CrossFit: Friend or Foe?

What is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a high-intensity conditioning program combining multiple forms of exercise that involve high repetitions and minimal rest. These exercises are grouped into Workouts of the Day (WODs). Per CrossFit’s website:

“CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more. These are the core movements of life. They move the largest loads the longest distances, so they are ideal for maximizing the amount of work done in the shortest time. Intensity is essential for results and is measurable as work divided by time—or power. The more work you do in less time, or the higher the power output, the more intense the effort. By employing a constantly varied approach to training, functional movements and intensity lead to dramatic gains in fitness.”

Can CrossFit Hurt Me?

Much like any sport or exercise regiment, you can get hurt during CrossFit. There is some peer-reviewed research demonstrating that between 19-73.5% of individuals engaged in a CrossFit program will experience injuries involving the shoulder, low back, and/or knee.  The same research indicates that males have higher risks for developing a new injury over females.  While the causes are multifactorial, these same papers conclude that injuries sustained decreased based on instructor involvement, emphasizing proper form. Currently, CrossFit instructors are only required to attend a weekend course before becoming certified to run a CrossFit program or gym. This lack of training and experience may result in teaching inefficient movement strategies, leading to poor body mechanics during exercises. When coupling poor mechanics with repetitive, ballistic exercise, the conditions are perfect for possible injury[i],[ii].

To CrossFit or not to CrossFit?

That is the question, indeed. It remains a hot button question among those in the physical therapy community. There are just as many who are pro-CrossFit as those who are staunchly opposed. Like most divisive issues, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. As the ever-growing body of evidence suggests, movement is medicine. As the premier movement specialists, we physical therapists should encourage any type of exercise. There is nothing negative about achieving a good workout in a manner that is both fun and purposeful. However, there are steps that can be taken to mitigate the risk of injury. We suggest that prior to initiation of CrossFit, or any change in sport or exercise for that matter, an individual should consult a physical therapist for a formal functional movement screen and/or assessment. These screens and assessments can identify any baseline, faulty movement patterns or strategies that can eventually lead to injury. For example, you may want to avoid a WOD that involves overhead presses with high reps or resistance if a screen uncovers a dysfunctional shoulder motion. Instead, work on correcting the dysfunctional pattern before increasing the intensity of any drill or exercise.

In conclusion:

  1. Consult your physical therapist before any gross change in workout routine or sport.
  2. Find a gym where the staff is knowledgeable and will consider your individual needs.
  3. Be smart. Listen to your body, if there is pain, stop.
  4. Don’t go nuts. Build your strength and endurance gradually, concentrating on keeping correct form at all times.

[i] Weisenthal, BM, Beck CA, et al.  Injury Rate and Patterns Among CrossFit Athletes. The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 2(4).

[ii] Hak, PT, Hodzovic, E, Hickey, B.  The Nature and Prevalence of Injury during CrossFit Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Nov 2013.