CrossFit is kind of a big deal.
There are CrossFit gyms in more than 140 countries in seven continents. In 2015, Forbes reported that the CrossFit industry had reached $4 billion.
“There are now 11,000 CrossFit gyms, or ‘boxes’ worldwide, up 22-fold from nine years ago,” Forbes reporter Mike Ozanian wrote. “Its adherents have turned CrossFit into a cult whose brand generates some $4 billion in annual revenue and CrossFit, Inc. rakes in perhaps $100 million, by my estimate.”
A 2016 article from CNBC estimated that there are more than 4 million CrossFitters across the world, and that’s just people participating in the CrossFit brand. There are all kinds of high-intensity interval training programs – of which CrossFit is the most popular – who have faithful followers, too.
The result? CrossFit started and continues to maintain a unique group of athletes who gobble up the high-intensity workouts that push bodies to the limit.
Dr. Brian Blevins, a physical therapist at Portland’s Stride Strong Physical Therapy, says that, while CrossFit-style workouts have been around for decades, they’ve only recently become a craze.
“CrossFit has been around for quite a long time. The military has been training similar to that for 100 years. It’s taken on a little more of a social craze now than anything else,” Blevins said. “In terms of specialization and frequency and intensity and volume, it’s definitely higher intensity, and it tends to promote higher loads of weight and higher repetition than traditional workout programs.”
It’s that very concept of pushing your body to the limit with specialized, high-intensity workouts that can make CrossFit and similar HIIT programs a danger to those who don’t have the strength foundation to handle the workload, Blevins said.
Dangers of CrossFit and HIIT
As Blevins pointed out earlier, CrossFit and HIIT workouts typically involve three factors: lots of reps, lots of weight and lots of speed.
That trifecta of body movements can definitely strengthen your body and cut your weight, he said, but it can lead to a lot of injuries.
Why? The answer to that question is a matter of how your body works when you’re lifting weights.
Lots of Weight, Speed and Movement Can Hurt You
Whenever you lift weights, you place a load on your muscles and joints. When you add in movement to that load, your muscles fire, joints move and ligaments and tendons stretch to accommodate the weight and movement.
If you’ve worked out before and have some foundational strength, then, in most cases, you’ll do fine the first five minutes, Blevins said. It’s what happens after that which often leads to injuries. This is especially true for people who haven’t worked out before.
“For people who haven’t exercise or jumped into something like this before, they have a disadvantage. They have no base strength. They’re forced into these high-velocity, high-load movements which they don’t have the strength to support even normal movements. That puts them at a high risk for injury; shoulder, back neck hips anything.”
There tend to be certain types of injuries among CrossFitters, Blevins said; we’ll talk about those in a few minutes.
Your Body May Limit What You Can Do Before You Even Start CrossFit
One aspect of CrossFit and HIIT workouts newcomers rarely think about is how their body may or may not limit what they can do.
Because high-intensity workouts put all your major joints and muscles to the test, beginners should consult with a physical therapist to get a good read on the unique quirks of their body
These “assessments” can anticipate problem areas and parts of your body prone to injury.
“We do a full body assessment and we look at range-of-motion, mobility impairment and how your joints and muscles move,” Blevins said of Stride Strong. “There are multiple joints in these moves and without an assessment, anybody, even the best CrossFitters, are at risk of injuries that could affect them for the rest of their life or a month or two.”
The studies on CrossFit injuries are conflicted. One study about CrossFit athletes in a 2014 edition of the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine noted that 20% of the 386 that were surveyed said they’d sustained injuries doing CrossFit.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research indicated that 97 of 132 CrossFitters in their study had sustained injuries during CrossFit training.
“Injury rates with CrossFit training are similar to that reported in the literature for sports such as Olympic weight-lifting, power-lifting and gymnastics and lower than competitive contact sports such as rugby union and rugby league,” the study said. “Shoulder and spine injuries predominate.”
Common CrossFit Injuries
Blevins said he has a lot of CrossFitters come to his office with injuries. Some of the injuries can be prevented, he said, but doing an assessment with your physical therapist before you start a CrossFit/HIIT program.
Other injuries, he said, result from bad form. Athletes lose their technique the farther they get into a set and that loss of form results in injury.
Dr. Blevins said that the majority of CrossFit injuries he sees are shoulder injuries. A lot of that, he said, has to do with the fact that many CrossFit workouts include Olympic-style lifting: snatch, and clean and jerk.
If there’s anyone who’s an expert in Olympic-style lifting, it’s Robert Herbst, an internationally known powerlifter whose accomplishments include 18 world championships and 33 national championships. He’s also an inductee in the AAU Strength Sports Hall of Fame.
“CrossFit involves a lot of these so-called Olympic lifts: the snatch and clean and jerk. These are ballistic and very technique-dependent lifts which require a lot of flexibility,” Herbst said.
The movements are hard enough for Olympians and career powerlifters. The fact that average people are doing these during the CrossFit and HIIT workouts puts them at risk.
“Normally, when athletes learn the Olympic lifts, they do many hours of shadow lifts with just a broom handle to get the technique right,” Herbst said. “So, it is unlikely that the average CrossFit customer is learning the lifts correctly.”
A common injury from these lifts is a labral tear.
Blevins went into a lot of detail about how the shoulder is designed, noting that, over thousands of years, our shoulder joint has evolved to include extra cartilage that extends the joint.
Some CrossFitters, Blevins said, shear off some of that extra cartilage performing their Olympic-style lifts.
Blevins made it clear that labral tears happen to athletes in all sports but that most of the cases he deals with result from CrossFit.
Knee Pain and Meniscus Tears
Leg injuries are less common than shoulder injuries, Blevins said, and most of the injuries in that part of the body are associated with the knee.
“A typical injury is patellar femoral pain,” Blevins said. “It’s irritated because you’re not smoothly moving forces through your knee.”
“Patellar” refers to the knee cap (patella) and femoral refers to the femur, the bone that runs from your knee to your hip.
Another CrossFit injury he sees is the meniscal tear.
“This results from high loads and multi-directional movements,” he said.
In other words, you lift heavy weights and your legs are moving as the bear the weight and the meniscus, that tendon that attaches your knee cap to leg bone, tears.
Both Blevins and the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine article we mentioned noted that back injuries are common among CrossFit athletes, too.
Common back injuries Blevins sees include herniated disks and lower-back spondylosis.
The Heart and Lungs Can Suffer Too
Kenta Seki, a trainer with Jillian Michael’s Fit Fusion program, said that your body’s circulatory and respiratory systems can be at risk during CrossFit and HIIT workouts, too.
“The heart is challenged to increase circulation and maintain output intensity, and the lungs are pushed to produce enough oxygen to keep the body functioning,” Kenta said. “If neither of these systems are trained well enough, the participant can experience dizziness, fainting, and even heart attack.”
A Hidden Danger of CrossFit: Lack of Consistency in Workouts
A popular theory of working out says that you’ve got to mix up your exercises and cardio because your muscles will adapt to repetitive exercises and you won’t get as much benefit from it.
That may be true in certain areas of working out, but it’s not true for CrossFit, Herbst said. There’s an emphasis on switching things up and the athlete never gets consistency with one movement or series of movements.
“Another drawback to CrossFit is that by changing the program each time, the body never adapts to one thing so the person never gets better or stronger at any exercise,” he said.
While CrossFit proponents say it’s good to keep the muscles on their toes, Herbst disagrees.
“They claim they are stimulating growth through muscle confusion, but that only occurs if the person does the same exercise for three weeks and then changes up,” he said. “What CrossFit does not advertise is that the participants in the CrossFit Games on TV do not follow the CrossFit program, but instead train for their specific competitive events.”
The Mental Dangers of CrossFit
One of the most distinctive aspects of CrossFit is the tenacity and competitiveness of its athletes.
While this mentality is essential for breaking personal bests and succeeding at what is an admittedly super-intense workout, it can lead to a lack of attention to the body’s cues that something is wrong.
One CrossFitter’s Experience With the Mental Side of CrossFit
Karen Lanovoi is a Florida-based entrepreneur who did CrossFit for four years. She said that, even though she started it late in life, her CrossFit workouts ended up being her favorite part of the day.
During her workouts at her CrossFit gym, she noticed that ego was the biggest danger.
“The absolute number one danger of CrossFit or similar types of physical experiences is the human ego. I witnessed countless athletes hurt themselves out of pure ego,” Lanovoi said. “(They were) looking at the guy or gal next to them and wanting to lift as much weight, get more reps or finish faster. They would lose their form, or misjudge their jumps.”
She went on to say that eliminating that over-competitive drive can save you a lot of literal pain.
“CrossFit is a positive experience if you leave your ego at the door,” she said. “Are the workouts challenging? Hell yeah they are, but if you are willing to start where you are and build from there, you won’t get hurt.”
Leaving your ego at the door isn’t a foolproof way to prevent injury – things happen. However, Lanovoi brings up a good point.
Ego can make you lose focus and lost focus leads to poor technique. And, as we mentioned earlier, poor technique leads to injuries.
Blevins pointed out another dangerous philosophy: no pain, no gain.
“There’s a mentality that the workouts are supposed to hurt and you need to push through it. You tend to find this more in the CrossFit arena,” he said. “It’s the old drill-instructor mentality: ‘No pain, no gain.’ But that’s not true. Where there’s pain there could be a lot of loss and no gain.”
Some Final Tips for Newcomers Worried About the Dangers of CrossFit
The sources with whom we spoke for this story have thousands of hours of training, education and practical experience between them.
While their insights tended to vary based on their area of expertise, their advice for newcomers didn’t. Here are our main takeaways from our conversations with Blevins, Herbst and Seki.
Good Form Can Curb Injuries
CrossFit’s emphasis on Olympic-style lifts means your body will undergo some serious collisions between speed, weight and repetition.
The best way to avoid injuries during these exercises is to perfect the proper form.
“Newcomers to exercise should always focus on proper form since not doing so can potentially lead to injury, but HIIT is especially more dangerous because of the increased pace and intensity of the workout,” Seki said. “Each exercise should carefully practiced beforehand at a slower pace until the person is comfortable completing the exercise correctly and safely.”
When You Feel Pain, Stop What You’re Doing
Blevins and Herbst pointed out that CrossFit’s tough-it-out mentality can lead to injuries. The best way to remedy that, Blevins said, is to stop when you feel pain.
“Sharp, stabbing pain while you’re performing an exercise is not a good sign,” Blevins said. “Really, any pain other than the delayed onset muscle soreness.”
He went on to say that dull aches, swelling, redness, increased temperatures in the affected area and pain that wakes you up at night are signs of injuries that need medical attention.
You Need to Work Out in Order to Work Out
This final piece of advice is based on the history of CrossFit.
Blevins said the training regimen experienced a growth explosion after it was discovered that the chiseled warriors of the historical flick 300 used CrossFit-style workouts to get their bodies into shape.
“Everyone found out there was a 300 workout and that went through the fitness industry like wildfire,” Blevins said.
However, what most people don’t know is that the actors did “9-10 months of traditional strength training before that workout,” Blevins said.
His advice? Work out for a few months before you step into a CrossFit/HIIT gym.
“You need foundational strength,” he said. “You need to stabilize your body through muscle strength and range-of-symmetry motion before you do these high-weight, high-motion, high-speed exercises that can be, without the proper training, pretty dangerous.”
The Final Word: Know Both Sides of the Story
CrossFit and similar HIIT workouts have a good and bad side to them; the proverbial pros and cons. While this article focused on the dangers, our other article, “What Is CrossFit: Your Comprehensive Guide to High Impact Interval Training,” covers a wider scope.
We talk about the various aspects of CrossFit workouts, what draws people to CrossFit workouts and who is a good fit for these intense HIIT workouts.