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On Crossfit and Safety

I’ve been a happy CrossFiter for a few years now. I met my co-founder and many friends in CrossFit Charlottesville, completely changed my level of fitness and many key indicators of health such as my hemoglobin A1C and vitamin D levels, am stronger than I’ve ever been, feel great, and now my wife does CrossFit too. It’s fantastic. It’s community, fun, health, fitness. It’s the antidote to the boring gyms I forced myself to go to for years and hated every minute.

Kettlebells

But there is a fringe element in CrossFit, which unfortunately looks mainstream to some who don’t really have enough context to judge. From the outside, CrossFit can look almost cult-like. It’s easy to get an impression of people doing dangerous things with little caution or training. To hear people talk about it, everyone in CrossFit works out insanely until they vomit, pushing themselves until their muscles break down and vital organs go into failure modes.

That’s not what I’ve experienced. I’ve never seen anyone vomit, or even come close to it as far as I know. I think that part of this dichotomy comes from certain people trying to promote CrossFit as a really badass thing to do, so they not only focus on extreme stories, they even exaggerate stories to sound more extreme.

Last week there was a tragic accident: Denver CrossFit coach Kevin Ogar injured himself badly. This has raised the issue of CrossFit safety again.

To be clear, I think there is something about CrossFit that deserves to be looked at. It’s just not the mainstream elements, that’s all. The things I see about CrossFit, which I choose not to participate in personally, are:

  1. The hierarchy and structure above the local gyms. If you look at local gyms and local events, things look good. Everyone’s friends and nobody does stupid things. But when you get into competitions, people are automatically elevated into the realms of the extreme. This reaches its peak at the top levels of the competitions. Why? Because there’s something to gain besides just fitness. When someone has motivations (fame, endorsements and sponsorship, financial rewards) beyond just being healthy, bad things are going to happen. There’s talk now about cheating and performance-enhancing drugs and all kinds of “professional sports issues.” Those are clear signs that it’s not about fitness and health.
  2. Some inconsistencies in the underlying philosophy from the founders of CrossFit. I’m not sure how much this gets discussed, but a few of the core concepts (which I agree with, by the way) are that varied, functional movements are good. The problem is, the workout movements aren’t all functional. A few of them are rather hardcore and very technical movements chosen from various mixtures of disciplines.
  3. Untempered enthusiasm about, and ignorant promotion of, things such as the so-called Paleo Diet. I’m biased about this by being married to an archaeologist, but it isn’t the diet that is the issue. It’s the fanaticism that some people have about it, which can be off-putting to newcomers.

I’m perfectly fine when people disagree with me on these topics. Lots of people are really enthusiastic about lots of things. I choose to take what I like about CrossFit and leave the rest. I would point out, however, that the opinions of those who don’t really know CrossFit first-hand tend to be colored by the extremism that’s on display.

Now, there is one issue I think that’s really important to talk about, and that’s the safety of the movements. This comes back to point #2 in my list above. I’d especially like to pick out one movement that is done in a lot of CrossFit workouts.

The Snatch

If you’re not familiar with the snatch, it’s an Olympic weightlifting movement where the barbell is pulled from the floor as high as possible in one movement. The athlete then jumps under the barbell, catching it in a deep squat with arms overhead, and stands up to complete the movement with the bar high overhead. Here’s an elite Olympic lifter just after catching the bar at the bottom of the squat.

Snatch

The snatch is extremely technical. It requires factors such as balance, timing, strength, and flexibility to come together flawlessly. Many of these factors are not just necessary in moderate quantities. For example, the flexibility required is beyond what most people are capable of without a lot of training. If you don’t have the mobility to pull off the snatch correctly, your form is compromised and it’s dangerous.

The snatch is how Kevin Ogar got hurt. Keep in mind this guy is a CrossFit coach himself. He’s not a novice.

I challenge anyone to defend the snatch as a functional movement. Tell me one time in your life when you needed to execute a snatch, and be serious about it. I can see the clean-and-jerk’s utility. But not the snatch. It’s ridiculous.

The snatch is also inherently very dangerous. You’re throwing a heavy weight over your head and getting under it, fast. You’re catching it in an extremely compromised position. And if you drop it, which is hard not to do, where’s it going to go? It’s going to fall on you. Here’s another Olympic athlete catching hundreds of pounds with his neck when a snatch went a little bit wrong. A split second later this picture looked much worse, but I don’t want to gross you out.

Steiner

The next issue is that the snatch features prominently in many CrossFit workouts, especially competition workouts. This is not a small problem. Think about it: in competition, when these extreme athletes have raised the bar to such an extent that weeding out the best of the best requires multi-day performances few mortals could ever achieve, we’re throwing high-rep, heavy-weight snatches into the mix. What’s astonishing isn’t that Kevin Ogar got seriously injured. What’s amazing is that we don’t have people severing their spines on the snatch all the time.

What on earth is wrong with these people? What do they expect?

You might think this is an issue that’s only present in the competitions. But that’s not true. I generally refuse to do snatches in workouts at the gym. I will substitute them for other movements. Why? Take a look at one sample snatch workout:

AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) in 12 Minutes of:

  1. Snatch x 10
  2. Double Under x 50
  3. Box Jump x 10
  4. Sprint

That’s 12 minutes of highly challenging movements (to put it in perspective, most non-CrossFitters, and even many CrossFitters, would not be able to do the double-unders or box-jumps). You’re coming off a sprint and you’re going to throw off 10 snatches in a row, and you’re going to do it with perfect form? Unlikely. This is just asking for injury.

Or we could look at the “named WODs” that are benchmarks for CrossFitters everywhere. There’s Amanda, for example: 9, 7, and 5 reps of muscle-ups and snatches, as fast as possible. Or Isabel: 30 reps of 135-pound snatches, as fast as possible. To get a sense for how insane that actually is, take a look at Olympic weightlifting competitor Kendrick Farriss doing Isabel. The man is a beast and he struggles. And his form breaks down. I’m over-using italics. I’m sorry, I’ll cool down.

My point is that I think this extremely technical, very dangerous movement should have limited or no place in CrossFit workouts. I think it does very little but put people into a situation where they’re at very high risk of getting injured. I do not think it makes people more fit more effectively than alternative movements. I think one can get the same or better benefits from much safer movements.

Doing the snatch is an expert stunt. I personally think that I’ll never be good at snatches unless I do them twice a week, minimum. And one of the tenets of CrossFit is that there should be a large variety of constantly varied movements. This automatically rules out doing any one movement very often. In my own CrossFit workouts, going to the gym 2 or 3 times a week, I typically go weeks at a time without being trained on snatches in pre-workout skill work. That is nowhere near enough to develop real skill at it. (This is why I do my skill-work snatches with little more than an empty bar.)

There are other movements in CrossFit that I think are riskier than they need to be, but snatches are the quintessential example.

I know many people who are experts in these topics will disagree with me very strongly, and I don’t mind that. This is just my opinion.

Bad Coaches, Bad Vibes

There’s one more problem that contributes, I think, to needless risk in CrossFit gyms. This is the combination of inadequate coaching and a focus on “goal completion” to the exclusion of safety and absolutely perfect form, especially during workouts where you’re trying to finish a set amount of movements as fast as possible, or do as much as possible in a fixed time.

There’s no getting around the fact that CrossFit coaches aren’t all giving the same level of attention to their athletes, nor do all of them have the qualifications they need.

Anecdotally, I’ll tell the story of traveling in California, where I visited a gym and did one of my favorite workouts, Diane. In Diane, you deadlift 225 pounds 21 reps, do 21 handstand pushups, repeat both movements with 15 reps each, and finish with 9 reps each.

Deadlifting consists of grasping the bar on the ground and standing up straight, then lowering it again. It is not a dynamic or unstable movement. You do not move through any out-of-control ranges of motion. If you drop the bar you won’t drop it on yourself, it’ll just fall to the ground. Nevertheless, if done wrong, it can injure you badly, just like anything else.

Deadlift

The gym owner / coach didn’t coach. There’s no other way to say it. He set up a bar and said “ok, everyone look at me.” He then deadlifted and said some things that sounded really important about how to deadlift safely. Then he left us on our own. A relative newcomer was next to me. His form and technique were bad, and the coach didn’t say anything. He was standing at the end of the room, ostensibly watching, but he either wasn’t really looking, or he was lazy, or he didn’t know enough to see that the guy was doing the movement unsafely.

The newcomer turned to me and asked me what weight I thought he should use. I recommended that he scale the weights way down, but it wasn’t my gym and I wasn’t the coach. He lifted too heavy. I don’t think he hurt himself, but he was rounding his back horribly and I’m sure he found it hard to move for a week afterward. The coach just watched from the end of the gym, all the way through the workout. All he did was start and stop the music. What a jerk.

There’s an element of responsibility to put on the athletes. You need to know whether you’re doing things safely or not. If you don’t know, you should ask your coach. For me, rule #1 is to find out how much I don’t know, and not to attempt something unless I know how much I know about it. This athlete should have taken the matter into his own hands and asked for more active coaching.

But that doesn’t excuse the coach either.

The gym I go to — that nonsense does not happen. And I’ve been to a few gyms over the years and found them to be good. I’m glad I learned in a safe environment, but not all gyms and coaches are that good.

Precedent and Direction-Setting, and Lack of Reporting

What worries me the most is that the type of tragedy that happened to Kevin Ogar is going to happen close to home and impact my friends or my gym. The problem is complex to untangle, but in brief,

  1. Once annually there’s a series of quasi-competitions called the CrossFit Open. These are scored workouts over a span of weeks. They are set by the national CrossFit organization, not the local gyms. The scores are used to filter who is the first rank of competitors to go to regional competitions, and then eventually on to the annual CrossFit Games.
  2. The CrossFit Open workouts will certainly include snatches.
  3. If local gyms don’t program snatches regularly, their members won’t be prepared at all for the Open.
  4. Local gyms don’t have to participate in the Open, and don’t have to encourage their members to, but that’s easier said than done due to the community aspects of CrossFit.

The result, in my opinion, is that there’s systemic pressure for gyms and members to do things that carry a higher risk-to-reward ratio than many members would prefer. Anecdotally, many members I’ve spoken to share my concerns about the snatch. They love CrossFit, but they don’t like the pressure to do this awkward and frightening movement.

Finally, it’s very difficult to understand how serious the problem really is. Is there a high risk of injury from a snatch, or does it just seem that way because of high-profile incidents? Are we right to be afraid of the snatch, or is it just a movement that makes you feel really vulnerable? The problem here is that there’s no culture of reporting incidents in CrossFit.

I can point to another sport where that culture does exist: caving. The National Speleological Society publishes accident reports, and conscientious cavers share a culture that every incident, even trivial ones, must be reported. As a result, you can browse the NSS accident reports (summarized here) and see some things clearly (you have to be a member to access the full reports, which are often excruciatingly detailed). One of the most obvious conclusions you’ll draw right away is that cave diving (scuba diving in underwater caves) is incredibly dangerous and kills a lot of people, despite it being a small portion of the overall caving sport’s popularity. If you weren’t a caver and you didn’t know about cave diving, would you think this was the case? I’m not sure I would. After reading cave diving accident reports, I remember being shocked at how many people are found dead underwater for no apparent reason, with air left in their tanks. The accident reports help cavers assess the risks of what they do.

Nothing similar exists for CrossFit, and I wish it did.

Negative Press About CrossFit

On the topic of what gets attention and exposure, I’ve seen a bunch of attention-seeking blog posts from people who “told the dirty truth” about how CrossFit injured them and there’s a culture of silencing dissenters and so on. I’m sure some of that happens, but the stuff I’ve read has been from people who have an axe to grind. And frankly, most of those people were indisputably idiots. They were blaming their problems and injuries on CrossFit when the real problem was between their ears. I won’t link to them, because they don’t deserve the attention.

Don’t believe most of what you read online about CrossFit. Many of the people telling their personal stories about their experiences in CrossFit are drama queens blowing things completely out of proportion. There’s a lot of legitimate objective criticism too, most of it from neutral third-parties who have serious credentials in physical fitness coaching, but this doesn’t get as much attention. And there’s a lot of great writing about what’s good about CrossFit, much of it from the good-hearted, honest, knowledgeable coaches and gym owners who soldier on despite the ongoing soap operas and media hype wars. They’re bringing fitness and health — and fun — to people who otherwise don’t get enough of it.

Summary

Toss corporate sponsors, personal politics, competition, the lure of great gains from winning, and a bunch of testosterone together and you’re going to get some people hurt. Mix it in with snatches and it’s a miracle if nobody gets seriously injured.

If you participate in CrossFit, which I highly recommend, take responsibility for your own safety. If there is a rah-rah attitude of pushing too hard at all costs in your gym, or if your coaches aren’t actually experts at what they do (the CrossFit weekend-long certification seminars don’t count), or if it’s not right for any other reason, go elsewhere.

Stay healthy and have fun, and do constantly varied, functional movements at high intensity in the company of your peers – and do it safely.

Photo credits:

Posted on Mon, Jan 20, 2014. Approximately 2800 Words.

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