The Controversy of CrossFit

The Controversy of CrossFit
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The controversy around CrossFit never seems to die down – every injury, every poor sponsorship choice, it all brings a new wave of critical comments and hating on the community. But how much of it is justified?

I was sent a press release today about some recent research that links two consecutive days of CrossFit training with decreased anti-inflammatory cytokines. Within the press release there were negative connotations towards CrossFit in general, that the research made no reference to – already it’s been spun for media release.

So I thought I’d share this article I wrote for PT Magazine two years ago on the Controversy of CrossFit…

This post first appeared in PT Magazine in 2014.

The Controversy of CrossFit

Georgina Deadlift

To some it’s a cult; an ever growing community of individuals for whom CrossFit becomes their lives. To others it’s a swear word, said with a sharpened tongue and a hatred for all it portrays. But, love it or hate it, CrossFit is here to stay. With around 400 affiliates in the UK, and over 9000 worldwide, it’s certainly picking up pace.

CrossFit, as defined in the CrossFit Journal, is “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.” The goal of these functional movements being the ability to move large loads over long distances very quickly, and the result is high power. And with power comes intensity… (not-so) coincidentally the variable most directly associated with positive adaptation to exercise.

So far so good, right?

But, take a look at any fitness social media feed and you are bound to see anti CrossFit comments. Whether it’s a video link of “how dumbass CrossFitters do pullups”, or a picture of a particularly bad snatch technique, the hate is streamed in full glorious colour.

So just what is it about CrossFit that invokes such a strong reaction?

Seizures on a Pull-up Bar

Just one of the more affectionate descriptions of CrossFit that can be found on the internet. Probably the most commonly debated element of CrossFit, the kipping pull-up is actually a relatively small element of the sport.

“The kipping pull-up is for efficiency” says Annabel Ottey, joint owner of CrossFit Raeda in Harlow, Essex along with husband Lee. “Part of the ethos of CrossFit is the ability to move loads over long distances quickly. If I’m going to move my chin a metre, from below the bar to above the bar, 20 times in a WOD (workout of the day), I need to do that as efficiently as possible.”

“In the high jump, the athletes don’t just run up to the bar and do a double footed jump over the bar. You can jump higher if you do the Fosbury Flop. You use mechanical advantage to maximise output. It’s (kipping) a difficult skill to learn. Some people call it cheating, we call it efficiency.”

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should just dive right in to kipping pull-ups.

The kipping pull-up is for efficiency. In the high jump, you don't just do a double footed jump - you do the Fosbury Flop. Click To Tweet


Kipping Pull-ups

“Kipping pull-ups are fine if you are strong enough to do them well.” says Joseph O’Connor, principal physiotherapist at Forge Physio in Hertford. “A lot of people start to work on kipping pull-ups before they have the strength to do them ‘strict’.”

“As the muscles around the shoulder girdle fatigue, the lowering part of the movement becomes very passive and the load is taken by the connective tissue around the shoulder, rather than the muscles.”

O’Connor’s experience of working with CrossFit, Strength and Conditioning and MMA coaches is a collaborative one, “Most coaches understand the risks and encourage their athletes to continue to develop strength with good shoulder control through strict pull-ups before working on kipping”.

Some of the videos that do the rounds on social media could be to blame for the stick that CrossFit gets for this particular hot topic.

“I’ve seen one (video) where somebody literally swings their legs up almost parallel and then hooks their chin over. CrossFit would call this non-standard technique an “unusual movement”, and it’s not allowed” explains Ottey. “You would be “no-repped” for this movement in a WOD, meaning the rep wouldn’t count. Sometimes you see things online that are labelled as CrossFit, but they actually aren’t.”

Confusing Nausea with Elite

Another charming quote from the CrossFit haters of the world-wide-web. A lot of people think that CrossFit is always high intensity and really it’s not. The way it’s supposed to be programmed includes rest days, unload days and recovery periods. However, there are some of the CrossFit “Girls” (prescribed WODs that are given female names) where safety could be questioned.

Technique shouldn't be sacrificed for a quicker time or higher score in a WOD. Quality of movement is key. Click To Tweet

“Coming from a weightlifting background I would question why you would do 30 snatches [as in the WOD “Isabel”]. But as a CrossFitter, it’s the ultimate test” explains Ottey. “In that kind of WOD it’s not about lifting heavier, it’s a question of could you maintain form? But you have to be very technically proficient before you start loading. Everything can be scaled.”

And O’Connor agrees, “Technique shouldn’t be sacrificed for a quicker time or higher score in a WOD. Taking a bit more time on these movements and maintaining quality of movement is key. Scaling is also very important when using the Olympic lifts in a WOD. If you take “Isabel” for instance: 30 Snatches for time at 60kg [for men], and your Snatch 1RM is 65kg – you should think about using a lighter weight.”

“Personally I wouldn’t program Isabel unless it was a very advanced person and I was 100% happy with their technique.” Ottey continues. “Sometimes intensity sacrifices technique and that’s dangerous. But that’s down to the coaching, and there are bad Personal Trainers too. You can have all the qualifications and insurance, and work in respectable gyms, but programming comes with experience.”

Kelly Squat

One Weekend and You’re a CrossFit Coach

Which brings us on nicely to another point of contention. To become a CrossFit Affiliate you have to attend a two day workshop, and in theory that’s all you need.

“As far as CrossFit HQ knows, I did my course and very soon after a got my affiliate licence I opened a box” says Ottey. “My application did have my background on (UKS&C, BAWLA, Greenwood WL etc.), but I don’t know how fussy they are about what is in your background, and as far as I am aware the criteria is that you have done the course.”

Unfortunately the general public don't have the knowledge to know if their coaches are good or not. Click To Tweet

“In defence of the course there is a lot of pre-reading, and a multiple exam at the end. The pre-reading covers biomechanics, anatomy, rhabdo (rhabdomyolysis – the breakdown of muscle tissue that leads to the release of harmful substances into the blood) coaching mechanisms, dos and don’ts, and the CrossFit philosophy. But no, two days is not enough.”

The nature of the certification means that members have to be able to identify for themselves whether they are at a good CrossFit facility or not. “Unfortunately a lot of the general public just don’t have the knowledge to know if their coaches are good coaches and their programming is good programming” explains Ottey.

O’Connor supports this, “It’s important that athletes strive to gain access to good coaching and programming to ensure they receive the appropriate guidance in relation to their standard.”

Try It Before You Judge It

Ultimately there is a lot of unjustified hate out there for something that actually can make you extremely fit in the broadest sense of the term. And CrossFit doesn’t just bring fitness; it brings with it a sense of community, camaraderie and friendly competition.

As long as you’re sensible and take responsibility for your own body and how it feels, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t enjoy pushing yourself to achieve new greats in this really infectious and addictive sport. And as with any trainer or coach you might look to work with, check their background and experience to guarantee you’re getting the best.

Barbelles Group ShotBlack and white photos taken by Lucy Rakauskas at the ladies only Barbelles Training Day.

Georgina Spenceley
Georgina Spenceley


  1. 2nd September 2016 / 10:11 pm

    I just watched Fittest on Earth on Netflix last night… I don’t care what anyone says, crossfitters literally are the fittest on earth! There aren’t many athletes that could do what you do. I can’t do any form of pull up, nevermind a kipping!

    • Georgina Spenceley
      11th September 2016 / 3:42 pm

      It’s a great documentary isn’t it! I’ve watched it twice haha. I love CrossFit – especially that it can be done by anyone. I’m sure you could do pull ups in no time if you gave CrossFit a go 🙂

  2. 13th September 2016 / 12:38 pm

    I find the stuff around CrossFit fascinating, particularly how the media has picked up on the extremes of the sport. Who knew something so functional could cause so much controversy?! It’s a shame, because for many people I’m sure CrossFit is a great way to get a balanced workout that works for them.

    • Georgina Spenceley
      6th October 2016 / 4:07 pm

      Thanks Bethan, that’s great to hear! It really is one of those fitness methods people love to hate! I’ve gained so much through CrossFit, I can’t even begin to explain… but I try haha. Hope you’re well.

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