The Crossfit Conundrum: Part 1. Ultimate fitness vs. Long term durability. Who is responsible?

There is no doubt that Crossfit delivers in its promise to help participants achieve awesome levels of fitness and like any intense physical activity, it comes with risks.

Why are people getting injured in Crossfit?
It is difficult to generalize because philosophies often vary between Crossfit Box’s. The spectrum ranges from intense focus on fundamentals and corrective exercise, to relatively little time spent on readiness with a trust that imperfections will work themselves out.

Three major categories of Crossfit induced, population-based injury are emerging:

  • Extremely fit athletes well versed in the movement patterns who push their limits of durability on a stable and mobile platform.
  • Moderately athletic people with prior history of weight training and/or other regular athletic participation.
  • Individuals who may be athletic to some degree, but with no prior weight lifting experience.

Many injuries can be associated with participants’ lack of readiness.

Readiness is the state of being fully prepared for something. It requires a sound foundation in movement skills, as well as, mobility and stability of the musculoskeletal system (This will be the topic of Part 2). Simply put, mobility = sound and fluid motion through multiple ranges. Stability = good control through these ranges. If either is missing Crossfit will reveal it.

Can we blame Crossfit for injuries? Somewhat yes and mostly NO.

Somewhat Yes: Crossfit’s use of complex movement skills (i.e. olympic lifts, ring work) requires more time teaching and learning than is typically allotted before engaging in the scheduled group classes. It takes time and accurate practice to get the body patterned properly. The learning curve varies greatly within the Crossfit population, from elite level athletes to new mothers. It is extremely challenging to perform “accurate practice” repetitions when being pushed (“encouraged”) to try harder and faster. Yes, people have a choice, but the environment is quite motivating so most choose to go hard.

Within the Crossfit community, there is currently no systematic evaluation strategy to screen for participants’ lacking mobility, stability and/or skill. While there are Elements Classes that teach the movements (often mandatory before full participation), or options for more personalized training, many participants are either unaware of their movement imperfections or are not willing to spend the time working on the fundamentals. A slight paradigm shift in readiness would go a long way for participant durability. Screening and corrective exercise would go a long way.

Mostly NO: The growing number of shoulder, knee and back injuries in Crossfit seems less an issue of programing and philosophy and more a result of participant decision making.  Its a tough workout, and people know its tough, so it is important to come prepared or recognize when to ask for help. While Crossfit coaches will indeed push their minions to try harder and faster, there is the crucial element of personal responsibility to self regulate. Unfortunately, in the socially charged atmosphere of a Crossfit workout, people often ignore these concerns in the interest of keeping up, mirroring others or not disrupting the flow.

Coaches may not catch all form-flaws, so participants must apply good judgement and take control of their bodies’ experience. Many of the Crossfit clients treated in my physical therapy clinic admit to ignoring stiffness, aches and pains prior to their injury. Some feel they should have listened more to intuition. I often get the comment “I was being stupid” when asking them what happened.

Readiness Culture: Crossfit Culture could benefit from a slight overhaul in participation readiness via standardized screening tools and more time/focus on the elements prior to and throughout intense groups classes.
Personal Responsibility: Self-regulation and asking for help are ultimately the final steps to achieving fitness goals while preserving long term durability. Own your experience and take the necessary steps to be prepared. We cannot blame a particular fitness modality for injuries when the ultimate decision maker for safety is the participant. Know what you know and when to ask for help.