The Pros and Cons of Crossfit for Hockey Players
Updated: May 22, 2020
Crossfit is a fiery topic almost anytime it comes up in a training conversation.
A lot of people in the training community have strong opinions on Crossfit. Many of which create absolutes that it’s either the greatest training practice ever, or that it’s use of high-rep complex movements is crazy and dangerous.
While it’s exploded in mainstream popularity and undeniably can produce a ripped, athletic-looking body – there’s often a lot of questions of whether it’s appropriate for athletes, and hockey players specifically. While I see more teams using Crossfit, and more parents asking whether I’d recommend it – I figured it was time to explore the topic through an article.
For reference – I’m a Strength & Conditioning Coach with no affiliation to Crossfit and don’t utilize Crossfit-style workouts in any of my athlete’s programs. Saying that I personally feel that the arm-chair Quarterback’s opinion is a lot less valuable than someone who’s gotten in the trenches and tried it. So – I have tried Crossfit, it gave me an appreciation for the fitness level of Crossfit athletes and shaped my opinion on whether it’d be appropriate for hockey players.
What is CrossFit?
The variety-based nature of Crossfit makes it difficult to summarizes, but essentially Crossfit is a training practice that combines heavy traditional-lift, Olympic lifts, plyometrics, calisthenics. Often these movements are performed under cardiovascular stress through either completing as much rounds as possible in a given time, or integrating various conditioning modalities from running to rowing, into the workout.
The Crossfit motto is “forging elite fitness” – and by all accounts they do. In comparison to a traditional workout you might see in a traditional commercial gym, Crossfit has a far greater approach to comprehensive fitness. “Workouts of the Day” try to incorporate a variety of movement patterns aimed at strength, skill, and conditioning. Combined with the high-intensity nature, it’s easy to understand why Crossfit athletes have ripped-athletic looking bodies.
While a healthy general population individual can thrive in Crossfit, it’s important to create a contextual understanding that hockey players aren’t merely training for fitness/appearance. Through this lens, let's explore the pros and cons of Crossfit.
Pros of Crossfit for Hockey Players
1) Sense of community
If you check out a Crossfit gym on Instagram or stumble across your local “box” – it’s undeniable that Crossfit has a phenomenal community atmosphere. They’ve realized the psychosocial benefits of training in groups and teams, and walking into a training session you quickly realize there’s a team of loud, positive, and enthusiastic people working together to get better. Being surrounded by people with a common pursuit is always valuable.
2) Training Culture & Environment
Building on the strong community element, the training environment that most Crossfit gyms cultivate is super strong. They’re typically loud and intense, and with everyone doing the same workout – there is an expectation of focus. Unlike a commercial gym, where there’s a variety of demographics ranging from Zumba classes to your Grandpa hanging out on a cardio machine – Crossfit gyms are built around high intensity training. This is typically the training environment athlete’s and hockey players typically thrive in.
3) Variety of Movement
The entire purpose of Crossfit is to build physical capacity to handle any physical challenge. Unlike a lot of traditional programs that you’d find online or in magazines, Crossfit uses a variety of movements in their training and places focus on incorporating a variety of movement patterns within each workout. This a really good thing for athletes. The classic “bench and bi’s” workouts are so insufficient for hockey players that it’s only marginally better than not working out at all. Crossfit is the exact opposite of this, and trains individuals through a wide variety of movements (potentially to a fault).
Cons of Crossfit for Hockey Players
1) Crossfit, the Sport?
While we’ve been considering Crossfit as a training practice so far, it’s often considered a sport in its own right. Crossfit has regular competitions that Crossfitter’s compete through a varied movement challenge (often as a race) against one another.
This means that often Crossfit workouts are often training for the sake of improving at Crossfit itself, which is completely understandable. That means training objectives can be to improve the performance of an actual exercise as opposed to hockey performance.
While elite fitness is elite fitness, it’s important to recognize your training objectives – and for hockey players that not just fitness (and certainly not improving at Crossfit) but rather training to improve on-ice performance. This mean’s programming that specifically addresses at restoring the imbalances accrued from hockey and then increase the physical capacities necessary to thrive with the demands of hockey.
2) Lack of Structured Programming, Personalization, and Specificity
These concepts are important.
While I praised Crossfit for their use of a variety of movement patterns within each workout, Crossfit is built on the premise of randomizing these movements to create a constantly varied training practice. While the concept of being able to tackle any physical challenge is cool for the general population, athletes have specific development needs to achieve (and maintain) peak performance.
Crossfit’s WODs are typically programmed for the entire gym community – not only does this eliminate personalization of your training to ensure it’s optimal for addressing your weaknesses, but it also means that workouts are traditionally just singular workouts instead of part of a greater macro-plan.
For context, my athletes are typically programmed in 4-week phases – which is typically part of a 6-12 month plan (sometimes even up to 24 months). Training day by day will likely lead to you missing key facets of a good Strength & Conditioning programming and fail to create a systematic development approach to your performance.
Injury, Overuse, & High Rep Movements
A season of hockey puts high-stress load on the body. It’s high repetition, high impact, and asymmetrical nature inevitably leads to a variety of imbalances and structural issues.
A well-structured Strength & Conditioning program not only addresses this and aims to restore the body to optimal function, but also build physical capacity against these demands. Looking at the varied and high-rep nature of Crossfit, it’s tough to argue against the fact that Crossfit not only fails to address these programming– but actually compounds it.
Crossfit utilizes many complex movements, often layering it with further complexities such as increased load, speed, and volume. This is usually taken a step further by creating a “race” element or completing rounds under cardiovascular stress. As modality this can be super beneficial for individuals with high movement skills (with these movements such a Snatch) and with no movement limitations/imbalances. Failing these two pre-requisites, this is a training recipe for injury.
Research (Source 1 & Source 2) suggests an injury incidence in Crossfit anywhere between 20-50% depending on how you define the severity of injury (Source 1 & Source 2). An athlete’s training is intended to enhance performance and a training practice at with that high likelihood of injury isn’t appropriate for a serious athlete.
Is Crossfit a good training practice? It depends on the individual, but probably not for hockey players.
While I feel a lot of people take stances too harsh on Crossfit, and this can likely be attributed to the wide range of coaching quality across the Crossfit community. While there's plenty of videos out of there of horrendous movements/form, that often lead to Crossfit getting roasted by the rest of the training community - I've had conversations with multiple Crossfit coaches that are extremely high quality and deligent in both their programming and movement coaching, and would be industry leaders in the traditional Strength & Conditional world. This spectrum of coaching quality is an important note in discussing Crossfit.
Overall, Crossfit is better than not training, and I’d argue it’s better than doing a “chest and tri” bodybuilding magazine workout. But despite the positive facets of Crossfit, a hockey player who’s training to optimize their performance need to take a more structured and systematic approach to their training.
I hope this gives a fair assessment of Crossfit and makes players/coaches consider the purpose of off-ice training and the significance of training with a purpose.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kyle Kokotailo, B.Kin - Performance Coach & Founder of Relentless Hockey
Kyle is a Hockey Performance Specialist who’s worked with hundreds of hockey players from Peewee to Pro. A former elite hockey player, Kyle earned his degree in Kinesiology before becoming a Strength Coach that specializes in hockey performance. Today, he runs Relentless Hockey where he works with players across the world, including pros in over 20+ leagues including the NHL, KHL, and OHL.
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