A man takes part in a national semifinal CrossFit competition in Minsk in 2015. The team behind a new study suggests the intensity of the workouts, not the exercises themselves, led to a higher rate of injury for a group of CrossFit enthusiasts.
MAXIM MALINOVSKY / AFP/Getty Images
CrossFit workouts are known for their intensity, combining speed with traditional strength training and calisthenic exercises. Workouts of the day (WODs) frequently involve doing as many reps as possible (AMRAP) in a finite amount of time. But while there’s no doubting its popularity — there are 13,000 CrossFit gyms in more than 120 countries — CrossFit has often run afoul of exercise traditionalists who believe speed and weight training don’t mix.
Given CrossFit’s reputation, it’s no surprise that the last decade has produced several studies exploring injury rates among participants. Yet despite a deep dive into the world of CrossFit, results have been equivocal: some studies suggest the rate of injury is no higher than in other recreational sports, and others propose that CrossFit enthusiasts are indeed more prone to injury.
Part of the reason there’s such a range of results is that there is no one standard definition of injury. Depending on the study, injury can range anywhere from a stoppage in training or a visit to a health care professional to allowing study subjects to self-determine whether or not they are injured. The wider the definition, the greater the number of injuries recorded.
But the most recent study, published in the May issue of the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, took a slightly different approach, comparing injury rates of CrossFit and traditional weight training enthusiasts within the same geographic location and within the same time frame.
The research team distributed a questionnaire asking about injury history to seven gyms in Pennsylvania, three of which identified as CrossFit gyms. They also distributed the questionnaire to individuals on several mailing lists associated with the Hershey Medical Center and Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine. They received 411 responses — 122 from CrossFit participants and 289 from those who claimed to follow a more traditional weight training routine.
The CrossFit group had more women and was older than the traditional weightlifting group, but both sets of exercisers worked out about four times a week for one to two hours per session. About half the respondents from both groups reported being injured in the last two years, with the CrossFit participants 1.3 times more likely to be injured and 1.86 times more likely to get medical attention.
The shoulder was the most common site of injury among all respondents, followed by the low back and hips. Clean and jerk lifts, deadlifts and snatch movements were the exercises most likely to cause injury among the CrossFit participants. In the traditional weightlifting group, barbell and dumbbell bench press exercises, deadlifts and back squats were most often associated with injury. Men were more likely than women to get injured in both CrossFit and traditional weight training routines.
Yet despite the higher rate of injury to CrossFit participants, the research team suggested it was the intensity of the workout, not the exercises themselves, that led to more injuries. They pointed out that “many of the same exercises and body regions accounted for a similar percentage of injury in both CrossFit and traditional weightlifting groups.”
CrossFit boasts of a culture that pushes people to their physical limits — which is when form and technique can start to get sloppy. While the intensity, competitive atmosphere and fast pace of the workout is what so many people find compelling, exercise experts have long preached that when technique is sacrificed in favour of more reps, injury risk escalates.
For the record, CrossFit has asked that the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine withdraw the paper, saying it “is beset with scientific error, cites retracted studies that contained fabricated data and inaccurately cites other studies concerning our CrossFit® brand.” In fact, CrossFit has aggressively pursued several scientific journals that published studies suggesting injury rates among CrossFit participants are higher than in other types of workouts.
But the results of the latest study don’t suggest the injury rates are worth abandoning all that makes CrossFit so popular. The camaraderie, competition and workout variety are all positives. Problems only occur when technique is compromised due to fatigue. So the more physically demanding and more technical lifts or exercises should be done early in the workout, before fatigue sets in. Or the culture should change to put more value on technique, rather than on notching another rep or finishing a set in record time.
CrossFit has brought people to and kept people at the gym. It has also fundamentally changed how we exercise by being a very early adapter of high-intensity interval training. That said, not all CrossFit gyms are created equal; some staff are more knowledgeable and respectful of exercise technique than others. So when it comes to CrossFit, or any other workout, never sacrifice technique in favour of one last rep.