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CrossFit: Know the Risks!

Pull-upThe first time I heard about CrossFit was when my mom started competing in Olympic weightlifting about four years ago. She joined a CrossFit affiliated gym near her house, since they had all the equipment that she required in order to train for Olympic weightlifting. At the time, I thought CrossFit was just the name of a small local gym that my mom had joined that had the appropriate equipment for her training regimen. It wasn’t until two years ago when two CrossFit gyms popped up near my house and people that I knew started signing up for CrossFit classes, that I realized that CrossFit wasn’t just a local gym, but a larger movement. My curiosity piqued, I started researching what CrossFit was and its safety and efficacy as a fitness program.

What is CrossFit?
CrossFit is a constantly changing circuit training program based around high intensity exercises. Workouts are usually 20-40 minutes in duration. CrossFit’s philosophy is to utilize cross training techniques to promote overall fitness, by having participants work on a multitude of muscle groups in one workout, instead of just the few that would be exercised in a more targeted exercise program. CrossFit provides a different exercise program every day called the “Workout of the Day” (WOD). WODs are a mix of exercises that usually include some combination of gymnastics, aerobic exercises, body weight exercises and Olympic weight lifting. Some of the movements that may be performed during the WOD are:
plyometric jumps
air squats
burpees
jump rope
sprinting
rowing
climbing rope
L-sits on gymnastic rings
lunges
muscle-ups on the gymnastic rings
rowing
flipping tires
kettlebell swings
shoulder presses
squats
deadlifts
wallballs using a medicine ball
carrying heavy objects
clean and snatches
push-ups
pull-ups

What is the attraction of CrossFit?
CrossFit has gained a lot of popularity lately, because it offers something very different than the traditional, routine oriented workouts that most of us know. A few of the reasons people give for doing CrossFit training are:

  1. Varied workouts: In CrossFit you can expect your WOD to be constantly varied. The constantly changing workouts mean that boredom will never be an issue.
  2. Class setting: Most people do their WOD in a class setting with a certified CrossFit trainer. People want experts that can help them to safely participate in an exercise program. Plus, people enjoy taking classes because it helps to motivate them to show up and exercise.
  3. Promotes camaraderie and competition: Working out with others helps to promote a sense of camaraderie and competition. CrossFit is very focused on promoting a constant challenge and competition for their participants, by scoring and ranking their performance. The goal is to complete a certain number of repetitions in the specific time frame allotted.
  4. Learn different skills: You are constantly learning different skills and techniques that are utilized during the WOD.
  5. Promotes overall fitness: The high intensity, power based circuit training workouts are effective for burning calories, improving aerobic fitness and promoting strength.

Does it deliver what people are looking for?
Like most programs, it has some benefits. First, the varied workouts do minimize boredom. When you are constantly changing the workouts, it is hard to get bored. Second, the community is very strong and that motivates people to continue exercising, which is great. Third, it promotes overall fitness. People that do cross training get a more well rounded result than people who specialize in specific exercises. However, that has always been the difference between specialists and cross trainers. There is nothing new there or specific to CrossFit or its program.

Now for the negatives. First, you don’t develop many skills when you are constantly changing the workouts. In fact, it’s questionable that the classes result in anyone developing the proper form when an exercise is done infrequently. That is especially true since the speed with which the exercises are done is often emphasized to the detriment of the form. Second, the trainers aren’t really experts at training all different level of athletes in every possible skill in a WOD.

Is it safe?
As a physical therapist, I have a few concerns about the safety of CrossFit and whether the benefits outweigh the risks. First of all, high intensity exercises increase the likelihood of injury if they are not done with proper form and technique, which seems to be a common complaint against CrossFit. Also, if a participant is new to exercise and/or lacks the joint mobility and/or stability to safely and effectively perform the exercises instructed, such as jumping, pushing, pulling, rotating or squatting motions, injury can occur.

My main concern is that many of the trainers lack sufficient education and knowledge to truly understand how the body moves and the proper ways to prevent injury, especially for participants with prior injuries or below average conditioning. To be a “Level One Trainer” only requires two days of training and a written test. There aren’t even any prerequisites for taking the course. That level of training alone is not sufficient to be professionally competent, especially when you are having participants at all different levels of conditioning learning a multitude of new skills. Putting yourself in the hands of someone with that level of training and pretending that it is sufficient is ludicrous. The certification doesn’t require the trainer to conduct even a single course under the certification of an experienced trainer, let alone a longer course of apprenticeship. To me that would be a good step towards reducing poor training techniques.

What should I do to prevent injury?
If you are set on trying CrossFit, make sure to follow these four pointers to reduce your risk of injury.

  1. Talk to your physician: Check with your physician to see if your body can tolerate this kind of physical exertion and diverse movements.
  2. Learn the movement skills prior to joining a class: Go to your local physical therapist or a certified personal trainer with a more rigorous certification such as a CSCS or ACE certification to help you learn how to safely perform the movements required by CrossFit. If you don’t have the necessary joint mobility and/or stability to perform the movements safely, a physical therapist can help you to rectify that prior to joining the program. That will result in a decreased risk of injury and an improved result from your exercise.
  3. Listen to your body: If you feel sharp, abnormal joint pain during your WOD, stop what you are doing. Sharp, intense pain during a workout can signal injury. Mild muscle soreness after a workout, however, is normal.
  4. Make sure your coach is knowledgable: There are a lot of movements that, if not done correctly, can increase your risk of injury. Having a coach who lacks the knowledge and pushes you to do high reps with poor form greatly increases your risk of injury. If you feel that your coach is increasing your reps and intensity too fast and hard, it is time to switch coaches.

The bottom line:
CrossFit is a challenging workout that will probably get you in shape. For a beginner though, the constantly changing, high intensity CrossFit workouts increase your risk of injury, if not performed with proper form. Plus, the high reps and non-traditional methods of exercise put an unfit person who may not have the necessary joint mobility or stability at even higher risk of injury. So, even though CrossFit is gaining in popularity and insists that it is evidence based (although it isn’t peer reviewed and they laugh at the idea of peer review in their training guide), don’t let yourself be swayed if your body is not ready for the movements required. You can get great results doing other forms of cross training as well.

References: NSCA, ACE Fitness and CrossFit

Comments (1)

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  1. Isabel van Sunder says:

    I know that it is too much for me at this point.

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