Injury is probably the biggest thing that detractors point to when they talk about CrossFit. In this article I want to talk about why CrossFit got a bad injury rap in the first place, what an injury actually is, why injuries typically occur, and what you can do to prevent injury in your fitness program Where did the stigma of CrossFit and injuries come from anyways?
When I started CrossFit in 2010 I had never heard anything about injuries in CrossFit. It wasn’t until about our second year of being open at Coyote CrossFit (2014) that I started to hear potential clients talk about fear of injury, as well as seeing tons of posts about it on social media by CrossFit detractors. All of this stemmed from a study that was posted in 2013 by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) that claimed that CrossFit had a higher rate of injury than other fitness programs. CrossFit sued the NSCA for defamation, and it was eventually determined in court that the NSCA had falsified the study. They admitted to falsifying the study and agreed to pay CrossFit a settlement claim. The NSCA is a competitor of CrossFit and published the study in order to keep it from growing. It is unfortunate that the damages of this falsified study are still being felt by CrossFit gyms, but it is good to know that the claims of a higher injury rate in CrossFit were not true.
So what is an injury anyways? I believe that the majority of people don’t really have an idea of how the body works or what to expect when they are performing physical activity. They believe that pain in a joint means that they have injured themselves in that joint. However, this is most often not the case. Pain just means that there is something not working quite right in your body and you’re body is trying to let you know through inflammation. Most often people who think they have injured themselves will have a tough workout and then wake up the next day and have pain in their shoulder, elbow, or some other place. This occurs because when you work out you are breaking down your muscles so that they will repair stronger than they were before. When you are finished working out your muscles will tighten up to protect and repair themselves. If you do not have very much slack in your system (your muscles are already very tight) then this tightening can cause your tendons (which connect your muscle to the bone) to get stretched to make up for the loss in range of motion. If the tendons get stretched too far then they will cause inflammation around the bone. This is why, for example, when our quads get tight it can cause knee pain around the patellar tendon (tendonitis). A simple fix for this is to stretch the quad back out or do soft tissue work (lacrosse ball, massage, foam roll, etc.) to regain the range of motion. In general, if you work up or down from the inflamed area you will typically find a tight and sore muscle. If you do soft tissue work on this muscle then you will most likely get relief from the pain. If left unattended for a long period of time then this can cause much bigger issues, but the best fix is to treat it immediately. There are some exceptions, such as trauma to the joint or ligament (ACL tear), but these are typically not the injuries that people are talking about when they discuss injuries in CrossFit.
Now that we know what an injury is, let’s talk about why they occur. Every person was created to be able to perform functional movements (squatting, running, pressing, jumping, etc.). However, our modern lifestyle has greatly impacted our abilities to do these safely and efficiently. From a very young age (pre-school or kindergarden) we start spending most of our days sitting. In school we sit in desks and then sit in cars as we ride all over town, and then when we graduate we get a job and sit in a desk all day. We have accumulated years in a sitting, hunched over position that has destroyed our ability to perform functional movements. When we sit for long periods of time our hips get tight, our hamstrings shorten, our core gets shut off completely, and our shoulders get rounded forward. The result of this is that we can’t squat down below parallel without our chest coming forward, we can’t reach our hands over our head without arching our backs, and we can’t engage our core when we perform any exercises. The result of this is we can’t perform functional movements with correct form, so we compensate in some way so that we can. This leads to overusing certain muscles, leading to them getting tight and causing the inflammation that we discussed earlier. This is an extremely frustrating process for someone who is motivated to get in shape, but in the next paragraph I will discuss how we can prevent these injuries.
Ok, we know what an injury is and why they happen. The big question is how to prevent them. The first step is to determine where you are tight and weak in your body. There are plenty of different screens out there, but the best option is probably to find a good coach who can watch you move and see what your problem areas are. Once you have determined your problem areas then you should attack them with consistent mobility work. The common problems we see with most of our new clients are: tight hips and hip flexors (can lead to low back and knee pain), tight hamstrings (can lead to low back pain or knee pain) forward rounded shoulders (trouble lifting overhead and/or lead to shoulder pain), tight ankles (poor squat mechanics and knee or hip pain), and a weak core. There are plenty of great corrective exercises on the internet, but finding a good coach who can show them to you and watch you perform them is your best bet. You also want to make sure that you are performing your training with as good technique as your body will allow. If you cannot get into a good position yet in a certain movement then you should really limit the intensity (weight and/or speed) that you perform that movement in. Once again a good coach should be able to watch your movement and tell you where you need improvement and where you need to back off. If you cannot get into a good position safely then you will be setting yourself up for injury down the road by pushing the intensity! Finally, remember that training always leads to tighter muscles, so it is very important to finish every session with a cool down stretch.
I hope that I have showed you why injuries occur and how you can fix them. Just remember that most people in modern society have similar issues, so if you can improve these problem areas and focus on proper technique before increasing intensity then you will be setting yourself up for long term progress and health in your fitness program.