What's So Wrong With CrossFit? Part 2 - What Could Improve

This is a continuation of part one, where I discussed what I liked about CrossFit and why we (bodybuilders, powerlifters and kippers, I mean CrossFitters) should all hold hands around the campfire instead of slang mud at one another. But in all seriousness, check it out if you haven’t. In this installment, I want to discuss what I think could be improved upon within CrossFit, whether that be programming, attitudes, diet and business.

So BB’ers grab your brown rice.

PL’ers go pick up some McDonalds.

CF’ers pour yourself some bulletproof coffee.

Let’s dig in.

Disclaimer: please keep in mind that this is a GENERAL article speaking about the GENERAL things I see in the CrossFit world, there will always be exceptions to the rule, but that’s why they’re called exceptions.

What Could Improve

Elitism Attitude

The same thing that makes CrossFit great, kind of makes it suck.

In part one, I talked about how much I loved the comradery seen between members. But there is a difference between being supportive of your peers and believing those who don’t fall in line with your squad are inferior. It’s awesome that you’ve just started working out, made some changes to your diet and lost some weight, but this does not make you a superior being. Neither does your Diane time or the fact that you only eat organic vegetables (are organic vegetables any healthier? Find out.)

While all camps have “those people” who have the mindset that it’s my way or you’re an idiot, it seems more prevalent in CrossFit. Speculating, this is most likely do to CrossFit being “in” and attracts many first time exercisers who like to celebrate their new found awesomeness. And no, I’m not talking about the world class athletes at the CrossFit games, again, those are the exceptions.

In the future, I hope that CF’ers can be supportive (all camps need to do this) of not only there own, but of others who are pursuing the same kind of goals, but maybe in a different manner. It sucks that fitness has almost turned into another form of politics or religion where you can’t even bring it up on Thanksgiving or else someone is going to get their feelings hurt.          

One Size Fits All

Although this isn’t prevalent in all CrossFit gyms, it’s still common enough to touch upon. Most people are not trained, nor have the required mobility and stability to perform movements like cleans, snatches or even full squat variations. If you come from an athletic background and have experience with the lifts then it may be a different story, but if you’re a 30-year-old who hasn’t exercised regularly in years, max clean and jerks in 2 minutes probably isn’t the best place to start.

From my experience as a personal trainer, most people can’t even squat correctly. I don’t just ditch the squat and put them on the leg press, instead we start with a box squat while working on their restrictions. When they are ready and comfortable we’ll progress to bodyweight squats, goblet squats, front squats and finally back squats. That’s how exercise should be approached. Progressively doing more over time, even if that means doing 2 inches deeper in a squat. If your client can’t hip hinge, keep a neutral spine or other basic lifting habits haven’t been established, then they shouldn’t be trying to do these movements for max speed that will only further exaggerate their flaws.

I’m sure some CrossFit coaches do a great job of teaching the movements and not forcing individuals into lifts and workouts that they can’t perform, but many don’t.And it takes a little balls to do so. CrossFit has an intense mentality, people want to jump right in and start crushing WOD’s, sometimes resulting in Rhabdomyolysis (also known as Rhambo) which is a severe condition that may occur after high-intensity exercise. Prime candidates are those who USED to be in great shape and approach a workout with the same “I’m a bad ass” mindset, but no longer have the same physical ability and push themselves too hard. (*Note: rhabdo is extremely rare and has very specific symptoms, just because you’re sore after a tough workout does not mean you have rhabdo, clickhere to learn more.)

Outside of the extreme condition of rhabdo, performing certain movements before you’re ready can lead to injuries or simply bad habits that are difficult to fix down the road. So if you’re starting CrossFit (or any exercise program) remember to check your ego at the door. It may take a few weeks or even months before you can properly do certain movements. Continue to work on form and any restrictions and in the mean time perform the movements you’re capable of in order to still get a positive training effect. Tapping the brakes now, may prevent a huge crash early in the race.     

Diet: Performance & Restriction

This was the elephant in the room.

Knowing that I love training, but my true passion lies with nutrition. Before I begin dissecting the Paleo diet I want to make it clear that not every CrossFitter follows Paleo and many of them adjust it (which is great) to suit their needs. Like I stated earlier, everything I’m about to say is a generality and there are always exceptions.

“No wheat? No diary? No sugar? What the hell is left?”

If this isn't funny you need to watch “This is 40″, Paul Rudd says it so well. Here's a paleo friendly clip of the movie. 

 As with most things, a simple Google search tends to provide dozens of different definitions of what actually is “paleo” so I went straight to the source.

The Paleo diet began with Loren Cordain, a professor at Colorado State University. On his website he lists out the “seven fundamental characteristics of hunter-gatherer diets will help to optimize your health, minimize your risk of chronic disease, and lose weight.”

Let’s take a look at each one.

#1. Higher protein diets

This is a great place to start and is almost always the common denominator when it comes to successful diets. In the past few years, protein has shined bright (like a diamond) in the research, showing benefits of increased satiety [1], preserves lean body mass better than low protein diets [2,3,] and consuming greater than the 0.82g/kg body weight RDA is probably a good idea. [4] Can’t say I disagree with the notion that a diet should be high-protein, whether or not the “hunter-gatherer” hypothesis is true or not, the end result (more protein) is a good strategy. I will not get into a history debate (not my expertise) about the efficacy of this diet, but here are some of my initial thoughts about the premise of paleo.

  1. Even if our ancestors were eating this type of food, last time I checked their goal was to survive, not break world records and obtain six-packs.
  2. The idea that ancestors across the world were all eating the same food is pretty comical, they most likely ate what was available to them, which would differ by location and seasons.
  3. There is no evidence (that I’m aware of) showing this type of diet being superior to a macronutrient matched diet.

Ted Talk on Paleo Diet

#2. Lower carbohydrate intake and lower glycemic index 

Guess it didn’t take too long to find a disagreement. A diet based around the glycemic index has failed to show its superiority [5] Raatz, and others concluding “In summary, lowering the glycemic load and glycemic index of weight reduction diets does not provide any added benefit to energy restriction in promoting weight loss in obese subjects.” 

On top of this, there are several reasons why the glycemic index is a poor indicator of a healthy diet. For more information, check out this video.

Low carb + high intensity exercise challenges the status quo to say the least. A recent study by Silva-Lima and others [6], compared a high-carb (70 percent) to a low-carb diet (25 percent) and concluded “A low-CHO diet reduces both performance and total aerobic energy provision during supramaximal exercise.” As with all research, this study wasn’t without flaws, including not matching for protein. The high-carb group consumed 10 percent protein, while the low-carb group consumed 30 percent protein. I’d speculate that if protein would have been matched that the high-carb group would have separated it self even more. Another large limitation, the diets were only followed for 48 hours prior to testing, so it may not reflect long term adaptations.

In a great review [7] of low-carb diets, athletes and body composition by Cook and Haub, concluded that while low-carb diets may be a good approach to decreasing body fat, athletes may pay for it by not being able to maintain high intensity exercise above lactate threshold. “We and others have observed that although fat oxidation may be increased, the ability to maintain high-intensity exercise (above the lactate threshold) seems to be compromised or at least indifferent when compared with consumption of more carbohydrate. That said, clinical studies clearly demonstrate that ad libitum low-carbohydrate diets elicit greater decreases in body weight and fat than energy-equivalent low-fat diets, especially over a short duration. Thus, although low-carbohydrate and high-fat diets appear detrimental or indifferent relative to performance, they may be a faster means to achieve a more competitive body composition.” This becomes critical to almost every athlete, as even ultra-endurance competitions have some sort of high-intensity spurt. HIIT for bodybuilders = high intensity. WOD’s for CrossFitters = high intensity. Prowler pushes for powerlifters = high intensity. Final lap in a 2 mile race = high intensity. You get the point.

Finally, it has been proposed that low-carb diets may provide a “metabolic advantage” by increasing energy expenditure and preserves more lean body mass than high-carb diets. Wait for it…research says other wise. Recently, Soenen and others [13] sought out to answer the question. Is it the low-carb or the high-protein that is providing this metabolic advantage.

Quote “Low-carb’ diets have been suggested to be effective in body weight (BW) management. However, these diets are relatively high in protein as well.”

Conclusions? “Body-weight loss and weight-maintenance depends on the high-protein, but not on the ‘low-carb’ component of the diet, while it is unrelated to the concomitant fat-content of the diet”. 

High protein wins again.

#3. High fiber diet

Can’t argue here. Fiber is essential for health and provides many benefits: increased satiety, lowers cholesterol and maintains healthy bowel movements (big winner!) Fiber requirements can be met through fruits and vegetables, but whole-grains are also a great source of fiber, which Paleo followers avoid.

#4. Moderate to higher fat intake dominated by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with balanced Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats 

It has been estimated that the traditional Western diet provides an omega-6 (w-6): omega-3 (w-3) ratio of 16-20:1. And many Paleo proponents argue that the optimal ratio is near 1:1. Asian cultures have quite the reputation for low rates of cardiovascular disease and observational research, has pointed towards their high-intake of w-3 as a possible cause.

Although, a great review by Harris argues that controlled trials are limited and that decreasing w-6 fatty acids may not be as important as the ratio and increasing w-3.

“Although initially appealing, there are few human experimental and clinical trial data to support this view. This paper reviews av ariety of studies that, in the aggregate, suggest that the ratio is, both on theoretical and evidential grounds, of little value. Metrics that include the n-3 FAs alone, especially eicosapentaenoic (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acids (DHA), appear to hold the greatest promise.

The health benefits of certain fats such as nuts, almondsolive oil and avocados are vast! But here is the head scratcher.

From the charts below, you’ll find olive oil contains 11x the amount of w-6 than w-3′s!


There’s more!

On this chart you’ll notice that most nuts are fairly low in w-3s’, check out almonds!

Despite this, there is research on both olive oil and almonds [11] that shows consumption lowers LDL cholesterol and reduces C-reactive protein (inflammation marker). Although, the research on inflammation and overall health is scant, the other benefits cannot be ignored. 

This leads me to conclude, that it is more important in INCREASE omega-3′s, rather than decrease or avoid omega-6 fatty acids. 

A combined total of 1-3 grams of EPA/DHA will cover your needs. This can be obtained from whole food, a supplement or combination of the two.

Do not fall into the “if some is good, more is better” camp! The American Heart Association has warned against consuming >3 grams daily without medical supervision.

#5. Higher potassium and lower sodium intake

I believe is there validity to this approach, but it needs to be taken with a grain of salt (eh, eh).

First, it is wise to consume foods that are rich in potassium (find some here), that I won’t argue with. And it’s long been known that increasing potassium is just as effective as decreasing sodium for those with hypertension.

But only observational research has found a trend between sodium intake and increased risk of chronic diseases.[8] From previous posts, you’ve learned the limitations of observational research. The belief that high sodium diets are harmful is not backed by all research [9] including the Institute of Medicine.

More recent data [10], showed a negative association with both high (>7 grams) and low (< 3 grams) of sodium, so a more moderate intake would probably be appropriate. Not to mention that the CDC recommends no greater than 2.3 grams of Na/day, which most folks may top that in a meal. An average intake of 3-7 grams is much more manageable.

Not to mention this is an article about CrossFit, so we aren’t talking about people with hypertension, but rather people performing high intensity exercise. Being that sodium is an essential nutrient and as one of the electrolytes, plays a huge role in fluid balance (among other things) which is critical for all athletes. To make a long story short, you most likely do not need to avoid sodium and doing so while also exercising at a high-level can actually DECREASE performance.

Like most things, it’s impossible to give black and white recommendations for sodium but here are some factors to consider:

  • How often do I exercise
  • How much do I sweat
  • Am I a salty sweater
  • Do I notice a decrease in performance while limiting sodium intake
  • Do I exercise outdoors

Forgive me insulin for this shout out!

Although I don’t endorse his low-carb approach or hormone hypothesis for obesity. Gary Taubes wrote an excellent review discussing sodiums unfounded bad reputation. 

#6. Net dietary alkaline load that balances dietary acid 

A 2012 review,  showed mixed results of diets based around the acid-alkaline theory, which states that foods such as meat, beans and dairy are acid producers, while fruits and vegetables “balance” out the overall pH by being alkaline. It should come to no surprise that diets high in fruits and vegetables are good for both health and sport performance.

BUT, our bodies are extremely efficient at maintaining homeostasis (think thermostat in your house) and our blood pH is a great example of this. The research is very limited and I’d conclude that any potential benefits come from a diet based around whole foods and not pH manipulation.

#7. Higher intake of, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and plant phytochemicals

Kind of hard to argue against this one.

Join me in part three, where I’ll wrap up talking about the Paleo diet as I examine the evidence for it’s food avoidance and talk about restrictive diet ramifications.


1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20339363


3. http://nutrition.highwire.org/content/133/2/411.short

4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23739654

5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16177201

6. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/apnm-2012-0467#.UgUHLeDPVG5

7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17617997

8. http://www.onlinepcd.com/article/S0033-0620(09)00127-3/abstract

9. http://cbsnewyork.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/sodiumintakeinpopulations_rb.pdf

10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22110105

11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21421296

12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21421296

13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22935440