Despite its humble origins, CrossFit has become a global fitness phenomenon that has helped diverse communities of people all over the world embark on the shared journey towards a healthier lifestyle. CrossFit has even facilitated the creation of an international and highly competitive sporting event: The CrossFit Games. Because of the CrossFit brand’s hasty expansion, the nuances and principles behind its training methodology remain somewhat opaque to participants and observers alike. Occasionally, this leads to misinformed public perceptions; more often, it leads to genuine curiosities about the effectiveness of attending CrossFit classes. People wonder: is CrossFit class enough, or should I be doing more work outside of my CrossFit training? The answer to that question depends on several interwoven factors: an individual’s goals, his or her current level of fitness experience, and the current quality of an individuals’ unique training capacity (i.e. his or her individual limitations).
Before I address each factor, in turn, I want to emphasize the quintessential basics of the CrossFit training methodology. CrossFit programming is aimed at improving participants’ work capacities, generally, across a wide range of athletic disciplines. By implication, the training methodology is not oriented towards specialization and is, instead, inclusive in its scope. In other words, CrossFit is not designed to create experts in any single movement or discipline. Its strategic approach to training is necessarily broad.
Because success in fitness is determined relative to each individual’s goals, the principles referenced above must inform each participant’s unique approach to training. For those individuals striving to perform better in other sports (excepting CrossFit), they may very well need to perform accessory work and/or more sport-specific training away from the CrossFit gym. On the other hand, those individuals who are simply trying to live a little longer—and better—by spending an hour at the gym three-plus days each week, a CrossFit class is probably enough. Finally, there are those who aspire to compete at elite-level CrossFit. In order to achieve that, specialized skill/strength/endurance work beyond a 45-60 minute CrossFit class is not only encouraged, but necessary, with exceptions and limitations to follow.
Along with goals, an individual’s current levels of fitness experience must be considered when determining whether or not to supplement CrossFit training. CrossFit athletes—even some interdisciplinary athletes from other sports backgrounds—and individuals who have been participating in CrossFit training regularly for at least a few months may supplement their CrossFit sessions, provided that such work is programmed by a qualified coach who is aware of the overall training volume and intensity such individuals are accumulating. I would personally recommend limiting any additional training to isolated accessory work, mobility work, and some endurance or recovery work. And even that must be undertaken with caution, since most CrossFit clients will not know the workouts that have been assigned until the day of class. Overtraining significantly increases the incidence of injury, so only serious CrossFit athletes aspiring to compete at a high level should be performing additional metabolic conditioning workouts or substantial compound weight training outside of what has been assigned for the daily CrossFit class.
With respect to individuals who are new to fitness, or are returning to the world of exercise after an extended absence, however, participating in a CrossFit class three days a week is enough. At this early stage in one’s fitness journey, “slow and steady” should be the guiding mantra. The broad scope of CrossFit training ensures that newer participants will gradually be exposed to a variety of strength, skill, and endurance work that accommodates their current capacities and yields controlled results. No one wants to be sidelined by injury at the very beginning of what should become a lifelong pursuit for general health.
Between the novice and the seasoned CrossFit participant there exists a third level of experience: athletes and fitness regulars that are new to CrossFit. For these individuals, I strongly suggest limiting training to CrossFit for the first month or so. During this transitional window, there is no reason to fear diminishing capacity in other performance areas, so long as one is consistent with the interim CrossFit training. Furthermore, the intensity (power output) elicited by metabolic conditioning workouts—commonplace in CrossFit training programs—may impact the body (and nervous system) in ways it is not familiar with, and the body’s response may not be immediate. While the body adapts, it is best to minimize unnecessary strain and to slowly begin reintroducing additional training stimuli over a period of time.
Finally, the quality of each individual’s current work capacity must be considered when it comes to training outside of the CrossFit gym. Quality refers specifically to the limitations and deficiencies fitness participants face. No two people move identically, nor have they been exposed to exactly the same amount of fitness. It follows that everyone confronts different fitness hurdles, like injuries, mobility limitations, strength deficiencies, etc. Those with mobility limitations may very well need to do some core and flexibility work outside of the CrossFit gym because the 60 minute WOD (“workout of the day”) class does not necessarily afford enough time to perform adequate stretching after the workout—the safest and most efficacious time to develop mobility, when the body is sufficiently stimulated and warm, and the joints are no longer being burdened with weight strain.
Similarly, individuals seeking to develop strength in certain areas of the body (perhaps to improve compound weight training and/or gymnastics performance), like the core, or the “upper body”, may also benefit tremendously from some limited accessory work outside of CrossFit class. Timing is important, though, as it is for mobility training. Be mindful of the demands that contemporaneous CrossFit training is placing on the body, and all accessory training should be assigned and overseen by a qualified individual.
The three factors identified above should always be considered together; each will affect the others to some degree. When considering supplemental work beyond CrossFit class, the primary concern is overtraining. With the increases in both the volume and intensity of training, recovery becomes more and more important—for maintenance and for progress. Sometimes, less is truly more. In general, CrossFit is going to be enough to provoke gradual improvement over time for the average client. In order to be safe, CrossFit participants should therefore limit training to primarily CrossFit classes, unless one’s fitness ambitions, or the demands of mobility or sport, require otherwise.
Coach Brian Bieschke