Should everyone do CrossFit?


One question that people in the ancestral health community frequently ask is what kind of exercise they should do to optimize their health and fitness. A lot of people new to the Paleo/Primal lifestyle assume that high intensity exercise like CrossFit is the best type of workout, no matter what your current health state is. But is this true? And if CrossFit isn’t the best exercise for you, what is?

There are a lot of variables that should be taken into account when deciding on what kind of exercise routine to follow. Chris Kresser wrote a great article about the dangers of overtraining, which is something I think is under-recognized in the Paleo community. Chris explains that while short, intense workouts can be great for inducing fat loss, increasing aerobic capacity, and reducing risk for cardiovascular disease, excessively intense exercise can cause a variety of health problems, especially for those dealing with other concurrent stressors such as autoimmune disease, gut dysbiosis, or adrenal fatigue.

The problem with excessive or overly intense training is that these workouts stimulate markedly acute cortisol responses, which can be a serious problem for people who are already under a lot of stress, or have high inflammation from another disease process. Chronically high levels of cortisol can increase your risk for a variety of health issues, such as sleep disturbances, digestive issues, depression, weight gain, and memory impairment. Excess cortisol also encourages fat gain, particularly around the abdomen.In addition, high cortisol is bad news for people with hypothyroidism, since cortisol reduces the conversion of T4 to T3 and increases the conversion to inactive reverse T3, which makes hypothyroid symptoms worse. Excessive training with inadequate rest leads to too much muscle breakdown without time to fully recover, increasing inflammation and fat storage due to high levels of stress hormones. So all that training can actually be counter productive for people trying to lose fat.

Another thing that’s important to point out is that a workout like CrossFit should really be adapted to the person’s current fitness and lifestyle. I’ve noticed before that poorly run gyms do not always pay attention to a person’s limitations, and try to push everyone to go harder than many of them should be pushing. There are exceptions to this, and a good Crossfit gym will tailor the workout to the client’s needs and abilities, and will not coerce their members to work out more often or more intensely than they should be. Some of this is the client’s responsibility to know their own circumstances and not allow the intense environment to push them into going past their limits, but it’s important to find a good coach who will recognize each individual’s unique circumstances.

I don’t think strength training has to be high intensity. You can go to the gym and do squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and other strength moves without doing the reps as quickly as possible. I’m not an exercise physiologist but from what I’ve read, controlled strength training can be even more beneficial for strength gains, muscle building, and fat loss. I think it’s good to throw in some sprint intervals into walks or runs, and an interval can even be a fast walk, as long as you’re pushing yourself. And doing exercises that work your balance and flexibility are important too, I think everyone should be doing yoga at least once a week if not more!

The most important thing is finding an exercise you enjoy. If you love CrossFit, but are dealing with a stressful life situation or illness that makes it challenging for you to handle the workouts, talk to your coach and explain your situation to them. Any good coach will understand that you’ll need modifications to the workout, and they’ll make appropriate changes to your WOD. If you don’t enjoy Crossfit, don’t do it! There’s no reason to get involved in an exercise routine that you don’t enjoy since you won’t maintain it over time.

Personally, I generally try to do some type of cardio 2-3 times per week, yoga 1-2 times per week, and strength training 1-2 times per week. This changes based on the climate, since I really only like running outside. I’ve been enjoying training for the Tarheel 10 miler coming up in a few weeks, but running more than 5-6 miles per day is pretty unusual for me. I usually base my workout routine on how I’m feeling, since lately I’ve been pretty stressed with the end of my program approaching, and I don’t want to overdo the training while I’m in this high-stress state. But I’m hoping once my program ends in May that I can get back into a more consistent training schedule. I really enjoyed training at FitBootCamp in Randolph, New Jersey, because the coaches were always making sure that people were using proper form and not sacrificing safety for speed. I also enjoyed getting my Level 1 certification last year, so I do hope to get back into CrossFit eventually. I’m just aware that my current level of stress and grad-student exhaustion is not conducive to adding a high intensity workout on top of it all, whether I enjoy it or not.

In conclusion, the most important thing is to find exercise you like that improves both your cardiovascular fitness and your overall strength. If that’s Crossfit, then great, but if not, there’s plenty of other types of exercise available to meet your fitness needs! Try a few different activities and stick with the ones you enjoy and will continue doing throughout your life.

What’s your favorite way to stay fit? Share in the comments below!

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  1. Great article! You’re right, I also think over training is under-recognized in the Paleo/Primal world. Myself, I used to do sports at a pretty high level and later on I switched to CrossFit. I absolutely loved it and still think it’s a fun sport. My body, however, didn’t like it that much because I was under a lot of stress already. All of a sudden, my body refused to do pretty much anything anymore. I was diagnosed with severe adrenal fatigue and got the strong advice not to do any high intensity sports anymore for the next 2 years. I’m 6 months in, and I’m gradually starting to feel better, yet I’m still unable to work. I recently discovered yoga and love it, I never thought I could feel that relaxed and confident after a gentle class.
    Only now I realize the importance of relaxation and that it’s unnecessary to push yourself all the time.

    1. 2 years is a long time! I have a somewhat similar experience. Recovering from adrenal fatigue, I somehow managed to completely disregard advice not to overdo it and was doing crossfit 2-3x/week. I absolutely loved it, but it was too much for my already overtaxed bod, and after about 4-5 months I just didn’t have the ability to lift the same amounts (my maxes were in fact declining!), or endure the same kinds of work outs. Even now, 4 months later, a short strength training session leaves me tired for 3 days. So I’m working on figuring out what I can comfortably do without overdoing it.

  2. Crossfit is largely comprised of “ballistic” training. Fast movements that can take their toll on joints and connective tissues. For the vast majority of trainees (ie, the general public, not athletes), the Olympic lifts and other ballistic exercises of Crossfit are a terrible choice. They are the exact opposite of what most people should be doing…. slow controlled exercises with good form, for safe strength building. For a cardio workout you don’t have to do “cardio” specific exercises. It can be done quite will with standard weight lifting. All one has to do is user a short inter-set rest period. Start at 2 minutes and gradually over months of training work your way down to 20-30 seconds rest between each set. Your heart and lungs will be pumping big time!

  3. My Top 3 Rules for Getting in Shape – During this last year on the Paleo/Primal diet I have been experimenting with a variety of training programs and getting great results. Here is what I’ve learned:

    Lifting Weights is King – Lifting builds muscle, muscle burns fat, muscle ups your metabolism, increases testosterone (yes this is also important for women) and HGH.

    Nutrition is Queen – You all know this, you can’t get into shape eating twinkies, soda’s, and McDonalds all day. Eating high fat, high-medium protein, and low carb is the best route. Fat is essential for building testosterone, testosterone is essential for building muscle. Eat organic, local, pastured and free range to avoid toxins as much as possible. Get your carbs from starchy tubers not grains. Intermittent fast (skip breakfast, eat your first meal at noon) 3 days a week.

    Cardio is Prince – Avoid chronic cardio and focus on interval training twice a week – intense physical exertion with periods of rest. Endless miles of jogging is actually counterproductive to overall conditioning, lowers testosterone, causes continuous systemic inflammation, severely suppresses other parts of your immune system and the increased oxidative damage will slowly tear apart your precious muscle and joint tissue.

    These rules worked for me and I believe they will work for most everyone. I am healthier, leaner and better overall conditioned at 60 than anytime since my 30s. Try them for a couple of months and be amazed.

  4. These things seem to go in cycles. Over training was the talk of the town in the seventies for a spell. Now it’s back, but for a different reason: CrossFit, but it could just as easily be P90X except the later hasn’t made significant inroads among Paleoists…not likely too, either.

    Over training might just as well be called over-exuberance! Since CrossFit is a community of training, a big chunk of what keeps people coming back day after day is the treat of fun. Chip Conrad, master of a different but similar XFit like way of working out did a DVD whose title captures it: Brutal Recess. We all oved recess when kids in school, that period of play that bonded us like nothing else. Brutal Recess means having that fun again with a taxing training session.

    Over training looks like a weakness in the XFit system. XFit was born in Santa Cruz in the 1990s. I started doing similar training over the hill in Sunnvyale in 1959 – yep, that long ago. XFit’s a lot like Muscle Beach weekends of the 30s-50s, except a lot of the Muscle Beach crowd were professionals from Hollywood film lots, world class athletes, and some supreme coaching. When XFit borrowed the training lore of decades of the West Coast Iron Game, it didn’t have any of the coaches to teach how to move from beginner to intermediate to advanced to world class; for that reason, it didnt know the word “over-tonis” – that’s what over training used to be called. When we work out with iron, we’re doing Progressive Resistance Training – note the word Progressive. Part of that is Progressive Recuperative Training to prevent over-training. That’s how I coach people. Anything else is pointless – resulting in adrenal burn out (misdiagnosed over training), hormonal imbalances (can be horrible for women, messing up menstrual cycles so bad they go away from barren years), soft tissue injuries – in other words, systemic adverse condtions that will burn you out.

    Is CrossFit for everybody? Yes – if and only if you’re a Religious Zealot! Of course it’s not for everyone. It’s greatest for younger people and for an aging population that’s stayed fit, eaten a diet of nutrient dense whole foods, and had no major training injuries. For those in early muscle wasting, for those with any of the popular metabolic diseases, and for those with chronic degenerative conditions, recommending CrossFit, P90X, even robust HIIT training is a big liability. Training should always be client centered, and never dogma driven.

    I’m not too impressed with twice weekly training except for beginners. Twice a week is well below the genetic requirement for health and wellness. Progressive training can start with twice weekly but better get to five or six daily sessions per week. My rule is that anything less than four workouts is a rest week.

    Admittedly I’m not a normal citizen, especially for my age group. I have utterly no genetic gifts, and was not athletically inclined until I picked up a barbell at age 14. Now 55 years later, I work out between five and six days weekly. “Between” – yeah, I go by how I feel to know when to rest. And I make sure to get plenty of rest to ensure proper recuperration and staying anabolic. With a few years of progressive training, nearly anyone can regain the freedom of fitness and strength they had earlier in life.

    The Paleo movement hasn’t caught up with news for the late 1980s yet! Evans and Rosenberg at Tufts found that muscle wasting is NOT a normal condition of aging; instead, muscle wasting it cause of premature aging and Metabolic Syndrome. How to stay young: build and maintain muscle – strength muscle (type II fiber); Cardio destroys type II muscle AND stops cellular repair and building of new muscle tissue. So that’s four or more strength workouts per week. CrossFit’s got some good stuff, however it leaves a lot out that’s really needed for working the whole spectrum of strength types and movements.

  5. This is a great article! I really needed to hear this. I’m in the process of healing some gut inflammation, adrenal fatigue and hypothyroidism. I’ve lived the typical “bodybuilder” lifestyle for the last three years, pushing my body with every workout and increasing my cardio every time I wanted to lose those last few pounds. I’m in the healing process now and I need to remember that even though I really, really want to be in that gym training hard 6 days a week like I used to…that it isn’t what my body needs right now. I need to get rid of the guilt that I’m not “pushing myself hard enough” or that I’m a “quitter” and just let my body get the healing it needs. Thank you!

  6. What I love about the paleo diet is the approach. We don’t have good knowledge about long term health effects from dietary action. Their is way too much noise to tease it out. Maybe when we get real time, constant data from inside the human body we can figure it out but until then we are in the dark. So instead, lets just try to figure out what evolution designed us to eat and try to eat as close to that as possible. It’s hard to impossible to eat a paleolithic diet, humans have changed the world in too many ways. Our food animals are bred and our foods have been genetically modified over the last 10,000 years. Don’t forget that we have large genetic variation!

    We might have better luck with our exercise regimes but still challenging. I would guess that we ranged over relatively large distances in search of food. That would explain the runners high people get from long distance cardio. We probably killed animals that where much larger than us using pack tactics. Short bursts of intense energy. I can’t think of the reason that a paleolithic man would need to toss twice his weight in the air as many times in a short period, but I’m still thinking (something he probably spent a lot of time doing)

  7. Cross Fit is similar to kick boxing or other forceful activities that offer benefits at the expense of the body. Not a good idea.

    The purpose of exercise is to improve the body without harming the body. Cross Fit does NOT fit that bill.

    Reserach is clear that controlled resistance training (strength training) can provide ALL of the health benefits one needs. You do not NEED to do aerobics, or cardio or anything else other than strength training.

    And it’s really not a matter of what you enjoy. No one enjoys getting their teeth deeply cleaned at the dentists office. It’s painful and uncomfortable, not enjoyalbe. But it is healthful and after you’re done you’re glad you did it.

    Strength training is uncomfortable. It’s hard and it’s painful but in a way that is NOT deleterious to the body. And it only needs to be done twice weekly for 20 minute a session.

    You get a lot of fitness bang for that buck without doing yourself any harm.

  8. My own [Paleo?] workout regimen involves playing basketball and going for long hikes with a friend or two. I guess that covers the cardio, but strength training is something I’ve been looking forward to for quite awhile. Now I just need to get off my arse and make things happen…

  9. Crossfit is getting people in the gym but the injury rate is high because people have too poor of mobility and posture to perform those lifts. Leaning forward at desk all day, poor shoulder rotation, no back or core strength, and other issues with added weight is disaster. If people don’t do yoga (like my husband and males) they should at least foam roll, stretch and do dynamic warmup daily. Seeing chiro and ART specialist is important for loosening up tightness too. Doing walks and sprints on separate days than lifting is better than together, along with slow lowering of weight for 2-4 seconds. is great resource! I don’t do crossfit but think everyone can start somewhere to get fitter.

  10. I definitely agree with everything you’ve said about Crossfit. I’ve written a shoddy little rant about it

    I hope you don’t mind me posting it here. This is the link.

    Personally, I’ve got two problems with Crossfit. First, it’s the whole issue of overtraining and cortisol, just like you’ve talked about. Second, it’s the whole “performing movements that I’ve barely practiced but I’ll do them anyway, during heavy fatigue!” that makes no freaking sense.

    Slamming barbellss and kipping during pullups like a bunch of gorillas is absolutely asinine. I don’t understand why people interpret exhaustion/fatigue/nausea as a “good workout”.

    To me, there’s something extremely crucial in developing motor-control and ingraining movement patterns. Whether that’s gained through yoga, gymnastics, power-lifting, running, or sparring, proper motor-control is absolutely essential in my eyes. Movement is a skill, not a tool.

    I just don’t see proper motor-control and movement patterns being developed in standard Crossfit programs. That’s when you start to see injuries associated with faulty movement – caused by having certain muscles that are “underactive”, and other muscles that are “overactive”.

    That’s basically my story. I took on the “Crossfit attitude” in high school and thought every workout should be as complicated and exhausting as possible. Now, I’m two years out of high school, and have been as sedentary as a 70-year-old man up until last year. It sucks, but I’m learning from my mistakes. Bodyweight training and traditional strength and conditioning are my go-to regimens now.