Does Crossfit Work?

Crossfit began humbly. But since it’s creation in 2000, the intense workout has spread from just one founding gym (or “box”) to several thousand worldwide, with many more thousand loyal adherents and coaches. And, when you look at the anecdotal results of Crossfit, it’s popularity really isn’t that surprising: It seems to work and work well.

But there is a surprising lack of research surrounding Crossfit. That, combined with the somewhat frightening intensity of the workouts, naturally leads to the question: Does Crossfit work? Beyond that, is there anything else you need to know about the routine before you decide to dive in?




Very often, Crossfitters point to any number of studies touting the undeniable benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as a way to support their particular style of workout. This does make sense – technically – since Crossfit could be classified as a form of HIIT. But the studies cited are generally performed using cycling, running or some other workout that is pretty far removed from anything you’re likely to see in a box.

In an effort to specifically test the effectiveness of Crossfit, the American Council on Exercise commissioned John Porcari, Ph.D., head of the University¬†of Wisconsin’s Clinical Exercise Physiology program to lead a study that would answer this question. The study involved 16 healthy, trained volunteers (both male and female) and asked them to perform two different Crossfit Workouts of the Day (WODs). The WODs chosen were called Donkey Kong and Fran, and have both been featured on the Crossfit website to be performed by boxes and individuals.

Before, during and after each of the workouts heart rate, calorie expenditure, blood lactate production, ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) and VO2max were all monitored.

Not all that surprisingly, both WODs were extremely effective by all measurements. The male subjects burned an average of 20.5 calories/minute and the women burned about 12.3 calories/minute – both very impressive for fit subjects who would typically require fewer calories. Both heart rate and VO2 skyrocketed, agreeing with the RPE that these workouts were very challenging for all of the subjects.

So, there you have it: Crossfit workouts. But, that’s not really the end of the discussion.


Things to Consider

Remember that all of the subjects involved were already in fairly good – or even excellent – shape. And these WODs were still very difficult for them to complete. The point is that Crossfit is not for beginners.

In fact, the danger of Crossfit has been widely accepted and even embraced by both it’s creator and his disciples. Cartoon clowns called Pukey and Uncle Rhabdo (short for the potentially fatal condition, rhabdomyolysis) can be found on posters and shirts throughout the Crossfit landscape. Glassman even told the New York Times in 2005 “It can kill you… I’ve always been completely honest about that.”

A big part of the problem is that Crossfit places a powerful emphasis on speed, even at the cost of proper form. This can be an extremely dangerous trade when you’re dealing with Olympic lifts and handstand pushups.

If you do decide to give Crossfit a try, then, know that there is a high risk if you aren’t already in excellent shape. Even then, avoid giving into the pressure to sacrifice your form for speed.





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About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.