The Real-Life Dangers of Cross-Fit and Circuit Training

If you’re not a CrossFitter, you probably know at least one who is. And you’ve probably heard a few of the words they use like ‘box’ which refers to a CrossFit gym or ‘WOD’ which means Workout of the Day. You’ve probably heard that it’s great or you’ve heard that it’s dangerous.

If you’re thinking of trying a CrossFit class or just slightly Cross-curious, more information will help you decide if you should go for it or not. As it turns out, there’s a lot more to it than putting on long socks and doing weird pull-ups. Here are answers to some questions you might have.

What is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a workout methodology created by former gymnast Greg Glassman in 2001.

CrossFit aims to “forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness,” according to the brand’s guidebook. It is not a traditional, specialized training program like aerobics or doing isolated weight lifting for a certain muscle.

CrossFit consists of a stew of exercise variety. It combines strength training, explosive plyometrics, speed training, Olympic- and power-style weight lifting, kettle bells, body weight exercises, gymnastics, and endurance exercise in each class.

The defining characteristic of CrossFit is the intensity.

Training the CrossFit way requires you to work out 3 to 5 days per week. The workouts are highly intense and short, taking about 5 to 15 minutes to complete.

These short grueling sessions aren’t for the weekend gym warrior. The programs are hard as hell. Its “prescription,” as the CrossFit guidebook states, is for “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movements that will optimize physical competence in ten physical domains: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.”

Is CrossFit the same as circuit training?

CrossFit can be considered a type of circuit training. The workouts characteristically combine explosive exercises done in a circuit format: one exercise follows right after the next, with very little rest in between.  However, CrossFit is not the same thing as circuit training. Circuit training is very broad and CrossFit has a specific definition. What makes CrossFit different is the fact that it focuses on super high-intensity, constantly varied movements.

The big clock with red numbers will define your ability to survive.

Most of the workouts are time-based, meaning you DON’T stop until the clock hits zero. Even as your spirit weakens and your muscles fail, coaches and fellow gym goers push you till the end. This never-never-quit atmosphere has generated questions and has turned CrossFit into a growing danger.

There’s a high risk of injury.

In any high-intense fitness regimen like CrossFit, the possibility of injury is an increased risk especially if you have a previous injury or are new to Olympic-style weight lifting and plyometric workouts. The exercises are not only risky as they are, but the possibility of injury increases even further when you do the exercises under a fatigued state, such as during an intense circuit.

Injuries in such activities often don’t present during the exercise. They are repetitive stresses on your body that are like death by a thousand cuts. You just wake up one day with your back painfully screwed.

Regularly pushing your body to failure can lead to serious health risks, like rhabdomyolysis.

Everyone has an uncle they’d rather you not meet. CrossFit has Uncle Rhabdo, CrossFit’s unofficial and disturbing mascot.

Uncle Rhabdo is a cartoon commonly referenced in CrossFit literature and symbolic of a worrying trend among CrossFitters.  The Uncle Rhabdo cartoon is an exhausted, yet well-muscled clown, connected to a dialysis machine standing next to some workout equipment.

Rhabdo is short for rhabdomyolysis.

Rhabdomyolysis, although it sounds a bit melodically pleasant, is an uncool, serious and potentially fatal condition resulting from the catastrophic breakdown of muscle cells. Rhabdomyolysis isn’t a common condition, yet it’s so commonly encountered in CrossFit that they have a cartoon about it, nonchalantly casting humor on something that should never happen.

So what is rhabdomyolysis exactly? Rhabdomyolysis is a condition in which skeletal muscle becomes so severely damaged that it rapidly breaks down. If this happens, muscle cells may rupture and important contents could leak out into the bloodstream, eventually damaging the kidneys even to the point of kidney failure. It must be treated in a medical facility as it is potentially life threatening.

The real danger is to new athletes.

Like those who flock to CrossFit gyms looking for a great workout. Or the out-of-shape homebodies who want to lose weight but probably shouldn’t be jumping into intense workouts. While the workouts can be performed by beginners, their immature muscles can’t tell the difference between training to failure and simply getting a good workout. Most beginners don’t know when “too much is too much.” Add to that the no-quit culture of CrossFit and you’re doomed.

The problems stem from inexperienced trainers.

Some CrossFitters, especially the beginners, are probably doing the lifts and other exercises all wrong and there is no one there to correct them.

This is because CrossFit level-1 trainers are certified after completing a two-day seminar and 50-multiple-choice-question exam. That’s all you need to open up a CrossFit gym and start training as many athletes as you want.

Sadly, only a few of these entry level coaches have any real knowledge of proper form, which is especially critical for Olympic and Power lifts. That’s not to say there aren’t well-experienced trainers coaching CrossFit across the country, but with a certification and affiliation so easy to attain, the program is now adulterated with inexperienced trainers who are hurting people.

CrossFit Encourages an Unhealthy View of Pain — The STFU Culture

CrossFitters put up with burning muscles and overall strain and they get used to their trainers yelling  “Bring it on, gimme more gimme more!” It gets harder and harder to say “Oh, that’s pain, I need to stop.”

CrossFit seems to think that the more pain you are in, whether on that day or the days following the workout, the better. The more you disregard the pain and keep pushing through it, the tougher you are. But this is not true, and more importantly, it’s dangerous.

Pain shouldn’t be the goal. Just because you feel exhausted or your muscles are burning doesn’t mean it was a great workout.

CrossFit is a loose community of affiliate gyms that have no mandated program for injury tracking.

CrossFit is an affiliate system and not a franchisor. Unlike a wholly owned fitness chain or franchise, which follows set standards, CrossFit gyms operate autonomously. Owners license the brand, then choose their own equipment and create their own workouts. Which means there is not now, nor can there ever practically be, any mechanism for reporting of injury data.

As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed.

Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body, but in the case of CrossFit, we’re left to ponder the question, is this workout worth the risk?

If you have a base of fitness and know the dangers of CrossFit – and take care to avoid them – then whether to try this rigorous form of workout is a personal decision.

Micaela Pimentel

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