CrossFit And Its Pitfalls: A Commentary

When you hear the name, “Angie,” what comes to mind? A 1970s Rolling Stones hit? Your best friend? Perhaps your golden retriever? How about a series of 100 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups and 100 squats? If you didn’t choose the latter, you’re not a follower of the CrossFit phenomenon that has swept the globe in recent years.

Any CrossFit fanatic will tell you that “Angie” is one of the benchmark WODs, or workout-of-the-day circuits, that every newcomer to this fitness community must endure. However, I find it hard to believe that every person walking into the gym, or the “box” as CrossFitters like to call it, can complete 100 real pull-ups before moving on to 100 quality push-ups, 100 full sit-ups and 100 safe squats.

That’s because they don’t. Every CrossFitter—man, woman, old, young, new to fitness, experienced athlete—manages to crank out this triple-digit feat only by using a little technique called kipping. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan accurately describes kipping pull-ups as “propelling yourself up and down using hip generated momentum, like some undulating fish flopping from an iron bar.” I don’t know about you, but swinging my body up and down 100 times seems a lot more manageable, albeit less impressive or effective, than controlled chin-to-bar pull-ups as the program suggests.

Kipping earned CrossFit significant attention in the fitness community over the past few years, with most experts criticizing this floundering mess as a cheated version of the pull-up. CrossFitters counter that kipping creates an entirely different exercise from the standard pull-up and therefore still serves a valid purpose. However, I think it just goes to show how much speed matters in CrossFit workouts and how often proper form falls by the wayside as a result. Form, in case you didn’t know, is not just an aesthetic thing.

These high-intensity, circuit-style workouts are designed to take less than 30 minutes and encourage each participant to focus on the number of repetitions they are able to complete in the given time frame rather than the proper form of the movements themselves. It’s about the numbers, plain and simple. You are judged by your peers by AMRAP statistics, meaning “as many reps as possible.” So when a CrossFitter is told to complete 100 pull-ups before continuing on to the other enjoyable exercises Angie includes, where do you think his form goes? You got it— right out the window.

When did collapse-to-the-floor-with-fatigue and push-up-till-you-puke become the standards of circuit exercise? As a personal trainer, I must have missed that memo. Experts from the American College of Sports Medicine also warn that exercise focusing on speed and intensity leads to the sacrifice of proper form and heightened potential for injury. I’m all for a challenging, circuit-based workout. In fact, I rely on that format with the majority of my clientele who are looking to lose weight and tone up. However, form remains our main focus, because it is the biomechanics involved in the exercise that make the move worth doing in the first place. Stabilizing joints, activating particular muscle groups and preventing injury all require the proper form.

CrossFitters run the risk of experiencing more pain than gain with their WOD-based workouts from muscle tears to tendonitis to crippling lower back aches. But really, what do people expect from twenty-one 225-pound deadlifts, thirty 135-pound clean-and-jerks, or twenty-one 95-pound barbell thrusters? Especially if their first time trying these moves is in a CrossFit “box”? It only takes one heavy lift with poor form to leave you splayed on the couch and immobile for days on end. Last time I checked, getting “ripped” and physically ripping your body apart were two different things.

Despite its ever-expanding popularity, CrossFit is not a franchise. Anyone who completes a weekend-long certification course can serve as a CrossFit affiliate and offer classes to his community in ways he sees fit. Due to the lack of operational and safety standards, class sizes can range anywhere from five to 50 people with one instructor overseeing all activity. Some facilities are run more safely than others; however, the fact that locations are opening with names like CrossFit DoneRight goes to show just how often it’s done wrong.

At the core of CrossFit lies a predetermined yet random collection of exercises to be performed by each participant. Yet, any competent trainer knows that no single workout suits the needs of every athlete in a room at any given time. The majority of gym populations have no idea how to perform a Turkish get-up or a barbell snatch properly, let alone demonstrate the ability to do so. God bless the CrossFit newcomer with enough common sense to refuse to begin with a sumo deadlift high pull, even if it means standing idly by when the instructor doesn’t offer any modification options.

Performing CrossFit-style exercises without proper training is just asking for trouble, and doing so in a high-intensity, high-repetition manner while already in a state of fatigue can make matters far worse. Cases of rhabdomyolysis, a severe and sometimes fatal muscle condition, are appearing with increased frequency throughout the CrossFit community. Vigorous exercise can cause the rapid breakdown of skeletal muscle, and cell ruptures leak these contents into the bloodstream, thus damaging the kidneys to the point of failure. How do CrossFitters go about addressing this serious health concern? Through a bloody clown cartoon named Uncle Rhabdo with his kidneys spilling onto a hospital floor, of course.

Many athletes live by the old adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” However, CrossFit inventor Greg Glassman willingly admitted to The New York Times in 2005 that this form of exercise can kill you. You might have come to the gym to hang out with Angie, but be aware that you could end up going home with Uncle Rhabdo.

Originally written for my graduate writing/reporting workshop

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