Crossfit and Cycling: Doesn’t Seem to Match Up

You’ve probably heard of CrossfitF (CF), wondered about what it is, maybe even done one of these workouts. This exercise methodology has gained momentum in the last few years. The faint of heart, or body for that matter need not apply.

Start talking CF with trainers and its devoutees, and you may as well bring up religion and politics at a family function. There as many opinions on it as there are exercises that it covers.

CF was founded in 1995 in Santa Cruz, CA and is predicated on what the calls the “10 Fitness Domains:” cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination and accuracy (we’ll get into this one a lot more, so sit tight!). It defines fitness as increased work capacity across all these domains.

CF athletes run, row, jump rope, climb rope and carry odd objects. They frequently move large loads quickly over long distances, and use powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting techniques. CF athletes also use dumbbells, gymnastics rings, pull-up bars, kettlebells, and many bodyweight exercises.[6]

Sounds like the perfect off the bike training program doesn’t it?

Well, I wanted to find out for sure, so I asked around, a lot. I spoke with USA Cycling Level I coaches around the country to see if they were using this with their athletes. This also includes Jim Rutberg, Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) Pro Coach and/or Co-Author of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” and “Time Crunched Triathlete because I thought, if it is cycling related, who better to talk to than the people who helped Lance win seven Tour titles?

I also reached out to strength coaches Carl Cantrell, a cycling coach from New Mexico and former competitive weight lifter, and Dr. Stuart McGill ( professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario Canada and author of “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance.”

Does it Apply?

The main thing I wanted to know was how a methodology done primarily on two legs with Olympic lifting with extremely high intensity over short periods of time translated over to an activity that is done producing power, strength and endurance with only one leg over the course of several hours. My intial thoughts are it doesn’t, and there is too much recovery needed from a CF workout that would inhibit someone’s ability to maximize time in the saddle to improve cycling fitness.

“Sore today means you can’t train tomorrow,” said Dr. McGill.

I also wanted to know how a population with limited movement skill off the bike was supposed to perform Olympic lifting, including overhead work, correctly. These are extremely complicated movements that have very high form requirements.

I’ve worked with over 200 cyclists in the last six years, and the majority of them all had one thing in common: several lower body muscle imbalances, very tight hip flexors and quads and very little to zero glute activation. Not too mention limited shoulder mobility, especially in the overhead position.

“In promoting the Olympic lifts, they are endangering beginners who don’t have adequate coaching and experience for such weight lifting,” says Coach Cantrell whose coaching career began in 1984. “These are dangerous lifts for even experienced lifters.”

His competitive lifting days ended when he discovered he birth defect in his right shoulder which prevented the proper muscular strength in his trapezius muscles.

“They are not worth the risk for the average person, especially the snatch, which is the most dangerous lift in weight lifting.”

“Experienced and well coached Olympic lifters are hurt doing these lifts all of the time. I know very well how to do these lifts properly, you can be seriously injured doing these lifts and they are not necessary for good general fitness.”

The squat is a motion that requires quite a bit of glute activation to be done correctly. Assuming someone has the freedom of motion to perform the first half of the movement correctly, which most of the cyclists I’ve worked with couldn’t because of the accumulated repetitive stress motion of cycling.

“Firstly, cycling creates many muscle imbalances and any cyclist who tells you they don’t have any body muscularskeletal issues is either a liar or is naive!”  said Kenda p/b Geargrinder rider and Day by Day Cycling coach Ben Day.  “These imbalances are important to rectify in the endless search for symmetry, which we all know will never be 100% on a human body.”

That being said, Day agreed if someone does have muscle imbalances in their lower body (which typically will affect upper body movements as well at some point) it will make it more difficult to perform the most basic of movements.

“In Applied Kinesiology muscle testing, as quite often performed by chiropractors, activation of muscles is an indicator of a good neurological system – basically the processor that sends the signals to our muscles to fire.  Surely having a clear and healthy pathway for this signals to be sent is of benefit,” Day says.

CTS’ Rutberg feels if a rider has an overuse injury from cycling, you first have to determine whether the injury was caused by a change in your body (muscle imbalance, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion, etc.) or from the interface of bike and body (saddle position, worn cleats, etc.).

If the problem originates with something your body is doing incorrectly, then Rutberg says off-the-bike exercises “can be part of the process of returning to pain-free cycling.” He says the problem typically originates because of poor body position on the bike or worn out equipment, then you have to fix those issues before off-the-bike exercises are going to help.

This is where the CF methodology can lead to injuries.

According to Dr. McGill the risk of injury from some CF exercises, such as cleans, snatches and deadlifts outweighs their benefits when they are performed with poor form in timed workouts.

“There are similar risks in other exercise programs but noted that CF’s online community enables athletes to follow the program without proper guidance, increasing the risk,” said McGill.


In the CF environment you have a group setting with everyone doing something different across a wide variety of fitness levels. This is a tricky formula when you’ve got athletes who have muscle imbalances that may require a more individual approach.

“Several Principles are at play here. No two people are the same, have the same patterns of strength or movement. People need a detailed assessment in an individual setting, can’t get that in a group,” says McGill.

McGill  feels since most riders don’t activate glutes well, this style of training doesn’t translate well to cycling to making cycling improvements.

Frank Overton a Physiologist from North Carolina State University, USA Cycling Level I Coach and founder of Fast Cat Coaching in Boulder Colorado said “CF isn’t designed to focus on the legs and core to improve power on the bike.”

“There aren’t any cycling specific movements,” said Overton. “When we work with riders we focus on being able to move bodyweight correctly and mobility before we get into plyometrics and any type of squats.”

In his article “The Truth About CF,” Chris Shuga wrote “if you have a specific goal in your training — top-level competitive mountain biking, bodybuilding, a 600-pound deadlift — then CF isn’t for you. You need to specialize.”

USA Triathlon Level I coach, Kim Boere, B.S., CSCS, NASM CES, CPT from Optimize Endurance Services in Indian Hills, CO agrees.

“It isn’t cycling specific, but it is a potential option for cross training,” said Boere. “It would not be my first choice for cyclists.”

One of the principles of CF is to train to the point of exhaustion. Since it isn’t uncommon for a cyclist to have muscle imbalances that limit joint range of motion, you need to weigh the risk vs reward by doing this. Once fatigue sets, movement skill will typically decline.

“You should have perfect form with body weight before high velocity/intensity,” says Anne Trombley, PT, MS, USAC Level I Coach from Trailmaster Coaching and Physical Therapy. “You really have to look at someone’s background/training experience before they start flipping tires, pushing heavy weights, full body activities.”

The former Olympian and author of “Serious Mountain Biking” feels that it Doesn’t translate to full body improvements on the bike.

“What are you doing in the sport? What does it require? Where is specificity? If not, then you don’t need it.”

At CTS, the concern is programs that feature high-intensity, ballistic movements like CF are that their athletes are maintaining the appropriate balance of exercise workload and recovery across all their activities, and that the athlete has the skill and form to complete the ballistic movements without getting injured.

“Let’s face it, some of us gravitated toward endurance sports because we’re not very coordinated,” Rutberg said.

Exercise enough with improper form, and you begin to move poorly and develop poor motor programming.

“To correct lower body muscle imbalances, you need to train intelligently. If it hurts to hit the thumb with a hammer, you don’t use a bigger hammer, you take the hammer away,” said Dr McGill. “You don’t train to exhaustion to reach excellence.”

McGill said constantly being sore reduces ability to work and full recovery before next output is how you build improvements.

“Bringing an athlete to peak has little to do with taking them to exhaustion. It isn’t about how many in how long. Train while fresh to improve.”

He also said reaching this state can very often compromise form and that you “need to be careful when fatigued to prevent form breakdowns.”

Makes sense, right? The program goal should not be to take someone to exhaustion every time they train. You should also progressively plan a strength program. You also need to find out where someone has muscular imbalances and correct them. Taking someone to exhaustion won’t fix this. The only way to do it is by building the correct motor patterns.

“This is where a complete movement assessment prior to moving comes into play. This will reveal what tissues are firing, which ones are inhibiting proper movement sequencing and determine if there are arthritic concerns to be aware of,” said McGill. “You don’t send someone to CF to get corrective work, they will just end up getting hurt.”

He also feels  that CF doesn’t build the right motor patterns, but it can make them worse. “You need to ask what are the movement restrictions? How do you eliminate them?”

Rutberg feels that adding new exercises alone won’t fix a muscle activation issue.

“If there’s truly an issue activating glutes, then that’s a problem than has to be fixed by retraining the muscle and neuromuscular patterns to regain function,” he said.

A typical competitive cycling training program is a six day a week ride schedule. This includes strength training twice a week on top of this. I asked Dr McGill and Coach Rutberg how CF fits into this from a recovery perspective, and he said “Its an American Mindset: “work hard is good, work harder is better.”

“The key is clever rest = better performance. Focus on restoration is under utilized. Russians have mastered this. A six day a week training program on the bike doesn’t allow for proper rest,“ he said. “Rest needs as much thought as movement.”

McGill also related how one of the major tenants of surgery is to focus on forced rest before rehab, and that by resting and rebuilding motor patterns very often you can eliminate the need for surgery.

“With limited time available for all forms of training, diverting a relatively small amount of time and energy to strength training – and thereby reducing on-the-bike training time by that same amount – means people can’t devote enough time to strength training to make gains that could enhance their cycling performance,” says Rutberg. “In other words, if you’re purely after improved cycling performance and you have a full-time job and a family at home, spend as much time as possible on the bike.”

That being said, how can someone do the CF workouts at the recommended or accepted intensity, recover from those and still put in hard efforts on the bike without either burning out, or becoming injured?

“There’s the rub,” Rutberg said. “Some can and some can’t, depending on their fitness level going in and how much time they plan on spending on the bike.”

Critics fault CF for lack of periodization, the process of building a strength training program on cycles of work for given periods of time.

“One thing that bothers me about the CF program is that there doesn’t seem to be any balance to it,” said Coach Cantrell. “It just seems to be a program designed around doing squats with whatever thrown in for more gym work. I don’t see a function or purpose in the design of the program, definitely nothing which would show the use of exercise physiology or kinesiology being used in the design.”

Based on the questions asked, and the answers given, it would be difficult to see how CF would benefit the cycling community.


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