After working with countless CrossFitters, one personal trainer shares what she's learned about the best ways you can stay healthy and avoid injury.
Lower backaches caused by heavy lifting. Neck pain from too much work on the computer. I keep busy by keeping people strong so they can avoid injuries like these and live life to the fullest. As much as I love cross training and believe that the key to a strong and balanced body is variation, there's one fitness trend that I always find myself hesitating to recommend: CrossFit. It's not that I don't love a good WOD (workout of the day), the enthusiasm of the trainers, or even the exercises prescribed. It's a combination of a few questionable things.
Let me explain. I believe that people who practice CrossFit tend to fall into two broad categories: the competing athlete (think: CrossFit Games) and the everyday WOD enthusiast—and it's the latter group that I find often have the most problems with injuries.
Lack of Experience
Seasoned athletes, who regularly do the kinds of complex, compound Olympic lifts featured in some WODs, take months or even years to perfect their form and develop the supporting muscles needed to execute them safely and effectively. But many rookies or occasional CrossFitters who jump in head first execute these compound movements with improper form. When mixed with a heavy weight, which is often the case in CrossFit, this is a perfect storm for injuries. (A must-read: Common CrossFit Mistakes Most Beginners Make and How to Fix Them)
Going Too Hard, Too Fast
Additionally, CrossFit routines are often centered around asking you to "max out" in either number of reps in a set amount of time (AMRAP, or as many reps/rounds as possible) or in amount of weight for a single rep (1 rep max, or the heaviest amount of weight you can use while correctly performing a lift). For the sake of performance and achieving a PR, you might rush through reps, sacrificing proper form, or push your limits to the point of pain. While certified instructors should be monitoring your lifts and other exercises, mistakes happen. And it's often on you to be your own body advocate. So if pride or competition get in the way of good judgment or form, you're looking a minor-to-serious injury straight in the eye.
Exacerbating an Existing Issue
Common CrossFit exercises such as sumo squats, deadlifts, medicine ball slams, or any plyometric movements also present a problem for people with preexisting issues like knee or neck pain or spinal deformities. These moves can put excessive strain on these joints or trigger areas. This is why I see many shoulder, neck, and lower-back injuries among my CrossFit clients. One would often say, "I could be in awesome shape with CrossFit if only my back didn't keep going out." This is a red flag. Your back should not frequently "go out" while you're exercising, and a doctor or trainer should help you modify your workouts to avoid reinjuring yourself or making a chronic problem like back pain even worse. The last thing you want to do is get an overuse injury from continued stress on trigger areas that could eventually put you out of commission entirely. You can still keep up your fitness game with modified exercises such as this boxing-style workout for people with bad knees and these abs exercises that can actually prevent lower-back pain.
How to Avoid CrossFit Injuries and Continue Seeing Progress
With all of that said, when the exercises are performed properly, CrossFit workouts can be an efficient way to build muscle and strength, burn calories, and increase metabolism. So don't throw in the sweat towel just yet. Whether you're new to the method and nervous about getting hurt or a veteran with repeated injuries, here's what to keep in mind so you can crush those WODs and PRs and stay pain- and injury-free.
Choose your box and instructor wisely.
With the CrossFit boom over the last year, boxes have popped up just about everywhere, which means not all are created equal. If you haven't found your home box just yet, check out a few others in your area or go with a friend to her favorite box. Bottom line: You should be working out at a facility that is set up for safety and success, with educated and engaged instructors who will help you along the way to perfect form and technique. You'll also want to surround yourself with a community of athletes who inspire and encourage instead of making you feel less than or constantly in need to compete.
Make it all about you.
Competition is a legit motivator, but it can get a little carried away during CrossFit. It's important to stay focused on your own personal goals and why you're working out in the first place. While it can be helpful to have a more seasoned CrossFitter as a mentor, you want to avoid comparing yourself to him or her—that's how too much weight is added to barbells and mistakes and injuries happen. Aim to achieve your own #PersonalBest instead of trying to one-up someone else's, and you'll find greater self-efficacy and long-term motivation.
Listen to your body.
If an exercise just doesn't feel right or is uncomfortable to the point that it causes pain, just stop right then and there. While it's true that pushing through uncomfortable feelings (hi, lactic acid muscle burn) is a way to move the needle toward your goals, that doesn't mean it has to be at the sake of your body or long-term health. Make it a point to periodically "check in" with yourself during a workout. Also, note how you're feeling afterward. Muscle soreness is part of the drill, but severe, debilitating pain during a movement—or even in the days following a class—could signal signs of a serious injury, such as a torn ligament or tendon or even rhabdomyolysis (aka rhabdo).