Is CrossFit Safe?

I’ve been battling the “is CrossFit Safe” question for years. People love to say it’s dangerous. But when that’s said, there’s not a justifiable reasoning, other than it looks like something that people aren’t used to doing themselves. To better address this, instead of saying it’s dangerous, lets ask, “Is it safe?” It’s not as simple as saying “yes” or “no”, because there are a lot of things to consider. Lets start with asking some other questions that help us get to the root of the problem:

1. What do you consider “CrossFit?”
2. What would lead us to think it’s unsafe?
3. What are we comparing it to?
4. What is your definition of “safe” and what level of risk are you willing to assume for a desired outcome?
5. What is the cost of not doing it?

What do you consider “CrossFit?” (Ask a dozen people and they’ll all give you a different answer.)

If you were to go take a CrossFit class at a different gym in every state, you’d find that although there are similarities, there are vast differences in coaching, culture, intensity, workout programming, safety, equipment and expectation.

We can agree that when doing CrossFit at any gym you will be doing some form of cardio: running, rowing machine, and the stationary bike. You will also be doing weightlifting both with a barbell, as well as dumbbells and kettlebells. Lastly you’ll have bodyweight exercises like lunges, push ups, box jumps and pull ups. The majority of what you’ll see operates in a very forward facing, up and down manner. CrossFit is not sport training, so there’s not much dynamic lateral movements or twisting. There’s not any sudden unexpected impact (like running into another human at full speed, tripping or getting tackled or hit). Every movement (if you’re at a worthy gym) is demonstrated and coached so that everyone is doing it to the best of their ability.

On one end of the spectrum you have gyms that are writing soul-crushing workouts for everyone in their gym every day. On the other end you have gyms writing very well rounded workout lesson plans with an appropriate amount of full body strength work, individual muscle group work, endurance exercise with varying days of easy, moderate and hard intensity. The latter is how we operate at my gym, CrossFit Rampage, so it’s what I’m most familiar with. However, both of these are CrossFit.

What would lead us to think it’s unsafe?

Ask someone who says CrossFit is unsafe, why, and their next statement probably starts something like;
“Well, I have a friend who…”
“I know a guy that…”
It’s usually not from a personal experience, rather its someone hearing that someone else got “hurt” doing CrossFit. However, with this hearsay, the other party probably used the word “hurt” incorrectly.
– Did they push themselves too hard for too many days in a row without any concern for recovery and then their knees started hurting?
– Did they choose to ignore an old high school shoulder injury that lead to limited mobility and kept doing exercises they shouldn’t, only because the rest of the group was doing them and they had too big of an ego to tell the coach that they need a different exercise?
– Were they trying to keep up with other people in the class that were in a different fitness category than them?
All of these things are the fault of the individual, not the exercise program, and can all be avoided with a bit of common sense.

Another reason people think it’s dangerous is because what is seen online doesn’t resemble a familiar form of working out. It looks hard, it looks different, and some of it looks impossible to do.
Yes, it can be hard, it is different than your globo gym style exercises, and some of the movements do take some practice to learn. Although this does not qualify as dangerous or unsafe, just because it’s different.

Someone who themselves has gotten hurt or knows someone, was likely at a gym that practiced high volume, competition style workouts every day of the week. This type of exercise programming will put members at a higher risk of overuse injuries like achy knees, some shoulder pain and maybe low back issues. This is probably the “hurt” that they were referring to. However, it’s very unlikely people are dislocating joints, herniating disks, popping achilles or breaking bones. These are all things more often seen in contact sports, not within an exercise facility.

What are we comparing it to?

When CrossFit is compared to the typical bodybuilding workout that we’re all familiar with, it definitely looks different. With bodybuilding, people are rarely pushing themselves to full body fatigue as they’re working individual muscle groups. Often times they’re sitting down to exercise, and taking big rest breaks in between. You’ll rarely see someone look completely gassed because they just hit a hard set of bicep curls. However, ask someone to do a hard cardio interval on a stationary air-bike, or perform a set of 21 unbroken kettlebell swings; they’ll look pretty tired. Tired doesn’t equal unsafe, it’s just different, and people aren’t used to seeing something different.

Also, typical gym movements look fairly simple: Machines and Dumbell work are usually very robotic looking and only move one or two joints of the body at a time.
A more functional based program like CrossFit may have someone learning to Deadlift or power clean a barbell, or maybe squat and throw a medicine ball, or do a burpee then jump onto a box. Because these require more practice, skill, and full body movement, they may appear unsafe, but really, they aren’t.

If you were to compare CrossFits’ rate of injury to that of say, High school sports, it’s going to be a landslide for more injuries in any sport than you’ll see in CrossFit. Though everyone supports sports and won’t think twice about participating in them although the risk of injury is pretty high.

What is your definition of “safe” and what level of risk are you willing to assume for a desired outcome?

Are sports safe? Is driving your car safe? Is trail running safe? Is riding in an elevator safe?
A lot of things that we’re used to seeing, or doing, all have some level of risk. It’s really a matter of how high is the risk and what is the reward.

A pro football player knows there is a very high risk in playing the sport, and the reward is a pretty nice paycheck.

A parent allowing their kid to enroll in basketball knows they could sprain an ankle or jam a finger, and the reward is the enjoyment their kid gets from playing the sport.

Exercising with full body functional movements, under coach instruction, actually doesn’t pose that much of a risk. Granted, if you’re skipping your warm up, if you’re not listening to your body and you’re doing things beyond your limits, you can hurt yourself, although this is quite rare. The reward of CrossFit is you’ll probably be way stronger than if you weren’t doing it. You’ll have a better stamina and cardio endurance. Your range of motion across all of your joints will improve. Your self confidence and ability to tackle hard challenges will be greater as well.

What is the cost of not doing it?

There are numerous ways to get your daily exercise in, and the best one, is the one that works for you. The great thing about a program that includes full body strength training + endurance and mobility work, is that it actually makes your body more resilient against injury. Without doing this, it’s easier to get badly hurt from a simple fall, or to suffer worse injuries in a car wreck than you otherwise had if your skeletal muscle system was stronger. Even simple stuff like yard work or cleaning out the garage are easier when you do CrossFit. The average non-exercising adult will complain about how sore they are from a days worth of yard work, or how much their back hurts from cleaning out the garage all day. This should not be normal. By doing CrossFit, both of these activities aren’t problematic at all. Physical pain aside, without regular exercise you’re more likely to get sick more often. Energy levels may be lower and sleep might not be of as high quality as it could be.

So you can avoid a program such as CrossFit because it appears dangerous, though you might be putting yourself at risk of injury, soreness and sickness simply because you’re NOT doing it.

So, is it really just a myth?

There’s not really anything dangerous about doing exercise, under a coaches supervision, in a controlled environment, with your ego in check. If you go through a thorough warm up, use appropriate weights, and listen to your coaches guidance, it’s probably the safest thing you’ll do all day. The best thing you can do is to find a reputable gym with educated coaches that will keep your best interest in mind. They should help you push your limits, but not too much!

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