Tuesday, November 16, 2010

CrossFit Gyms: Your Mileage May Vary

(Photo: Amber Karnes)

ACE -- the American Council on Exercise -- has a lengthy write-up and assessment of CrossFit on its website. According to the author, Fabio Comana:
The consensus from two dozen individuals with whom I spoke, ranging from consumers who have participated in CrossFit training to Level 2 CrossFit trainers, is much in line with my own personal observations and impressions after performing several CrossFit workouts over the past two years:
  • You can achieve great results.
  • You may quit because the programming is too difficult.
  • You can get hurt.
And on the whole, I agree with these three points. (Sure, I have nits to pick, but others have already done a bang-up job of critiquing the piece.)
Since starting CrossFit in June, my athletic performance has continued to steadily improve. My strength, power, speed -- all have seen remarkable gains. I don't know if I've made myself clear, but I love this stuff.

But have there been times when I've considered throwing in the towel? Hell, yes. CrossFit is extremely challenging -- sometimes to the point where I'm not sure I can face the music. There are certain WODs or exercises that I can't wait to tear into (e.g., bodyweight-focused ones), but there are days when I show up to class to discover that the workout involves rowing 2000 meters or cranking out some insane number of snatches, and I just want to turn around and head home. (To be honest, though, it's not like I didn't have similar feelings about Insanity.) Thankfully, the good days outnumber the bad ones -- and the bad ones have helped push me to shore up my weaknesses.

As for injury, I haven't yet experienced any (aside from a few minor scrapes, bruises and ass-rashes). But as many detractors of CrossFit are quick to point out, CrossFit thrives on a "garage gym" culture of working out at home, without supervision or instruction -- other than what is gleaned from the CrossFit Journal and various YouTube videos. And even if you join a CrossFit affiliate, the quality of the training can be wildly inconsistent. As Comana writes:
During my most recent visit to a CrossFit facility, I specifically asked the trainer to take me through the basics and to show me how CrossFit accommodates novice exercisers. I was fortunate to work with Trish Davis, a very diligent coach who was cognizant of the needs of a beginning exerciser. Davis led me through a beginner workout with discussion on substitutions. I was impressed with her coaching cues and instruction, and her ability to demonstrate options and progressions. 
However, I question whether she represents the coaching norm because during that same visit I observed two individuals working with a different coach performing “thrusters” and I was less than impressed with their poor technique and lack of cueing by the coach. While Davis’ skills and proficiencies as a coach where very evident, the menu and intensity I followed was still aggressive to the point where any individual demonstrating some level of dyskinesis would have to compensate to accomplish most of the dynamic movement patterns (warm-up) and exercises. 
I respect the fact that the CrossFit business model operates on affiliate centers, which makes it a logistical challenge for headquarters to ensure the highest quality of education and coaching at all centers, but if a business plans to deliver such a service, then they must be accountable for due diligence and ensuring the delivery of high-quality training at every location.
(Photo: Dain Sandoval)

This isn't a new critique; many have pointed out affiliate owners need only attend a weekend certification and pass a straightforward test. When it comes to quality control, there ain't much -- aside from market forces. And plenty of affiliate owners have expressed similar concerns. As Robb Wolf -- author of "The Paleo Solution" and a former CrossFit affiliate owner himself -- has said (in the same blog post in which he described being abruptly fired as CrossFit's Nutrition Cert guru):
The CrossFit community has seen monumental growth. In many cities there are 4-8 affiliates within literally eyesight of one another. Disparities in training, business systems and culture have raised significant anxieties for affiliate owners. What if all the prospective clients in an area are “turned off” to CrossFit by poor training or injury? What if something happened in a gym with a similar name and you are confused with that affiliate? 
CrossFit HQ’s stance on this topic has been an analogy of Starbucks and the fact there are “multiple Starbucks on some city corners." Indeed there are, but this is a ridiculous comparison. Starbucks is a centrally owned business with solid, consistent business practices. CrossFit affiliates are unregulated and highly variable from location to location. Anxiety about the quality of a neighbor that essentially SHARES your name is valid on the part of the affiliate owner. The HQ position: “quality will win out” provides remarkably little solace for those affiliates who have neighbors who have driven down prices and possibly alienated clients with poor training.
I happen to be lucky: When I started CrossFit, I happened to stumble into an affiliate where workouts are done under close supervision by a trainer who has tons of previous experience as an Olympic lifting coach, kettlebell instructor and pro athlete. Lots of emphasis is placed on proper form and safe technique. And because I work out at 5 in the morning, there are typically fewer than five of us in class, which means we get a ton of individualized attention. When our movements deteriorate, we get called out. Loudly.

But I sometimes wonder: What if I'd joined one of the other half-dozen CrossFit boxes within spitting distance of my home? How can a beginner figure out which CrossFit gym to join?

I understand that not everyone has a choice of CrossFit gyms. Some folks live in areas with just one -- or many none -- to choose from. (If you're stuck with a bad gym or none at all, you can certainly still CrossFit by stocking up your home gym, but you'll want to be hyper-diligent about learning proper techniques and not overloading yourself with reps or weights until you doing everything perfectly. Definitely do some serious reading about O-lifting, for example, before attempting any kind of heavy lifting.) But in plenty of places -- especially in metro areas in North America -- you can't throw a rock without hitting a CrossFit box. And choosing which one to join isn't easy.

Ideally, CrossFit HQ would implement a consistent audit program to regularly assess the quality of trainers and gyms that fly the CrossFit flag -- and then publish the results for all to see. But until pigs start flying out of my ass, we'll have to settle for the following:

  • Read reviews and ask around. Check online for reviews. Yelp is a decent place to start, but you can also post questions on the CrossFit discussion forums about gyms. Or just ask around, and you may very well run across someone at work or in your neighborhood who does CrossFit workouts at a local affiliate. Find out what they think about the gym, the coaches, the community, the class sizes, the equipment -- and most importantly, the quality of the instruction.
  • Talk to the coaches -- in person. Visit a box, and ask a coach or trainer about the programming and their experience. Does the box just follow the main site's random workouts? Does it subscribe to a Maximum Effort Black Box Model? What do they think about periodization? Does the gym offer an "on-ramp" program or beginner's classes? What nutritional approaches do they recommend? Do the coaches have training experience prior to doing CrossFit? What certifications do they have? What experience do they have with O-lifting or plyometrics or mobility or rowing or kettlebells? How long have they been doing CrossFit? And frankly, do they appear to be fit and healthy? Or do they look a little, well, soft?
  • Try a workout. Not a full WOD (unless you're already an experienced CrossFitter) -- a beginner's workout. The point isn't to get killed; it's to see how the coach guides you through the routine. Does he or she offer the level of encouragement and prodding that motivates you? Does the coach offer instruction on safety, technique and form? Do you find the instruction specific and detailed enough to implement on the fly, or is the coach just yelling: "GO FASTER! MORE INTENSITY!"? Do you want to work out with this person, or punch 'em in the face?
  • Shop around. There's a guy in my class who did a trial week with each of three different boxes before signing up with ours. He was able to assess for himself the quality of the coaching, as well as the physical spaces in which classes were held. (Do they have enough equipment? Where do they run? Where do they do wall-balls?) Most boxes will offer a daily or weekly rate, and by shopping around, you'll have the benefit of gaining some firsthand knowledge about the way the gym is run before making a longer-term commitment. (Speaking of longer-term commitments, almost all CrossFit gyms offer pay-as-you-go, month-to-month deals. If you find one that requires the same sort of "registration fees" and long-term contracts that are found in globo gyms, I'd recommend hightailing it out of there.)
These recommendations are obviously not rocket science, but if you're confused about which of several local boxes to join, figuring out the answer isn't always easy. Sadly, without CrossFit HQ taking a more active role in ensuring consistent quality across coaches and boxes, some patience and shoe leather are still required.

But it's well worth the time and effort. I couldn't be happier with my box. (I take that back: If we did a little less rowing, I'd probably be a tiny bit happier.)