Is CrossFit Dangerous?
Is CrossFit Dangerous?
The short answer to the question is this: all exercise is associated with some risk of injury. The available data shows that CrossFit carries comparable risks to weightlifting, distance running, track and field, rugby, football, hockey, or gymnastics. In other words, you're just likely to sustain an injury in CrossFit as you are with the a multitude of other popular fitness activities.
As someone who's used CrossFit style training personally, and who's coached thousands of individuals over the last 10-years, I believe this generalized data misses one crucial detail. Just as in any fitness program, how you perform CrossFit plays a massive role in ensuring safety. The culture of the gym, the athlete's mentality, exercise selection and progression, assessment protocols, quality of coaching and the level of supervision all impact injury risk.
What The Data Says About The Risk of CrossFit Injuries
There aren't a lot of good studies on whether or not CrossFit is dangerous, but the ones we have suggest that CrossFit is no more or less risky than most fitness programs.
To summarize the main points that seem consistent across a variety of studies:
- Shoulder injuries are the most common CrossFit injury, followed by those in the low back.
- Many of those shoulder injuries (nearly 40%) were an exacerbation of a previous shoulder injury.
- Competitors are more likely to sustain injuries than general fitness or lifestyle clients.
- Estimates show an average of 2.1-3.1 injuries per 1000-training hours in CrossFit. You can find out more about injury rates of various sports here, but power lifting is estimated to have around 1-4.4 injuries per 1000- training hours, running injurey rates ranged from 2.5-12.1 depending on the studies, and bodybuilding has around 0.24-1.
My Perspective on the Data
Teaching people to squat, deadlift, push and pull correctly is a game changer. We've seen it countless times. By training those movements properly people become the fittest they've ever been and frequently get out of pain.
At my gym in Toronto, Quantum CrossFit, we've experimented with multiple changes to our programming since we opened in 2010. I've learned that simple changes in programming can drastically decrease some common injuries in our group program. [More on this in the video I've linked to]
I've also learned that individualized training plans are one of our best tools to prevent injuries and maximize results. Anecdotally, my individual clients have exceedingly low injury rates. When we take our time and progress each individual properly over time with effective coaching and a program that evolves with them, we can set them up for success and avoid putting them into situations that they're body isn't ready for.
For the average CrossFitter who simply wants to get into shape, have fun and live a healthy life, some of the common exercises done in CrossFit training offer a poor risk/reward. Rebounding box jumps cause Achilles problems. Kipping pull-ups put additional strain on the shoulder and sometimes elbow. Unless you are interested in competing in CrossFit, in which case you definitely need to train those movements, I don't see the upside for the average person. We've seen a reduction in injuries by eliminating exercises like that from our group program.
When we want athletes to really work hard, we tend to pick the most simple and non-technical exercises possible. This is one reason why we love things like sled sprints, loaded carries, and the Assault Bike.
PROGRESSING VOLUME OF TRAINING
Researcher Dr. Tim Gabbett has performed a multitude of studies related to training volume (i.e. how much total work is performed in training). His evidence suggests that training volume may be the most important factor when it comes to injury prevention. What does that mean? New trainees need to start out easy to reduce their risk of injury, and experienced trainees should avoid large increases or drops to their training levels (no more than 10-15% per week). So if you're doing a running program and you did 10 miles last week. Doing 30 miles next week might not be such a hot idea.
Many potential injuries can be nipped in the bud if the coach conducts a proper assessment up front and then uses that information to modify the client's program. The full body exercises performed in CrossFit - squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, running, jumping, - are potent for improving fitness! But they also demand a lot from the body. You need sufficient strength, endurance and mobility. If we know someone's overhead position is underdeveloped, asking them to do dozens of push presses under fatigue isn't going to help them. Instead of correcting the issue, that only feeds the problem to make it worse.
Most people arrive to their first day of CrossFit with some obvious weak points - i.e. they flunk a few of our simple assessments. That's OK if we work with them to fix their problem over time. I know from experience that these people will run into problems down the road.
CULTURE OF THE GYM
Good technique is hard at the best of times, let alone under fatigue or under high loads. We know that better form means less risk of injury and the culture of each gym has a big impact here. Is the implicit message from the coaches to go faster regardless of technique break-down, or to maintain correct form as the top priority?
So, Is CrossFit Dangerous?
The research says that it's no more dangerous that most other fitness activities. But from my experience, the risks can be greatly increased or decreased by the details of how the program is run and what the coaching is like. More individualization, adopting a low-risk approach to workout design (especially in group programs where the goal of most is to be healthy and happy), ensuring that enough time is taken for recovery, and being meticulous with technique coaches goes a long way to providing better outcomes and less risk of injury.