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The "C" Word: Exercising, Competing, or Supplementing?

Crossfit is always a contentious topic in the training world.  The purpose here is not to take yet another shot at Crossfit, but instead to use one recent study (Hak 2013) as a centerpiece for a broader discussion on risk management.  Unfortunately, many sensible discussions get derailed when the discussion terms are poorly defined.  Whether something is “good,” “bad,” or “indifferent” (or some combination thereof) depends entirely on context.

There has been very little literature on Crossfit training, in part because defining the activity is so nebulous.  That condition aside, most activities in the training and sports worlds can be broken into one of three categories: general exercise, sport or occupation, or supplementary conditioning.  Even something as innocuous as massage (both generally seen as “good”) can be harmful when applied for the wrong purpose, even if the techniques are done correctly.     

General exercise is simply that: exercise for the sake of activity and recreation.  Though Crossfit receives a fair share of critique for sending weekend warriors home with bad shoulders, backs and other body parts, plenty of injurious activities fill the exercise menu.  Heck, even my beloved golf has a poor track record with health, particularly with low backs (in my opinion, that’s largely because people don’t prepare themselves for physical activity, and less to do with the activity itself, but that’s another discussion).   So the decision to partake in some level of Crossfit for general exercise is largely a personal matter depending not only on physical but also the emotional factors (thrill seeking, community, body image).  If someone wants to spend their exercise time in Crossfit, that’s a decision they are free to make.

Sport or occupation – With the growth of the Crossfit Games, Crossfit has also become a sport unto itself, and even an occupation for the top competitors.   Personally, I think any critique of Crossfit the sport is entirely unfair.  If a bunch of people get together in competition and someone hands out awards at the end, then its a sport.  Plenty of dangerous sports exist and we freely accept danger without critique.  Whether Crossfit is “dangerous” is purely an opinion, but Crossfit as a sport deserves a completely different analysis than Crossfit the exercise phenomenon.  You could say the same for nearly any physical endeavor (football in the NFL is different than flag football in a rec league).  Which leads to…   

Supplementary training for another sport ---This is the true battleground in my opinion.  Let’s go to the study …

“A total of 132 responses were collected with 97 (73.5%) having sustained an injury during CrossFit training. A total of 186 injuries were reported with 9 (7.0%) requiring surgical intervention. An injury rate of 3.1 per 1000 hours trained was calculated. No incidences of rhabdomyolysis were reported. Injury rates with CrossFit training are similar to that reported in the literature for sports such as Olympic weight-lifting, power-lifting and gymnastics.” 

As an S&C coach, this is bad news.  And take the name Crossfit out of it.  Heck, let’s split it in half and say roughly 36% injury rate or even 25% injury rate.  Yes, athletes get hurt by bad training under many names.  But nearly 3 out of 4 athletes getting hurt with any supplementary activity is unacceptable.  Remember, we’re talking about using Crossfit as the supplementary training method, not Crossfit as a sport.  Now the logical reply might be “our injury rates in our CF box are nowhere near that high,” which may in fact be true for some.  But if the program is (going back to the idea of nebulous definition…) so much different than another, which one is actually doing “Crossfit?”…. 

SUMMARY

In sum, if you want to train for exercise, you are free to choose you how to pursue your own health and recreation.  If you are a competitive athlete or get paid to do something dangerous (police, fire, military combat arms), a certain risk is inherent in the activity, and sometimes a high risk is worth taking.  We know better than to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do when their identity and profession are invested.  But when it comes to supplementary training, it makes little sense to increase risk of injury outside the sport.  I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves, but it defies common sense voluntarily increase injury risk through supplementary training, whatever the numbers for that particular activity may be.      

REFERENCE

Hak PT, Hodzovic E, Hickey B.  The nature and prevalence of injury during CrossFit training.  J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Nov 22. [Epub ahead of print]