The CrossFit Controversy

CrossFit is gaining popularity and momentum—but is it safe?


A CrossFit workout. CrossFit photo via Shutterstock

Perhaps more than any other workout methodology, CrossFit has always been surrounded by controversy. The fitness method inspires little gray area; instead, camps are split into ardent supporters and passionate dissenters.

Founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman, CrossFit is an intense interval training workout that combines cardiovascular exercise with strength training for short but extremely difficult workouts. These sessions are called Workouts of the Day, or WODs, and often contain exercises like weighted squats, Olympic weight lifting, pull-ups, and push-ups. The program emphasizes community and scaling exercises to the individual for growth—but those who oppose it say that’s not the case.

“I don’t believe exercise at that intensity is appropriate for most people,” explains Michael Boyle, a widely-known Boston trainer who works with Olympic athletes and Boston’s professional sports teams. “The analogy that I give most people is, American football is a good game to watch on television, but everyone shouldn’t play.”

While Boyle says he supports some facets of CrossFit, like multi-joint exercise and interval training, he maintains that the system simply isn’t safe for the average person, pointing to the fact that CrossFit uses its own insurance policy as potential evidence for its dangers. “I believe their injury forum is over 300 pages long. I think that there’s some inappropriate marriage of exercises and rep ranges,” he says. “Olympic lifting is a fundamental part of CrossFit. I don’t believe that adults generally make good Olympic weightlifters; it’s just not something that you learn in your adult years, as a rule of thumb.”

Despite doubters like Boyle—who was first brought into the CrossFit debate when the military grew concerned with the high-rate of injury associated with CrossFit for its personnel and consulted him as an expert—studies have come out that support CrossFit, and it still attracts a large, enthusiastic community. One such enthusiast is Rick Callahan, a CrossFit coach at Watertown’s Forever CrossFit.

“The major benefit, I think, is that it gets people doing a lot of safe movements in front of a coach that everyone should be doing in their training anyhow—things like running, squatting, and pull-ups,” Callahan says of CrossFit. “I think there’s very few people that argue that those aren’t things that should be in a training program for just general fitness.”

Callahan says that CrossFit can and should be scaled to any level of fitness, and is not only for the elite athlete. “The creedo that we preach is mechanics first, consistency second, intensity third, and intensity only comes third once the first two are proven to us,” he says. “So if you’re not doing it right and you’re not doing it right often, we would stray from letting you just go for broke and hurt yourself, or go too fast and do something wrong.”

But Boyle says that philosophy isn’t practiced in the actual application of CrossFit, since the method emphasizes competition. “If you put people in group situations and then encourage them to compete with other people in the group, that’s not scaling it to each individual person,” he says. “I think the community can be really venemous and cult-like, and that anybody who disagrees is automatically ostracized,” including high-level CrossFit founders who have spoken out against the workout.

Even Callahan admits that proper scaling does not always happen in CrossFit, likely because many teachers are not qualified. (A level one CrossFit coach is not required to have any degrees or certifications beyond a two-day training session.) “I think a lot of trainers out there are under-qualified, ” he says. “They’re under-qualified to work with CrossFit specifically, but they’re also just under-qualified to work with people. There are just some people that aren’t ready for that pressure.”

That said, Callahan maintains that finding a good CrossFit coach and gym is possible, but that athletes must carefully consider the reputation of a particular gym and go in for consultations. “Most people that try CrossFit under a good, supervised situation with a good coach in a good facility that has a well-fostered community [have] a 100 percent success rate that they’re going to like it,” he says. “But just like there are bad teachers, bad cops, and bad doctors, if you go somewhere where the coach doesn’t know what they’re doing, you could have a bad experience.”