Crossfit for Athletes

Posted: April 21, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Crossfit has been taking the fitness industry by storm over the course of the last eleven years. The Crossfit motto is “constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensities.” To further explain their philosophy, it is based around a non-periodized program outline. According to, they want their athletes to be prepared for anything and by doing random workouts everyday this will allow for that adaptation. Crossfit utilizes Olympic lifts, power lifts, and gymnastic style training as their functional movements. The weight is “prescribed” meaning that it is the same for everyone taking part in the workout of the day. All workouts are completed as fast as you can for time to increase the intensity.
Crossfit designs their exercise program in a randomized fashion to best prepare their athlete’s for any task that life will throw at them. This is in contrast to what the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) teach their students. The NSCA and NASM both support periodized models for training.
According to the NSCA specifically, the strength and conditioning coach should provide a planned exercise program to promote improvements in strength, power, and athletic ability without putting the athlete at risk of overtraining (Baechle, 2008). To summarize the NSCA’s theory on periodization they break up each training year into macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. The macrocycle is the largest of them and typically is the entire training year. Each macrocycle is broken up into mesocycles that last anywhere from a few weeks to several months. Lastly, there are microcycles that are typically training protocols that are broken up over a week-long period.
Next, they break up each training year into periods; preparatory period, first transition period, competition period, and active rest. The early stages of the preparatory period are geared towards increasing hypertrophy and endurance, followed by a strength phase, and finished with a strength and power phase. The first transition phase is inserted into the program to make sure the athlete is not overtraining. This is typically a week long phase where the athlete tapers volume and intensity. The competition phase is designed to allow the athlete to peak in his or her sport. The exercise programs are more focused on sport specific tasks and time spent in the gym is decreased to compensate for the extra time spent on the field. Lastly, active rest lasts anywhere up to a month where the athlete gives himself enough time to recover from any injuries he may have suffered during the season. Exercise in this phase should be unstructured and relatively easy (Baechle, 2008).
NASM defines program design as a purposeful system or plan put together to help an individual achieve a specific goal (Clark, 2010). NASM utilizes a periodiztion model that they call the Optimum Performance Training Model (OPT). This model is broken up into six different phases. Before the athlete takes part in the program NASM believes they should go through a corrective exercise period to fix any improper movement and muscle imbalances. Once that is complete they enter the first phase which is the stabilization level. At this level the athlete improves muscle imbalances and core strength. The next phase is the strength endurance phase. This phase increases the athlete’s stabilization as well as promoting strength and hypertrophy. The third phase is the hypertrophy phase. This helps promote muscular development within the athlete. Phase four is the maximal strength training phase. The objective of this phase is to recruit more motor units and improve the rate of force production within the athlete. Phase five is the power phase. This phase is designed to get the athlete to move weight more quickly. The last phase is the maximal power phase. This builds upon the progress made in the previous stage (Clark, 2010).
Studies have backed what the NSCA and NASM teach to their students. One such study was done in 1993 by Darren Willoughby. He tested four groups in bench press and squat strength. He concluded that incorporating periodization increases both upper body and lower body strength more effectively then a workout program with partially equal volumes (Willoughby, 1993). Science and textbooks written from two of the most respected authorities in strength and conditioning support the notion that periodization is key to improving athletic performance while decreasing the risk for injury.
Not following a periodized program can lead to overtraining. Hans Selye was the founder of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). His study explains how our stress response works. It states that when we are introduced with a stressor we react to it to attempt to restore allostatic balance. Just enough stress and we will adapt to be able to handle the stressor. However, too much stress and we will continue to spend our body’s resources on dealing with the stressor. This leads to our immune system being suppressed and eventually can lead to illness (Selye, 1945). Angeli also stated in her article in the Journal of Endocrinological Investigation that athlete’s can see a significant decrease in performance and health from a strenuous exercise program (Angeli, 2004).
Crossfit utilizes a theory that high intensity training brings about favorable results. The amount of stress from exercise an athlete will be able to handle will vary by individual. However, if they are taking part in the Crossfit methodology of training they run the risk of overtraining and getting hurt as well as seeing declines in performance.
All training modalities mentioned utilize the Olympic lifts and the power lifts to increase performance of their athletes. Studies have shown this to be an effective way of increasing athletic performance. A study done by Brian Channell showed that the Olympic lifts were an elite movement in increasing vertical jump height in high school boys (Channell, 2008). The difference in the modalities is in the weight and repetition ranges used. Crossfit utilizes random repetition schemes and the same weight for men and the same weight for women. This means that a 250 pound male will lift as much as a 165lb male for the workout. The weight is not determined according to the athlete’s goals either. Studies have shown that higher repetition workouts will increase muscular endurance and lower repetition with moderate to high weight loads will improve strength (Campos, 2002). If the 250 pound male needs to improve strength for his sport then the weight might not be enough to elicit those changes.
For example, one Crossfit workout is called Fran. This workout consists of a repetition scheme of 21-15-9 repetitions of 95lb thrusters and pull-ups. A thruster is a front squat followed by an overhead press. The 95lb thruster is less than half of the bodyweight for the 250lb male athlete. If the athlete has experience in weight lifting this will be a light weight that he will be lifting for many reps. In a study by Faigenbaum he showed that high repetition with moderate-load weights led to greater gains in muscular endurance (Faigenbaum, 1999). If this athlete wants to get stronger using this weight and rep scheme will not get him to his goals.
Before athletes enter into a strength and conditioning program it is critical that they are assessed for movement dysfunction and muscular imbalances. This can help decrease the risk of injury while also increasing performance. Also, if an athlete is suffering from recurring injuries then an individualized program is necessary for him or her to decrease the risk of that injury. For example, hamstring strains are a common injury amongst athletes. Croisier in his study showed that individual rehabilitation programs focusing on eccentric lifts decreased the risk of hamstring injuries in athletes that continuously suffer from them (Croisier, 2002). This shows the need for individualized training programs. Also, if an athlete is looking to decrease the chance he or she may be injured they also should focus on similar training modalities mentioned by Croisier.
Also, Crossfit utilizes the slogan “The Sport of Fitness.” Participating in any sport with uncorrected muscle imbalances can lead to further injury. In a study done by Knapnik, he showed that that female collegiate athletes with strength and muscle imbalances were more likely to be injured during the season (Knapnik,1991). Crossfit utilizes gymnastics movements such as burpees, box jumps, kipping pull-ups, and handstand push-ups. For an athlete with strength and muscular imbalances this can be a recipe for serious injury.
A complete program should consist of a movement screening test initially to make sure the athlete is not suffering from any muscular imbalances. If it is determined the athlete has imbalances they should be corrected first. From there a proper periodized program should be developed to decrease the risk of injury, decrease the risk of overtraining, and improve athletic performance. The Crossfit methodology does not check for muscular imbalances which science has shown to increase the risk for injury. They do not periodize their program which can lead to the athlete becoming overstressed and increases the risk for injury and disease as was laid out in the General Adaptation Syndrome developed by Hans Selye. Crossfit does not take an athlete’s goals and needs into mind when they program. If an athlete needs to increase strength to increase his performance on the field then he should be lifting heavier weights for a lower amount of repetitions. Also, what is heavy to one athlete may not be heavy to another. There should be individual variance in the amount of weight being lifted by the athletes. Science has shown that Crossfit should not be the first choice as a strength and conditioning program for athletes.
With all that said Crossfit does a great job at creating an environment for people to enjoy fitness. If proper movement screening is assesed and addressed prior to exercise, there is progression not just scalability, and the volume is controlled, and you enjoy doing it knowing the risks then by all means do a Crossfit program and have fun! Sports require much more specific training then the general public trying to find something fun to do for fitness. All sports have risk of injury and as long as people take that approach with starting a Crossfit program then there should not be a problem. That is if proper movement is addressed through screening beforehand. This does not mean learning the movement with less weight. It means going through specific programming to correct the underlying issues of improper movement. Proper movement is the foundation of fitness and if you want to be strong your foundation needs to be strong first.

Clark, Michael (2010). NASM Essentials of Sports Performance Training. Lippincott Williams and Williams. Baltimore, MD.
Baechle, Thomas (2008). Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL.
Channell, Brian. Effect of Olympic and Traditional Resistance Training on Vertical Jump Improvement in High School Boys. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. Retrieved on April 10, 2012.
Faigenbaum, Avery (1999). The Effects of Difference Resistance Training Protocols on Muscular Strength and Endurance Development in Children. Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved on April 10, 2012.
Croisier, Jean-Louis (2002). Hamstring Muscle Strain Recurrence and Strength Performance Disorders. Retrieved on April 10, 2012.
Campos, Gerson (2010). Muscular adaptations in response to three different resistance training regimens: specificity of repetition maximum training zones. European Journal of Applied Physiology. Retrieved on April 10, 2012.
Angeli, A (2004). The overtraining syndrome in athletes: a stress-related disorder. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation. Retrieved on April 10, 2012.
Knapik, Joseph (1991). Preseason strength and flexibility imbalances associated with athletic injuries in female collegiate athletes. Retrieved on April 10, 2012.
Willoughby, Darren (1993). The Effects of Mesocycle Length Weight Training Programs Involving Periodization and Partially Equated Volumes on Upper and Lower Body Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning. Retrieved on April 10, 2012.
Selye, Hans (1945). The General Adaptation Syndrome. The Endocrine Society. Retrieved on April 10, 2012.


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