A deep dive into the good, the bad, the pros, the cons, the science, and the catchphrases of the fitness movement known as CrossFit.
Physical exercise is an activity that is known to provoke large and diverse stress responses within the neuroendocrine system. However, chronic exercise training is also known to cause abatement (or a decline) in the stress responses of the neuroendocrine system to certain forms of stress.
However, chronic exercise training is also known to cause abatement (or a decline) in the stress responses of the neuroendocrine system to certain forms of stress.
So if we go back to the CrossFit statement of it’s going being to “elicit a substantial neuroendocrine wallop,” we can extrapolate from what we just learned that applying just enough stress to the neuroendocrine system can be very beneficial but applying too much of a “wallop” would actually cause the strength, muscle growth and fitness gains to slow and perhaps even stop.
How exactly does CrossFit wallop your neuroendocrine system? I mean this walloping doesn’t sound like something you can do at a yoga class or even training for an ultra-marathon.
Before we get to that, let’s first look at the second part of the CrossFit doctrine statement: “packs an anabolic punch.” What does anabolic mean and do I really want to get punched in it?
Let’s start by defining the terms anabolic and catabolic.
Anabolic and Catabolic
Being in a catabolic state means that your body is breaking down tissue. When you exercise, you cause tiny tears in your muscle. The longer and harder you workout, the more damage you cause to your muscle tissue.
Catabolism can be thought of as your body basically wasting away. Three factors contribute to a catabolic state. Not getting any exercise or movement, not eating enough nutrient rich food, and not getting sufficient amounts of rest. An easy way to remember this is that in a catabolic state you run the risk of your body cannibalizing muscle.
Being in an anabolic state means that your body is building or repairing tissue. When you give it an opportunity (like taking a recovery or rest day), your body focusses on your damaged muscle tissue and works to repair. An interesting side note is that it is during this rest period, not during the exercise itself when you actually put on all of your beefcake size.
Anabolism is achieved through three major factors: getting an appropriate amount of exercise or movement, eating enough nutrient rich food, and getting sufficient amounts of rest. In a nutshell, the anabolic state acts as the complete opposite of the catabolic state.
So returning to the CrossFit statement, of “packs an anabolic punch that puts on impressive amounts of muscle” we can see that the copywriters at CrossFit are being a little loose with their terms here. Not that it is completely incorrect but it would be more accurate for them to say that CrossFit “packs an catabolic punch that puts your body into an anabolic state that in turn helps you pack on impressive amounts of muscle.” You can see why they didn’t hire me to do their marketing strategy. I am accurate but not exactly catchy.
How does it work?
How do they deliver this anabolic punch and how is this different than a typical gym? Well, instead of lines of elliptical trainers, stationary bikes, treadmills, universal machines and dumbbell racks, you'll find in the CrossFit Box barbells, plates, platforms, ropes, rings, jump ropes, medicine balls, kettlebells, and many more bars to perform pull-ups on than at your 24-Hour Fitness. I had heard that you also don't have to be concerned about dropping your heavy deadlift but that wasn’t true at the CrossFit Box I went to… although that didn’t bother me at all. My mom raised me not to drop my toys but then again my toys rarely weigh more than I do. You’ll also hear more grunting and swearing at a CrossFit box than you will at the local YMCA which is either fun or really annoying depending on your mood, I guess.
At the CrossFit Box, you'll do a “Workout of the Day” (given the unfortunate acronym WOD), which usually includes something called a met-con (metabolic conditioning session).
I’m a big fan of a WOD as an easy way to outsource your training plan and let someone else do the workout programming for you. As far as I know, the term WOD originated in the Crossfit community.
So how do WOD’s work? Typically, a gym, website, or newsletter will post a daily WOD (often with variations for various levels of fitness levels) and you simply look at that posted WOD and do the workout appropriate for your own ability - which immediately assumes you that have decent self-awareness and minimal ego. Oops.
In this met-con WOD, the group tries to get as many rounds (or reps) as they can in a set amount of time. The moves, lifts, rounds, reps, and various other details of the workout vary from WOD to WOD, so you’re muscles and nervous system are always in a state of confusion (which is a good thing - mostly).
Again the Hemsworth-esque salesman at my local CrossFit Box said that one day you could run 400 metre sprints and do 100 pull-ups, and then the next day you might do kettlebell swings, rowing, and a bunch of box jumps.
As I found out at my first session, CrossFit pushes you beyond what you might normally do in the weight room at the YMCA. Instead of doing 3 sets of 10 of this, 12 of that, 15 of the other thing and then stopping - you keep doing it over and over again until time runs out. That is what they mean when they say “for time.”
So, once again returning to their sales pitch: “The CrossFit protocol is designed to elicit a substantial neuroendocrine wallop and hence packs an anabolic punch that puts on impressive amounts of muscle, though that is not our concern. Strength is.” We can now verify that by confusing your nervous systems (and your muscles) by throwing a different workout at them each time you do your WOD and by doing everything “for time” and attempting to beat that time each time you step in the CrossFit Box, you certainly are walloping your neuroendocrine system and punching your anabolism. But is that really going to pack on muscle and build strength in the best, fastest and safest way possible?