As a student of exercise science, I was groomed to distrust CrossFit. However, I decided to hop off that bandwagon and do my own research. Is CrossFit an effective training method for improving performance?
What Is It and Where Did It Come From?
CrossFit is a series of exercises that are performed at high intensity and are inspired by everyday movements, weightlifting, gymnastics, running, rowing, etc. The creator of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, has been creating these workouts for many years, but the program didn’t have a large following until 2001, when he and some friends created a website giving followers a Workout of the Day, or WOD. It took them 5 years of posting these WODs online until they had around 75,000 people following the workouts. In the early 2000’s having that much of a response through the internet is bomb.com.
To learn more about their story, visit Crossfit.com.
CrossFit + Performance
There are not loads of studies on CrossFit because it is a relatively new form of exercise and it is hard to test, considering you’re bouncing around all over the place. However, these studies showed some unexpected results:
One study by Indiana University of Pennsylvania determined that the results between traditional resistance adaptation and CrossFit were very similar. They tested 7 different components of fitness (all listed in the summary section), but the only component that had a slight difference was the max strength portion. Here, the two groups were tested on their 1 rep max deadlift. The results for the CrossFit group had a larger range of weight lifted, but the average was about 15 pounds higher than the traditional group. This is not a huge difference, but is enough to assume that CrossFit can have a slight increase on your maximal strength output.
Two other studies, listed below, focused solely on CrossFit workouts, but distinguished between experienced and novice lifters. The test was to decide if these common workout styles, Multimodal High-Intensity Interval Training (MMHIIT) and Multimodal High-Intensity Circuit Exercise (MMCIR), were an effective way to exercise for any fitness level. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommendation for health and fitness benefits are 64%-76% of maximum heart rate for 40-50 minutes, five times per week, or 76%-96% of maximum heart rate for 20 minutes, three times per week. The study, performed by Scotty J. Butcher, suggested the heart rate percentages were reached in both fitness levels, making a 21-minute CrossFit workout an effective way to train for general health and fitness benefits.
The results indicated strength and aerobic progress can be achieved simultaneously no matter the experience; however, the experienced group performed more reps and sets, showing the difference in work output between the two groups. Both studies made sure to note the novice participants all had extra instruction on how to do the tested lifts properly, and found weights that were manageable prior to the testing.
What Does This Mean?
Turns out CrossFit can, indeed, achieve general health and fitness goals. Depending on your goals, incorporating CrossFit can be beneficial for improving aerobic capacity and work output. It can also be a useful transition to heavy lifting because you will be able handle a greater load. For those who are just starting out, it is important to receive prior coaching. If your current gym doesn’t offer that, find another gym. This applies to personal trainers as well. These lifts and workout styles are not for jumping in and wishing for the best, which is discussed in the studies. Experience and/or prior instruction is necessary to join in at your local gym. These lifts are VERY technical, and you can easily injure yourself, hindering the progress you have made. With good coaching and proper programming, CrossFit can alter your routine, giving you an effective workout and improved results. Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re hitting a plateau, or your strength numbers are not going up very quickly with just doing a random WOD. Even though CrossFit encourages “constant variation”, a smart CrossFit program still has movements that need to be performed frequently for progression and results. If you are curious about what makes a good program, you can go to our article “3 Things Every Training Program Should Include” to find out more.
Study Reviews and Citations
This study examined two groups, which were novice versus experienced CrossFitters. Obviously, the performance was going to be greater in the experienced CrossFit group, but something worth noting is in the conclusion they clearly state that having experience in the exercises and workout styles directly affects your aerobic performance and power output. They tested 21-15-9 and AMRAP rep ranges. All males within the ages of 21-27. The 21-15-9 was more beneficial to those who have experience. The AMRAP style was not related to experience in CrossFit, but rather suggesting those who try the workout need a higher fitness level:
Bellar, D et al. “The Relationship of Aerobic Capacity, Anaerobic Peak Power and Experience to
Performance in CrossFit Exercise.” Biology of Sport 32.4 (2015): 315–320. PMC. Web. 12 Jan.
In this study, the conclusion states that doing CrossFit style, resistance-based movement patterns can elevate and sustain heart rate to the recommended intensity for health and fitness benefit. This study had two groups that were experienced and novice Cross Fitters. In each group consisting of late 20’s, males and females, weighing around 70-75 kg, they were tested on high intensity interval training and continuous circuit or AMRAP each lasting 21 minutes. The purpose of the study was to test heart rate and rate of perceived exertion. They found that for experienced and novice lifters, both styles achieve high heart rates making it a beneficial form of exercise. The work capacity, however, was greater in experienced lifters, as was expected:
Butcher, Scotty J, and Tyler B Judd. “RELATIVE INTENSITY OF TWO TYPES OF CROSSFIT EXERCISE: ACUTE
CIRCUIT AND HIGH-INTENSITY INTERVAL EXERCISE.” Journal of Fitness Research, vol. 4, no. 2,
In this study performed by Hayden Gerhart at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the conclusion states that CrossFit is an effective form of training and may be more beneficial to maximum strength output than traditional anaerobic resistance training. They tested 38 males, ages ranging from 18-29, who were trained and had been training for 5 months at least. 27 out of the 38 participants had been training for over a year. These individuals were tested on 7 different elements; body composition, flexibility, aerobic capacity, max strength, agility, max power, and muscular endurance. The results show insignificant differences in all of the tested elements except in max strength:
Gerhart, Hayden D., “A Comparison of Crossfit Training to Traditional Anaerobic Resistance Training in
Terms of Selected Fitness Domains Representative of Overall Athletic Performance” (2013).
Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1175.