CrossFit Myth-buster #1 and 7 ways to reduce the chance of injury

The first in a series on contesting a few of the myths that seem to scare some folks away from CrossFit.

(This isn’t to suggest that CrossFit is beyond criticism or that it’s the only way to train. I believe that CrossFit has plenty of room for improvement (and as I understand it that’s part of the charter of CrossFit) and that there are all sorts of good ways to get fit. If walking an hour a day is your thing and you’re perfectly happy with that, I am 100% with you. But for those interested in CrossFit, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s an extremely effective way to build a broad foundation of fitness through functional movement and high-intensity work that yields a very “high-dose” training response. So when I see articles in the likes of Men’s Health or the New York Times that characterize CrossFit as a menacing and dangerous activity, I think a broader description is worth considering.)

 Myth #1: You’ll get hurt.

Do injuries happen in CrossFit? Of course they do. But the representation in mainstream media often lurches wildly into the most controversial interpretation possible. Consider this 2005 story in the New York Times. Are there CrossFit affiliates that have poor coaching or push new athletes to far to fast? I’m sure there are. That said, I have yet to visit one. I’ve been to affiliate gyms ranging in places like NYC, Boston, Indiana, Iowa, Seattle, Austin, and up and down California. To name a few: CrossFit NYC, CrossFit Virtuosity, CrossFit Southie, CrossFit Bloomington, CrossFit River North, CrossFit Amundson, CrossFit Santa Cruz Central, CrossFit Cedar Rapids, CrossFit SOMA/United Barbell. And I can authentically report that in each of the workouts I attended coaches were obsessed with me, a visitor basking in anonymity, executed the movements with good form and with cautious levels of load and intensity.

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To quote Nicole Carroll, co-director of training at CrossFit HQ, the thing is to be picky about the gym you join and the coaches you work with. Take matters into your own hands. Ask around to make sure you avoid a gym that might harbor poor coaches.

As the founder of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, answered after a lecture that’s archived on CrossFit.com, the issue of safety and exercise should be considered carefully. “I wouldn’t want [CrossFit] to be perfectly safe,” he said. Glassman said that to be 100% safe means that the regimen is 100% ineffective–that to be perfectly safe you should just stay seated in your chair and not do anything. (I think my favorite of Glassman’s lectures is this speech to the National War College).

Here’s my personal experience, for whatever that’s worth: As a runner and triathlete for 25 years, I got injured all the time. Running is not tackle football but I swear I collected more injuries being a runner than when I played football during my grade school years. Studies indicate that nearly 75% of runners come down with an injury of some sort every year and I think I might have exceeded that predictive stat in my running years. In the last year and a half of CrossFit I once tweaked my back during box jumps. The tweak was gone in three days and I was back at the gym.

That tweak, by the way, was a learning experience for me. I knew immediately why it happened: I wasn’t paying attention to midline stabilization during the jumps combined with jumping down from the boxes. A less risky alternative is to step down from the boxes rather than jump down, and considering my age and the high number of miles on the odometer, I should have been stepping down rather than jumping down. And I was jumping down without keeping the muscles of the core–butt, lower back, abs—somewhat engaged. As you learn in CrossFit on a daily basis, the first key to steering clear of injuries is to keep the midline muscles “tight.” When you perform squats, deadlifts, pushups and just about every other movement in the gym, coaches exhort you to keep the midline engaged and tight. Doing so protects the spine and helps channel the power from your primary engines–the hips and the shoulders—to the extremities like the legs and the arms.

Back to contesting what I believe is a myth, that CrossFit will break newbies to pieces. If that was the case, then the number of affiliates wouldn’t continue to be skyrocketing in number. If everyone was getting injured, then CrossFit would have died out some time ago. As one CrossFit coach explained to me, injuries are fatal to staying in business. And CrossFit gyms that are successful have worked hard to minimize them.

One of the primary ideas I believe CrossFit tries to communicate is this: Rather than just handing over the responsibility of your health, fitness and wellness to a personal trainer, take responsibility for it yourself.

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Following are 7 tips I’ve picked up from CrossFit coaches on the subject of getting a good start in CrossFit and reducing the risk of injury as best you can.

1. Listen to the coach, do your best to execute things properly. Mastering form comes first and intensity and load comes after. Listen to the coach, study CrossFit.com, have others videotape your movements so you can see what you’re doing (often a striking contrast to what you think you’re doing) and be patient.

2. Leave your ego out of it, especially at the beginning. Use the principle of scaling (changing the workout to meet your abilities) frequently. Ask the coach for guidance on scaling if he or she doesn’t offer it.

3. Get to workouts early to warm-up and prepare properly for the WODs.

4. Spend time after the workouts warming down, stretching and recovering. A good warmdown activity is to get on the rowing ergometer and go a 1000 meters at an easy clip.

5. Eat a high-protein snack within 30 minutes after the workout. It’s a key metabolic window where the recovery uptake of nutrition is at a very high level and will assist the anti-inflammatory response that helps you digest the training and be ready for the next time you train.

6. Back off if you sense yourself getting in over your head. This typically goes back to the ego situation. Don’t let it get the best of you where you end up trying to do too much too fast. Coaches will often try to prevent you from nearing this zone. There’s a difference between backing off when things are just getting uncomfortable and backing off when an injury looms.

7. Embrace the concept of midline stability. A good discussion topic with your coach. And to help build it, check out gymmastics/CrossFit super-coach Carl Paoli’s site for how to build good midline stability through exercises like the hollow rock. When I first started I couldn’t do one hollow rock properly. The good news is that it comes pretty quick. If you can’t do a hollow rock, ask your coach for scaled versions to get you started off right.