(This post is by Jason, the other guy at Paleo Plan).
After Neely’s post about starting CrossFit the other day, we got a question this morning from a reader.
I would like to try cross fit but I am scared of getting hurt. What are your thoughts on that?
This is a great question, and one that is becoming more and more asked as more and more people are starting CrossFit, and more CrossFit gyms are opening around the country.
I’ve heard a lot of people saying that CrossFit is dangerous, and that everyone they know gets hurt doing it. Due to the exploding nature of the sport, and the way in which CrossFit licenses its affiliates, the reality is that no two CrossFit boxes are alike, and to say that CrossFit in general is unsafe is pretty untrue. However, there are some very specific things to be aware of when considering joining a CF gym.
CrossFit is a brand, a company, and has become a philosophy. But it’s still a brand name that allows licensees to use its name. The majority of gyms with CrossFit in the name will look and seem similar (usually a bit industrial, no mirrors, lots of big heavy things and steel bars for workouts), a big red clock and a whiteboard. But just because they all look the same, does not mean the coaches are the same.
(Quick note on terminology: “CF” = CrossFit, “WOD” = Workout of the Day, “box” = gym location/physical presence. These are typical shorthands you’ll hear surrounding CrossFit.)
Coaching Style and Level of Aggression
Every gym I’ve attended has had several different coaches, and each one has their own style. Even more, across gyms you’ll find very different approaches. One gym I went to had a coach standing over you yelling at you to not stop, to push, to keep moving (“DON’T STOP! CONTROL YOUR BREATHING AND GO!!! KEEP MOVING!!!”) Others are more gentle, and way less aggressive–using really encouraging comments like “way to go, you’re almost done.” Followed by clapping when the workout was over. Neither is right or wrong, but know what you’re looking for and what the different CF boxes are like.
Takeaway: Go the the gym at the hours you’re most likely to attend, and see what the coaches are like. Go in the middle of the class and see what’s happening. See how the other people there are working, and if you feel comfortable in that environment.
Member onboarding can vary *greatly.*
The first CF gym I went to had a 4-week mandatory bootcamp. 5 days a week for 4 weeks at 6am. It was two hours long and consisted of 45 minutes of classroom style education about physics of movement, CF principles, dietary decisions (this was actually the first place I heard about Paleo), and the science behind the workouts. It followed with 45 minutes of training and coaching on every major lift, using unweighted PVC pipes until we were absolutely dialed on the heavy lifts of deadlift, cleans, squats and the variations, etc (these are the ones where form is critical, and poor form can be dangerous). Lastly, we did an introductory workout for 30 minutes, slowly acclimating our bodies to the strenuous nature of the WOD (workout of the day).
I’ve seen other gyms allow people to just come in and get going, with very little training or coaching on form. Then, they agressively stress speed and output, allowing the members to get sloppy in their form when trying to bust out that last deadlift to finish a round. If you find a gym like that, avoid it. That’s precisely how so many people get hurt. But instead, look for a gym that has a long onboarding process, that takes coaching of the heavy lifts very seriously, and isn’t going to push you to be a little faster if you’re body is failing and you’re losing form.
Takeaway: Look for a gym that requires you to either prove you can do the movements, or forces you to learn them before you start doing the daily workouts. This can be in the form of a bootcamp, weekend classes, or private coaching. But it’s critical to learn these things before you start.
Modifying the Workouts
Another factor to take into account when considering a CF is how they handle modifying the workouts. I’ve had a bad shoulder most of this year, and my coach knows that, and is quick to help me find complimentary exercises that accomodate my injury (it was mountain bike related, not CF related). Also, it’s not uncommon for the prescribed workout to be fairly tough for most people.
Takeaway: Look for a gym that has a coach to athlete ratio that’s low enough the coach can know you and your abilities, and help make sure you’re doing a workout that fits your ability or body weaknesses. (Note: Robb Wolf spoke last year at PaleoFX about different ways CF boxes can help people of different abilities, and spoke out against just modifying down workouts. I’m not an expert here, but you should know that there are many ways that a gym can train their athletes, and you should ask the coaches how they handle WODs that are too difficult for someone, or aren’t possible due to a physical limitation. Know what you’re getting into and make a choice that seems right to you.).
So, is CrossFit dangerous?
With all this said, I don’t think CrossFit is dangerous. However, that doesn’t mean I’m surprised when I hear of someone getting hurt at a CF gym. I think with the explosion of CrossFit, and the low barrier to entry (first level certification by CF doesn’t make you a top-level coach), there are definitely gyms that are better, more professionally coached, and safer than others.
Do your research, talk to the coaches, talk to the athletes, and make a decision that will help you get strong and fit safely. I’ve never worked out harder than at CF, and when I’m actively at the WODs, nothing compares to the strength I get in return. But I’ve been lucky to have great coaches, great training, and a great atmosphere of athletes who put safety before ego. Look for this. (By the way, I currently go to CrossFit Stumptown in Portland, Oregon. I *love* Tony and the other coaches there. Great place.)
And if you end up at a gym that doesn’t stress safety, don’t be afraid to make it your own mission. Don’t do any movement or any weight that makes you feel uncomfortable. Never put your ego, or a desire to lift a specific weight on the bar, or a time on the clock, to cause you to do something that’s not safe or in perfect form.
Hope this helps.
UPDATE: Max Shippee chimes in with some thoughts from the perspective of an actual CF owner and coach. “Basically, there’s nothing to stop you from hurting yourself. As a trainer it’s my job to push you, to make you do the stuff you don’t wanna do, whether that’s correcting form, or helping you to push harder through a workout. However, I’M NOT IN YOUR BODY! I often can’t tell, from the outside, whether that look of pain is just the normal “oh god” pain of the workout, or if you tweaked something. Like in life, communication is key.”
This is a great point. I would say an add-on to this is that most people never push themselves at anything with the regularity and intensity that you’ll find at CrossFit, so that alone will be reason some people are injured. If you attempt any athletic endeavor at high intensity, there is some chance of injury. However, it’s rare for people to get injured on the elliptical machine at 24 Hour Fitness when they’re at 40% effort and reading a STYLE magazine. So, keep that in mind as well. If you train hard, you really have to listen to your own body, communicate with your coaches, and be careful.