How many of you have said to someone, “Hey, I started this great program called CrossFit and…” only to be cut off by their response, “Oh, yeah, I heard about that. Be careful, I hear that causes a lot of injuries and is bad for you”? I have. I’ve heard it from the average Jane and Joe not in the fitness industry, as well as local personal trainers, coaches, and even a few doctors. Is this true? Does CrossFit cause injuries? Does it put people at a higher risk of injury than other types of exercise? Let’s take a closer look.
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit, as defined by its founder, is “constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity”. That may not mean too much to the average person, so my definition is CrossFit is a combination of cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, traditional Olympic style lifting, and components of gymnastics movements. In short, it combines movements and exercises from a wide range of fitness and athletic disciplines. The goal is to create a well rounded athlete that is strong and well conditioned and able to perform movements throughout a full range of motion. This isn’t just for athletes, but for anyone that wishes to improve their health and allow their body to function better both at work and a wide range of recreational activities. In other words, the goal is to be in good shape and health enough to enjoy life!
So, with the goals above in mind, CrossFit programming is designed to constantly challenge the participants. It requires people to push through their physical (and often mental) limitations. To outsiders this can appear like it is very intense and border on being “dangerous”, or at the very least, they think it can put people at risk for injuries. Before I became a participant myself, I kind of agreed with this way of thinking. It was my opinion that unless you are a well trained athlete, you might want to stay away from this type of program. I’m more than willing to admit that I was completely wrong. I’m also calling out those that continue to have this opinion. They are dead wrong too.
Is CrossFit programming difficult? Does it hurt? Do people have injuries? You bet. The answer is yes to all three of these questions. However, let’s take a look at the details.
CrossFit programming is difficult — Your coaches are going to push your limits. You are going to push you limits, both mentally and physically. It takes effort. It is a challenge, but if you want to see yourself improve, it’s necessary to do do work above and beyond what your body is accustomed to during your average daily activities.
Sometimes it hurts — You’re going to be working muscles that you may not have worked in a long, long time. About 12-24 hours afterwards you will start to notice discomfort in the major muscle groups used during a workout. They will become very stiff, possibly making it difficult to do even simple tasks like combing your hair, putting on shoes and socks, or sitting down in a chair. This is usually much worse in the beginning. Don’t worry, this will pass. Even though it’s expected, let your coaches know so they can guide you accordingly. They will assess your situation and either recommend taking a day or two off, or modify your program to help you recover more quickly. In many cases, the best thing for this type of pain is to get back in their and get those areas moving.
People do have injuries — Just like any other activity, participation in CrossFit can cause pain or lead to an injury. Let’s talk about pain for a second. Sometimes this is due to an injury. For example, a torn ligament, a fracture, a disc hernation, or a sprain/strain type of situation. With that said, most of the time (in my experience) this is due to irritation of a joint or muscle due to muscle tightness or trigger points, restricted or tight joints, or poor body mechanics. Nothing is injured per se, but the pain is a sign that something isn’t quite right. I examine and treat athletes on a regular basis, both CrossFit and those in other sports. I’d say 9 out of 10 are having pain not because of an actual injury, but because of this other situation. Because CrossFit requires full range of motion during a wide variety of movements, people tend to expose underlying issues like muscle and joint tightness and improper body mechanics.
When faced with these issues, there’s two choices. One, they can “hide” from these issues by quitting CrossFit or working out in general and avoid the aggravating movements or exercises. The problem is, eventually these issues come to the surface since most people will eventually participate in an activity that requires good mobility and stability (moving furniture or other weekend warrior activities) and they end up causing an actual injury. Unfortunately it’s been my experience that many doctors suggest this route. ”Squatting hurts your knees? Don’t squat. Overhead presses cause shoulder pain? Don’t press overhead” (in some injuries this advice may be warranted, so consider your specific situation if you receive this advice and consider a second opinion). The other choice, the better choice in my opinion, is to find the source of the issue and work through them by working on your own mobility (foam rolling, lacrosse ball trigger point therapy, bands for stretching, etc.) and/or seeking an evaluation from a health care provider that is familiar with CrossFit movements and can offer treatment to help resolve these physical limitation and promote better body mechanics. Chiropractors (like yours truly) and physical therapists are often the providers of choice for these types of issues.
So, CrossFit does cause injuries?
Yes, but I will argue that the risk of injury is lower compared to most sports and many other types of workouts. In the almost two years I’ve been involved and working with CrossFit participants, I have only seen one or two serious injuries that required surgical intervention. From what I know of the injuries, they were freak occurrences and could have happened during almost any type of exercise program. To put this in perspective, I have seen more injuries from Zumba, yoga, and people just walking their dogs than I have from CrossFit. This is for a few reasons.
Classes are programmed and adapted appropriately - Unlike going to the local globogym and working out on your own, coaches program training for the group’s skill level. Not only that, but workouts can be further customized to accommodate each individual through modifying weights and movements.
Classes are under the supervision of one or more coaches at all times - Each class starts off with a dynamic warm up session followed by a review of movements to be used during that day’s workout. Then, once the workout start, coaches observe participants to offer instruction to those that are not performing movements correctly.
Movements and exercises are done from a stable base of support and are not very ballistic in nature – This is a little complicated to explain, but by this I mean the movements are safe because they are done so in a controlled manner in proper positioning. Many of the workouts involved moving weight and doing so quickly and explosively (like a clean and jerk), but it’s done so from a stable position with good form. Contrast this with frequent jumping or kicking in a cardio kick boxing type of class. Even though weight is not involved, the action of jumping or kicking and punching is very demanding and can often cause people to move into an unstable position at the knees, hips, and low back. For more information on this concept, look into closed chain vs. open chained exercises.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The bottom line is that CrossFit is no more dangerous or risky than any other method of training. As mentioned above, I believe it is safer than most. If someone tells you otherwise, ask about their experience with CrossFit. Most of the time they form their opinion based on an article they read in a fitness magazine or because a friend of theirs shared a bad experience. For others, it just appears to be too difficult or appear it could cause problems. I was that person until I jumped in and experience it for myself and worked with fellow participants. It didn’t take long to see the potential for this type of program to get people into what they often describe as “the best shape of my life” and work through old injuries and issues and remove any limitations they may expose along the way.
If you’re worried about injuries, do the following:
1. Be sure to work with the coaches closely to make sure you’re progressing through the programming appropriately for your skill, strength, and fitness level.
2. Watch your ego. It’s enticing to try out a hand stand push up when you see a friend of yours that has been in the program a year doing a few, but if you lack the mobility and strength to do so, you’re setting yourself up for a rotator cuff injury.
3. Watch your ego (part two). Others around you may be working more quickly through a workout, and you may be eager to beat your previous time, but NEVER sacrifice form for speed. This is very difficult to stick to at times, but strive to do so. I learned the hard way trying to eek out an extra rep during dead lifts and was out for a month. I learned again (or didn’t learn the first time I guess) after doing bounding box jumps instead of stepping down and jumping up like I knew I should have done.
4. Work on mobility. During rest days, don’t just sit home on the couch. Use those days to work on your mobility. Coaches will show you ways to accomplish this task. It’s every bit as important as the workouts themselves. If you skip this part, you will find yourself having issues.
5. If you’re having pain or discomfort, talk to the coaches. Most of the time the pain is expected and due to delayed onset muscle soreness (perfectly normal). Sometimes it’s a sign you need to work on your form. Sometimes it’s a sign you need another day of rest. Sometimes it’s a sign you need to work on mobility. In rare cases, it’s a sign you need to be evaluated by a health care provider to make sure there’s no underlying issues that may require treatment. Communication with the coaches is key and they will be able to guide you through one or more of the above options.