By Cliff Harvey ND
I'm beginning to see a worrying trend in my clinical practice: CrossFit athletes - most particularly women - who are having a hard time losing bodyfat (or in fact who may even be gaining bodyfat - albeit slightly), despite doing large amounts of training at the box, and are perplexed at why they are holding onto this fat so stubbornly.
You see I've been involved in CrossFit for quite a few years now; working as an Strength & Conditioning coach with athletes in NZ and Canada, providing nutritional consultancy to many elite CF athletes and boxes, and also doing the occasional WoD (which I really enjoy!) in amongst the training for my primary sport of All-Round Weightlifting, and over the last couple of years I've noticed that CrossFit athletes have in general been getting bigger. MUCH bigger. And this goes not just for the guys, but for the female competitors as well.
There's a lot of things that could explain this:
1. Drugs - We'd have our heads in the sand if we thought that CrossFit was 100% clean. I've advised professional, world champ level, Olympic and Commonwealth athletes from many sports and there are few if any major sporting competitions in the world that are truly 'drug free'. CrossFit has grown so much, and so quickly that it is inevitable that performance enhancing drugs have been used, and perhaps very pervasively...and the physiques are going to inevitably change to reflect this.
2. Genetics - As any sport grows more people will become involved, and therefore there will be a larger pool of athletes to draw from, and so the top (and most visible) athletes will inevitably be more genetically gifted athletes in general, and more predisposed to the demands of the particular sport, and in this case that may be a factor in the improving (read: growing) physiques of the athletes in CrossFit.
3. The changing demands of the sport - CrossFit places a high volume of loading on the musculature. For many (especially the genetically gifted) this will result in increased hypertrophy. The relative youth of CrossFit as a sport and the seemingly increasing demands being placed on athletes may have encouraged a growth in physique or simply allowed those most genetically advantaged (bigger, stronger, faster, fitter) athletes to rise to the top and to be more visible.
This may be particularly true for women who in general can do more repetitions closer to 1RM, and therefore the metabolic conditioning and higher rep paradigms that are a part of CF may be more conducive to hypertrophy in women.
But aside from the trend of bigger athletes in a muscular sense, there is a more worrying trend that SOME (not all) CrossFit athletes, and again - most particularly women - are having a hard time losing bodyfat, or in fact who may even be gaining bodyfat (albeit slightly), despite doing large amounts of intensive met-con work.
When you ally an inability to lose bodyfat with a general increase in muscle mass you get a larger person. And this is an end-result at odds with many peoples goals.
A few factors may account for fat gain in spite of intensive training:
1. Stress overload
CrossFit, or any other form of high intensity training is going to be an effective stimulus for bodyfat loss (although only truly effective when allied with a good diet) but doing too much and continually overloading the body with repeated, highly strenuous exercise bouts may end up causing an undue and chronic stress response that will result in overly high residual levels of the various stress hormones, including cortisol. Cortisol, while being a 'catabolic' hormone that can help reduce bodyfat when released appropriately in response to intermittent bouts of higher stress activities, has the opposite effect when combined with chronic stress. Stressors of all types (including training) can take us closer and closer to our own individual stress threshold and can be the thing that holds us back from achieving not just our aesthetic but also our performance goals.
In general terms 'over-stress' can cause chronic elevation of blood glucose, and in the presence of high blood glucose and resultant insulin release the stress hormone cortisol will encourage fat gain and over time all these factors combined contribute to increased fat storage, most particularly around the mid-section.
If you are holding excess fat around the mid-section or are putting fat on disproportionately around the middle (even if you are otherwise lean) you may be somewhat insulin resistant and/or over-reaching/over-training.
2. Metabolic disadvantage
Being metabolically disadvantaged means that we don't store and use nutrients as effectively as we could. This primarily takes the form of being predisposed to using carbohydrate as a primary, priority fuel for even low intensity exercise. In this state it is more difficult to lose bodyfat as you will be burning carbohydrates (sugar) for fuel during all intensities of exercise, and will have a higher sugar usage at rest. So....if you go and 'burn out' a whole bunch of calories during a WoD, you will be simply exhausting glycogen levels without having a large fat-loss stimulus, and you may end up tired, hungry and craving sugar, without seeing any shift in the weight or body composition.
If you are training frequently and are not seeing physical changes and are constantly tired, hungry and craving sugar you may be a 'sugar burner' and this will make it more difficult to lose bodyfat.
3. Poor diet
The biggest factor in fat-loss is diet. No matter how much CrossFit or any other activity you do, if you don't eat well you will eventually stop losing fat, and may even gain a lot of whatever you manage to lose back.
Diet is the key to helping the body to be more fat-adapted (basically the opposite of being a sugar-burner' - where the body can easily utilise fat and fat-based fuels at higher intensities and for neurons and other tissue) and thus being able to lose fat effectively and stay in a lean performance ready state.
If your diet is too high in sugars, refined carbohydrates, vegetable oils, processed oils and hydrogenated fats then you will struggle to encourage the best state of metabolic efficiency.
1. Become more highly fat adapted
Eat a natural, whole and unprocessed diet. Reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates (sugar, breads, pastas etc.) Increase fat intake from coconut oil, butter, ghee and the monounsaturates (olive oil, avocados and macadamia oil.) For many CFers this is the paleo prescription anyway, but if you are having trouble losing that stubborn fat this is a call to action to refocus on these great, clean foods, and is you're still not getting results re-evaluate how much paleo carb foods (yams, kumara etc.) you are eating too. Remember that a paleo diet can be a high fat, high carb diet that doesn't work if you are metabolically disregulated!
2. Reduce met-con volume
If you feel that you're over-stressed and over-reaching in your training cut your met-con volume down to just 1 or 2 hard sessions per week.
3. Do more low-volume strength training
focus on extremely low volume strength work for a month or so. Working up to 1-2 heavy work sets (2-6 reps) of 1-2 core exercises (such as military press and deadlifts) just a few times per week (never to failure) can be a great way to solidify strength gains without taxing the adrenals.
4. Do yoga!
In fact any integrated mind-body and breath utilising modality can help to reduce latent stress and to allow for relaxation and restoration of the mind and body. Yoga can actually become a valuable, and challenging addition to CrossFit with the higher progressions, but often without the same impact on the adrenals (note: I have seen great improvements in peoples gymnastic/callisthenic strength and efficiency for movements such as handstands, pushups and pistols after some time dedicated to a yoga practice)
The Bottom Line:
CrossFit ticks so many boxes for people (it's intense, challenging, fun, has a sense of community) and is really effective when performed well with great supervision and coaching. But like any modality of training there can be pitfalls for some when taken to extremes, or when the rest of the life plan isn't working to provide optimal balance.
If you're not getting the results you desire take a step back and evaluate your training, periodisation, lifestyle factors and diet so that you can get back on track!
Research and popular science articles by the members and faculty of the Holistic Performance Institute.