CrossFit benefits, harms will decide future of fitness craze

Whether the popular exercise regime’s effect on health and fitness is positive or negative will determine the activity’s success in today’s society.


By Elizabeth Grimsley

The doctors told him he wasn’t supposed to live.

Ed Buckley lay in his hospital bed while his body poisoned itself. His blood vessels became inflamed, his kidneys shut down and his lungs filled with blood. Even though everyone around him feared the worst, Buckley said he didn’t believe it was his time.

After coming home to Decatur, Ga., from a clean water volunteer trip in Haiti back in December 2012, Buckley, 58, fell ill. A trip to the emergency room for what he thought was a bad case of the flu instead brought a diagnosis of Wegener’s Granulomatosis, a rare cardiovascular disorder.

Buckley found CrossFit after his gym converted to the new workout regime in 2009. The community that came with the transition helped him to stayed positive during his time in the hospital. Without the physical strength gained from three years of doing CrossFit and the support from his wife and grandson as well as that community, Buckley said he would not have made it.

“Especially after coming close to not being here at all, I understand how important it is to be in the best health you can be in,” Buckley said.

The sport of CrossFit, a high intensity workout regime that involves lifting weights and performing gymnastics-style movements under a time limit, has been growing fast since its creation in 2000. There has been a 784 percent increase in registrants for the CrossFit open competition since 2011. Sign up for the 2015 open, starting Jan. 20, will likely hit an all time high.

Rachel Rieder, one of the trainers at CrossFit Decatur, goes over the workout of the day and expectations before the class begins on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. Before every class, the trainer reviews the movements to ensure every participant understands the exercises. (Photo/Elizabeth Grimsley, egrimsley@gmail.com)

Today’s fast-paced way of life has made the in-and-out nature of CrossFit attractive to many people, according to Ben Benson, coach and co-owner of CrossFit Terminus in Atlanta. And while it might have helped save Buckley’s life, not everyone is convinced it’s the gold standard of exercise. Not being properly taught how to do certain exercises, moving too fast through a workout or doing movements with improper form are all factors that can lead to injuries in CrossFit. Whether the benefits of CrossFit outweigh the negatives will decide the long-term future of the sport.

“People want to get in better shape, so they try CrossFit. They hear it’s fun. They like the encouragement and the team mentality of it,” said Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist. “They push too hard too fast without enough time to rest or they do something where their technique wasn’t perfect and the weight slips.”

Erin Simmons, a former collegiate track and field athlete and current Ph.D. student in Texas A&M’s integrated sports nutrition and exercise science doctoral program, first heard about CrossFit from a couple of friends who describe it as an intense workout. She was skeptical of the timed nature of the exercises, but, as she is always up for a challenge, Simmons gave it a go.

But one glance inside the gym left Simmons appalled.

“The coaches didn’t coach. They just yelled to go faster and get more reps in,” Simmons said. “They didn’t correct poor form, of which there was plenty. As a former athlete, I knew there was something not right.”

Education plays a large part in the success of a CrossFit gym, said Benson. Many physical training certifications can take up to a year to complete and involve extensive course material, according to Dr. Sean Wells, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, personal trainer and physical therapist. But CrossFit’s level one seminar can be completed in a weekend.

Benson waited before opening his gym and instead spent his time learning all he could about the body and CrossFit.

“It’s more than just exercise,” Benson said. “It just seems like people go and get their L1 and all of a sudden they’ve got an affiliate and it seems like they don’t understand the harm that can be done inside of prescribing these exercises.”

Without proper knowledge of the way the body works, which can be learned from taking a course on the subject, it is difficult for coaches to appropriately design and scale workouts to fit each individuals’ needs, according to Wells.

“He or she should be able to say that’s not the best form, this is how we can change it, this is how we modify it,” Wells said. “That’s really what distinguishes a professional from just a person who is in a trade, and I think a lot of trainers in CrossFit are just in the trade.”

While education may be one part of the problem and others argue that some of the movements are unsafe, Benson said the main issue is the participants’ lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyles.

“There’s definitely some gaps,” Benson said. “But the main issue is it has nothing to do with the movements. It’s that we’re getting people that are between the ages of 30 and 50 and orthopedically are [messed] up. They’ve been sitting at a desk for 20 or 30 years and require a lot of mobility work prior to being able to do even the most basic movements.”

CrossFit Decatur hosts a “mobility night” every once in a while so it’s members can improve their skills outside of their normally-scheduled class time. (Photo/Elizabeth Grimsley, egrimsley@gmail.com)

No stranger to exercise and intense workouts, the apparent lack of method to CrossFit’s madness confused Simmons. While she had hard practices in college, she at least understood the underlying purpose in the seemingly crazy workouts that involve a high amount of reps to be done in a short amount of time.

When people aren’t taught the proper ways to do an exercise, they take shortcuts without knowing or without realizing the risks involved in doing so. As people perform an exercise, their bodies naturally begin to fatigue, causing less attention to form and more attention to merely finishing, according to Simmons.

“The only way to make CrossFit a good form of exercise would be to completely change it’s entire structure,” Simmons said. “In which case it’s no longer CrossFit.”

Simmons suggests focusing solely on the movements without the pressure of a time limit. While not taking such drastic measures as completely reinventing the workout regime, Benson is taking steps in this direction.

He emphasizes proper technique and good mobility in his athletes and takes the time to build skills “without having a carrot out on the end of the stick,” meaning he doesn’t have his athletes perform workouts under a time constraint. Once good form becomes second nature, there is less risk of it deteriorating when athletes become tired.

Eskender Abebe does push-ups during a workout at CrossFit Decatur on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (Photo/Elizabeth Grimsley, egrimsley@gmail.com)

It can take years to become an expert at the exercises, according to Benson. Most first time CrossFitters aren’t former gymnasts or weight lifters and haven’t been exposed to the movements that make up the majority of workouts. Without proper instruction, these exercise novices put themselves at more risk if they haven’t been taught how to properly do the activity.

Just like swimmers are taught to doggy paddle before they breaststroke, many of the movements in CrossFit require weeks of instruction before adding weight or reps. Benson gives his athletes a bar that holds no weight before ever allowing them to perform heavier movements. But sometimes that creates the illusion that no work is being done.

“Unfortunately, it turns people off to exercise because the reality is that dose can be very minimal to them and they don’t think that they’re actually exercising,” Benson said.

But Buckley wasn’t turned off to exercise even though he wasn’t the strongest or most athletic in the gym. In fact, taking gradual steps was just what he needed to get back on his feet after bad luck struck for a second time. The doctors checked over the rest of Buckley’s body while he was in the hospital for Wegener’s. And, as a “bonus”, as Buckley puts it, similar to a person taking his car in for faulty brakes and the mechanic also finding a bad transmission, the doctors found a cancerous tumor on Buckley’s chest that needed removing.

The “double whammy” hit Buckley hard. He lost 45 pounds off his already slim figure and those around him weren’t optimistic about his chances., No one expected Buckley to be back in the gym for quite some time after being knocked down like a boxer twice his size in the ring. But because of the abundance of visits, “encouraging words” and “back-breaking hugs” from his fellow CrossFit Decatur members during his time in the hospital, Buckley said he was pulled back.

“I actually was back in the gym while I was on dialysis [for Wegener’s],” he said. “So I’d go to the gym, do a little workout, then I’d go down to dialysis and finally [the doctors] said you’re good.”

While generic gyms are filled with machines where individuals go to workout alone, CrossFit puts a large emphasis on group fitness. Buckley said he attributes his recovery just as much to his fellow CrossFitters’ support as to his physical shape.

“One of my nurses said it was my lost year, but in that year I learned a lot about human generosity,” Buckley said. “One of the things that CrossFit’s about is going that extra mile and not just going the extra mile in your athletic stuff.”

A person doesn’t have to be on his deathbed to benefit from CrossFit. The American College of Sports Medicine’s guidelines for exercise include 150 minutes of moderate intensity workouts or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week with two days of resistance training. Because of today’s fast-paced lifestyle in society, high intensity interval training workouts like CrossFit have become popular.

Eskender Abebe watches on and supports his partner, Dana Dabruzzi, while she performs box jumps during a workout at CrossFit Decatur on Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014. (Photo/Elizabeth Grimsley, egrimsley@gmail.com)

“You can get a great workout that has all the benefits of the typical aerobic conditioning exercises yet in a fraction of the time,” said Dr. Robert Oh, sports medicine specialist and Lieutenant colonel for the U.S. Army. “There are many, many busy individuals who just don’t have time to run or workout for hours.”

Getting away from the stresses of everyday life and enjoying time with other CrossFitters is a reason many people engage in the activity. For University of Georgia junior Jason Finger, who has been doing CrossFit for five years, even when it gets overwhelming, he doesn’t step away.

“I contemplated it, but I’ve been doing it for so long,” he said. “When I get busy, I kind of stress out a little bit and my mind’s in other places. If anything it’s been going from training five or six times a week to three or four times a week, but I’ve never actually taken a break.”

CrossFit critics argue that CrossFit causes more injuries than other sports like basketball or gymnastics, but recent studies show that CrossFit’s injury rate is right alongside those other sports.

In data compiled by Oh from various studies, CrossFit has an injury rate of 3.1 per 1000 hours compared to basketball at 1.94–5.7 injuries per 1000 hours and gymnastics at 5.4–7.96 injuries per 1000 hours.

“I see way more running injuries than CrossFit injuries,” Oh said. “More people are doing CrossFit, therefore we see more people get injured and think there’s an epidemic, when in fact, it’s a lower rate than most sports.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 40 percent of adults aged 40 to 59 years olds are obese. Activities like CrossFit are putting exercise back on the map, according to Lee Nessel, former CrossFit regional media director and current managing publisher for the National Pro Grid League.

The National Pro Grid League, a functional fitness competition where teams complete CrossFit-style workouts, was launched at the beginning of 2014. Each team is required to have a male and female over the age of 40, making the sport of fitness seem more attainable to the general public.

“The ripple effect has begun, “ Nessel said. “People can turn it on at this time, it will end at that time, it’s going to be exciting and there’s going to be a winner. Americans love their sports; it’s an exciting two hours like any sport that’s on TV.”

Turning exercise into less of a chore and more of a fun, group activity is what Nessel says will end up having the most effect on society.

“It’s going to change the fitness culture and the exposure to a fit lifestyle,” Nessel said. “If we could spread this, people would be happier and healthier.”

It has proven true for at least one individual.

Twenty months removed from his stint in the hospital, Buckley can still be found working out at CrossFit Decatur like the events of January 2013 never happened.

Eight pairs of exercisers plug along at a workout. Fifteen minutes are left on the big digital clock that hangs in the corner. Sweat drips to the floor. Grunts can be heard from men and women alike as they struggle to perform their fourth, fifth, sixth squat clean in a row. A half-hearted “you can do this” slips from a woman’s mouth as she bends down, hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath before it’s once again her turn to pick up the bar.

Off to the side, Buckley stands alone. His head is down as he performs a workout of his own invention. He is not yet strong enough to join in with the group yet can still be found working on box jumps or overhead squats or another one of his weaknesses four days a week. Drops of sweat slid down his temple, down his chin and fall to the floor one after another. Black patches appear on his grey shirt. He is alone but at the same time surrounded by the community that kept him breathing nearly two years ago.