Measuring the Impact of CrossFit

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How do you know if somebody does CrossFit? Because it’s the first thing they talk about.

That joke represents the trope that surrounded the athletic exercise training program when it experienced an enormous popularity boom a few years ago. The narrative was that CrossFit was so exciting, so explosive, so invigoratingly fun that it inspired the undying love and advocacy of its loyal participants.

The trope has held firm. One Google search will produce a slew of memes about CrossFit obsession, its lameness, and how it’s not really exercise. And yet, another will reveal full-fledged testimonials about how great the program is, how good it makes you feel, and other statements of faith for a seemingly innocent exercise regimen that’s enthralled so many people.

When it comes to CrossFit, that’s just where the Internet coverage starts. Critics have leveled the program for years, stating that its high impact exercises do a number on people’s joints. It requires a high level of intensity, and though the movements are pretty straightforward in a vacuum, it’s their multi-joint activity that causes alarm for potential danger.

Early on, CrossFit critics also began to correlate a relationship between the program and rhabdomyolysis, a condition that breaks down muscle cells and releases a dangerous protein into the blood.

A study published in 2014 found that 97 out of 132 CrossFitters surveyed, or 73.5 percent, had experienced an injury that “prevented them from working, training, or competing.” That’s an injury rate that Stack likened to Olympic sports like powerlifting and gymnastics, with the shoulder injury rates specifically even higher in CrossFit. Though it’s not known how it compares to other fitness workouts or programs, it’s fairly easy to concede that high impact physical activity over a prolonged period of time will lead to stress injuries.

Of course, its supporters have held firm, standing by CrossFit unconditionally, taking to message boards and comment sections of articles attacking the program for its health risks, its pervasiveness, and just how annoying it is to hear people talk about it. One might call this type of support cultish, and some people actually have. CrossFitters take pride not only in the program, but what it does for them—training them for “any physical contingency—not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable.”

Despite its image issue and potential for injurious results, people have experienced true benefits from CrossFit—like any exercise program, it’s designed to challenge, stimulate, and invigorate both the body and mind. It’s easy to attribute the unwavering testimonial support to the intense nature it demands of its competitors, but even that stems from tangible results–manifested either physically or emotionally.

Before drinking the proverbial Kool Aid and exalting the superiority of any regimen though, it’s important to understand what you’re getting yourself into—and with CrossFit, there’s a lot of material to pull from.