As CrossFit gains popularity, science takes a closer look. Here are the results of several studies that examined CrossFit, both as a movement and a modality.
CrossFit as a Cult
Next time annoying haters ask you whether CrossFit is a cult, you can tell them that it’s actually a “reinventive institution.” Or so says an article published in 2015 in the journal International Review for the Sociology of Sport. In it, the author explains that while CrossFit can be polarizing, its emphasis on performance regulation and mutual surveillance (i.e., athletes scoring and coaching each other) provides evidence that it has recalibrated and changed the institution of fitness. And in case the haters want to get in-depth, you can tell them that a reinventive institution is a place, like a spiritual retreat or virtual community, where members voluntarily go to improve themselves
Strength Wins Out
Ever wonder what it really takes to excel in a benchmark WOD? So did researchers at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. So they compared the times of competitive CrossFitters in “Grace,” “Fran” and “Cindy” with three physiological measurements — VO2 max (a measure of endurance), Wingate (anaerobic power) and “CrossFit Total” (essentially overall strength: 1RM back squat, overhead press and deadlift). Interestingly, there were no significant associations with Cindy. However, Grace and Fran were a different story.
While whole-body strength (CrossFit Total) and power (Wingate) scores were strongly related to Grace and Fran scores, only CrossFit Total survived the rigorous analysis. In other words, in the end, how strong the competitor was best predicted how well they’d do in Grace and Fran. Stay strong, my friends.
The Culture of Community
In this study, published in the Journal of Exercise, Movement, and Sport, researchers held focus groups in CrossFit gyms in Canada, asking members various questions about their box’s culture. They based their questions on Edgar Schein’s model of organizational culture, which describes (a) artifacts (visible aspects, such as dress code), (b) espoused values (philosophies and statements of identity) and (c) assumptions (unspoken or unconscious behaviors). Members reported the rugged nature of the gym and the social behavior of members around a WOD to be important artifacts. In addition, pride in the gym and their workouts were espoused values, as were the inclusion of all people regardless of abilities and a strong sense of community that extended beyond the gym. And the shared underlying assumption by all members, coaches and owners? Improvement in members’ health and well-being.
In a detailed in-depth study published in Women in Sport & Physical Activity Journal, Bobbi Knapp looked at themes within a CrossFit box relative to gender. In applying a critical feminist geographical approach, she found multiple elements within a box that create a welcoming culture for women, including a strong sense of community, the emphasis on pushing through physical limits, coed workouts and the acceptance of being “beaten by a girl.” She concludes that while there is some reinforcement of gender norms in CrossFit, there are also many ways in which “ideal femininity” and “hegemonic” (controlling) masculinity are resisted.
In a study published in December 2015 in the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport, researchers measured physiological responses to a single bout of CrossFit training. After looking at things like heart rate, blood pressure, pulse pressure, mean arterial pressure, blood lactate, blood glucose, and total cholesterol values before and following that bout of CrossFit, they determined that athletes’ physiological responses were consistent with those in athletes following high-intensity interval training and conventional cardiorespiratory training. In other words, yes, CrossFit is a good workout.