One doesn’t have to search very long on the web to find critiques of CrossFit, there are many, and many of them valid. This seems to be largely down to the fact that it allows (fosters, perhaps) an obsession with the number of ‘reps’, or the time taken to do the workout, over practicing good technique. In essence, the idea of learning skills and then challenging one’s ability to remain skilful under duress is a really interesting idea. If you read any of the CrossFit training literature the same message is frequently repeated – form is everything. There is not an official edict that says “Finish the workout at all costs, never mind your technique”. Unfortunately, this point seems to have been missed by a number of certified coaches who fail to scale workouts appropriately for different people, and fail to teach the imperative of proper technique. CrossFit then earns a reputation for being dangerous, and causing injuries.
I will agree with anyone who suggests that becoming a certified CrossFit coach should be a little harder, but the arguments against Crossfit based on poor coaching are the same as the Daily Mail “How pilates can make your bad back worse..” type articles. Once you get passed the eyebrow-raising headline, the article essentially says ‘if you have a poor teacher, things may not work out too well’. As another blogger (whom I’m afraid I cannot credit, sorry) put it: “Crossfit is not dangerous. Bad coaching is dangerous. Poor movement is dangerous. Ego is dangerous.”
Enough about the problems with/for CrossFit (‘CF’ hereafter). This is about why I love it.
Maybe teaching Pilates for as long as I have (coming up to 10 years) had made me slightly jaded. The pressures of running a business during one of the longest recessions of my lifetime might have played a part too. Before I discovered CF I was still a firm believer in the possibilities of Pilates to work, something like magic, in transforming the lives of people with chronic pain, and other physical challenges, but I had fallen out of love with Pilates, a little. (That may also have something to do with my perception of the dominant trend away from building strength and fostering empowerment in UK Pilates teaching). In stumbling upon CF, and recognising their common threads, I’ve rediscovered my original zest for Pilates.
Aside from the philosophical similarities with Pilates that I referred to here, CF consistently teaches me about myself, in a way that no other discipline or type of exercise has. I’ve run marathons in the past, and done long training runs as part of the preparation, and I certainly found myself looking inward then. It’s probably true that I’ve suppressed some of the memories of what I may have seen. What I remember was the struggle to find a way to overcome physical fatigue, and some pain (and, to be fair, the stakes were high – nobody wants to train for 6 months to run a marathon, and then fail to finish). It also took a long time – both the activity, and the recovery. The soul-searching that I might do during a CF workout is different, and it’s a more humbling experience. On a number of occasions I’ve wanted to give up on finishing a workout, not because I was too physically tired to continue, but because my mind was telling me that I’d had enough. It was quite a surprise for me to discover that (with the motivation of, for instance, seeing my wife carry on when I wanted to stop) I’m capable of pushing myself beyond my previously perceived limits, which opens up a variety of new horizons.
There’s a camaraderie in doing CF workouts with others that I’ve never found in Pilates – perhaps because you’re more likely to be exploring the limits of your capacity. I’ve seen plenty of official marathon t-shirts with slogans that imply that being a marathon-finisher puts you in an elite group. Whilst the sentiment resonates with me, I also find it somewhat obnoxious. At the same time, there’s something about sharing the experience of a workout like Diane (Deadlift 225 lbs, Handstand push- ups, 21-15-9 reps, 3 rounds for time), especially doing it together, that forges connections. (CF is widely recognised for its community-building aspects).
Kristan Clever’s Diane at the 2012 CrossFit Games regionals
If you watched the video, there’s a clue to the humbling element of CF – not only is my ‘Diane-time’ about 10 times slower than the woman featured, it’s also slower than my wife’s (who of course has minimal interest in how long it took). It’s a curious feeling to set about something, believing myself to be bigger and, therefore, stronger, but to find that my wife is actually stronger than me. She’s a very accomplished Pilates teacher, and I admire her teaching a lot, but it doesn’t compare to the feeling of witnessing her steel herself, and push back the limits of her physical capability. For her too, more often than not, it seems that it is pushing past mental boundaries, that extends the physical ones. I’m finding it hard to adequately describe – there are moments at the end of a workout when, gasping for breath, I see deeper into myself than I have done during other physical pursuits. I wonder if it’s too much of a leap to suggest that it helps me make a connection to my primal self – the one that was born to run and hunt and struggle for survival…