Monday, October 16, 2017

Is CrossFit Safe for the General Population?

Q&A with Clark Hibbs

Travis: Thanks for agreeing to this Q&A, Clark! Ever since I did my first CrossFit workout (circa 2010), I've been intrigued by it. Coming from more of a bodybuilding background, it gave me an opportunity to compete against myself and the clock. It was a welcome divergence from the traditional three sets of ten.

As CrossFit has grown from a niche training style to a worldwide phenomenon over the last few years, though, so too have the myths and misconceptions surrounding it. As a box owner, I'd love for you to clear the air regarding what actually goes on inside a CrossFit box on a day-to-day basis.

Let's start from the beginning: how do you define CrossFit?

Clark: CrossFit can be defined as constantly varied, functional movements, executed at a high intensity. We try to train movements that we see direct application or benefit to movements in everyday life, and we try to make it as fun as possible.

Travis: I think the fun is often what hooks people. It can sometimes be missing from other styles training.

What’s the difference between competitive CrossFit and CrossFit for the general population?

Clark: CrossFit is inherently competitive, but there is a big difference between the sport of fitness (CrossFit Games, Regionals, etc.) and your everyday class at your local CrossFit affiliate.

The sport of fitness is about winning at all costs and truly testing an individual's maximum work capacity. It’s not uncommon to see form breakdown and dangerous levels pushed… just like any other sport or competition. We don’t always see perfect tackles made in the NFL under the pressure of competition. A linebacker will do whatever’s necessary to take down the running back. In the same vein, we might not see the greatest clean form at the CrossFit Games either. A competitor will do whatever’s necessary to get that barbell to the shoulders and stood up.

CrossFit for the general population is focused on one thing: making people healthier. Competition inside an affiliate leads to increased levels of intensity (which people otherwise might not reach on their own), but we should never let competition inside of an affiliate get to the level of excessive technique breakdown.

Travis: So basically, when you’re a competitor, you do what’s necessary for the sport. When you’re a recreational CrossFitter, you can and should be more picky about the movements you choose to do and when to back off in training.

For people who are new to CrossFit, do you think they should jump right into regular classes, or should they somehow be introduced to things more gradually?

Clark: I can’t speak for every affiliate out there because they are all different, but at our gym, beginners are subject to our intro classes. In these classes, we start with the basics like squatting, lunge steps, push ups, and proper hip hinge and continue to the other more complex lifts you see applied in CrossFit. By the end of the intro classes, beginners will have a great understanding of the 9 foundational movements and Olympic lifts.

Travis: What are the 9 foundational movements? Does everyone in your box do them?

Clark: The 9 foundational movements are depicted below. We initially teach them with PVC pipes until the technique is learned, and then we progress into light weights on a barbell. There is some notion in the strength and conditioning world that some of these exercises might not be for everyone. I would agree that not everyone needs to max out on them, but they can still be valuable teaching tools to help an individual improve power output and strength. As a result of learning these exercises, we often hear things from our members like, “I’m not nervous about picking up my grandson now that I can power clean 105 lbs. He’s easy!”

Granted, if someone has a pre-existing issue when it comes to performing any of them, we simply choose a suitable alternative for them. The biggest value of the intro class is for us, the coaches, to get to know the beginners. This way we can properly determine the path they should take in each class moving forward. For example, I had a beginner this week come to us after an ankle reconstruction surgery. In his profile that is shared with all of our coaches, we can all be on the same page that impact movements, prolonged running, or movements that require large amounts of ankle mobility (e.g. single leg squats) should be scaled with an exercise that better suits his current situation (e.g. step-ups).

Other individuals might have previous shoulder injuries or chronic shoulder pain and have a very hard time going overhead with weight. This could be a full blog post on its own, but we try to keep it as simple as possible. If the athlete struggles going overhead, we find a suitable pressing movements that won’t aggravate their shoulder(s). For example, say the workout calls for a barbell push press. The individual can’t do a barbell push press without pain, but they CAN do push-ups pain free. While the push-up is more of a horizontal press rather than a vertical press, it is still a pressing movement the individual can perform and make progress on. In most circumstances, we scale press movements with press movements, pull with pull, squat with squat, etc.

At my box, we all know very well that we are NOT chiropractors, manual therapists, or physical therapists. If we do not know how to properly progress an individual, we have a team of medical professionals that we will happily outsource the individuals to. Our members respect the fact that we can say, “I’m not sure. Go see our friend Dr. So-and-So,” rather than trying to do something we don’t have the proper training for.

Travis: We all have so much to gain by referring out. It’s a crime that more trainers and coaches don’t have a good referral network.

You sort of alluded to this above, but during a typical WOD (workout of the day), does everyone do the same thing, or are workouts scaled to individual needs? If so, how are those individual needs determined?

Clark: Everyone does the same workout prescribed for the day unless an individual needs scaling or modifications. It’s the trainer's responsibility to appropriately scale the individual's workout to be as close to the prescribed movement pattern or stimulus as possible. The number of athletes that perform the workout Rx (as prescribed) versus scaled (i.e. modified) varies from day to day, but in most cases we see about a 50/50 split.

These needs are determined by constant data collection and observation by the trainers. We not only get to know how our members move and perform, but we also get to know who they are as people and what makes them tick. We primarily base any modifications on the physical movement, but we also have to take into account the psychological aspect of scaling as well.

Knowing exactly how far you can push one athlete versus another is very important. This is probably one of the hardest aspects of coaching group classes. You have to care enough to get to know each athlete and really understand how they function as an individual. The beauty of CrossFit is that every workout is scalable for the individual needs. No matter the level of fitness, people can come to classes and get a great and safe workout that is going to help them progress.

Travis: I think scaling is the part where many coaches fall short. Take the workout Randy (75 snatches @ 75 pounds for time), for example. 75 pounds for an elite male CrossFitter is about 25% of his max. But if your max is 100, then now you're working at 75%, which is a way different energy system – and therefore a completely different workout. I understand wanting to do things Rx sometimes, but you have to realize it's a different training stimulus at that point.

Okay, next question. The community atmosphere is one of CrossFit’s most attractive qualities. At the same time, it can also lead people to push themselves too hard. How do you promote safety given the go, go, go nature of the training methodology? Is it the trainee’s responsibility to stay within themselves or the coach’s?

Clark: We promote safety through education – both for the coach and trainee. It's our job as coaches to educate the trainees constantly so that way they know the “how and why” behind each workout. Before workouts at our affiliate, CrossFit Yellow Rose, our coaching team always explains the full workout intention.

We go over questions like
  • How heavy should this feel? How light should this feel?
  • How long should this take?
  • What’s the recovery time like?
  • How do we scale movements once fatigue sets in?
  • What’s the pace we should strive for?

If trainees are following the coach’s guidelines and suggestions, the workout will be safe and appropriate for the individual.

That’s a lot of responsibility for the coach. It’s our job to stay educated not only on the technical side of coaching, but also to stay up to date with each individual in their class. Coaches need to be in communication with the individuals to make sure they are training at appropriate levels each class.

Travis: How much does the specific implementation of CrossFit differ from box to box? What about from CrossFit HQ to individual boxes?

Clark: With each gym being an affiliate model versus a franchise of HQ, implementation can be wildly different from box to box. The affiliate model gives freedom to the owner/staff to implement CrossFit however they see fit. For example, if you wanted to do 1RM back squats every day, there’s nobody stopping you from doing that. Hopefully someone isn’t doing this, but if they are, we would expect that people would stop frequenting that gym and they would have to change up their approach (to, you know, proper implementation of CrossFit).

HQ has little to no involvement past the application and approval stage of an affiliate. After you receive approval and pay your annual affiliation fees, it is a very hands-off approach. There definitely aren’t “secret shoppers” or check ups that happen like a franchise model. But that doesn’t mean HQ has no interest in the success of the affiliate. All of CrossFit HQ’s training methodologies, guidebooks, and videos are completely free to access (something I think many affiliate owners and trainers forget about). The Level 1 and 2 manuals, which are incredibly thorough, are just a few clicks away and can help answer so many questions trainers and coaches have.

HQ also continuously produces quality programming that is completely free for any CrossFit Affiliate (or anyone wanting to do CrossFit) to use. Many boxes enjoy programming for their own affiliate, but more and more are starting to realize that the workouts HQ produces are quite beneficial for their members. It also frees up time spent programming to do other things like following up with members, creating member profiles, nutrition work, etc. (Fun fact: I program for my own gym, but we’re going to be doing a “Mainsite Month” where we exclusively use the workouts produced by HQ in 2018).

Travis: Programming is my absolute favorite thing, but that does make sense to use HQ’s programming (as long as it’s good!) for a stretch of time to free yourself up to do other things for your members.

Speaking of programming, here's something that I think is a common misconception. Is CrossFit programming random?

Clark: Definitely not. It is constantly varied, but not random. The old CrossFit saying goes “prepare for the unknown and the unknowable.” But that doesn’t mean we don’t know how we’re going to get there every day. That would be silly.

If you go through and look at a month of mainsite programming, you’ll see there’s really no randomness at all. It’s constantly varied, but the movements are all complementary in nature. Let’s take a week from December 2015, for example:

Monday Dec. 13:
Deadlifts (225 lbs for men/155 lbs for women)
Handstand Pushups

Tuesday Dec. 14:
5 Rounds For Time:
250-meter Row
25 Thrusters (45 lbs)
15 Toes-to-bar

Wednesday Dec. 15:

Thursday Dec. 16:
Behind-the-neck jerk 7 x 1

Friday Dec. 17:
As many rounds as possible in 20 minutes:
2 Rope climbs (15 ft)
20 Pistol squats, alternating legs
40 Double unders

Saturday Dec. 18:
Hang squat clean 5-5-3-3-3-1-1-1-1

Sunday Dec. 19:

You can see that CrossFit isn’t just picking movements out of a hat and throwing it at the wall to see what sticks. There’s some beauty in the way these movements are laid out:

  • Monday is a lower body pull and upper body push on a short workout (sub 5 minutes).
  • Tuesday is a simple triplet of a monostructural (cardio) movement, weightlifting push, and a gymnastics pull on a longer workout (~15 minutes).
  • Wednesday is a well deserved rest day (because rest should be an integral part of every program).
  • Thursday is a heavy day. The only focus is training the jerk and working towards a maximal effort.
  • Friday is a long 20-minute workout without any weightlifting at all. Just upper body pulling, lower body pushing, and a cardio-specific movement.
  • Saturday is another heavy day, but with more reps. This will be a different level of effort than Thursday.
  • Sunday is another much needed rest day.

The program might look “random,” but it is actually extremely calculated. Each day plays off of each other with complementary movements, rep ranges, loads, and capacity/time demands.
The CrossFit affiliates that follow this style of programming (simple, elegant, and not too much volume) will rarely see injuries. After all, the most common way to get injured in any style of training is injuries from overuse. We need recovery time. By backing off volume some days, we can ensure our members stay safe and healthy.

We keep it varied to keep it fun, interesting, and challenging. After all, the fun, interesting, and challenging programs are the ones we humans will tend to stick with.

Travis: Wow, great answer! Perhaps it looks random on the surface or if you don't know what to look for, but as you showed, there's clearly a lot of thought that goes into it.

This next question sometimes keeps me up at night, so I’m interested to hear your take. Are complex movements performed in the presence of fatigue and against a clock dangerous? Or only insofar as a trainee isn’t prepared for them?

Clark: Anything you do in the presence of fatigue could have its dangers. As long as individuals have a good fitness base and the knowledge on how to bail or scale the complex movements, these shouldn’t be considered excessively dangerous.

That being said, we shouldn’t do complex movements in the presence of fatigue with new individuals. The knowledge might not be there yet, and the fitness base isn’t there yet. For example, instead of performing squat cleans for time with a new athlete, we could perform front squats taken from a rack.

Travis: My sentiments exactly! Okay, just a few more questions. What’s a typical athlete-to-coach ratio? With complex movements, can a poor ratio lead to reduced quality control and increased risk?

Clark: It’s hard to say what a “typical” athlete-to-coach ratio is, especially since each gym is different. At our affiliate, we run a 12:1 ratio. In our experience, we believe this provides great energy for the room, but also is a small enough ratio to lead to great individualized attention for every person in the class. I’ve seen some gyms do 5:1, some do 15:1, others do as much as 25:1.

I am always a fan of smaller athlete-to-coach ratios. A lot of gyms that I know and work with put two coaches on the floor once they get past a certain attendance marker (e.g. they’ll put two coaches in a class of 20, so that would lead to a 10:1 ratio). In theory, the smaller the ratio, the more individualized attention. The more attention, the higher quality control and lower the risk.

Travis: Adding that second coach when the class size gets beyond what you’re comfortable handling is crucial, regardless of what type of training it is.

Along those lines, do you think CrossFit takes a lot of heat for things simply due to its popularity? I mean, bad training is bad training, regardless of whether it occurs inside a CrossFit box, right?

Clark: It’s easy to throw it at CrossFit because of its popularity and a lack of understanding from the people dishing the heat. That said, there is irresponsible application out there; that’s for sure. Newcomers not being properly screened and onboarded, maxing out too quickly, “beat down” workouts on a daily basis. These need to be changed. But we see it in regular gyms just as much as in CrossFit affiliates. We all need to try to raise the standard of exercise application wherever it is being administered.

Travis: Amen. Beat down workouts are definitely not unique to CrossFit, although I do think it’s getting better as we continue to spread the gospel. Also, I think some people actually believe that the meme of the guy barbell back squatting on the physioball is CrossFit. Talk about misconceptions.

Last question: What should a newbie look for in a CrossFit box as they’re scoping one out to join?

Clark: Here are my top four things to look for:
  1. A fun and welcoming environment. This is super important. Don’t be somewhere you aren’t going to have fun!
  2. An onboarding or “on ramp” process for beginners.
  3. Individualized attention from coaches in classes. You can observe a class and see if this actually happens!
  4. A clean gym. This shows that the staff/management genuinely cares about your experience.

Travis: Thanks for taking the time to share all your expertise, Clark!

Clark: My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity!

Related: 5 Essentials of a Kick-ass (CrossFit) Gym

About Clark Hibbs:


Clark and his wife Rachel are the proud owners of CrossFit Yellow Rose in Houston, Texas. Clark brings 9 years of fitness industry experience to the table, and his passion on the gym floor is proof of his undying love for CrossFit and people. Clark discovered CrossFit in 2011 and has been utilizing these training methodologies and principles to help positively impact thousands of everyday people ever since. Clark and Rachel’s goal is to utilize CrossFit as a way to get people to live active lifestyles outside of the gym and get the most out of life.

Motto: “Work hard. Be nice.”

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