CrossFit: Hardcore Workout or Hard-to-Avoid Injury?

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you don’t do high-intensity functional training (HIFT) such as at CrossFit, you likely know someone who does. HIFT workouts have become very popular. Flipping over tractor tires, hauling cement blocks and jumping on top of a stack of wooden blocks is far different from exercise regimens like spinning and running — and that’s the point.

HIFT-style classes offer high intensity functional training that constantly change and challenge every area of the body and aspect of fitness: strength, endurance, balance and flexibility. They’re also designed to create camaraderie. Instead of slogging solo on bikes or plodding side by side on treadmills, HIFT classes encourage a teamwork environment as members of the gym cheer and encourage each other to complete the same workout with a few modifications as needed.

Anecdotal reports of injury and even a few lawsuits have tarnished the reputation of CrossFit and other HIFT-style classes.

In late 2018, a study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine looked at injury rates of participants in HIFT (specifically CrossFit, as it’s the most popular and identifiable HIFT class). The study surveyed 3,049 CrossFit participants between 2013 and 2017.

More than 30% reported injury because of CrossFit in the past 12 months, including shoulders (39%), back (36%), knees (15%), elbows (12%) and wrists (11%). That meant an injury rate of 0.27% per 1,000 hours of participation. The study concluded that CrossFit “is relatively safe compared with more traditional training modalities.”

But the caveat is that those new to CrossFit (less than a year) and who train fewer than three workouts weekly are at greater risk.

Physician Az Tahir, who practices holistic medicine in Rochester, acknowledged that “there’s a lot of benefits to exercise.”

He added that the improvements in physical and mental strength and functional health are well documented; however, the “extreme” nature of HIFT exercise concerns him.

“The heavy exercise can cause muscle damage,” Tahir said. “It can also cause joint and other tissues tendon damage and lead to some unnecessary surgeries and unnecessary damage that’s lifelong. These injuries can also cause imbalance in the body. If one part is injured, the other parts of the body have to compensate, like limping on one leg because the other one is injured.”

Especially for those who are out of shape, Tahir encourages consulting with a health care provider and proceeding under the guidance of a trained professional to ensure gradual progress in intensity, appropriate warm-up and stretching and that each movement is performed safely.

Knowledge of each client is key to safe and effective workouts, according to Elizabeth Corbett-Renner, physical therapist and physician assistant at Excellence in Physical Therapy in Rochester.

“There has to be emphasis on body mechanics and how clients should do things and knowledge of clients’ prior activity level and body conditioning,” she said. “Keep in mind the risk of throwing tires and running on pavement carrying weights without proper footwear. Yes, I’ve seen CrossFit injuries.”

She encourages people to make sure they know their own capabilities and that they don’t push past that point and allow injury.

“Everyone can’t do the same activity,” Corbett-Renner said. “People must have knowledge of prior activity and specific body makeup and risk of injury.”

Even under the same branding umbrella, gyms will vary based upon the background of the trainers and owners. At CrossFit Rochester in Pittsford, Joe Celso, a Level 4 CrossFit certified coach, said that the “mechanics are sound and safe. What should be happening at CrossFit gyms and every gym is the trainers should be paying attention to you. They should be keeping an eye on you making sure you’re in the right spot.”

He wants participants to push themselves with intensity, but doing so intelligently so they get results and stay safe.

“Get a free trial at a gym you’re considering,” Celso said. “I would. That’s doing due diligence when you’re paying for something. I would go visit all of them. Which one works? Where do I like the people?”

CrossFit owners must have a CrossFit Level 1 certification, but Celso warned that doesn’t mean the gym owner is good at operating a gym and training members.

“It’s what you make of the information provided,” he said. “There are plenty of people out there who passed a test but that doesn’t mean they’re good at coaching or sharing what they know.”

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