through participation.  It wouldn’t matter if the workouts were extremely effective if they got the athletes hurt.  I have heard several times that chiropractors have said that they love crossfit for the clientele that it brings them.  On top of that, the lack of specificity for different sports should not be overlooked.  We can’t blame the athletes for being curious or interested in something so popular, but with so many of our athletes going home for the summer months, it’s our job as their strength & conditioning coaches to educate them so that they don’t put themselves in a dangerous and ineffective training situation.  Having said that, it only adds importance to making sure that the athletes trust us and buy into our programs so that they believe in what we ask them to do and not do.

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5 Responses to Crossfit for Athletes

  1. Eddy says:

    That about covers it! Athletic development, in short, is about positive adaptation toward a desired performance goal, and crossfit, in diametric oposition to the athletic goal, is about NEVER letting the body fully adapt! Hmmmm.

  2. Tony Courville says:

    AMEN BROTHER!! I feel the exact same way in regards to specificity to the sport the athlete is training for. An excellent article that I will discuss with my colleagues.

  3. Chad says:

    I could not agree more! Completely agree with all points throughout this article! I will share this with my coaches and interns!

  4. Chad says:

    Reblogged this on Sports Science Scoop and commented:
    Great article that discusses why Crossfit is not the best option for college athletes!

  5. Gary Diemer says:

    I know this is a late response. I am a fitness director at a high end club in Bangkok, Thailand. I have a MS in exercise physiology and I am NSCA CSCS certified. Your article is absolutely dead on correct. I was a strength coach at a private school in the US before moving to Thailand. Getting athletes, let alone the general population, proficient in Olympic lifts is difficult. I am a powerlifter as well, so I know even getting athletes form correct for the deadlift, squat and deadlift is difficult. I am the only one certified to do strength coaching at my club. I do private training with athletes, so we do incorporate Olympic lifts into the mix occasionally, But this is one on one training and like you said you would never do these lifts for more than about 3 reps and those are not rapid reps either. There are now about 20 crossfit gyms in Bangkok. I notice more and more athletes going to them. If crossfit makes people workout, more power to them, but I 100% agree with you it is counter productive to most athletes.

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