Why I Quit CrossFit: My Neck Injury

I’m sad and humbled to tell you all that I had to quit CrossFit…

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image19885127I told you in my recent post, “I’m A CrossFit Newby: My Thoughts So Far”, that I loved it, that I loved my coach at Ruya CrossFit in Boulder, and that I felt strong in ways I’ve never felt strong before. That it helped my climbing, it was a quick and efficient way of getting fit, and that it’s so expensive that you’ll actually show up to classes.

All of that is still true. However, since I wrote that post 6 weeks ago, I injured my neck and had to cut back on CrossFit, and finally quit.

The reason I’m writing is to give you my thoughts on how CrossFit may or may not have contributed to the injury and why I didn’t think I could continue doing the WODs, even in a modified way.

The Back Story

I had a car accident in 2000 that resulted in whiplash, a bulging disk in my neck and a messed up hip. Since then, I’ve had every kind of therapy you can imagine to fix my neck. Rolfing and chiropractic work have helped the most, and I wouldn’t be a functional person if I hadn’t spent a lot of time and money on both of those things over the years.

Anyway, I was relatively pain free until 2008, when I injured my neck again by holding a phone to my ear with my shoulder whilst irately yelling at an innocent AT&T employee. I got off the phone and could no longer move my head. That’s when I was diagnosed with my second bulging disk in my neck. I spent about two months not exercising at all and moving my head only by moving my entire torso – kind of funny to watch, actually. Again, I got chiropractic work, Rolfing, massage, and acupuncture done, and finally relieved the pain and started exercising again. I invested in some belay glasses (prisms) so that I wasn’t constantly craning my neck back to look up at my climbing partner on the wall.


I got better.

The Current Situation

The day I injured back in the beginning of January, I had done a really intense partner WOD at CrossFit and then went climbing without my belay glasses the same day. I woke up the next morning totally f-ed.

Lots of pain and no CrossFit or climbing for about 10 days. Then I went to CrossFit once I thought my neck was feeling better. The next day it was really messed up again. So I stopped CrossFit and just climbed a couple times over the next week. I felt better and then went in and did a 2k rowing WOD – probably the dumbest thing I could’ve done. The next day I couldn’t move my neck and it was back to square one. Another week off with little exercise, it felt better so I did another WOD and I was screwed again.

So I quit.

Was It CrossFit’s Fault?

Maybe CrossFit contributed to the injury, or maybe it was just a product of me straining my neck to belay that day, or perhaps it was the combo of all of it. The reason I think I was re-injuring myself in CrossFit was not because of the exercises themselves. If I take the time, listen to my body and go slowly, I can avoid injury for the most part. But when I’m in a competitive environment and I’m being timed, like you are in every WOD, I lose sight of my body and start working through pain. I lose good form and use muscles in ways they are not meant to be used. I will do one last pushup even if it means my forehead is the last thing to leave the ground.

Maybe my coach could’ve modified the WOD for me, but even then I’d find a way to push too hard. Even when he was checking in with me every 5 minutes, “You ok? Your neck feeling alright?” I would just lie to myself and him and tell him, “Yeah, I’m good”. I’m a big dummy sometimes. My ego is large and I like to win.

So I’m sticking with things that are not timed and easily modified like climbing, slow weight lifting, and sprint sessions for now with the hope that I’ll get back into it before too long. CrossFit was just too much fun for me I guess. It’s getting better every day.




  1. Hi Neely,

    I would suggest finding a really good chiropractor that does and is proficient in Active Release Technique (ART) a PT can also be licensed in ART. I love chiro for the immediate relief and spinal correction but ART will also work on the muscle dysfunction and movement pattern. I would also suggest after rest and inflammation has subsided you continue strengthening in pain free movements. P-rehab exercises may have to be permanently in your warm up in the future and I can’t stress enough how important mobility work is before AND after a WOD. Roll out on the foam roller with your arms overhead and open up the shoulder and neck..It’s good your doing other body weight movements though! There’s always something you can do! But ya I know that feeling of being hurt and being in that competitive environment…you wanna push harder than your body will allow sometimes… Good Luck

  2. I would not recommend a chiro. Where I am from, you have to sign an indemnity from before the chiro even looks your way! That is a legal requirement. Why would I want to go to a doctor where I have to sign an indemnity form! Speaks volumes! I would suggest you sign up for Pilates! It is the best exercise for any injury. My gran had a bad back through her youth. She started going to Pilates. She fixed her back problems, and could touch her toes with straight legs still well into her 70’s. Try it, it’s good stuff! P.S. Not a fan of Cross Fit. Too much jumping around like a palooka! Love your site. And LOVE the Carrot and Banana Muffins!

  3. I am a crossfitter, 4 months in now, and I’m glad I read your post because I can see how it could be easy to hurt yourself. And you are absolutely right, as in most things, we need to listen to our bodies. Whether its our gut feeling about something or just feeling something that doesn’t feel right. I’m fortunate that in out box we aren’t pushed to hurt ourselves, we are encourages to push ourselves just a pinch more than we would if we didn’t have the extra encouragement.
    I’m sorry you got hurt and hope it heals quickly whichever method you choose to do. I haven’t used a chiropractor or pilates – so I have no input there.
    Good Luck!

  4. I second the ART suggestion in the first comment. But as far as quitting crossfit goes… do you think you will ever try it again once you are feeling better? I have heard other people say the same thing about the timed WODs – they push themselves too hard despite fatiguing and losing proper form. I’m a crossfit newbie (this is my 3rd month) and I just haven’t found anything that pushes me as hard and I actually enjoy (well – enjoy is relative but you know what I mean). I’ve been trying to be mindful of this but I may just not be as competitive – that might come later when I’m not the last one done on most of the WODs. Anyway – just curious if you think you are done for good or will try it again when you heal.

    1. Jessica – Well, I don’t really know. I’m a little scared to try it again, but I know when my neck is feeling good again I won’t be as scared. Luckily, I have climbing, which pushes me really hard too. But nothing quite makes you try as hard as a clock and a coach :) We’ll see…

  5. There is no reason to quit CrossFit for good. I am a Chiropractor and also avid crossfitter. I agree with the first post completely. But by no means do you have to sign your life away in ANY state (second post). Medicine is simple and universal as far as the law. If the Doctor is negligent in any way you have a case no matter what you have signed.
    Rehab it and get back into the game knowing your predisposed to neck injury / flare ups and scale your workouts. It is hard not to do a WOD as Rx, but what good is it if you flare something up and are out for the next few months? You can scale anything and still improve. I have has several chronic shoulder and clavicle flare ups from crossfit. But my chronic shoulder issue is much more stable than it ever has been before it. I stop for a bit let it calm down and focus more on the mobility side of things and scale things to improve on the area.

  6. Neely – sorry to hear about your injury. I don’t believe in chiro (sorry Dale). Know of a bad outcome – as in paralysis from a manipulation. Work with some great neurosurgeons – so of course I’m biased. I had a discectomy 7 yrs ago for a bulging disc and aside from a 1″ scar have not had a problem. That said – I would try a different gym. Thanks to Paleo Plan and “Bootcamp” and other classes like TRX, Yoga, etc. at Prana Fitness up here in Wyoming, I am down 11 lbs in a month.( Probably be more but I tend to like my wine). The thing about bootcamp, TRX, etc. here is you go at YOUR OWN PACE. As Brandi said above – go at YOUR OWN PACE. Bootcamp is I believe a similar concept to Crossfit.
    I feel GREAT and am always talking up paleo and your Plan at work. Thanks for great food and an easy to follow plan!!

  7. It’s also a bit about knowing your body, knowing its limits, allowing proper rest and leaving your ego at the door. As with anything there are good and not so good Crossfit coaches. Being a newbie you don’t really know how your body is going to react to all the movements yet. So it doesn’t hurt to tell the coach, that you feel achy here or there.. As you become more proficient in the movements you can work towards RX. I think you should give it 2-3 weeks rest and see how you feel.. You will be amazed at ART – of course my bias is for a PT :-) but a good chiro fixed my locked shoulder, THEN you have to strengthen. Everything has its place. The difference between Rolfing and ART is instead of jus smashing the tissue it is working and movin the tissue in its normal movement pattern. So when you use the muscles the way they are meant to be moved you won’t have that locking up syndrome anymore.

  8. I just wanted to also recommend the ART treatments. They work wonders. I was doing cross fit several years ago and after 6 months was walking around like a 90 year old with constant back pain. I had developed sciatica during my second pregnancy and was bothered by it off and on for years since. I finally convinced my doctor to do an MRI (since chiropractic and physical therapy had done nothing). That revealed that my L5 vertebrate was pitched forward and was being held in place by the bulging discs above and below it. The only fix was to have them fused (both a neurosurgeon and orthopedic surgeon recommended against surgery). They told me to stop running and lifting weights and just do yoga and pilates. I was quickly bored with both and missed cross fit. I found an amazing ART guy, who is also a cross fit coach. He worked wonders and I have been back at cross fit for about 15 months. I also found a different cross fit gym, with a trainer who is very aware of my issues and will tell me “no” when I try to push myself too hard. Good luck.

  9. Neely – I completely agree with your assessment of crossfit. The environment of timed WODs and the modifcation of core excercises (e.g. a kipping pull up vs. a traditional, or power cleans vs. regular clean) for sake of “more reps” is a breeding ground for injury, no doubt. I’ve given crossfit a really good effort over the last year, and I think it is not the best option for people that want to be in shape, lead a healthy lifestyle, maybe do some races. In my opinion, if you want to participate in crossfit competions and the crossfit games open, then do crossfit. Otherwise, there are many other options out there for building strength and staying in shape. Traditional strenth programs (barbell deadlift, bench, press, squat, full squat cleans) couple with conditioning work like running, hill sprints, basic kettlebell exercises go a long way for good health. I too recently decided that I’ve had enough of crossfit. I did not have a major injury (although a couple of minor set backs here and there), but overall I found it to be stressful, trying to be good at a WOD – really? Do I really care if I can spin a rope twice everytime I jump once? Nope.

  10. Being new to crossfit and having had previous shoulder surgery, I can say I love the WOD, but totally ignore the competitive aspect of it. I do what my body tells me it can do, then I stop. I am only trying to make myself better and cheer for my partners. If I am hurt, I can’t do either.

  11. You don’t have to believe in chiropractic for it to work. (besides-you said yourself it has worked for you in the past) I prefer to go the conservative route before jumping into surgery. Because once the surgery is done, it’s done. I have referred many patients to surgery and most do well. But the stats show that there is a 10-40% chance of failed back surgery syndrome (fbss). Yes there is a whole syndrome named for it. For those people the surgery was not a success. I personally would rather risk the 1/500,000-1,000,000 risk of a serious side effect from an adjustment over a 1/10-4/10 risk of failed back syndrome and worsening pain now complicated by post surgical scarring. I think the best treatment is when you find a group of various physicians that work together for the good of the patient, not pure posturing that mine is better then yours, because in the end everyone is different. I just prefer more conservative route first because I can always try surgery later if it doesn’t work. Unfortunately it doesn’t work the other way around.

  12. Thank you all for all these awesome comments! I have an appointment with an ART practitioner tomorrow because of you guys, and hopefully it’ll work for me as well as it has for you! I’ll continue to see a chiropractor as well, as I whole heartedly believe in their work, and have benefitted from it immensely through this process. I’ve taken a few days off of climbing and all exercise in general and it’s really starting to improve.

  13. I’m just getting into the Crossfit thing right now too… and after reading your post and a few others on the web I’m a lot more wary.

    But I figure a lot of it is like jiu jitsu and will approach it the same way. I will do my best to leave my ego at the door… and I’ll try to be mindful of when I’m fatiguing and losing form in Crossfit to just stop.. (similar to tapping out in BJJ).

    Hopefully these two things will prevent Crossfit induced injuries…

  14. I never had a serious injury with CrossFit, although I did have some problems with a shoulder… but I knew that I couldn’t keep making progress without risking serious injury. I already ride horses, ski, and snowboard, and I didn’t want to also risk injury in my fitness routine. That’s one (of many) reasons why I switched to SuperSlow about a year and a half ago. If you’re interested, my post on that is here:


    Also, Doug McGuff had some interesting comments on CrossFit and injury in this awesome interview that I did with him a few months ago:


    Good luck!

    1. Diana Hsieh – Thanks for the comment! I actually looked into SuperSlow because I read that article of yours a long time ago and was intrigued. I’ll check out that interview with Doug McGuff, too. Thanks again.

  15. Your story is similar to mine. We’re just too competitive. The advice of “I just listen and do what my body tells me it can do” is not compatible with CrossFit – the whole point of it is to push you beyond where you thought you could go, physically. For most people that goal is fine – they just won’t over-do it because they’re just not made-up that way mentally. For many, myself included, and it seems you too – we can’t. If we have a coach yelling, or worse, those dreadful team WODs where teammates are screaming in your ear for one more rep, etc., and add a timer or scoring system to the mix and it’s a recipe for disaster.

    I blogged about why I quit crossfit, after ~5 months of it, here:

    While I would love the opportunity to go to a WOD once every couple of months and treat it like a physical test or an “event”, kinda like a 5k or a spartan race or something, that’s what it’s best for IMO – a competition to test yourself. It’s not an everyday workout for anyone who has a goal other than competing in the CrossFit games.

    My 2 cents…

  16. I too tried and quit Crossfit after throwing my back out three times over a year and a half. (You’d think that injuring my back just once would’ve been enough to quit. But that’s where that obsessive, go-back-for-more-pain Crossfit mentality comes in.) I went into Crossfit with a healthy back and left with an SI joint injury that will never be fully healed. Had I never joined CrossFit in the first place I would to this day have many more fitness options and opportunities open to me. But now I’ll always be limited to what I can’t do because of my joint injury, despite years of PT and treatment. (A joint is kind of like a metal spring — once you’ve stretched it out it will never fully regain its form an flexibility.) Joining Crossfit was one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made, and quitting was one of the best. Injury in Crossfit isn’t a possibility — it’s an inevitability.

  17. Hey Neely!!

    SOOO glad you got the appointment with the ART person. I can’t wait to here how that goes!

    I, too, have had people quit CrossFit from my gym. Thankfully, never from a serious injury. Many of the people above are absolutely right in that it’s not for everyone. I myself, even being a coach, often will take a month (or two) and do “maintenance” workouts, where I’m not trying to improve anything per say, but just treading water while I have other things on my plate.

    It’s so great to have you weigh in on this, since I’m sure that many people, like you, may indeed have injuries. I know that way back when I started training clients, I thought to myself, “This will be awesome! Everyone I train is going to be awesome at everything!” The 3rd client I had, had multiple shoulder dislocations in his past. Then the 7th client I had was recovering from a double hip replacement. I learned a lot really quickly about how our minds and bodies can be in very different places. I also learned that the “Check your ego at the door,” was really, really tough advice to take for many, many people, myself included.

    There is no denying the really great atmosphere and comradarie that comes from sharing an intense workout, like CrossFit, together. But I also imagine something similar can be said while enjoying the view on top of a really great climb.

    I’ve always told people, I don’t care if you train with me, Pilates, yoga, whatever…I just want you to be fit. And that holds true. After the ART, you may, honestly want to look into Pilates as a sort of rehab. Pilates was designed by dancers, and the mind to body connection that it provides is really really astounding. As well as the fact that they are really good about getting you connected with all the little ancilliary muscles of your body, instead of just the “big” ones.

    We love sharing your fitness journey with you Neely! Keep us posted so we can keep learning!

  18. Neely, sorry you have to experience this. I have been battling sciatica since I was a teen. Interestingly enough, Crossfit has helped with my Sciatica and it only gets worse when I stop. I did, however, strain my back doing touch and go deadlifts. I got caught up in the competitiveness, just as you did. The problem is not Crossfit, but rather the inability to recognize our limits and scale accordingly. Why not try to do the WODs at home? No pressure, no time requirement and it will allow you to focus on your form. Good Luck!

  19. Sorry about your injury. And sounds as though your doing much better. It’s obviously not worth getting re-injured. I just completed my very first month of Crossfit. I loved it. But, my knee was giving me a slight problem before I started. Now it’s a BIG problem! I am going to put Crossfit off for awhile. Maybe for good. I am 44 and have never had an issue with my joints,etc. Thing is I have so much equipment at home I can put to great use. It’s just the motivation thats lacking some. Good luck to you!

  20. Here is a study of CrossFit. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23439334

    It find some impressive results from CrossFit, as described in the abstract, but apparently, if you buy the paper and read the details, it also finds that of 54 subjects in the study, 9 had to quit because of “overuse injuries”. Two quit because of schedule conflicts. That is a 17% injury rate. I should say I haven’t forked out the money to buy the article; I get this more detailed information from other people who apparently read it (http://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/2013/02/28/crossfit/). By the way, for me the term “overuse injuries” sounds like somebody is trying to minimize the problem. I mean to say, an overuse injury is still an injury. In fact, “overuse” injuries can be more difficult to heal, and more expensive, that other types of injuries, in my experience.

  21. WOW, I’m glad I found this, because I am in the same boat. I did CrossFit for 5 lovely months, but because I have scoliosis and am naturally tight in every way (limited flexibility, especially in the shoulders/hips), I ended up with 3 bulging discs in my neck. I was doing all the right things (mobility work, stretching before and after, rolling, chiro), but it got to the point where the knots weren’t coming out, and they tightened up enough to pull the discs out of place.

    I’ve been out for almost 4 months now, and back to doing low/no impact cardio work, and not a lot of weights. I miss CrossFit terribly. I am hoping (as Dr. Dale says) that I can go back and modify. BUT, I’m also wired a lot like you — ask me if it hurts in the middle of a WOD, and that answer is NO. Ask me about 4 hours later, and I’m in a world of hurt. I’m so torn.

    That being said, my sports ortho has been hinting a bit that maybe CF is not something that will be good for me long-term in combination w/my flexibility and my structural issues. “You’ll have to spend 2x as much time stretching as strengthening from now on,” he emphasized. Yep. I know. And yet…a part of me wants desperately to go back. NOW.

    Ironically, my CrossFit coach just had neck surgery himself b/c of a recurring neck disc issue from his Army days that flared up every few years and finally left one of his arms useless. I haven’t heard if he’s back at it yet, but I find it interesting…

    I’ll be anxious to see what you find to replace CF. :) Good luck!

    1. Tina – It’s really interesting because I’m now climbing again and it doesn’t do what CF does to me for some reason. It’s just all that jumping around and having to stabilize my neck in all different directions. In the beginning of going back to climbing, if I made a quick movement, my neck would be messed up. Now it’s gotten strong enough that I can climb hard (well, at least try to) again. I don’t boulder because the jumping down off the wall was whiplashing my neck, so I just sport climb (route climb) for now. I’m not planning on going back to CF regularly ever again. The last 5 months have been pretty hellish trying to recover – then pushing too hard with some stupid exercise routine and then falling backwards again. Maybe you should try climbing? Or yoga? Or something else not CF?

  22. I here you – I had troublesome shoulders before I started Crossfit, injured one ice climbing just a couple of months after starting Crossfit, & tried to keep Crossfitting for about 6 months (with a variety of modifications). It got to paddling season & my shoulder caught with every stroke – that was the last straw. Quit Crossfit & did only exercises & stretches prescribed by my PT (plus low-impact cardio at a regular gym) for 6 months. I have my shoulder back! I restarted Crossfit in January – but I go only Monday, Wednesday & Friday so I don’t get too sore or knotted up, & I try to spend a half hour or so most every day stretching. I also am able to tune out the competitiveness & take it relatively easy at Crossfit & still see benefits – it may take longer to get back in shape, but that’s better than getting re-injured! Thanks for your posts & best of luck with your neck.

  23. Crossfit is the best thing ever for my (former) practice! It is creating an entire generation of avid exercisers who will be completely destroyed in a matter of years.
    As for your injury, find out WHY you keep getting injured. Find a DC or PT (the degree does not matter, what matters is that the practitioner knows what he/she is doing) that does not only ART, but the SFMA (Selective Functional Movement Assessment), and is VERY knowledgeable about exercise technique.
    The big problems with Crossfit are technique and overtraining. There is no way to maintain proper technique on the final reps of a MetCon. Every Crossfit athlete I have treated is way overtrained.
    Take a look at these two videos. This one – http://vimeo.com/1677805 – is the owner of a Crossfit showing fairly good unweighted squat technique.
    Now look at this video – http://vimeo.com/1372056 – in which she is doing Clean and Jerks with weight for reps. OUCH! Look at her right knee!
    I hope you discover the cause of your problem, learn how to train properly, and get healthy.

  24. I am currently recovering from a neck injury that, unlike in your case, was not the result of an acute injury. Basically, some really aggressive loading in crossfit (deadlifts, etc.) I ended up with some serious pain in the back of my shoulder blades, front of my shoulders, etc.

    I ended up experimenting with some self-massage and learned about the putative trigger points that can lie in the scalenes. Those seemed to be extraordinarily tight and was causing a lot of my referred pain. Perhaps poking around in that area (or getting a massage/physical therapist to do it for you) might help. I am slowing getting better and am returning very timidly to crossfit after 4-6 weeks off.

  25. Chiropractors should be banned. Do a simple google search looking for sources that support statements with science.

    Do same for Crossfit.

    Good article, sums up perfectly the primary risk of crossfad. Exciting challenging environment that makes you push so hard at risky unstructured exercises that injury is virtually inevitable.

    There were two chiropractor crossfit fanatics in my box… On reflection I bet they were there to hand out cards!

  26. I recommend surgery. You will be relieved of 95% of your pain. I’m living proof. Feel free to ask me any questions about my neck surgery.

  27. Hi. First, love chiropractors…I understand the mechanics of what they do so I have never really understood folks aversion to them. Are there bad ones…sure…but thats in anything. Now to crossfit. I found your website googling whiplash and crossfit. Like uoi I was in a car wreck several years back. And like yoi I found and fell in love with crossfit. And like yoi I had to stop due to reinjury regardless of how much I took time off. I cannot return.and that sucks. And yes I have looked into modifying taking my chiro and physical therapist with me…if I want to keep my neck and spine ok…no crossfit. Thankyoi for your post because I have really struggled with not being able to do crossfit…and have not found a combimation I want to do that I enjoy yet. Hope you found yours. Good site!

  28. I think CrossFit is wonderful for those without pre-existing conditions. For the rest of us, you find what you love or you choose what works. I am scared of high impact anything because I used to ride horses and do a lot of farm work in my youth. I continue to do farm work now. I have had several whiplash injuries from many “accidental dismounts.” I have other issues with my body just from hard work. Then in 2012 after a major abdominal surgery I began having major neck spasms, where my neck muscles would just seize up on me. I needed thyroid and was put on medication for that. I still have neck problems but they are so much relieved by the thyroid. I love and support the CrossFitters in my family but I know it is absolutely not for me, and it is not meant for a lot of people. I also had to quit my pilates and walk, hike, and dance for exercise now because of my bad neck. Pilates will heal a weak back, because strengthening the core will stabilize the back. However, pilates will not heal degenerative spine disease or disc issues. Pilates is really not good for an already bad neck. I’ve found it difficult to find an exercise that tightens my core like pilates, however. Bottom line, do what you love and what gets results. Some people love running, some people can’t run. Some people love yoga, other people can’t stand its slowness. There is a fitness activity out there for everyone.

    1. Hey Tab!

      Really good stuff you metioned.

      Though I am partial to CrossFit (it works for me! :) I’m not dogmatic about it. I tell every one during their intro session at my gym, that I ust want them to get fit. Of course, I’d love it to happen with me, but if CrossFit ain’t your thing, there’s a plethora (do I get points for that word?) of other options out there. I actually grew up in a dance studio, and still think that dancers don’t get the athletic respect that they deserve. It can be really tricky, especially if we’ve lived life a bit through work, play, or sport, to find find something that not only fits our schedule, but fits our bodies and feels energizing. If I had the space, I’d host every class I could in my gym, from Zumba, to CrossFit, to kick-boxing, to yoga.

      You’re right, what works for one person isn’t always going to work for another, but we can all support each other on our fitness journeys!

      Thanks for your comments and adding to our conversation!

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