Maybe it’s not so bad. Sure, there have been a ton of negative articles about CrossFit lately. I even wrote one. Are we all just a bunch of haters who should leave poor old Uncle Rhabdo alone? Surely there are worse things out there than CrossFit for us to pick on.
Yes, there are “worse” sports than CrossFit. Here are five that I can think of.
In order to prepare for my Boston Marathon qualification attempt, I had to visit a place called the Running Injury Clinic in order to get a “pre-habilitative” program to prevent me from getting injured from the punishing training that would build up my ability to run at 8mph for over 3 hours straight.
The fact that places called “Running Injury Clinic” even exist is telling.
It sort of worked. I still had some painful tibial tendon issues during the peak of training that I had to massage each night, and although I was feeling good on race day, that same tendon flared for weeks after the qualifying run from all the torment I forced it to endure in my pursuit of middle-aged glory.
Runners are often foolhardy. Many of us run at just below the injury threshold, and plenty run with injuries because they just don’t want to stop. I’ve lost count of how many people have told me they are former runners because their bodies just couldn’t take the pounding any longer, including guitar god Joe Satriani.
One thing about running, however, is that a lot of these things can be corrected for. By going to a place like the Running Injury Clinic you can learn how to not get injured, and continue to run into old age.
2. Tough Mudder
This one is pretty dumb.
I can understand the point of much of it. The obstacle course component is like pretending to experience the glory of war, without the snipers, the landmines, the winning of hearts and minds, the burning down of huts, the putting your hand in a pile of goo that used to be your best friend’s face, or getting flambéed by napalm.
No napalm burns, but there are electrical burns. Perhaps a bit of PTSD to boot.
Seriously, why does this race need to taze you, bro? As this report shows, admittance to hospital with electrical burns and even electric shock induced seizures is not uncommon after a Tough Mudder.
Oog. Drain … bamage … something.
I did a piece for my Chicago Tribune column about why I wouldn’t let my kids play contact sports (they’re both black belts in competitive karate), and in the column I reported on how there are 4 million concussions each year from recreational sports, but that half of these go unreported. That latter part is especially dangerous, because a second bonk to the brain causes “worsening metabolic changes in the cell” and can create “prolonged dysfunction.”
This is your brain we’re talking about here. Playing a sport where the intent is to crash into other people who are very large, and very strong – often head first – is not good for your long-term chess game. Or for keeping drool inside your mouth.
4. Women’s Basketball
There is a great Futurama episode called “Amazon Women in the Mood” that has this exchange:
Thog: But they make fun women’s basketball.
Femputer: What? Did you explain how the women’s good fundamentals make up for their inability to dunk?
Ornik: Yes. They still laugh.
Femputer: The men must die!
That’s not the problem with it. Due to the childhood trauma of being bereft of the ability to dribble or sink a basket, I think any kind of basketball is lame. They could have mutant chipmunks in miniskirts playing a basketball death match to an all-Rush soundtrack and I still wouldn’t watch it.
My feelings about basketball are irrelevant. What is relevant is the propensity for knee injury. Specifically: female knee injury.
Multiple studies have shown that women have a much higher rate of knee injury from playing basketball than men do. As much as a 600% higher rate. Anecdotally, I know plenty of women who have undergone knee surgery due to playing basketball.
You get punched in the face. Repeatedly. To end the match early, you win by “knock out.”
That’s not good.
Oh, and those padded gloves aren’t to soften the blow to your head. They’re to protect your hands so you can hit your opponent hard enough that his grandchildren are born dizzy.
I interviewed the world heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko for the Los Angeles Times and he told me, “I don’t want to take a punch … My goal is not getting hit and to knock the other guy out. Some people might complain because they want to see boxers beat up on each other, but you cannot last long in professional boxing if you take a lot of punches.”
What really is “dumber”?
There is a reason for the quote-unquote.
It’s because that, electrical shocks notwithstanding, I don’t think the sports outlined above are all that dumb compared to CrossFit. CrossFit really does have an ingrained stupidity component to it. Well, okay. Maybe boxing does too. Perhaps even football. Anyway …
What is it that makes CrossFit so stupid? Why does this method of training make about as much sense as converting to Scientology and giving them the deed to your house?
It’s because it takes an activity that is normally quite safe, and seems to relish in making it unsafe.
Traditional weightlifting, when done with a well-designed program, and with attention to proper technique, is one of the safest athletic endeavors you can engage in. What’s more, as I showed in this Los Angeles Times piece, weightlifting is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for children because it can “improve sports performance, rehabilitate injuries, prevent injuries, and/or enhance long-term health.”
In over 20 years of lifting weights, I’ve injured myself only twice. Both times was due to youthful dumbassery.
Once, when I was a rookie, I was doing lateral dumbbell raises and clanked them together in front of me. They pinched the head of my penis and I collapsed to the floor howling in agony while my friend pointed and laughed.
Another time (again, long, long ago), one of those gravity-defying hoop-earring girls sauntered by as I was pulling a 45lb plate off a barbell, and in my admiration for her I neglected to notice I still had a 10lb plate on the bar in front of the 45. The 10-pounder landed on my toe.
That’s it. There have been no other injuries in over 20 years, because I pay close attention to progression and proper lifting technique. Conversely, CrossFit is fundamentally flawed at it’s core level for one simple reason: it combines high weight + high speed + high reps with a high complexity exercise. Those four things put together is a recipe for injurious failure. Add in a lack of periodization with a “go hard every day” mentality and it’s a boon for the physical therapy industry.
There may be other sports with higher injury rates than CrossFit, but that’s not the argument to be made here. Running coaches try to limit injuries and keep their athletes healthy with a focus on improving technique and strengthening weak areas. Advancements are being made in terms of limiting head injuries in contact sports. Women may be predisposed to knee injuries, but strength coaches work with their athletes to try and prevent such injuries.
Electric shocks on race courses is still way dumb, though.
But that is what seems to be lacking in much of CrossFit. Not all, for certain, but the culture seems to be built around taking a sport that is safe, and making it significantly less safe. It’s often balls to the wall and technique be damned. Come on! One more! Run, Forrest!
[insert token apology to good/conscientious/amaze-balls CrossFit coaches here]
Horror stories about “1 more rep by any means necessary” abound. Videos of abysmal technique are legion (although rumor has it those aren’t always actual CrossFit gyms in those videos). Destroying the palms of your hands in the name of additional reps is a badge of honor.
Now we’re getting into no-quotation-marks kind of dumb.
I don’t care if CrossFit is safer than NASCAR, or wingsuit base jumping, or Acapulco cliff diving, or MMA. I don’t care about the rate of running injuries to CrossFit injuries, or how many baseball pitchers wreck their shoulders vs. the shoulder damage incurred by repeated CrossFit snatches.
With CrossFit, however, it appears as though the opposite is true because of the aforementioned fundamental design flaw. No matter how good the CrossFit box, you simply can’t get around high speed / weight / reps / complexity all put together = bad.
If I’m going to crush my pelvis or suffer some other debilitating injury, I’d rather it was via snu-snu.
James S. Fell, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and AskMen.com. He is the author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada.