15 Nov New CrossFit Study: Does CrossFit Really Work?

CrossFitPicWell, there’s a new published study that has some really interesting findings about the widely popular and growing CrossFit style of training.

I definitely get excited about new research.

Why? Because each study offers valuable information that we can learn from.

I’ll tell you the good, the bad, and what you need to take into consideration about this new study.

The new study is titled CrossFit Based High Intensity Power Training Improves Maximal Aerobic Fitness and Body Composition in the November, 2013 issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning.

The goal of the study was to find out whether CrossFit style training (or HIPT, known as high intensity power training) would improve aerobic capacity and body composition.

Here are some of the defined characteristics of HIPT (high intensity power training): 

  • uses high intensity resistance exercise with many different multiple joint movements
  • incorporates such exercises as squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, and overhead presses (ex. Olympic lifts)
  • also uses other common exercises such as gymnastics movements like rings, handstands, and parallel bar work
  • workouts are done for “best time,” while other workouts are done for “as many rounds as possible” (AMRAP) style
  • WODS or “workouts of the day” are performed with the goal of completing the exercises as quickly as possible
  • HIPT training sessions often include a “random selection” of exercises, in order to achieve the previously mentioned goals

Let’s take a closer look at the data that was presented.

The study investigated 10 weeks of CrossFit training and the effects on aerobic capacity (V02Max) and body composition in healthy adults.

Participants were of all backgrounds and levels and were trained at a CrossFit facility.

A big question about any study is how many participants were enrolled in the study?

The larger sample size, the stronger the data.

There were 54 original participants in this study, with 43 completing the program and returning for follow up testing.

2 people dropped out due to time constraints, while 9 others (16%) dropped out due to overuse or injury.

The data for this study is based on 43 subjects, which is about average for a study like this.

It’s not overwhelming and it’s not ridiculously small either (but a larger sample size would certainly help).

Another important point about the participants is that they all had already been following a “Paleo” diet that was maintained through the entire 10 week training program.

This is important to consider because body composition changes have been previously reported with “Paleo” based nutrition programs.

The 10 week training program consisted of typical CrossFit based (HIPT) training which included basic gymnastic skills, multi joint, functional, resistance exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts performed as quickly as possible (low rep, high percentage of 1-rep max).

Also included were advanced bodyweight exercises, kettlebell exercises, running, jump rope work, and “plyometric training.”

(*NoteThe complete 10 week WOD programs were contained in the published study in the JSCR.)

Again, some exercises were performed for “best time,” while others were performed in the AMRAP style (as many rounds as possible).

So, what did the study show?

The study found that after 10 weeks of training, HIPT significantly improved maximal aerobic capacity and body composition in individuals of all fitness levels and genders.

There was an observable reduction in body fat across all groups in the study, but as previously mentioned, it is impossible to conclude that the body fat reduction was entirely due to the HIPT program since all participants were implementing a “Paleo” based diet.

What could be concluded is that HIPT and “Paleo” is a successful combination to promote positive body composition changes in the broad population.

Aerobic capacity (as measured by Vo2 Max) was also notably improved in all groups.

Aerobic benefits were achieved with the methods of HIPT, regardless of fitness level or gender.

What was interesting about the aerobic capacity improvement is that previous studies (in high intensity interval training) have not shown a benefit for improving Vo2 Max in “well-trained” subjects.

However, there was an improvement in aerobic capacity in “well trained” subjects in this study (although I’m not sure how many subjects this actually represents).

This is interesting because it’s says that “previously trained” athletes may improve aerobic capacity with HIPT (*this will require additional research).

Now, what about injuries?

This is a legitimate concern with HIPT.

Remember from earlier that 16% of the participants did not complete the training due to reported overuse or injury.

16% is a significant drop out rate (again 9 out of 54 subjects withdrew from the study, specifically as a result of reported injury).

This is despite the supervision of a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and an ACSM certified registered exercise physiologist (*it should be noted that there are still questions around the specific training background and scope of practice with the supervision here).

This injury rate is only the rate that is reported in this published study, but there are certainly many other injury reports in the “real world” population as a result of HIPT.

I’ve heard this myself and I’m sure you probably have, as well.

For HIPT to improve, this kind of injury rate will need to be reduced.

HIPT is an “extreme” training regime, there’s no question about it.

And, anytime you’re doing the things mentioned above (i.e. doing exercises “as fast as possible”), technique will be sacrificed.

When technique is sacrificed, there WILL be an increased risk for injury.

This isn’t rocket science, it’s just common sense.

Should you question the risk-to-reward with this type of training?

Absolutely you should.

Question everything, not only with HIPT, but with all forms of training.

Since the “above average” and “well above average” participants had relatively small improvements in body composition and aerobic fitness, this population may find the risk of lost training time due to injury isn’t worth the incremental improvements.

My own training philosophy doesn’t align with the HIPT training characteristics listed above, however, each of us owes it to ourselves to fully understand the nature of the training methods we choose.

We all have the ability to choose the path we take to get us to our goals.

But, we damn well need to understand the risks and rewards of our choices and have a rock-solid rationale in place for the actions we take.

There, I said it.

Getting back to the study, it’s good data to build on, but like any other study, it’s just a starting point and a small piece of the puzzle.

CrossFit is growing and it’s probably here to stay, but people need to better understand what it is and what it can do (the pros and cons).

Honestly, I was excited to see this article, take a deeper look, and share the revealing facts.

What’s the bottom line?

In summary, I believe it’s these 5 key points.

  1. The study found that HIPT (CrossFit style training) provided aerobic and body composition benefits in 43 subjects over 10 weeks.
  2. The body composition benefits were combined with “Paleo” nutrition, so we cannot conclude the body composition improvements were due to training alone, but rather the combination.
  3. To improve aerobic capacity, HIPT offers an alternative method compared to traditional long duration, slow endurance training.
  4. Risk-to-reward ratios should be carefully taken into consideration with HIPT, since there is potential for musculoskeletal injury, most likely due to the ‘extreme’ nature of training.
  5. Further data is needed make better conclusions on HIPT.

CrossFit has a strong following, no question.

And, like many things in life, there’s always pros and cons.

In full disclosure, I am not a “CrossFitter” as you may have guessed by the previous mention about my training philosophy.

But, I’m not here to bash any training system just because I’m not in agreement with the training methodology and philosophy.

Not at all.

I’m just passionate about science and I enjoy looking at studies with an open mind from an objective standpoint.

The data is the data.

It’s your choice what system you follow, but you should know the facts and truly understand the methods.

Due your due diligence is the key take away here.

The facts and methods are presented, so the choice is yours to make.

What is my training philosophy?

In the simplest terms it’s train strong, train smart, and always train safe.

Scott Iardella writes about strength training methods to optimize health and performance. If you enjoyed this article, join a strong and growing community of passionate fitness enthusiasts and subscribe below to get a ton of cool, free stuff!  
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  • Matt Dickson
    Posted at 18:49h, 15 November Reply

    Thanks for that post Scott. Very informative. I have talked so much shit about CF. I have 3 legit problems with it;

    1. the overhead KB swing
    2. the kipping pull-up;
    3. high rep OLY lifts

    All three which have the common denominator of poor form. Most of the shit I’ve talked about it however, has been in response to the elitism.

    I realized a while ago that it’s here to stay. And, rather than shit talk their elitist attitude, I should learn what I can from the CF business model. Because, it isnt fitness that drives that juggernaut, it’s community.

    • Scott
      Posted at 09:07h, 17 November Reply

      Interesting response Matt.
      Yeah, the community part of CrossFit is a big part of the success, for sure.
      It’s a whole different way to train, but I think people should really understand the ‘methods behind the madness.’
      And, if they do that and it’s a fit for them, they hey, more power to them.
      Like I said, we all make our own choices. We just have to be smart about it.
      Thanks for the comment. Scott

  • Govani Weber
    Posted at 07:07h, 16 November Reply

    Scott, great article. I respect your comment about not bashing cross fit. So many times in the strength community I read about people bashing cross fit. Ive trained with Kettle Bells for the last 4 years with one of the best instructors on the east coast, so I love KBS. Ive dabbled with OLY lifts, need way more wrist flexibility. Ive been to cross fit type gyms and done really well with the workouts. Cross fit is basically a form of circuit training. The only real issue I have is complex movements for speed and instructors who really don’t know how to instruct the moves properly. For instance, the TGU was not meant to be fast, can you speed it up a little with good form, sure, but you need to have good form first ! The TGU can be programmed into a workout, It just has to be programmed right ! I don’t like the Americana swing , Its not healthy for the shoulder girdle as well as the back/spine and a Hard style swing is just safer and a lot better, allowing one to use a lot more weight. The kipping pull up, nothing wrong with that if you can do a couple strict ones first, again learn form then move on. Ive found that I love the commradery of crossfit, I like the variety and yes, its great for body composition. Form and programming are my only issues. That being said, I still program strength only workouts too, and yes a few bodybuilding workouts as well !


    • Scott
      Posted at 09:14h, 17 November Reply

      Thanks for the comments and good points.
      Seems like you already understand the pros and cons, so that’s great.
      It’s a different system of training and there are things that don’t make sense to me about it, but we all make our own decisions.
      Technique is one of the most important things in my own training, if not THE most important, so that’s a big reason it’s simply not
      a fit for me (and many other reasons).
      But, I do agree, there are definitely some things that are done well, such as the community, variety, and now there’s some research out there.
      Like I said, there’s pros and cons, we just have to know whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

  • wendy
    Posted at 13:25h, 16 November Reply

    this piece of research is an interesting and informative bit of qualitative data. there is much to gain from it. and it leaves me with lots of questions, too.

    was there a control group or any kind of comparison group? at all? clearly it was not a double-blind randomized study, but did they look at a comparable group who did nothing exercise-wise? who did nothing exercise-wise but followed a paleo diet? who did a 10 week program at another kind of training facility — more traditionally based or less traditionally based (maybe movnat or parkour or other)? did they control for factors within the subjects which draw them to crossfit boxes?

    thanks for your fine work in sharing research.

    • Scott
      Posted at 09:19h, 17 November Reply

      No control group and not a double blind randomized study.
      All the participants had baseline Vo2 and body composition assessment, then were measured at follow up after the 10 weeks.
      All subjects followed a paleo based approach and HIPT through the study. Lots of questions around this, though.
      Again, like all studies, there were flaws and things that were missed, so this is just a starting point and a small piece in the puzzle.
      Good observation and question…

  • Omar
    Posted at 10:03h, 21 November Reply

    I’d fall into the category of drop outs due to injury. In 2010, a coworker introduced me to his crossfit gym and I decided to give it a try. They introduced me to barbell squats. After a couple of tips the class was working on that lift. I had pain in both knees but I figured that was normal. I pushed through it. I continued doing my squats and dealing with the pain because of the never give up mentality crossfit preaches. One day they had the group do duck walks. That day my right knee finally gave out and my crossfitting days were over.
    My knee fully recovered 2 years later. Ironically the same exercise that hurt my knee helped to rehab it. I learned about Starting Strength and bought the book which describes the proper way to squat in brutal detail. I learned that I wasn’t properly coached in that lift. Over time with proper form I was able to work up to a 400lb back squat.
    Here are my thoughts on crossfit based on that experience:
    1. They do lifts that require good instruction along with observation and feedback. Due to the large class sizes not everyone gets the attention they need. perhaps the quality of the instruction is not so good in some cases.
    2. Time based workouts are accidents waiting to happen. I’ve seen people sacrifice form for time. No good can come from that especially with bad form on the more technical lifts.

    I’m not saying crossfit is bad. Just my thoughts based on my experience. Obviously it works for most people so they have to doing something right.

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