Am I Going to Get Hurt Participating in CrossFit?

Many misconceptions exist about safety in the CrossFit training context, but that does not mean those inaccuracies are not rooted in some truth.  The truth is that people do experience injuries participating in CrossFit.  Unfortunately, platforms like social media tend to make limited occurrences appear to be the norm, or worse, they erroneously misattribute dramatic or ridiculous content to the CrossFit training methodology or the CrossFit community as a whole.  In light of this online exposure, one of the most frequent questions I receive when discussing CrossFit with new or potential clients, or out socially, is: Am I going to get hurt participating in CrossFit?  As I acknowledged above, the short answer is that injuries do occur; in this article, I will discuss some of the reasons why.

Ironically, many of the injuries that do occur in the CrossFit training context are a lot more subtle, and far less overt, than those captured on public media platforms.  Moreover, their effects on participants can be much more severe than a five-second roast on the Gram.  Sadly, many of the injuries that CrossFit participants experience can be prevented.  Rather than ignore this issue, I would like to elaborate on how two variables in particular—instructional error and participant error—affect the likelihood of injury in the CrossFit training context.

The term “instructional error” includes situations where coaches and trainers have fallen short of their professional obligations to CrossFit participants.  My focuses here are much broader than paper qualifications and fancy titles, but those are reasonable places to start.  In order to receive the “CrossFit Level 1 Trainer” (CF-L1) designation, all coaches must attend a multi-day coaching seminar that includes lecture and practical components, and those individuals must each pass a formal, written assessment on the final day of the seminar.  CrossFit does offer additional coaching and specialized courses, but the CF-L1 designation qualifies individuals to coach CrossFit at licensed CrossFit affiliates.

What matters more, however, than documented qualification, is how coaches apply the CrossFit training methodology in practice.  Programming is one of the ways coaches can demonstrate this.  Simply put, the CrossFit training methodology strives to improve participants’ abilities in many areas of physical activity (e.g., weightlifting, powerlifting, strongman, gymnastics, endurance, etc.).  Overemphasizing any one or more of these elements, at the expense of others, or neglecting the more general fitness markers at the foundations of these training implements, like basic mobility and strength work, can be dangerous.  Not only does it dilute value of embarking on a comprehensive fitness program, but it distorts results and leads to imbalances, or aggravates existing ones.  All of these deficiencies can make CrossFit participants more vulnerable to injury.

In addition to programming, coaches evince faithful application of the CrossFit training methodology through sound and sincere instruction.  The mission of coaching encompasses so much more than generic verbal explanations and minimalist demonstrations.  It includes commitment to technical excellence and a willingness to share the “whys” with participants.  Conveying information effectively in a group training environment can only be accomplished if coaches make the effort to engage with participants on an individual level.  For logistical and efficiency reasons, coaches may very well need to act arbitrarily on occasion, but they still must make individualized modifications and tailor any accompanying instructions to the needs and capacities of each participant, without grudge or discrimination.  When this type of instruction is lacking in the CrossFit training context, participants can get hurt.  After all, a CrossFit class is not the same as a do-it-yourself “open gym”.

Another grave instructional error coaches can make is hesitating or refusing to reveal hard truths to those participating in class who may be reluctant to accept them.  Veteran and rookie CrossFit participants are constantly exposed to exciting new fitness challenges and opportunities to test their athleticism.  Sometimes, participants’ individual expectations and ambitions do not align with their current capacities.  Under such circumstances, or where the extents of participants’ capacities are unknown, coaches must be the conservative voices of reason and restraint.  There are, of course, appropriate ways to finesse what might arguable be a delicate situation, but prudence mandates that coaches set aside any lingering fears of being disliked in favor participant safety.  Instructional mediocrity is a slippery slope, and it is the participants who often suffer the most from coaching insecurities and laziness.

Although instructional error contributes to the incidence of injury in the CrossFit training context, “participant error” also has a significant effect on the likelihood of injury.  Of the several factors participants remain responsible for, regardless of instructional quality, humility is one of the most important.  It is quite possible that inflated egos send more CrossFit participants to therapists, chiropractors, emergency rooms, and orthopedic surgeons than any other factor.  To some degree, CrossFit gyms are collaborative fitness environments, and dialogue between coaches and participants is essential for success—from both perspectives.  Nevertheless, CrossFit gyms are not democracies.  Where qualified coaches stand in front of the white board, their advice and instruction should be respected.  Just because participants can do something does not mean that they can do it correctly, or that they should do it at all.  It is the coach’s job to establish those boundaries.  Participants that disregard their coaches’ suggestions and modifications, or refuse to accept objective assessments about their athletic capacities, do so at their own risk.

Hand in hand with humility is honesty.  Participants must inform their coaches about existing injuries and limitations.  And this is not an obligation that diminishes over time.  CrossFit training affects each individual differently, and how participants feel three days, or two weeks, or six months down the road may be substantially different than how they felt walking in the door for their initial workouts.  By ignoring their bodies, and failing to bring their other concerns and apprehensions to the attention of their coaches, participants expose themselves to overtraining and other related injuries.

Finally, participants are under a general obligation to get informed.  Taking what they see on social media or what they hear by word of mouth, and then trying to attempt it on their own—whether or not at a CrossFit gym or under the supervision of a qualified coach—is a recipe for injury.  There is science, along with empirical data to support it, behind the CrossFit training methodology, and much of it is publicly accessible.  Whether that data is credible or validates CrossFit’s undertaking is entirely up to each individual to decide (as it should be), but that scrutiny should not be applied lightly.  Proceeding without a rudimentary understanding of the science on which the CrossFit training methodology is based can be ignorant and dangerous.

The unfortunate truth is that people do get hurt participating in CrossFit.  When participants are training at their limits (some of the time)—a requisite for certain forms of adaptation—human error inevitably seeps into the equation, and the chances of participants sustaining injuries go up.  By coaching with knowledge, sincerity, and attentiveness, and by attending classes with humility and honesty, coaches and clients can mitigate the impact of instructional and participant error, and stay safe in the CrossFit training context.

Coach Brian Bieschke
481 N. Commons Aurora, IL 60504 (view larger map)