CrossFit Doesn’t Give People Rhabdo (People Give People Rhabdo)

  In case you missed it, the Huffington Post ran a nice little article about CrossFit’s “dirty little secret” of higher than normal rates of Rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis (aka Rhabdo) is a disorder that breaks down muscle fibers and releases them into the bloodstream. It can lead to kidney damage and can be caused by excessive physical demands placed on the body. It’s not pretty, it’s not funny, and when it occurs it’s pretty darn serious.
  This article has been circulating all over the inter-webs, with people picking corners quicker than a political debate. Those opposed to CrossFit are enjoying the argument that it’s too extreme and more people end up injured than improved. Avid CrossFitters are defending the CrossFit Empire as being a top notch physical fitness program and making claims of CrossFit Haters. And while I tend to fall into the “CrossFit is King” side of the fence, I need to remind myself and ask my fellow CrossFitters to pause. Not all that glitters is gold. While CrossFit has improved my life and the lives of many others, there are some chinks in the armor of the CrossFit business model that open it up to the accusations above. CrossFit may not cause Rhabdo, but irresponsible and inexperienced coaches can.

In Defense of CrossFit:

  I’m coming up on my one year anniversary with CrossFit and what a ride it’s been. First of all, there is no denying that CrossFit programming builds strong people. I’ve personally seen an average of a 50% increase in all the major Power and Olympic Lifts. Not to mention, have I told you I can do a pull up? Not just one, several. This is huge because 7 year old girls have better upper body pull strength than I do (no lie- my niece would annihilate me in a pull-up contest). But I’ve never been a gymnast. So to have gone through a program where I can now do pull-ups, handstand push-ups, and pistols (one legged squats) speaks volumes for that program. And my results are not uncommon. CrossFit develops and enhances skills across multiple modalities.

   CrossFit also tends to win accolades with people in the Natural Movement camp. The constant variation of the programming reduces the propensity for overuse injuries, while sports such as running or baseball lend themselves to these types of injuries. Not that any of the movements associated with those sports are particularly bad, it’s just that the frequency and duration can be problematic (and the same can be said of people who spend their days in desk chairs).

  And let’s face it, CrossFit is just plain fun. CrossFit Boxes (aka Gyms, for my non CrossFit friends) do a great job of building community. Not only is going to classes like working out with 10-15 of your best friends, you can bet that those like-minded people will take on additional challenges and start to band together to make the world a better place.

CrossFit’s Achilles’ Heel:

  CrossFit HQ does a lot of things right. They can market and advertise general fitness into a sport, they can help revive a floundering apparel brand that hasn’t seen major play time since the 90s, and they are at the center of the “Strong Women=Hot Women” movement.

  But when it comes to managing and ensuring their affiliates are adhering to basic safety standards, CrossFit HQ exercises little control or oversight:

  • Low Barrier to Entry: Do you have $3,000, your L1 Certification, and time to fill out an application? If so, you are on your way to owning your very own CrossFit affiliate. That’s it. There is no pre-requisite on education, time spent coaching, or a check to make sure you even know how to tie your shoe.
  • Coaching Certification: All CrossFit coaches must get their Level 1 Certificate to be able to coach CrossFit Classes. These classes are instructed by CrossFit HQ approved trainers, so the delivery message is consistent from one class to another. But in a two day certification class, can you truly teach a fitness coach all they need to know to be a safe and effective instructor? Maybe, but doubtful. Good CrossFit Boxes will take the time to train and develop their coaches before allowing them to facilitate their own classes. But it is not a requirement.
  • Continuing Education: Of all my beefs with the CrossFit business model, this is probably the biggest one. Certainly no one can ever know everything they need to know about programming, human movement, progressions, recovery, and injury prevention after 48 hours of training. Good coaches will be hungry for this knowledge and will take the time to learn from peers, mentors, athletes, books, magazines, periodicals, additional certifications, etc. Good affiliate owners will make this a requirement. But not all coaches are good coaches and not all affiliate owners are good owners. And from the perspective of CrossFit HQ, it is perfectly acceptable to take one weekend course and coach for the rest of your life (with the exception of a re-test every 5 years).
  As I stated before, the theory of CrossFit is stellar. If you want to be an overall beast, CrossFit programming is a good place to start. But what happens when someone new to fitness walks into an inexperienced or meat head CrossFit Box? Well, the Huffington Post gets to generate more page views.
Be the Solution:
 CrossFit HQ prides itself on its decentralized, Libertarian structure. One of its’ best attributes is that it is accessible to all people. Take the CrossFit Open, for example. The CrossFit Open can best be described as the play-offs to get to the CrossFit games. But do you need to be a part of a major league sports team, signed by an agent, or have multi-million dollar contracts? Nope. All you need is access to a computer with a web cam or a CrossFit Box with an available L1 to judge. So any person, anywhere in the world, has the ability to compete for the title of Fittest on Earth. And that is Just Plain Awesome.
  But for a decentralized, Libertarian system to work, you need the key component of citizen watch groups. Not government oversight committees. Well educated, motivated, engaged citizens. And that is what CrossFitters need to be in this scenario. We do not need to automatically defend CrossFit when claims of malpractice arise. Irresponsibility happens, but when it does it should not be swept under the rug. It should be exposed and corrected. But luckily, because of the CrossFit model we (the CrossFit citizens) can influence these situations directly.
What to Do?
 Your CrossFit Coach (or any other fitness advisor) is not personally responsible for your health. Neither is your doctor, physical therapist, nutritionist, or government representative for that matter. They are merely consultants in your health at best. The onus is on you to figure out what works for your body, your limitations, and how to achieve optimal health and performance. Below are just some of my thoughts on how to do this:
  1. The internet is accessible to everyone reading this post, so use it. Concerned about CrossFit and Rhabdo? Googling that phrase exactly returns 72,000 results, all of them with varying viewpoints, I’m sure. Read them and start to form your own opinions.
  2. Learn to become a healthy skeptic. Not everything is a conspiracy theory, but any time someone makes a recommendation for your health, you should approach it as an opportunity to test and learn.
  3. Listen to your body. Your body will not tell you something feels good when it doesn’t. Let’s say you’re thinking about starting two workouts per day. How does your body feel currently when doing one per day? How is your nutrition? How is your sleep? How are your stress levels? Ask. Listen. Learn.
  4. Start to filter things through the “Test of Reasonableness.” Are you walking into a CrossFit Box that does not have some sort of On Ramp or Starter classes? Are the coaches willing to correct your form in the middle of a workout, even if it impacts your finish time? Will they call a “No Rep” on a max effort lift if form is incorrect? Personally, the lack of the above would make me very uneasy. It would not make sense through the lense of an elite gym. If you are new to CrossFit (or any other workout program) and feel uneasy or something does not seem reasonable, run far and fast.
  5. Does your coach take continuing education into their own hands? So if CrossFit HQ does not mandate this, could your coach still take the time to study and learn on their own? Absolutely. Ask the question (and clarify if needed). If the answer is that they continuously study online, work with experienced mentors, and read every book they can get their hands on, it’s a good sign. If the answer is that they took their L1 6 months ago and that’s good enough, you have yet another opportunity to practice your running for the day.
You are the consumer. You are not paying someone a membership fee because you like them, or their gym looks cool, or they are really swoll. You are paying a consultant to help you get better at (insert your goal here). So vote with your dollars. Do not patronize a meat head or someone looking to make a quick buck. There are phenomenal coaches and gyms out there. Take advantage of the free market fitness system that CrossFit is creating. Just leave your inner Sheep at home…

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