Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Will CrossFit Make You a Better Athlete?

I love the CrossFit Games. For one glorious weekend every summer, I get to hunker down on the couch for hours on end and get lost in one of the greatest displays of physical fitness on earth. (Now that I think about it, this act of sedentariness flies in the face of the spirit of the competition… Maybe next year I’ll do some pushups while I watch.)

Perhaps I enjoy the Games so much because, as a trainer, I watch people exercise for a living, so watching the best people in the world do it is all the more thrilling. Perhaps I’m a sadist and enjoy watching others suffer through impossibly difficult workouts. Or perhaps I’m just an aesthete who marvels at the beautifully sculpted bodies of all the athletes.

Regardless, the drama of the Games is palpable. Who will win each event? What will the events even be? (Many of them aren’t announced until the last possible second.) How will the outcome of each event affect the overall leaderboard? Whose dreams of being crowned the Fittest on Earth will come true, and who will have to continue working fiendishly for another year in hopes of realizing their goals?

It’s for these reasons that I got pretty fired up the other day when I read an article titled “Why CrossFit Doesn’t Make An Elite Athlete.” As something of a CrossFit connoisseur (after dozens of hours in front of the tube, in addition to years of friendship with box owners), I feel I have a responsibility to set the record straight on the issue of whether CrossFit will make you a better athlete.

What Is CrossFit?

First of all, there’s obviously still a lot of confusion about what CrossFit actually is. Officially, CrossFit is 

“Constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains.”

In other words, CrossFit could be just about anything, from distance running to sprinting, from powerlifting to Olympic lifting, from gymnastics to strongman -- and everything in between. As the saying goes, CrossFitters must prepare for “the unknown and the unknowable.” There’s no better evidence of these multi-modal demands than the CrossFit Games events.

Now, a distinction must be made between competitive CrossFit and CrossFit as practiced by the general exercising population. Here’s where things get a bit hairy, because the two flavors of CrossFit certainly are not the same.

Let’s define “competitive CrossFitters” as the few dozen men and women who compete in Regionals, the selection competition for the Games. (See Regions map below.) In general, these athletes train for several hours per day, often devoting separate sessions to their strength work, skill-based work, and conditioning every day. For these individuals, CrossFit is their sport.

General population CrossFitters are everyone else: the people who exercise a few days per week for an hour or so (maybe less). These folks often use CrossFit as a means to an end -- to lose weight, improve function, or simply work out with a community of like-minded individuals.

Parameters of Athletic Performance

Now that we have those particulars out of the way, we’re ready to tackle the question, “Will CrossFit Make You a Better Athlete?”

In order to dispute the issue coherently, we must specify criteria for athleticism. While I could divine categories from thin air to fit with my agenda, that would be too easy. Instead, I’ll stick to the tried-and-true parameters of athletic performance set forth by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Here goes:

1. Does CrossFit Improve Maximum Muscular Strength (Low-Speed Strength)?

Yes. On most days of CrossFit training, there’s a designated strength (or power) training block focusing on a powerlift (squat, deadlift, or pressing) or Olympic lift (clean or snatch). Competitive CrossFitters may even devote a separate training session each day to maximal strength or power training.

2. Does CrossFit Improve Anaerobic or Maximum Muscular Power (High-Speed Strength)?

Yes. See above: CrossFit places a huge emphasis on learning and getting strong in the Olympic lifts (the quintessence of power), as well as exercises like kettlebell swings and box jumps.

3. Does CrossFit Improve Anaerobic Capacity?

Yes. By definition, CrossFit workouts are executed at high intensity, which necessitates reliance on the anaerobic energy systems. Competitive CrossFitters are able to complete a handful of the “benchmark WODs” in the two-minute range, which is the approximate time domain of well-developed anaerobic systems.

4. Does CrossFit Improve Local Muscular Endurance?

Yes. Most CrossFit workouts involve high-repetition lifting at submaximal intensity. Some workouts require upwards of 100 reps of an exercise, either performed consecutively or as part of a circuit.

5. Does CrossFit Improve Aerobic Capacity?

Yes. By definition, CrossFit workouts span broad time domains, including workouts lasting 20 minutes or more. While the anaerobic systems will certainly contribute during these longer workouts, the aerobic system will be the primary energy supplier.

6. Does CrossFit Improve Agility?

Maybe. Competitive CrossFitters absolutely engage in agility training, as it’s guaranteed to show up in the CrossFit Games in the form of suicides, slalom, or hurdles. General population CrossFitters may or may not partake.

7. Does CrossFit Improve Speed?

Maybe. See above: sprinting is always part of Regionals and Games competition, both to the finish line at the end of events and as separate events altogether. For the general population, some boxes may emphasize speed training (if space permits); others may not.

8. Does CrossFit Improve Flexibility?

Maybe. Thanks to the influence of Kelly Starrett’s Mobility WOD and Supple Leopard, flexibility and mobility training has become much more mainstream. Competitive CrossFitters almost certainly engage in it, as the positional requirements of the full Olympic lifts require it. For general population CrossFitters, some boxes may devote time to it in warm-up, cool-down, or during separate sessions; others may not.

9. Does CrossFit Improve Body Composition?

Yes. Make no bones about it: high intensity training torches body fat and builds muscle. Look no further than the crowds at CrossFit competitions to see the leanest group of people on Earth.

10. Does CrossFit Improve Anthropometry?

Yes. Obviously, CrossFit doesn’t make you taller or change your muscle insertion points, but it typically does lead to hypertrophy (i.e. an increase in muscle cross-sectional area).

>>Total: 7 Yeses, 3 Maybes

There you have it, folks. There’s no denying that CrossFit will make you a better athlete.

In truth, it’s no wonder CrossFit satisfies many of the above specifications. CrossFit also recognizes 10 of its own “domains of fitness,” seven of which happen to be the similar to the NSCA’s (cardio endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility), and three which are different (balance, coordination, accuracy).

But Will CrossFit Make You Better at Your Sport?

This question is an entirely different one from whether CrossFit will make you a better athlete. Obviously, if your sport is CrossFit, then the answer is yes. If not, CrossFit likely is not the ideal way to go about sports performance training. Here are a few reasons:

  • Risk vs. Reward: There are often safer alternatives to certain movements CrossFit holds near and dear that can impart similar benefits. For example, the barbell powerlifts and Olympic lifts may less suitable for particular athletes and sports compared to unilateral movements or exercises using other types of resistance (e.g. dumbbells, bands, sleds, etc.).
  • Conditioning & Periodization: CrossFit provides general physical preparation (GPP) for a variety of time domains and intensities. However, sports require specific energetic profiles, and it’s best to train for those particular demands, especially utilizing a periodization model specific to the sport (i.e. with distinct training plans for off-season, pre-season, in-season, peaking, and post-season).
  • Speed & Agility: Most sports have a huge multi-planar speed and agility component, which CrossFit training may not support.
  • Specificity: The best way to get better at a sport is to actually play it. Of course, improving your limiting factor (be it strength, power, speed, whatever) will help.

A Note on Quality Control

For my purposes, I was assuming the CrossFit training to be of the highest quality. Obviously, quality can vary tremendously from one box to the next. Poorly implemented CrossFit likely will not meet the same standards as above.

To know if a particular box is a good one, see my post “5 Essentials of a Kick-ass (CrossFit) Gym.”

For more on CrossFit, see the following posts:

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