The Dangers of CrossFit – Why the Workout Is Not Worth Your Money or Your Life

This post will probably be unpopular to people, but it’s not simply my opinion in a blog. A lot of what you’ll read below is scientific and factual. Not only did I study the mechanisms of movement and physiology of exercise in college; not only do I personally train athletes and adults in achieving various fitness goals; not only am I an active and fit person, but I have also done copious amounts of research on this topic. Additionally, I have yet to meet a professional in my field – high school and collegiate athletic coaches, Kinesiology professors, exercise physiologists, certified personal trainers, gym owners, and physical therapists – who recommend CrossFit. Every educated health professional I’ve talked to and every study I’ve read on the topic agrees: CrossFit is dangerous and is NOT the way to increase cardiovascular performance or increase strength gains.

The topic of CrossFit generally just makes me angry. It is dangerous. It is not based on science. There are so many issues with it, I could go on for hours. I’m going to delve into the main issues with CrossFit, so brace yourself for some heavy reading in this post.


The ideology behind, and structure of, CrossFit is an issue. The structure includes WOD’s, or Workout of the Day’s. These workouts are the same for everyone across the board. No individualization. There is a serious difference between randomness and variation. Randomness is not productive. Variation, on the other hand, is. What’s the difference? Randomness is just that: random. Workouts are thrown together without foresight and a future plan or goal in mind, except to “be fitter”. But you cannot build and progress when your workouts are random. CrossFit doesn’t model their WOD’s on variation. WOD’s throw people into the same workout, regardless of experience, fitness level, etc. You can’t randomly start doing movements and exercises, then move to totally different ones the next day, and expect to make real progress and gains. You need variation in your workouts to keep your body adapting. You need to progress from one movement to another, moving up in advanced techniques, or weights, or intensity, or frequency, etc. Variation allows you to build and progress on prior gains.

In addition to this, during these WOD’s, CrossFit coaches push people past their safe limits. The more sore you are, the better workout you had. But that’s just not true. Soreness doesn’t correlate with a successful workout, or toughness, or fitness. Of course when working out there is going to be discomfort; burning in your muscles, shortness of breath during cardio, etc. But PAIN is a different sensation altogether and when a coach encourages you to push through the pain, you should question their professionalism, intellect, and training. It is NOT healthy to push yourself through pain. This only promotes your risk of injury and will be detrimental to your achieving your fitness goals.

This brings me to my next point: the people who run CrossFit. Coaches don’t even need education to run a CrossFit and instruct you. Trainers who REALLY know what they’re talking about and doing will have a educational degree in Kinesiology, Exercise Physiology, or another related field, or they’ll have a certification from a reputable organization, like NASM or ACSM. These professionals will attend conferences to remain certified and up to date on their degrees. Often times, a reputable gym will require practical demonstration before hiring a new trainer to ensure that they are educated properly and can provide proper training.

If the CrossFit box is even remotely responsible, the coaches will go to a weekend training seminar where they learn power lifting technique. A weekend! To learn power lifting! I’ve been doing power lifts for years, and teaching them for a couple of years, and I still check myself and compare with other educated professionals to ensure I’m doing and coaching people properly. These are advanced movements, requiring precision and skill. You cannot learn perfect form and give perfect instruction on various power lifting moves in a matter of two days. Performing power movements with improper coaching and form at high repetitions or for time, as done in CrossFit, leads to an even higher risk for injury.

In addition to this point, the idea CrossFit employs regarding power lifting is unscientific. During workouts, participants are encouraged to do as many reps as possible in a timed circuit, or repeat a move for 20, 30, repetitions. Power lifting is NOT meant to be used in this manner. Power lifting and Olympic lifting are meant to be done with precise form, low repetitions, and high weight. These movements need to be executed with the proper technique and are supposed to be explosive, powerful movements. You’re supposed to perform them with adequate rest between sets, and they’re done over very short periods of time. You can’t simply run through an explanation of these movements, throw weight on a bar, and tell someone to repeat the movement as fast as possible for as many reps as they can for two minutes. It goes against your body’s capabilities and crosses the line into the danger zone. Your body is not meant to be put under such intense stress for so many of these explosive, powerful repetitions at a time. This only increases your chances of getting injured by putting undue stress on ligaments and joints. The more you do any movement repetitively, with high weight especially, the more you increase your chances of getting hurt and doing real damage to your body. So, if you’re going to engage in power lifting exercises, do it right. Find a real coach who knows the science of proper technique, who can coach you, spot you, and help you progress gradually to prevent injury – the way power lifting is supposed to be.

rhabdo

The next point is also related to danger. The photo placed here for your viewing is a CrossFit creation. This disgusts me the most. CrossFit appears PROUD and finds HUMOR in using this photo of a clown called Rhabdo, who appears to be on a dialysis machine, with a kidney on the ground, standing in a pool of blood, with various, serious tears in his muscles, looking absolutely decimated. What?! Is this what CrossFit promotes?! Without even getting into the science of it yet – is this what you want your coaches to make you feel or look like? Is that what you call a successful workout?!

Now the science of it – what is rhabdo? Why does CrossFit seem to know so much about rhabdo that they have a logo of a clown suffering from it? Rhabdo, or rhabdomyolysis is a serious, but typically rare syndrome. It involves the breakdown of muscle fibers to such an extent that their contents filter into your bloodstream, leading to kidney complications like renal failure, where the kidneys are so overwhelmed with clearing out waste from your body that they literally fail to do the job. Rhabdo can cause death. Usually, people need hospitalization (see the clown on dialysis?) to treat the issue. It can take weeks to recover from this, if you’re lucky. Rhabdo “is uncommon and normally reserved for the elite military trainee, ultra-endurance monsters, and for victims of the occasional psychotic football coach” (Robertson). Basically, your average mom or dad who is exercising, a fit, collegiate athlete, or another regular person working out, wouldn’t experience or suffer from rhabdo.

When working out and strength training, microtears in your muscle are unavoidable. Macrotears, however, are a problem. When an untrained, unfit, or previously trained person (and by this I actually mean anyone who isn’t pretty much an elite athlete or in military shape) participates in the high intensity of CrossFit training, and pushes themselves the way the coaches direct, muscles will undoubtedly become strained and sore. This can lead to rhabdo.

So why does CrossFit know so much about it when it’s prevalence is about one in hundreds of thousands of people? Well, in exercise, eccentric contractions of muscles allow the body to lift more weight than concentric contractions. If these eccentric contractions are done with high intensity volume, or high repetitions, you get into the danger zone. Your body is not ready for it. Does this kind of training sound familiar?

Yes: CrossFit. High intensity. High repetitions. High weights. Lack of education. Bad training. Being pushed beyond your body’s safe limits. Not working up to the exercises gradually. Rhabdo.

In an article written by the founder of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, he literally discusses the risks this type of training has in promoting cases of rhabdo. He addressed the issue of rhabdo once, back in 2005. Apparently it’s such a problem, CrossFit has had to address it time and time again in their newsletters, issuing real warnings about the possibility and risk of suffering from rhabdo by participating in CrossFit. CrossFit recognizes that exertional rhabdo, or rhabdo from exercise of a high intensity, can be lethal. So the intensity and structure of CrossFit workouts can literally kill you. In the article, it states that one of the worst rhabdo cases CrossFit has seen involved a middle-aged, fit SWAT guy, who luckily recovered from CrossFit induced rhabdo, and can now “easily blast through workouts that once nearly killed him” (Glassman 2). If the workout nearly killed you, perhaps it wasn’t the safest workout to be doing.

The rhabdo associated with CrossFit so far is showing itself differently than what people typically see with rhabdo, which is associated with “exhaustion, dehydration, high humidity, high temperatures, and long practices” (Glassman 2). The author here states this is NOT the type of rhabdo CrossFit is dealing with. The people who have developed rhabdo at CrossFit sessions aren’t showing typical warning signs, like panting or discomfort. These people apparently left sessions just fine, like every other participant. Then went home and had near death experiences that led them to contact a doctor, or venture to the hospital. This is alarming! CrossFit attributes this phenomenon as a result of people not being capable of performing the CrossFit workloads as a result of inadequate prior training levels. They state that training programs including but not limited to those offered in “commercial gyms, fitness magazines, popular internet sites, the U.S military (including special operations training), and police agencies … all proved woefully inadequate at preparing [people] for sustained power output” (Glassman 3).

So…this guy is telling us that a U.S military trainee, someone who has undergone special ops training, who needs to not only endure, but pass practicals consisting of months of the most rigorous training both physically and mentally, is not even close to being physically fit enough for CrossFit? Does this not alarm you?! Perhaps the issue is not the prior training people have or have not had, but the “sustained power output” being referenced here; the same power lifting and Olympic lifting movements discussed previously; explosive movements and power outputs that aren’t meant to be sustained.

Finally, any of the benefits I’ve read associated with CrossFit can be said of just about any exercise program a previously sedentary person might begin. People who are overweight, inactive, and generally unfit try CrossFit and it “works” because they’re actually moving. This would still be true if they joined a gym or started doing cardio on their own. Simply adding movement that burns calories would give these people the same initial results of weight loss and strength gains. In the article “Why CrossFit works…but really doesn’t. The Randomness of Adaptation and why beginners just need change”, sums it up nicely. CrossFit is “Random highly intense exercise. For the unfit or formerly fit, this works great initially…It isn’t that the exercises are super awesome targeted muscle sculpting patented exercises. Instead, it’s that the people who generally do them weren’t doing them before” (Magness).

CrossFit should not be the training program inactive and unfit people turn to when they want to lose weight or get in shape because, aside from everything else you’ve read thus far, once those initial results plateau, which they will, there’s nowhere to go. In a random workout program like CrossFit, you can’t just push harder – you’re pushing as hard as you can already! And here we can circle back to the beginning of my post where I discussed randomness and variation. Variation allows you to progress in a specific direction depending on your goal. Randomness doesn’t. Therefore, there’s really no progress to be gained in CrossFit, unless you want to progress to injury, or worse.

To sum up this lengthy post: CrossFit is led by untrained individuals, promotes improper training techniques, increases the risk of injury, focuses on random workouts, and can kill you. Is the workout even worth this kind of risk? If you’re going to be fit, healthy, and train, do it right and do it with educated professionals who know what they’re talking about, can coach you on a personal level so you continue to develop, and can keep you safe. Oh, and alive.

Please refer to the list of references used in this post for further reading on various topics that were discussed in here.

References:

  • Glassman, Greg. “CrossFit Induced Rhabdo”. The CrossFit Journal Articles. Issue 38 (2005): 1-3. CrossFit. CrossFit Inc. Web. 30 Apr 2015. Link.
  • Magness, Steve. “Why CrossFit Works…But Really Doesn’t. The Randomness of Adaptation and Why Beginners Just Need Change”. The Science of Running. Web. 30 Apr 2015. Link.
  • Robertson, Eric. “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret”. The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 Sept 2013. Web. 30 Apr 2015. Link.

And for a more personal, but still fact-based account of CrossFit, check out this great article below:

  • Simmons, Erin. “Why I Don’t Do CrossFit”. The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 29 May 2014. Web. 30 Apr 2015. Link.

Thanks for reading this far.

Agree? Disagree? Learn something new? Have a personal experience with CrossFit? Leave a comment.

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2 thoughts on “The Dangers of CrossFit – Why the Workout Is Not Worth Your Money or Your Life

  1. sunnyshakhawala May 20, 2015 / 1:21 am

    I agree with some points and disagree with others. I suffered from Rhabdo earlier this year. I’ve been an avid CrossFitter for about 3 years now. Once I made a 100% recovery, I was able to re-introduce myself to CrossFit. I hope to become competitive again but currently taking it slowly. Call me naive, but I love this “sport”. I take full responsibility for my actions. Check out my post for the details.

    Like

    • amandafaucher May 20, 2015 / 2:19 am

      Thanks for commenting! I hope you’re able to stay healthy while participating in CrossFit, but I hope you try other avenues to help you achieve your fitness goals in more scientific ways. I’ve found a lot of regional differences exist in how CrossFit is run and how coaches are, so I’m interested to see what your disagreements are and will head over to your blog to read your post!

      Like

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