The Controversy Behind CrossFit
Ryan Palmer had a tough week. On Monday, the 26-year-old job battled squat presses and ring dips. Tuesday, a clean and jerk set where he squeezed out 30 reps with 135 pounds. The following day, even though his muscles were still aching, he performed a total of 150 pull-ups and 150 burpees.
Palmer took a break from exercise on Thursday, but the next morning he went for a long bike ride. The following day his arms were uncharacteristically sore and swollen, his urine the color of black tea that had been seeping for hours. Instead of suiting up in workout gear on Sunday, he found himself in a hospital gown hooked up to an IV drip that flushed his kidneys with more than nine liters of saline. As his creatine kinase levels—the amount of muscle protein broken down poisoning his blood stream— declined at the pace of a snail, he pulled out his phone to send a tweet to his fellow athletes. With one flash of the camera, Palmer revealed the frightening results of a kidney test, and offered a simple caption: “Uncle Rhabdo, is that you?”
A little more than a year ago, I pulled up to a garage one evening ready to get my ass kicked. I wanted to try a CrossFit workout. I’d heard the rumors. I knew what was coming was probably more than I could handle—and that not even my athletic background as a gymnast, weightlifter, running back or point guard would prepare me. So, I ate a light dinner that wouldn’t taste horrible if I ended up hurling it onto my sneakers after overworking myself. And I sucked up my fear.
When I arrived, nothing seemed too intimidating except for the big clock with red numbers. It was those numbers that would define my ability to survive. The workout started well, but right around my fifth set of squats, when the weight became a little too heavy and my form began to falter, I put the bar down. But the clock did not approve.
While the athletes around me kept moving, bewildered by my inaction, I knew my time was up. I could feel a twinge in my spine reminiscent of an old stress fracture. Everything—aside from the environment—told me to stop.
“Pick it up! Finish it out! Two minutes! As many rounds, let’s go!” The coach’s hands clapped together, lips pursed tightly in frustration for the mental and physical break I gave myself. So, I picked up the bar. And, moving as slowly as possible with as best form one can do when they’re tired and hurting, I finished it out. That night I needed a double dose of ibuprofen and an ice bath.
That was my first experience with CrossFit, a workout methodology created by former gymnast Greg Glassman in 2001. CrossFit consists of a stew of exercise variety: Olympic-like lifts, cardio training and other seemingly basic, but multi-joint movements (like box jumps, pullups and jumping rope) are combined in each class. CrossFit aims to “forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness,” according to the brand’s guidebook. The workout phenomenon has been steadily growing for a decade, and according to CrossFit headquarters, there are more than 3,000 CrossFit affiliated gyms worldwide, with 332 in California alone.
Every day, thousands of CrossFit athletes faithfully arrive at their respective gyms: warehouses filled with boxes, ropes, Olympic rings, kettlebells and a never-never-quit atmosphere. The defining characteristic of CrossFit is the intensity. The programs are hard as hell. Its "prescription," as the guide states, is for “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movements that will optimize physical competence in ten physical domains: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.”
The key to the high-voltage workouts is a digital clock that holds prime real estate in most CrossFit facilities. Most of the workouts are time-based, meaning you don’t stop until the clock hits zero. Even as your muscles fail and your mind weakens, coaches and fellow gym goers push each member to completion.
Peter Villahoz, a 30-year-old New York Police Department Officer from East Meadow, NY, says a lot of his close friends are from CrossFit, and that they are there to push each other.
“If I finish first, I wait till these guys are done and I motivate them,” he says. The camaraderie in the gym is nothing short of contagious. As such, the program has earned its skeptics and, of course, true believers.
“As an adult competitive athlete, there’s nothing else like this. You get that adrenaline rush that you got from being in sports in high school,” says 33-year-old Jennifer Wielgus, who’s been doing CrossFit in Philadelphia for about a year.
Uncle Rhabdo represents a character in the CrossFit community and is short for rhabdomyolysis, a kidney condition most commonly induced by excessive exercise, according to Heather Gillespie, a sports medicine physician from UCLA. The potentially life-threatening state, which can also be caused by underlying genetics, occurs when muscle breaks down and myoglobin, the biproduct of muscle fibers, is released into the blood stream, essentially clogging up the kidneys and poisoning them.
“If you’re dehydrated, which sort of goes along with rhabdo, you can’t clear these toxins, the kidney can’t filter the byproduct,” Gillespie says. It can lead to kidney failure and electrolyte imbalances that can ultimately affect your heart.
Uncle Rhabdo was originally invented to shed light on “the inappropriate use of intensity,” according to CrossFit’s Training Guide. The haunting image of Uncle Rhabdo is a cartoon of a blue-haired-red-nosed clown with face paint, panting from exhaustion with organs and blood spilling from its body, a set of weights in the background.
Some in CrossFit use these clowns as a humorous way to prove that they’ve worked hard. But problems arise when CrossFit athletes and their trainers simply don’t know when—or choose not—to pull the plug.
Vomiting is a sign that you’ve hit a point when it’s just too much.”
While all exercise can create injury, Geier sees more injuries with CrossFit because of the high-speed, high-impact approach. The real danger is to new athletes, like those who flock to the thousands of CrossFit facilities looking for a great workout.
Since many explosive movements require technical skill, he says, it is not advisable for Olympic lifts be completed in a fatigued state. CrossFit, and other popular workout schemes like bootcamps, rely on training to excessive exhaustion and failure, and thereby create an artificial perception of effectiveness. “These people might be doing a crazy workout and feel great because their endorphins are flowing, but then they wake up with their shoulder pounding with pain,” Cressey says.
His biggest concern is the technique that goes along with the workout. “When you see a 20-minute circuit of really ugly cleans and ring dips, those are exercises that don’t jive well,” he says.
This much is certain: When done correctly, CrossFit is not inherently bad or ineffective. Like other training methodologies before it, CrossFit is a form of high intensity exercise, an efficient model of exercise that has helped many people lose weight while improving strength and endurance. But due to its extensive popularity, many CrossFit gyms have diluted the system. Just as some first-time CrossFit athletes rush into overdoing exercises in a fatigued state and, thus, falter in form, CrossFit coaches and affiliates are rushing into setting up CrossFit gyms and are, thus, faltering in form.