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Crossing Swords

CrossFit's defenders and critics square off

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You'd be hard pressed to find an article—outside one written by a CrossFit enthusiast—that reviews this exercise phenomenon without asking some real tough questions about its safety, effectiveness, cost and even the philosophy behind it.

Shouldn't all products, whether good or bad, be held up to such scrutiny? Maybe General Motors, Comcast and Apple grudgingly accept this, but CrossFit—both the corporation and its acolytes—can't seem to take criticism in stride. And there's been a lot of it going around lately.

The New York Times Magazine was the latest publication to take issue with CrossFit and other extreme fitness programs, likening them to nothing more than labor camps you pay a king's ransom to join. "Why not join a roofing crew for a few hours instead? Surely there's a tunnel somewhere that needs digging," sniffs Times columnist Heather Havrilesky.

In response, commenters, many of them CrossFitters, swarmed the online version of the article, posting more than 800 messages. Many were sharply critical of Havrilesky's assessment of the workout routines.

The Times article is only one in a recent wave of brickbats hurled at the sports-fitness brand, which now boasts an estimated 10,000 affiliates. Its critics are as diverse as medical researchers, fitness organizations, sportswriters and social commentators. They've all found a bone to pick with CrossFit, and, no, they're not joining them for a Paleo diet dinner.

Critics and online commenters have likened CrossFit to a cult, insinuating that it's not much more than a paramilitary, post-apocalyptic wet dream. They're fitness preppers ready to take on whatever catastrophe awaits mankind.

CrossFit's own website hints at this on its "What is CrossFit?" page: "We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency—not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable."

CrossFit's founder, Greg Glassman, takes the rhetoric a step further in his CrossFit newsletter, stating "nature, combat and emergency can demand high volumes of work performed quickly for success or for survival."

THE GOSPEL OF CROSSFIT

In her Times Magazine article, Havrilesky describes the austere and formidable environment of the typical CrossFit gym:

"Those stunned by CrossFit's growing popularity are often surprised, given its high price, to discover its spartan ethos: Each 'box' (its lingo for gym) is often just a big empty room with medicine balls, barbells and wooden boxes stacked along the walls. Workouts rotate daily but tend to involve free weights, sprints and enough squats to cripple Charles Atlas. In keeping with its apocalyptic mission statement, the program encourages camaraderie under duress (CrossFitters coach each other through the pain) and competition (names and scores are scrawled on a wipe board and sometimes posted online)."

A former certified fitness instructor and CrossFit participant, who wished not to be identified for this article, said much of the atmosphere she witnessed seem contrived, right down to the grungy workout gear worn by instructors and long-time CrossFitters.

The CrossFit workout is like Navy SEAL physical training taken to an extreme. It's group exercise, done in classes where the workout itself is a competition. There are typically time trials where participants strive to perform the exercises faster than their workout companions.

"The warmup is usually inadequate. It could be jogging around a little bit in the parking lot followed by a little dynamic stretching, which can cause injury by itself," says the former fitness instructor, describing a CrossFit gym she attended.

"Good CrossFit instructors," she said, "will assist in picking appropriate weights for members, but the competitive nature can result in amateurs pushing themselves too far."

However, the fitness instructor said the CrossFit regimen does have some redeeming qualities. "It's a good workout," she says. "The competitive atmosphere makes it fun and motivating. It encourages people to push themselves, but for some it can be too much."

AGRESSIVE DEFENSE

CrossFit does not take kindly to criticisms about its workout regimen. Recently, it sued the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) for publishing a study by Ohio State University researchers led by Steven Devor, an exercise physiology professor.

In the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the Ohio State researchers said that while there were some notably positive results obtained from CrossFit exercises, it hinted that injuries could possibly be an issue.

"Of the 11 subjects who dropped out of the training program [out of 54], two cited time concerns with the remaining nine subjects (16 percent of total recruited subjects) cited overuse or injury for failing to complete the program and finish follow up testing."

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