CrossFit has exploded in popularity in the last decade, and it’s also exploded in controversy. It’s interesting – people have pretty strong opinions of it either way. For every person who’s a raving CrossFit fanatic, there seems to be another who openly detests it. The joke goes that CrossFit is like the Scientology of health and fitness: You’re either a cultish zealot, an outspoken critic, or you just don’t understand what the hell it actually is if you’re an indifferent outsider.
But you, perhaps a relatively average person like me, may simply have heard about CrossFit, or maybe you’ve seen pictures of enthusiastic Crossfitters who have the bodies of Greek gods, and you’re wondering: Does CrossFit work for weight loss? Is it a good way to to lean out and look great naked? That’s what we’re going to answer here.
What is CrossFit, Exactly?
CrossFit is merely a trademarked brand that encompasses a style of working out that incorporates a wide variety of exercises. More or less, the idea behind it is to achieve well rounded health and fitness. Per the official definition:
CrossFit contends that a person is as fit as they are proficient in each of ten general physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.
CrossFit combines strength training, endurance training, short high intensity interval training, and various skill based movement training into a comprehensive program, often making unique combinations of stuff from each of these normally separate arenas into single workouts.
To give you an idea, here is an example of a a few recent CrossFit Workouts of the Day (WODs):
Example WOD #1
5 rounds for time of:
- 20 wall-ball shots, 20-lb. ball
- 225-lb. deadlifts, 10 reps
Example WOD #2
- Move 700 lb. of odd objects 50 yards and back again
Example WOD #3
- 1-mile run
- 100 pull-ups
- 200 push-ups
- 300 squats
- 1-mile run
Example WOD #4
5 rounds of:
- 5 minutes of rowing
- 5 minutes of rest
There are officially affiliated CrossFit Gyms, or “Boxes” as they’re called, where you can go to do the WOD with a class. It’s kind of like a group fitness camp for adults.
Beyond that, there’s a burgeoning competitive CrossFit scene. People can compete in actual CrossFit meets, the apex of which is the aptly dubbed “CrossFit Games.” The sport has cultivated enough of a spectatorship that elite CrossFit competitors are now legitimate professional athletes.
For a *full* breakdown of the “What is CrossFit?” question, I recommend this nerdfitness.com article. But we’re now ready to tackle the main question: Is CrossFit an effective program for losing weight and leaning out?
Fat Loss 101
If you want to lose weight and improve your body composition, it’s obviously important to understand how fat loss actually works. Despite a multi billion dollar industry having been built around this seemingly esoteric concept, the truth is that fat loss is not actually complicated
Properly controlled scientific trials consistently produce weight loss with calorie deficits and consistently fail to produce weight loss when controlling for calories, regardless of the type of diet.
At the end of the day, if you don’t restrict calories into an energy deficit, you won’t lose fat, no matter how “clean” your diet is, or how involved and specialized your exercise regimen is.
CrossFit, “Bad” Carbohydrates, and The Paleo Diet
I’m not totally sure why, but the paleo diet became very popular within the CrossFit community and vice versa. Due to this intersection, I imagine, I’ve seen multiple instances of the CrossFit community pushing the same erroneous claim that the Paleo community is notorious for pushing: that sugar and neolithic cereal grains comprised of it are inherently obesogenic.
That claim is patently false. Yes, *excessive* sugar is absolutely a major culprit in the obesity epidemic, but only insofar as it’s conducive of excessive calorie consumption. It’s a lot easier to ingest more calories worth of candy, white bread, and soda than of meat and vegetables.
On a quick digression though, interestingly, American sugar intake has actually gone down (albeit slightly) in the last 15 years while obesity continued to rise at the same rate, unchanged:
A lot of CrossFit and paleo aficionados alike have claimed that, even when calories remain the same, that a paleo and/or low carb diet will enhance weight loss over a grain inclusion “conventional” diet. Or, they’ll claim that weight loss will stall indefinitely on a non low carb grain inclusion diet, no matter how much a person restricts calories.
But, again, extensive science has patently contradicted both of these claims. Despite many of them having been conducted, no properly controlled metabolic study to date has ever been able to produce *meaningful* weight loss/gain by manipulating food and/or macronutrient type (high carb, high fat, high protein, ect.) when calories are *truly* controlled for.
That’s not to say that paleo or low carb isn’t ever prudent or optimal. A sensible paleo diet is, of course, orders of magnitude better than the standard American diet, and plenty of people do get amazing 180 degree weight loss results by going paleo. Just understand that, at the end of the day, any such fad diet that actually influences weight loss does so by influencing a person’s calorie intake.
One last pertinent point before we wrap up this borderline rambling section: It is exceedingly rare that something absolutely good or bad. Context matters. A low carb diet might work well for, say, a prediabetic obese person who’s sedentary and perhaps less naturally carbohydrate tolerant. On the other hand, if you’re already decently lean and active, doing glycogen depleting CrossFit WODs 6 days a week, then moderate to higher carb intake will likely be optimal. Also, moderate/high carb and paleo aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.
The Truth About Exercising For Weight Loss
Another multi billion dollar industry has been built around the “what’s the best/required exercise for fat loss?” question. Indeed, countless entities have marketed their program or methodology or gizmo as the key which unlocks the gates to the fat burning castle.
The truth, though – what’s intuitively drawn from the discussion thus far – is that there is no magic exercise, including CrossFit, that exceptionally enhances fat loss. Exercise can help fat loss merely insofar as it increases one’s caloric expenditure related to his or her caloric intake. If both workout A and B burn 500 calories, they’ll have the same influence on a person’s weight loss – workout A won’t have any meaningful fat loss advantage over workout B.
Most importantly, and said again, you must realize that if you don’t have a calorie deficit, no amount or “special type” of exercise will cause fat loss. This is why I repeatedly say that a weight loss strategy that focuses entirely on exercise and none on diet is generally ineffective.
The Crux Issue, As it Pertains to This Blog: Efficiency
Straightforward fat loss is all about getting from point A to point B in the easiest, simplest, and most efficient way possible. Most people who come here want three things:
- To lean out, and thereby get healthier
- To look good naked
- To achieve both of these using as little time and effort as possible
And this is where the CrossFit issue breaks down, in my opinion: It is entirely possible to accomplish those three things with a small fraction of the effort that a daily CrossFitter will likely expend.
From a purely utilitarian standpoint of efficiency, consuming less calories almost always beats out exercising and burning more calories to achieve the same net calorie deficit that’s ultimately required, one way or another, to lose fat. Simply put, not doing stuff takes zero time and effort as opposed to doing stuff, so if you can achieve the same outcome by simply avoiding things rather than doing things, then avoiding things is almost always going to be the best choice for being efficient.
But what about building muscle, and exercising in general? Well, I’d say the same thing holds: a well designed resistance training program can take a mere 60 minutes per week, and will certainly be less effortful than daily CrossFit classes or workouts.
I’m not saying that CrossFit or any other such popular program out there is never useful or never worth doing, I’m just saying that from a standpoint of pure efficiency for improving body composition (which is the driving modus operandi of this blog) minimalist resistance training coupled with an on point diet – which largely entails simply consuming the right amount of calories – is much better for fat loss than a significantly more involved program like CrossFit is.
Other Pertinent Negative Considerations
1. CrossFit is a notorious injury factory
It’s inevitable when you’re doing intense workouts for time in a competitive group environment. You can see what I mean by watching this video of someone performing “Grace,” one of the benchmark CrossFit workouts of completing 30 clean and jerks with 135lbs for time:
Doing things like olympic lifts for speed, in my opinion, is just not a good idea for the Average Joe/Jane, especially if it means sacrificing form, which leads to the next issue…
2. CrossFit lacks quality control
From what I understand, the quality of CrossFit programming and coaching will really depend on the Box, or the gym you go to, and can range from incredible to outright incompetent lunacy. All that’s required to become a CrossFit affiliate and open up a Box is to pass the two day CF L1 certification class and pay the affiliate fee.
Doing olympic lifts for time as a beginner, after having been “taught” how to do the lifts by some bro who might not have anything more than a two day cert class under his belt, is not smart. Good strength and conditioning coaches draw on years of experience from working with thousands of individuals, and if you want to do things like olympic lifts, you really need to make sure someone who’s teaching you knows what the they’re doing or else you might seriously injure yourself.
3. CrossFit is expensive
A typical membership to a CrossFit gym often runs over $200/month. Yes, you get workout programming, hands on coaching (hopefully from a competent individual), and a group environment for paying a premium – I’m just saying that everything comes with a price.
If straightforward fat loss is your primary and perhaps only goal, then in my opinion CrossFit is not the way to go. There are much easier and less time/effort intensive ways to do it. Though, that certainty doesn’t mean that CrossFit is a bad thing to do in general or that you won’t like it.
I do concede that traditional weight training done alone, as amazingly high ROI as it is, is about as boring as plain oatmeal, and if you think a coached group class setting is what it will take for you to enjoy (or at least tolerate) going to the gym, then why not give it a try? Besides, even I, as incredibly lazy as I am, can concede that exchanging some efficiency for some fun, variety, and socialization might be a worthwhile trade.
There are potential benefits of any given training program beyond just losing fat to consider too, of course.
Most Boxes offer a first time class for free, so there’s really nothing to lose. And of course, doing anything for exercise, CrossFit or otherwise, is a lot better than doing nothing. Again, check out that nerdfitness.com article to get a better idea if CrossFit is something you think you’d might like to try.
I strongly implore you, though, to make sure the Box you are considering joining isn’t run by incompetent idiots.
I also strongly implore you to keep safety a priority. One of the many reasons traditional momentum-free strength training is so great is because it’s easy to do very safely. Momentum based olympic lifting while competing for time, though? Not so much.
Team Finals at the CrossFit Games 2011 – Anthony Topper