CrossFit or CrossFad?

The fitness community has a well-established love affair with the latest and trendiest exercise programs. Remember Tae-Bo and Billy Blanks? Jazzercise and Jane Fonda? Spin and Johnny G? Yet despite the hype, these fitness programs and their famous, chiseled originators eventually faded into anonymity.

However, despite our short attention span with exercise programs, CrossFit believers proclaim it’s no flash in the pan, but an effective and efficient exercise practice that benefits from a unique blend of high intensity exercise, Olympic style lifting and gymnastics-related exercise. While CrossFit continues to enjoy immense popularity and has legions of devoted followers, it has been the center of an intense debate between those who believe in the success of CrossFit’s pace and intensity and the vocal critics that believe the program puts its practitioners at high risk of serious injury.

Those that believe in the effectiveness of CrossFit focus on research that highlights the benefit of high-intensity training for athlete and non-athlete alike. CrossFit style high intensity interval training has been shown to have many benefits, including improvement in both aerobic and muscular fitness. This point of view is supported by a recent article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that found high intensity power training programs such as CrossFit improved body composition and aerobic fitness in subjects of both genders and all fitness levels.

However, there are those that believe that this high intensity workout comes with a not insignificant degree of risk. In fact, the same 2013 study above that supported CrossFit’s effectiveness also noted an injury rate of 16% among the participants in the 10-week study. This seemingly small side note ignited a storm of backlash against the study and many of those that warn of CrossFit’s risk. While it’s difficult to truly assess CrossFit’s injury rate, supporters say it’s no greater than other popular activities such as running, gymnastics and triathlon.

However, to cover up the risk of injury in any activity or sport, including CrossFit, is to disregard the obvious. The same high-intensity exercise program that gives CrossFit practitioners an effective means to lose weight and gain fitness comes with a higher risk of injury than lower intensity exercise. Any workout that is repeatedly done at full intensity carries the same risk, especially those that involve technique dependent exercises like Olympic lifting. Going to the track for full-speed sprint training multiple times a week would carry a similar degree of increased injury risk.

Like any other activity, conscientious CrossFit practitioners should emphasize technique over speed and ensure that the riskiest moves be carefully learned before applying intensity. Those that are new to CrossFit should start progressively, especially if just starting an exercise program, to avoid the overuse injuries common to high intensity activity.

Remember, you can’t have it both ways; it’s not possible to be both the hardest workout on the planet and the safest.