There’s not yet a CrossFit gym (called a “box”) on every corner, but it’s safe to say there is one in nearly every city. A quick search of the corporate website shows about two dozen locations in the greater Columbus area, and the company boasts more than 10,000 affiliates around the world.
CrossFit has become almost as notorious as it is widespread, attracting a legion of dedicated fans.
Mitch Potterf runs Fit Club, one of the original CrossFit affiliates in Columbus. He credits the popularity to the programming. “Straight up, it works,” he said. “It’s fun and it’s group-oriented.”
CrossFit cannot be narrowed down to one training style. The exercise is varied, combining aspects of Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, plyometrics and calisthenics.
“CrossFit is a measurable and repeatable structured fitness regimen of basic human movements performed at varying intensities,” explained James Dickey, a trainer at CrossFit Scioto in Grandview.
“A CrossFitter is like a jack of all trades, we specialize in not specializing.”
Inside a “box” you won’t see items found in a typical gym. There are no rows of treadmills or ellipticals. Don’t expect to see weight machines or racks of dumbbells. Instead there are barbells, medicine balls, rings and rowers. At Fit Club, there are even a couple huge wooden logs.
CrossFit prides itself on being different, and difficult.
“Every day is a new challenge,” said CrossFit Scioto member Mary Williams. “Each day is a new chance to get better, stronger, or try that one skill you couldn’t quite get yesterday.”
Make no mistake, the CrossFit faithful believe their workout is harder, more intense, more physically demanding and more mentally taxing than yours. A popular CrossFit mantra brags, “Your workout is our warm-up.”
“Amazing stuff isn’t happening at Planet Fitness,” Potterf said. “We are making people invincible.”
That kind of attitude has earned CrossFit members a reputation for being fanatical. Participants commonly form a tight-knit community. Many members say they met some of their closest friends or even their significant other at CrossFit.
“Some of these other members have become my best friends,” CrossFit Scioto member Emmy Britton said. “I did not know them before CrossFit, but now I can’t imagine my life without them.”
Dickey said he believes the intensity builds strong bonds between people.
“We work out together on a daily basis. We bare our weaknesses, show our strengths, share our insecurities, our tears and our triumphs in front of others going through the same thing, even if only for an hour of side-by-side sweating.”
Potterf echoes that sentiment.
“You take a group of people and you put a challenge in front of them; they either rise or they fall,” he said. “If they fall, they walk away. If they rise, they bond over that challenge.”
Is It Dangerous?
Potterf may sound a little overly dramatic, but consider the immense physical challenge that is a CrossFit WOD (workout of the day). Routines often include dozens upon dozens of reps of an exercise, anything from pull-ups to weighted lifts, often performed under a time limit or for speed. A recent WOD from January 22: 30 medicine-ball cleans, 20-pound ball; 30 ring dips; 30 medicine-ball cleans; 30 chest-to-bar pull-ups; 30 medicine-ball cleans; 30 pushups; 30 medicine-ball cleans.
This highly repetitive style has made CrossFit a target for critics who suggest it puts participants at risk for serious injury.
“There is definitely a perception in the medical field that it is dangerous,” said Dr. Jason Dapore of Ohio Health Sports Medicine.
A CrossFit enthusiast himself, Dapore admits he was initially hesitant to try it because of that perception.
“From a safety standpoint you can certainly get hurt from CrossFit, no doubt about it.”
“Every day is a new challenge. Each day is a new chance to get better, stronger, or try that one skill you couldn’t quite get yesterday.”
Because CrossFit has only recently begun gaining popularity, little research regarding injury risk exists. However, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found CrossFit injury rates to be similar to those reported in powerlifting, gymnastics and rugby.
“There are more bodybuilders who have died from what they do than from what we do,” Potterf said.
Hoping to prove that the sport is not dangerous, Potterf agreed to participate in an Ohio State research study in 2012. The purpose was to find out if CrossFit-style training improved body composition and VO2 max in people of varying fitness levels.
Participants were assessed before and after a 10-week Fit Club program. The results, which were published in 2013 by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), showed significant body-fat loss as well as improved aerobic capacity in nearly all participants.
However, the study’s authors also stated that nine of 11 people who did not return for testing after 10 weeks dropped out because of “overuse or injury.”
Potterf said it was a fabrication, and took legal action to defend both his business and CrossFit.
“It’s about standing up and doing what’s right,” he explained. “Don’t lie. You can’t lie in the pursuit of information.”
(Neither of the study’s authors responded to requests for comment. The NSCA is also being sued by CrossFit, Inc. and published a response defending itself from that suit on its website.)
Potterf insists that at its foundation, CrossFit is not dangerous, but says as with any service, the product is only as good as its provider.
Perhaps the most notorious name associated with CrossFit is rhabdomyolysis, nicknamed “rhabdo.” The dangerous condition is caused by muscle tissue breakdown during intense physical activity and can lead to kidney failure.
In 2005, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman published an article advising gym owners and participants about how to avoid rhabdo. CrossFit also covers the topic in its level one training certification.
Dapore said rhabdomyolysis is more common in college athletes, and doesn’t believe CrossFit carries increased risk. He cautions participants to take measures to protect themselves, though.
“If the rep scheme far exceeds anything you have done in the last few months you shouldn’t be doing it,” he said.
Dickey believes the risk of injury is no more than with any other physical activity.
“Appropriately programmed CrossFit doesn’t push people too hard,” he said. “Lack of education, impatience for results, and ego push people too hard, too soon and those cases are unfortunate.”
Participants also must accept a certain degree of personal responsibility, Dapore said.
“People who are interested in CrossFit need to be attentive and get real comfortable with the movements so they can perform them efficiently or safely.”
Dapore also believes risk lies in trying to do too much, too soon.
“I don’t really think there is a big danger as long as the movements are performed in a safe, correct manner at a weight that is appropriate for that workout.”
Potterf said he believes all people posses the skills needed to perform CrossFit when properly coached, but that not everyone has the right mindset or drive.
“Can we help everybody? We truly can,” he said. But, “When it’s an environment of challenge, people who suck don’t show up.”
When it comes to keeping yourself safe and injury-free, Dapore believes it comes down to quality. “At the foundation, it has to be well-coached,” he said. “For CrossFit, you definitely want to seek out the best.”
Are there bad CrossFit boxes out there? Yes, absolutely. Doing your research and taking the time to find a good match can make a big difference in your experience.
“I strongly recommend that everyone tries CrossFit a few times, since every gym is different and has its own community vibe,” Dickey said. “The most important thing for everyone to remember is that everything is scalable for all ability levels and mentality types.”
Britton and Williams both think CrossFit is appropriate for anyone looking for an extra push or challenge.
“Anyone can do it,” Williams said. “It’s only limited by what you tell yourself.”
The women credit the program for improving not just their physical fitness, but also their self-confidence.
Britton said, “I would not be the same person without it.”
CrossFit’s in-your-face style may not be for everyone, but there is no denying it changes people, both physically and mentally.
“When you daily confront challenges you don’t think you can do and you have success at them, that creates an unstoppable person,” Potterf explained. “Belief makes you unstoppable.”