In 2018 the CrossFit Open had 415,000+ participants. In 2019 358,646 people signed up, and in the fall of 2020 only 239,106 people enrolled. That is not a trend you want to see as a CrossFit box owner or CrossFit games athlete.
I joined Mountain Trail CrossFit in Colchester, VT back in 2016 when CrossFit was booming in the Northeast. I had classmates in Physical Therapy school that had been crushing the CrossFit game for years and I, like many of my colleagues, was a CrossFit hater. "You're gonna get injured." "The programming doesn't make sense." Really what I was thinking was "it looks hard." My roommate at the time kept telling me he was going to join and I should too. I was super hesitant. Finally when he went in by himself and joined one day, I couldn't resist anymore. I showed up with expectations that were completely annihilated on day 1.
My first workout was with Ali Carey. She immediately gave me confidence in the movements we were going over because she legitimately coached me. She explained why we were doing each movement, how it translated to progressions, and what it should feel like. To be clear, this was a 1-1 On Ramp session. I wasn't thrown into a class where people were hammering high repetition deadlifts, but more on that later. At my On Ramp session we talked for 10 minutes, did basic movements for 10 minutes, then warmed up and did a Metcon. I was hyped. The workout was lit. The CrossFit cult had gotten me.
The next day I was in my first class. It was clear that my mobility was not gonna do it so I came in early every day for 3 weeks and worked my hips and ankles doing exercises I knew would help with squat depth and hinge pattern capability. I dragged another friend in and the three of us pushed one another at every workout. We competed, laughed, ripped our hands, and woke up at 4:30am to pound pre-workout on the way to the box. It was a blast.
The best part about CrossFit was I was learning skills. Kipping, muscle ups, hand-stands, Cleans, Jerks, and Snatches. Every day I was reminded of something that needed to get better so I worked at it.
I've heard a ton of others share a similar experience with CrossFit. The skill building, the workouts, the community, and the badassery of working out in a warehouse with minimal luxuries. This method of training forged bonds between the members and box owners like no other gym ever had. Now that seems to be dead.
CrossFit is no longer about skills. It is no longer about coaching. It is no longer about community. Now it is about peeling yourself off the floor after a workout. While CrossFit has marketed itself as "high-intensity, constantly varied, functional training" it has become "HIIT class with barbells and rigs." What is the problem with HIIT class and rigs? Absolutely nothing. However, HIIT class is the hottest workout in America right now. The competition for members is incredibly high and rather than continue to stand out, CrossFit has joined the craze. What's worse is that CrossFit still incorporates the highly technical Olympic lifts into the Metcons (HIIT workout) but focus on building the skills of each lift has just about ended. The fear of injury has risen but the numbers surrounding injury rate in CrossFit doesn't indicate that people are getting hurt all that often. At least not more than other exercise regiments. Still, the people are leaving the box due to injury and not returning.
On Ramp, Onboarding, or Fundamentals (the program for beginners) has become almost non-existent for most boxes. Coaches either don't know how to coach (because CF L-1 isn't much to brag about when it comes to teaching coaches how to coach) or they don't want to coach beginner athletes. CrossFit used to be all about the beginner, now it is almost expected that everyone can do everything day 1.
The barrier to entry to own a CrossFit gym is low. Super low. Get your CF Level 1, get your affiliate, invest 50k into a space and get marketing. This is great for passionate people who want to do it the right way, but it is just as accessible for people who think a high membership cost paired with limited luxuries will be super profitable. Now the market is saturated with boxes but potential members are steering toward other forms of HIIT workouts.
I myself have given up CrossFit as my primary method of training. My main reason for leaving the box is I want to build skills more than I want to feel exhausted. I have joined a strength and conditioning gym and I follow the Olympic Weightlifting program. When I want to test death by cardio, I go to a HIIT class, I go on a run, or I go drop in at a box. I don't feel the need to destroy my chest and lungs while trying to overhead squat 6 days a week. Some may say that 6 days a week is too much volume for CrossFit but if you are paying $200/mo for programming, why wouldn't you go 6 days a week?
I have never owned a CrossFit box, so I don't know the reasoning for migrating away from diversified programming and focusing on the HIIT style workouts. However I will say, if CrossFit is going to survive, a return to the roots is necessary. Start by getting people in the door. Offer a separate program where small groups can get coached on how to lift. Diversify workouts while focusing primarily on building weightlifting skills, strength and mobility. Take each component of the workout and give it the same level of importance, or don't do it at all. Add high intensity workouts and strength training/skill building workouts on separate days. Smashing a compound lift, a gymnastic movement, and a cardio exercise into one workout 6 days a week is about as poor of a program design as you can imagine.
Why is it a poor programming strategy? For most people compound lifts are difficult to perform technique wise. Certainly strength is a problem as well but before you can move heavy, you need to be able to move. Fatigue is the enemy of motor learning. If you take someone who sucks at thrusters because their front squat mobility is limited, their overhead press is full of lumbar extension and limited shoulder flexion, then you program max thrusters after a run and pull-ups you are guaranteeing failure. With new members you want to guarantee success. You want them to experience the rush of improved ability.
Where to start? Evaluate your programming. See what your set up is for building skills, challenging cardio-respiratory systems, and getting strong. Then revise your on-ramp program to be able to include anyone off the street. A training age of 0 should be able to walk into your gym and in 2 weeks be able to move with the rest of the class. Actually modify, don't just say if you need a modification let me know. Say exactly what the modifications are for each movement before the workout starts. Lastly, don't let people who are hurt continue to complain day after day about injury. The statistics are in. Their are not more injuries in the box than there are anywhere else. The problem is that coaches and gym owners don't recognize when someone is hurt so long they are building up the courage to quit. Give them a quality referral and stay on them about it. You may feel like your bothering them in the short term, but in the long run they will thank you for it.
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