Crossfit 101: Pros, Cons, and Catchphrases

Photo of two people doing a workout

As I begin writing this, I am sitting at the breakfast table, with my first cup of coffee of the day, preparing myself for a new fitness adventure. Crossfit.

I know, I know. I am the Get-Fit Guy, how can this be the first time I have done CrossFit? It’s 2017 and Crossfit is certainly not new. Well, let me tell you: I have raced 10ks, Half Marathons, Full Marathons, Triathlons of every distance, done Zumba, Barre classes, Mass Gain Programs, yoga, calisthenics, boot camps, spin classes, swim meets, hockey, soccer, tennis, baseball, and I am sure I am missing a few things from that list. But for the first time I am heading to the local CrossFit Box to engage in something I have been hearing about for at least 15 years (CrossFit has been in existence since the year 2000 but I live in Canada and some things take a while to get to us – haha).

Injury Rate

For nearly that entire 15 years, I have also been hearing about a ridiculously high incidence of injury coming from the CrossFit community and honestly, that alone was one of the major reasons why I have steered clear up until now.

So, why now do I throw caution to the wind and decide to brave this body breaker? Well, my answer could be long and complicated. But in a nutshell, not only do I believe in my own ability to say when enough is enough but I have also heard that even the inventor of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, has acknowledged the inherent problems with a workout regime that leaves 19.4 percent of his devotees lining up at physiotherapist, sport massage, and chiropractic offices.

In fact, when I dropped in to ask about the pricing at my local CrossFit Box, the strapping young lad who did the sales pitch clearly directed me to the 2-3 times per week package rather than the 5-7 days a week plan and that gave me hope that they have learned and changed with the times.

In a past Get-Fit Guy diatribe, Ben Greenfield said: “The problem with CrossFit is: A) unfit people who join a CrossFit gym getting pressured into performing advanced exercises with poor form; B) fit athletes getting pressured to compete against their peers even when they’ve already trained hard the day before; and C) CrossFit coaches who can get lazy and simple start creating random workouts because they’re “hard.” But when applied intelligently and with good form, I actually think CrossFit workouts are a great way to get fit fast.” Interesting. Well, there is a new Get-Fit Guy in town, so let’s take another look!

What is it?

According to the official CrossFit website: “The CrossFit protocol is designed to elicit a substantial neuroendocrine wallop and hence packs an anabolic punch that puts on impressive amounts of muscle, though that is not our concern. Strength is.”

Now, as much as I enjoy carrying some extra muscle around these days (for health reasons and also for vanity… I am only human after all) I like the idea that simply packing on weight is not the only goal they have. Getting strong is a lifetime pursuit that all of us should strive for (refer back to What Do We Mean When We Refer to “Fitness”). But let’s unpack the rest of that jargon filled statement from the official website.

Let’s start with “elicit a substantial neuroendocrine wallop.” What exactly does that mean?

Neuroendocrine System

I am going to borrow here from a paper titled: “Stress and the neuroendocrine system: the role of exercise as a stressor and modifier of stress” for the following explanation.

Stress is something experienced by all of us, no matter who we are, and it has both a positive and a negative effect on our lives. Our society has created an environment where there are tremendous opportunities to experience both negative stresses (distress) as well as positive stress (eustress) on a daily basis. Such stressful encounters have profound impacts upon the physiological workings of the human body, both in constructive and destructive fashions. One physiological system that is extremely reactive to stress is the neuroendocrine system. In fact, many clinicians and researchers use the responses of the neuroendocrine system as a means of assessing the stress effects and reactivity of the human body.

Physical exercise is an activity that is known to provoke large and diverse stress responses within the neuroendocrine system. However, chronic exercise training is also known to cause abatement (or a decline) in the stress responses of the neuroendocrine system to certain forms of stress.

However, chronic exercise training is also known to cause abatement (or a decline) in the stress responses of the neuroendocrine system to certain forms of stress.

So if we go back to the CrossFit statement of it’s going being to “elicit a substantial neuroendocrine wallop,” we can extrapolate from what we just learned that applying just enough stress to the neuroendocrine system can be very beneficial but applying too much of a “wallop” would actually cause the strength, muscle growth and fitness gains to slow and perhaps even stop.

How exactly does CrossFit wallop your neuroendocrine system? I mean this walloping doesn’t sound like something you can do at a yoga class or even training for an ultra-marathon.

Before we get to that, let’s first look at the second part of the CrossFit doctrine statement: “packs an anabolic punch.” What does anabolic mean and do I really want to get punched in it?

Let’s start by defining the terms anabolic and catabolic.

Anabolic and Catabolic

Being in a catabolic state means that your body is breaking down tissue. When you exercise, you cause tiny tears in your muscle. The longer and harder you workout, the more damage you cause to your muscle tissue.

Catabolism can be thought of as your body basically wasting away. Three factors contribute to a catabolic state. Not getting any exercise or movement, not eating enough nutrient rich food, and not getting sufficient amounts of rest. An easy way to remember this is that in a catabolic state you run the risk of your body cannibalizing muscle.

Being in an anabolic state means that your body is building or repairing tissue. When you give it an opportunity (like taking a recovery or rest day), your body focusses on your damaged muscle tissue and works to repair. An interesting side note is that it is during this rest period, not during the exercise itself when you actually put on all of your beefcake size.

Anabolism is achieved through three major factors: getting an appropriate amount of exercise or movement, eating enough nutrient rich food, and getting sufficient amounts of rest. In a nutshell, the anabolic state acts as the complete opposite of the catabolic state.

So returning to the CrossFit statement, of “packs an anabolic punch that puts on impressive amounts of muscle” we can see that the copywriters at CrossFit are being a little loose with their terms here. Not that it is completely incorrect but it would be more accurate for them to say that CrossFit “packs an catabolic punch that puts your body into an anabolic state that in turn helps you pack on impressive amounts of muscle.” You can see why they didn’t hire me to do their marketing strategy. I am accurate but not exactly catchy.

How does it work?

How do they deliver this anabolic punch and how is this different than a typical gym? Well, instead of lines of elliptical trainers, stationary bikes, treadmills, universal machines and dumbbell racks, you’ll find in the CrossFit Box barbells, plates, platforms, ropes, rings, jump ropes, medicine balls, kettlebells, and many more bars to perform pull-ups on than at your 24-Hour Fitness. I had heard that you also don’t have to be concerned about dropping your heavy deadlift but that wasn’t true at the CrossFit Box I went to… although that didn’t bother me at all. My mom raised me not to drop my toys but then again my toys rarely weigh more than I do. You’ll also hear more grunting and swearing at a CrossFit box than you will at the local YMCA which is either fun or really annoying depending on your mood, I guess.

At the CrossFit Box, you’ll do a “Workout of the Day” (given the unfortunate acronym WOD), which usually includes something called a met-con (metabolic conditioning session).

I’m a big fan of a WOD as an easy way to outsource your training plan and let someone else do the workout programming for you. As far as I know, the term WOD originated in the Crossfit community.


So how do WOD’s work? Typically, a gym, website, or newsletter will post a daily WOD (often with variations for various levels of fitness levels) and you simply look at that posted WOD and do the workout appropriate for your own ability – which immediately assumes you that have decent self-awareness and minimal ego. Oops.

In this met-con WOD, the group tries to get as many rounds (or reps) as they can in a set amount of time. The moves, lifts, rounds, reps, and various other details of the workout vary from WOD to WOD, so you’re muscles and nervous system are always in a state of confusion (which is a good thing – mostly).

Again the Hemsworth-esque salesman at my local CrossFit Box said that one day you could run 400 metre sprints and do 100 pull-ups, and then the next day you might do kettlebell swings, rowing, and a bunch of box jumps.

As I found out at my first session, CrossFit pushes you beyond what you might normally do in the weight room at the YMCA. Instead of doing 3 sets of 10 of this, 12 of that, 15 of the other thing and then stopping – you keep doing it over and over again until time runs out. That is what they mean when they say “for time.”

So, once again returning to their sales pitch: “The CrossFit protocol is designed to elicit a substantial neuroendocrine wallop and hence packs an anabolic punch that puts on impressive amounts of muscle, though that is not our concern. Strength is.” We can now verify that by confusing your nervous systems (and your muscles) by throwing a different workout at them each time you do your WOD and by doing everything “for time” and attempting to beat that time each time you step in the CrossFit Box, you certainly are walloping your neuroendocrine system and punching your anabolism. But is that really going to pack on muscle and build strength in the best, fastest and safest way possible?

Will it work?

Well, CrossFit does have its plusses for sure. It is fun and satisfying to work that hard and congregating at the Box is a nice way to meet people who have a similar penchant for self-punishment. Plus the workouts are freakin’ tough, involve doing some cool moves, and you will see results if you stick to it.

But I want to dig into a 2009 paper called Molecular responses to strength and endurance training: are they incompatible? from RMIT University, which found “combining resistance exercise and cardio in the same session may disrupt genes for anabolism.” Which is a fancy way of saying that combining endurance and resistance training impaired muscle’s ability to fully adapt to either.

Which is a fancy way of saying that combining endurance and resistance training impaired muscle’s ability to fully adapt to either.

The study also found that doing cardio before resistance training suppressed anabolic hormones such as IGF–1 and MGF, and on top of that, doing cardio after doing resistance training actually increased muscle tissue breakdown.

Several other studies found similar outcomes. A study called Concurrent strength and endurance training: from molecules to man, found that “activation of AMPK by endurance exercise may inhibit signaling to the protein-synthesis machinery by inhibiting the activity of mTOR and its downstream targets.” Other studies from the Waikato Institute of Technology, and the University of Jyvaskyla (Finland), agreed that training for both endurance and strength simultaneously impairs your gains on both fronts.

Does this mean CrossFit won’t do anything for your strength or endurance? Well, no. Any workout with some intensity, combined with the right amount of rest, will certainly benefit your fitness level. But if you truly want to Hulk up (yes, I worte Hulk not bulk), or if you want to really max out your aerobic capacity, science says that CrossFit is not your first choice. Science says that the most effective way to both build strength and improve aerobic endurance is to separate your weight lifting from your cardiovascular exercise.

Now how does CrossFit’s mission statement stack up now? Well, let’s try another rewrite: “The CrossFit protocol can elicit a substantial neuroendocrine wallop if you have the self awareness to push just hard enough and, if done correctly, packs a catabolic punch that elicits an anabolic response that can put on some muscle but not as much as you would if you weren’t also maxing out your cardiovascular system.” Wow! I think I have a hit on my hands.

Back home at the ranch…

A couple weeks have passed now since my first CrossFit workout and I am waiting for an introductory session to start. There is a mandatory 10 class intro period where you learn how to do all of the various workouts safely and effectively. The presence of this mandatory training session again helped allay the injury fears I had for all those years I spent avoiding CrossFit. I had the choice to do the 10 sessions in a one-on-one setting or with a group and I chose the group because sweating your butt off is always more fun with other people – am I right?

In preparation for my sessions, I am studying some olympic lifts and I went out and purchased a jump rope. Embarrassingly enough, doing 100 jumps was the most vomit inducing part of the workout for me. And that will not stand!

Like many things in the fitness world, skipping has a lot to do with efficiency and I was clearly not being efficient. Luckily, humans are masters of efficiency. Due to our inherent laziness (and I don’t mean that in a particularly bad way in this instance) with pure repetition and little else, our bodies will automatically find the most efficient way to do something. So I have been skipping rope a few times a week now and I can nearly do 100 without feeling my breakfast sneaking back up from whence it came.

Since I am more interested in learning something new than I am in bulking up more or ever trying to recreate my marathon PR of 5 years ago, I will go forward with my CrossFit plans and check back in with you once I have a few months of CrossFit under my belt.

My Approach

I have to admit that I am already planning to take more days off than the normal CrossFitter might and if I don’t see the gains I am hoping to, I will likely add in some heavy lifting days. And if my 10k running time starts to falter or my hill climbing ability on the bike starts to wain, I will also add in some sport specific workouts. For those of you who are interested, it will likely look like this:

  • Day 1: Crossfit + easy recovery run
  • Day 2: Crossfit + short swim or bike intervals
  • Day 3: Rest (foam roll or maybe a massage)
  • Day 4: Lift Heavy (no cardio)
  • Day 5: Cross fit + easy recovery run
  • Day 6: long aerobic run or bike + swim drill workout
  • Day 7: Rest (maybe light yoga)

I will also strive to be the guy at the back of the class who is more preoccupied with form than reps, equally focussed on recovery and WODs, and I plan to never look like the unofficial CrossFit mascot “Pukey the Clown” if I can help it. Given my current jump rope prowess, I make no promises.