The new year approaches and you might be setting some goals when it comes to fitness. Looking to spice it up and really challenge yourself alongside some really fun and motivated humans? Ever tried CrossFit? Oh no, I can’t do CrossFit for x, y, z reasons. Sound familiar?
As a medical practitioner, what are my thoughts on this “cult” as some may say, or this ridiculous type of intense training? It is one thing as a chiropractor to treat cross-fitters, but to be one myself? Through personal observation, I do believe that some healthcare practitioners have a dig at CrossFit, and I have had a few patients present to me saying “my last practitioner told me to stop CrossFit,” however, their ailments weren’t even CrossFit related. Huh? I guess I’m giving myself permission to scrutinize this topic and unpack my point of view because I use to be on the fence about this “CrossFit thing” a few years ago BEFORE I had even tried it. We all make up preconceived ideas about something by what we read on the internet (including ranting blogs that have no research foundations), or by someone else’s experience, whether good or bad. All these opinions dictate our outlook on something without ever being exposed to it correctly.
All experiences are relative.
So, this is my outlook of CrossFit based on the research I’ve been exposed to, and this is MY experience as a crossfitting chiropractor. I encourage you to take a moment and read on (it’s lengthy), but I do believe you’ll really learn something and gain some insight into one of the world’s fastest growing sports, and maybe even sign up and give it a try in the New Year.
So what is CrossFit actually? Let’s break it down for a better understanding because I don’t believe that the word “cult” should be used as a substitute for an individual’s lack of understanding of why a group of people are eager to workout together. CrossFit is high-intensity interval training coupled with resistance training, elements of powerlifting, and gymnastics. It is constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement that aims to prepare the body for the unknown and the unknowable (Glassman, 2007). It incorporates a lot of what is already practiced in various sports or training programs, from rowing, swimming, running to squats, deadlifts, snatches and so much more; the difference: the high-intensity methods utilised (Smith et al., 2013). Basically in summary, ‘our specialty is not specializing’ (Glassman, 2007). I personally like to think of CrossFit as the kingpin of all cross-training, hence the term ‘CROSSfit’. You never do the same thing or combination of movements twice, unless you walk in, quickly peer across to the board and it reads some female name like Fran, Grace, or Annie. You know how hurricanes are named after females? Well, that gives you an indication of the havoc that is about to unfold when the countdown begins, 3…2…1… But let’s continue with the research.
Breaking down the definitions further, CrossFit is focused around “constantly varied, functional movements”. These are movements involving universal motor recruitment patterns, performed in a wave of contraction from core to extremity and they are compound movements, i.e. multi-joint. Basically, the best type of joint movement when performed correctly (I will get to the technique later). This type of training involves gymnastics which increases strength, suppleness, and agility (Adamson, 2007), as well as power and weightlifting. Hedrick and Wada (2008) stated that the greater skill complexity required for weightlifting exercises facilitates the development of a broader physical abilities spectrum, which is transferred to improvements in athletic performance. Furthermore, they went on to explain the numerous benefits of weightlifting including the following: Biomechanical, neuromuscular, fiber adaptions and benefits; increased lean body mass; neuroendocrine adaptions; improved balance, coordination, flexibility, and kinesthetic awareness.
So all this, yet CrossFit has some sort of negative stigma attached to it especially amongst healthcare practitioners. Well, it wouldn’t be fair-minded if I sat here writing about all the good stuff from a biased perspective. How about I unpack the stereotypes and “negative implications” for you; the poor technique, the overuse, the crazy intensity, and the rhabdomyolysis. Heard these attached to the word CrossFit before? Most certainly.
Yes, CrossFit is high intensity which often means that movements are completed against time and frequently with heavy weights in many reps and sets. Generally, this leads to a state of fatigue, and accompanied with this, improper technique. But most certainly NOT always. Heavy lifting does require great technical skill and form due to high spinal loads (Hedrick and Wada, 2008). Therefore improper technique holds great risk for injury development, particularly to the low back ranging from strains to herniated discs (Lavallee and Balam, 2010). “You see, exactly my problem with CrossFit. Too much emphasis on getting through the workouts in a set time and not enough focus on form and technique.” Yup, I’m sure some of you were thinking along these lines. That’s okay, I use to say this too, and to some extent, still do.
And then there is rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis is the rapid breakdown and destruction of skeletal (moving) muscle resulting from intense athletic activity (medicine.net, 2018). The injured muscle cells subsequently leak into the circulation and cause electrolyte abnormalities and acidosis (Rathi, 2014). Insert a great deal of muscle pain, weakness, and potential hospitalisation. Sounds extreme right? However, in 2005, Glassman reported 5 cases of CrossFit induced rhabdomyolysis, FIVE, all of which made a recovery and returned to CrossFit training. Another study in 2013 (Hak, Hodzovic and Hickey) looked at the prevalence of injuries during CrossFit training where no cases of rhabdomyolysis were reported. CrossFit can be intense, yes, but so are a lot of other sports and activities. The overall risk is minimal especially if the individual understands their body limitations.
Now that I’ve laid out the scrutiny of the negative, I have some rhetorical questions for you. Is there any sport that is injury-free? If CrossFit is so heedless, then why do most strength and conditioning coaches, as well as Biokineticists incorporate these exact movement standards into their patient/client training programs? If you’ve been to most regular gyms lately (not CrossFit affiliated), they have a “workout of the day (WOD)” presented for regular gym-goers to challenge themselves, or training classes structured around a very similar, if not identical program design. Is this not CrossFit? Hmmm…
EVERY sport has flaws, and every sport has a risk of injury. Injuries are expected at any competitive level. We CANNOT prevent injury. There is no way to guarantee that. People get hurt. Accidents happen. Even the most prepared athletes can experience injury. But we CAN reduce the risk of injury by making our bodies better at adapting to stress and load. Now when it comes to CrossFit, how does one manage and reduce injury risk? Well, this is where all my negatives were disintegrated. Being part of an affiliated CrossFit box, with certified CrossFit coaches, providing high-quality program design, and implementing good technique patterns – injuries are not as common as I originally thought.
Qualified coaches ensure that members need to be set up for functionality and success; there is injury surveillance and introspective input of how much is too much when it comes to fatigue and potential technique issues. Yes, we spoke about lifting heavy weights for many reps and sets, and the fact that fatigue sets in leading to improper technique. Thankfully CrossFit is diverse and this is not always the case, and actually never has to be either. CrossFit can be scaled meaning it can be adapted to be less intense based on a persons abilities and the presence of any incorrect movement patterns or injuries. You DO NOT HAVE to lift heavy weights. You do not have to walk on your hands or climb a rope. The beauty of CrossFit is adaptation. I read an article where one healthcare practitioner said, “There is no way inexperienced people doing this are not going to get hurt.” Yes, that is what experienced, certified CrossFit coaches are for and why people are encouraged to do CrossFit at affiliated CrossFit boxes, not regular gyms. I am inexperienced at rock climbing, hence if I rock climb without adequate guidance, I am sure I’ll come off second best. This makes logical sense. Coaches are there to guide you accordingly in this array of challenging movements. If you can’t perform a regular bodyweight squat with proper technique, you shouldn’t be using a loaded barbell, simple. But that is also not ONLY the coach’s responsibility, it is YOURS too. Get good at moving your body WELL before you move it fast and under too much load. We also have a level of responsibility when it comes to training.
The human body can be pushed to do UNBELIEVABLE things and CrossFit provides a platform for that to unfold. The magnitude of skill required is complex enough to humble you in one way or another. CrossFit embodies its own language from WOD, AMRAP, EMOM, RFT, The Open, bear complex, RX, scaled to Sally Up. It encourages sweat, commitment, accountability, and hard work, and it is a gathering place for like-minded individuals to be challenged, whilst having a good time. You won’t only come into the gym for training, you will enter into a fitness family. Yes, you can get injured but that is not CrossFits’ fault and it is not the coach’s fault either, that is called personal responsibility! We all have physical boundaries and limits, know them well, and be aware of them.
If you want to take the CrossFit thing too far, that’s your choice. Trust me, your EGO will get you injured a lot quicker than CrossFit will.
We cannot demonize a particular sport. There are MULTIPLE factors that accumulate to produce stress and injury. Don’t blame CrossFit or even regular gym for a shoulder injury when you’ve been dancing your way around poor movement patterns, poor posture, and strength imbalances for ages.
This is not me promoting CrossFit from the comfort of my computer screen, this is me giving you my experience from both sides of the fence, and providing you with the information you need to drastically alter your perspective. CrossFit may not be for everyone, but I doubt that’s because of your body type, as some will say, and I truly hope it isn’t because you were too proud to try.
The next time we find ourselves criticising something based on preconceived ideas gathered from the internet, whether it’s CrossFit or any other form of exercise or sport, let’s think again and rather experience it firsthand for ourselves, then make your decision.
This is me, the CossFitting chiropractor, who would rather condition my body to be functionally prepared for the unknown and unknowable, than be efficient at a single joint static movement or just for the sake of trying to “look” good.
Photo’s by Nick Beswick, Daniel Osch, and Tyrone Harris.