What's The Matter With CrossFit?

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On May 12, CrossFit filed suit against the National Strength and Conditioning Association, claiming the NSCA's Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study based on "'junk' science" to suggest that the fitness program "causes injuries at a high rate." The motive, the suit alleges, was to undermine CrossFit's lucrative and steady business of certifying trainers, for which the NSCA is a competitor.

We mentioned the case a couple weeks ago, but it's worth a closer look, if only because it exposes the fitness company far more effectively than the NSCA study ever did. In the lawsuit, all of CrossFit's neuroses emerge, as does its inner asshole. It's what you might call a full-body workout.

Published online in February 2013 and then later in print in November by a group of scientists from Ohio State, the study evaluated 54 CrossFit participants in Columbus over 10 weeks of training. (It was the first analysis of its kind, according to the scientists.) Finally, it seemed, here was a little scientific rigor being applied to the extravagant claims made on behalf of the wildly popular fitness program. Is CrossFit's style of "high-intensity power training" any good, or is it just a modern brand of snake oil for a modern brand of broseph?

The study's conclusion: CrossFit works. Participants burned fat and expanded their VO2 max. The authors wrote: "[W]e can infer from our data that a crossfit-based HIPT training program can yield meaningful improvements of maximal aerobic capacity and body composition in men and women of all levels of fitness."

This was a straightforward endorsement, couched in the careful language of scientific inquiry. But instead of celebrating, the CrossFit faithful began sharpening their pitchforks. Why? Because of a single statistic, cited by the authors once in passing:

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

And once again in a paragraph expressing carefully hedged concern over CrossFit's understudied injury rate:

A unique concern with any high intensity training program such as HIPT or other similar programs is the risk of overuse injury. In spite of a deliberate periodization and supervision of our Crossfit-based training program by certified fitness professionals, a notable percentage of our subjects (16%) did not complete the training program and return for follow-up testing. While peer-reviewed evidence of injury rates pertaining to high intensity training programs is sparse, there are emerging reports of increased rates of musculoskeletal and metabolic injury in these programs

The "notable" was perhaps a stretch, given both the small sample and given that the nine CrossFit casualties were established in conversation with a trainer at the gym, according to one of the authors. It was little more than a footnote, though, a way for the study to say, in its cautious way, that look, CrossFit probably isn't perfect.

But those two mentions were enough to work CrossFit's adherents into a frenzy. When Outside referenced the study in a piece about CrossFit-related injuries, fans of the fitness program tried to "discredit the story, the research, and Outside," Warren Cornwall wrote in a follow-up, calling the reaction "berserk."

Why did defenders of CrossFit waste their furor on a minor point in an otherwise wholly complimentary study by respected scientists in a peer-reviewed study? Why did they wage war on Outside, a magazine not known for its hostility to fitness fads? Why has CrossFit itself sued both the parent organization of the journal and the scientists themselves? To understand CrossFitters' behavior, you have to first understand how CrossFit sees itself.

"We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency," its website says. The annual CrossFit Games claim to crown the "Fittest Man and Woman on Earth." "Best." "Fittest." CrossFit's identity centers not only on being effective but on being better than anything ever. One of the study's authors, Steven Devor, sneeringly but accurately characterized the CrossFit crowd's mentality in a phone conversation with CrossFit's attack dog, Russell Berger: "CrossFit ... is the greatest thing in the world and will cure every disease known to man."

All the triumphalism, however unearned, serves an important purpose: to distract people from the fact that CrossFit is simply branded exercise, done with other people. It's a fad sustained by people's belief that it's something special, something better than anything else on offer.

If this seems faintly religious, consider CrossFit's business model. By design, the company has only two big sources of revenue: trainer certification and licensing fees, which are paid annually by trainers who've opened their own CrossFit gyms, or "boxes." What this means is that the growth of the company relies almost entirely on its ability to evangelize (new trainers) and propagate itself (more boxes). CrossFit is an idea surrounded by an ever-expanding circle of prophets, everyone on the lookout for apostles and apostates alike.

This business model is the source both of CrossFit's ferocious competitiveness—both intra and extramural—and of its noisy persecution complex. Either CrossFit truly has to be the best, or it has to go hard after the people who say it isn't.

When Berger pounced on Devor's study this fall, he argued that he was merely trying to unmask shoddy science, and coming to the defense of the Columbus, Ohio CrossFit gym where the study took place. It first came to his attention when a competing gym posted a message on the Internet urging people to come there instead, because people wouldn't get hurt. "We're sort of a guardian that prevents a full-scale slandering of our businesses by pseudoscience," Berger says.

In April, Russell Berger recorded a phone conversation with Steven Devor. A transcript was published in The CrossFit Journal, a sort of Pravda for the burpee-and-box-jumps set, and then referenced in CrossFit's suit against the NSCA, in the apparent belief that it would demonstrate the ill intent of the scientists. But to anyone outside of the CrossFit bubble, it shows no such thing. What it shows is a clearly intimidated scientist being badgered into a disavowal of an admittedly soft statistic, one that no sane person would've thought was the pivot of the study in the first place.

Russell: So I guess the interest that I have is, when we first started talking about this, you implied that the 16 percent injuries were an accurate reflection of what you expected to see from a CrossFit program, but now you're saying that you don't think that that's true, and it really could have been anything. Is that—?

Steven: Well, yeah—. Again, let me clarify then. I think, is 16 percent the high number? It might be. I mean, Russell, I don't know. I've only done this study once. I mean, I think you could do this study again, and handpick a bunch of people, let's say, that are very good athletes at CrossFit, and you might see extraordinarily low injury rates. But I could do the study and pick a group of people that are unfit, and throw them into a CrossFit environment, and I can—. I would bet—. I bet a month of your salary, that you would see a much higher injury rate then. So, 16 percent might be high. Sixteen percent might be right on. I don't know, that's the number we got—

By the end of the conversation, Devor seems at his wit's end. He'd co-authored a paper that was titled "Crossfit-based high intensity power training improves maximal aerobic fitness and body composition." He'd produced science to buttress the claims of the CrossFit gospel. And yet here he was being bullied over a lone paragraph that had nothing to do with the study's conclusions. "I do feel like," he says at last to Berger, "this is a bit of a witch hunt for a pro-CrossFit agenda." He later told Outside: "There's no way I will ever do research with that workout again. It's just not worth it."

That's a great description of the impasse CrossFit now faces. Desperately wanting approval, it has circled the wagons and worked actively against the very means to its validation. The biggest problem CrossFit has is itself.

Photo: AP Images