CrossFit – One Physical Therapist’s Perspective
What CrossFit is and the public’s perception of what CrossFit is are two very different things. Yes, CrossFit appears intimidating. But, once you get started, you realize it looks much scarier and dangerous than it actually is.
My Bias Around CrossFit
Before we go further, I want to acknowledge an inherent bias in this blog post. I participate in CrossFit about four times per week and have been a CrossFit Level 1 Coach for over three years. Clearly, I wouldn’t have stuck around if I didn’t like doing CrossFit.
On the other side of that bias, I would also like to acknowledge that I used to think lifting heavy weights was bad for you. After sifting through research and learning the fundamentals of the lifts, I changed my mind. After this, it took a solid six months of regularly participating in CrossFit to solidify my new beliefs.
From this experience, I was reminded you never truly understand something unless you’ve experienced it. I also think the reason a large majority of the public (and the medical system) says CrossFit is bad for you is because they don’t actually know what CrossFit is as they haven’t experienced it.
What is CrossFit?
Per the CrossFit Level 1 Coach handbook, CrossFit is “constantly varied, high-intensity functional movement.” This means you’ll do a bunch of different exercises that (mostly) replicate things you’ll do in daily life. Those functional exercises will be done at a high intensity. The goal of this is to improve your body’s capacity so you can more easily perform daily tasks. These are all good things, and we’ll dive into why each of those aspects are good before we talk about what often goes wrong.
CrossFit – Constantly Varied
Constantly varied prevents your body from adapting to a stimulus. If you always do the same thing when you go to the gym, you’ll get really good at doing that thing. However, when you confront something new (like lifting a tree or pulling a deer from the woods while hunting), you’re not going to be as well-equipped compared to someone who trains a wide variety of movements.
CrossFit – High Intensity
Working out shouldn’t be easy. If it is, it’s not effective. I acknowledge that might be offensive to some people, but it’s unfortunately the truth. While taking walks is great for your health, if all you do is go on a one-hour walk – even if you do it seven days of the week – your heart, muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons would be much more fit if you did CrossFit (or some other form of high-intensity training) three times per week. If you’re lifting weights, but those weights are pretty easy to lift, you’re not actually getting stronger. You may be slowing a strength decline, but you’re certainly not improving.
Ironically, a large majority of individuals understand that in order to grow, you must be uncomfortable. However, while that’s often well-accepted in terms of personal growth or relational growth, the same thought process is not universally applied to exercise. If you’re not uncomfortable while you’re exercising, you’re not getting fitter. It’s that simple.
CrossFit – Functional Movements
We all need to be able to squat to sit on the toilet, pick stuff up off the floor, and lift stuff overhead. This is indisputable and these are the foundational movements of CrossFit.
Other movements, such as handstand push-ups and overhead squats, appear less functional. However, if you are able to do an overhead squat, you’ll have sufficient mobility, body awareness, and coordination to move well for all of your daily activities. You’ll also be able to move well in unexpected situations, which is when injuries often occur. Similarly, if you have enough strength to do a handstand push-up, you’ll have more than enough strength to lift almost anything you need to overhead.
It’s not necessarily about the weird or awkward movement itself, it’s about the skills you gain in the process of doing the seemingly unfunctional movement.
Where People Run Into Issues CrossFitting
All of what we discussed above is inherently good and helpful for improving health. So, what goes wrong when it comes to CrossFit? Before we discuss what goes wrong, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s not the injury rate (despite common perceptions). CrossFit’s injury rate is about 1 injury per 1000 training hours, which is comparable to running, weightlifting, climbing, cycling, and more.
What goes wrong is often how people perceive CrossFit should be done. When people go too hard too often, do too much, let comparison dictate their actions, and don’t seek to understand their body, they get injured, regardless of what sport they do. Some of this plays out differently in CrossFit because of the leaderboard, but these principles can typically be generalized across sport.
Always Going 100%
Never in life is it a good idea to always go 100%. It leads to burn out and exhaustion and – for CrossFit – it leads to injuries. Because you are “scored” in CrossFit in terms of how many reps you complete or how fast you do the WOD (workout of the day), individuals often push themselves more than they would in a traditional workout setting. This is great and beneficial for health. Remember from before? Intensity is a good thing.
The problem comes in when the intensity is always dialed up. Even RX athletes should scale for active recovery days, if they had one drink too many, had a poor night of sleep, or are struggling to get their body moving. There’s nothing wrong with scaling. That’s a harder concept for some to wrap their heads around, but it’s an important one.
Trying to Advance Too Quickly
We see this happen in three different situations –
- Kipping motions are pursued before strict motions are mastered
- Learning a skill leads to excessive practice of that specific skill
- Weight is added to the barbell (or heavier kettlebells or dumbbells are used) before technique is mastered or strength is sufficient
To fully dive into each of these situations can be a blog post in and of itself. To summarize quickly, it’s important to not progress in skill or strength before you’re ready. It’s hard to know when you’re ready on your own, so this is where asking a skilled CrossFit Coach is important.
Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Newer research is showing that 4-6 days of CrossFit per week is the sweet spot to avoiding injury and improving fitness. Under three days per week limits the variety of movements that you’re exposed to, which makes you more likely to get injured while doing them. Over six days per week (also known as seven days per week) doesn’t give your body enough time to recover from exercise.
Not Listening to Your Body
Everyone’s heard “just listen to your body” and you’ll be fine. While this does have some truth to it, I personally think this is fairly unhelpful without direction on how to listen to your body. Listening to your body is an art. It’s developed over time. Rather than being something that is innate and obvious, it takes time and practice, like any skill. Unfortunately, most learn this skill from failure (myself included).
Wearable devices, meditation, and simply taking a moment to take stock of how you’re feeling before you go into the gym are all helpful here. Additionally, understanding how much discomfort is okay and how much is too much, which is discussed here is also helpful.
Comparing Progress to Others
“If X did the workout with this weight, I should be able to as well.”
“Y improved their time by 49 seconds from last year, but I only improved by 10 seconds. Clearly I’m less fit.”
Both of these statements are not true. But, since CrossFit gyms have a leaderboard where people log their results, it’s pretty easy to see where you stack up compared to others. When this is viewed in a healthy mindset, it’s a good thing that fosters competition. However, when how well you did is based on how you did compared to others, it can become detrimental.
Your workout is your workout. Sometimes you need to scale back when others don’t need to. There’s more that goes into your performance in the gym than how fit you are. You also need to realize stress, sleep, nutrition, relationships, work, and so much more play a significant role in performance. Regardless of what others around you are doing, it’s crucial that you scale for what your body needs at that moment, not what you want it to be capable of that day.
The harsh truth is that no one cares as much about your performance as you do. Others aren’t going home talking about your performance and how it wasn’t what it should have been and how you must have clearly sandbagged the WOD. They’re talking about their performance and wondering what people think about them!
Comparing Progress to a Different Version of Yourself
Pregnancy & Postpartum
The biggest thing we see this with is an athlete who becomes pregnant. A human body goes through an immense amount of changes during and after pregnancy. These took time to happen and it takes time for things to reverse. And, things don’t perfectly go back to what they were before. There will be differences and that’s okay!
For a lot of individuals who struggle with this, we recommend having a different set of PRs: Pre-baby PRs and post-baby PRs. This helps you compare yourself to your current version of yourself, not the version of you prior to ~40 weeks of pregnancy, giving birth, 3+ months of sleep deprivation, lack of regular meals, etc. (we could go on, but we think you get the point).
Pre, During, and Post Injury
This happens with injuries as well. If you have a fairly significant injury, odds are you had to modify your training for a bit. When this happens, PRs and performance can go down. That’s normal and okay. What’s not healthy is trying to get new PRs at the expense of an injury. Ultimately, that slows the healing process down.
On a less common level, this also happens with individuals who undergo a significant weight loss or weight gain. When your body shifts, different tasks become easier or harder depending on what happens. Someone who gains 10 pounds of muscle is going to find pull-ups and push-ups significantly harder. Someone who loses 75+ pounds may have to learn new squatting mechanics now that their body is shaped differently.
In summary, people change. Your training should change alongside your body’s changes. Modifying things based on your physical changes doesn’t mean you’re a worse athlete. It means you respect your body and prioritize taking care of it.
That’s A Wrap
In summary, I’d like to suggest that CrossFit is a great way (but not the only way) to get fit. The injury rate in CrossFit is similar to other recreational sports. By making smart choices about how much training you do, when you progress to the next level, and how you view the leaderboard, you can prevent a lot of injuries from happening.