The CrossFit Controversy: Is Your Workout Going Too Far?

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

“No pain, no gain.” It’s the fitness enthusiast’s mantra, and to some extent, the philosophy holds — but that die-hard mentality has been getting a lot of fitness devotees into trouble recently. Critics have been more vocal than ever of late in matters of public health and safety in fitness, and the enormously popular CrossFit movement has been hurled squarely into the crosshairs of that debate.

WebMD describes CrossFit as an exercise and conditioning program devoted to high-intensity interval training, weightlifting/powerlifting, and other exhaustive calisthenics aimed at increasing strength and stamina. According to the CrossFit Journal, since the movement’s introduction in 2000, it has come into practice in over 9,000 affiliated gyms.

While high-intensity training does offer the enticing potential for physical results, it can also pose a serious risk to those practicing it — particularly those whose bodies are not accustomed to this level or pace of activity. As sports medicine specialist Wayne Winnick told The New York Times“There’s no way inexperienced people doing this are not going to hurt themselves.”

Inadequate training combined with any type of exercise is a surefire cause of physical strain or injury, and is certainly not unique to the CrossFit regimen. However, the program has been subjected to particularly intensive media speculation. This is due not only to its emphasis on extreme cardio with minimal rest periods, but also — perhaps especially — because of its ruthless philosophical approach to strength and conditioning. 

The better part of that controversy stems from the “elitist attitude” and ultra-competitive mentality of the movement, says Aush Chatman, owner and operator of the CrossFit San Diego gym. The allure of the “hardcore” workout mindset, it seems, is in part what has spurred the phenomenon’s almost cult-like following.

“Normal people don’t get it,” CrossFit athlete Jennifer Wielgus tells Livestrong. “It’s like being in the mafia. You can’t understand what it’s like unless you’re on the inside.” Granted, by this insight, it seems that getting swept up in the hyper-competitive CrossFit mindset is as dangerous — or more dangerous — than the physical activities themselves.

“The elitist, push yourself to the limit culture of the discipline has increased in light of commercial interests taking hold,” says The Huffington Post. Injured former CrossFit athlete Jason Kessler tells HuffPo, “In a culture that drives you to go as hard and fast as possible, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the hype. You’re supposed to push yourself to the limit, but when you hit the limit and pay the price, you’re the idiot who went too far.”

The health condition most notoriously associated with CrossFit (and with any intensive muscular overexertion) is known as Rhabdomyolysis. This syndrome results from straining of muscle fibers to the point where these fibers break down and release their contents directly into the bloodstream. According to WebMD, the issue can lead to complications as serious as kidney failure.

Numerous cases of Rhabdomyolysis have been linked to the CrossFit regimen, to the point where the campaign’s unofficial mascot has come to be affectionately known as “Uncle Rhabdo.” The contentious cartoon of Uncle Rhabdo depicts a panting clown character hooked up to an IV, standing in a pool of his own blood.

CrossFit’s proponents not only acknowledge the associated risks, but often appears to embrace them as emblems of the movement’s do-or-die mindset. According to The New York Times, “CrossFit Founder Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, does not discount his regimen’s risks, even to those who are in shape and take the time to warm up their bodies before a session.”

As Glassman himself tells the Times, “It can kill you,” he said. “I’ve always been completely honest about that.”

CrossFit is by all accounts intimidating, which for many is what constitutes a part of its intrigue — people have always loved to live on the edge. While CrossFit does take a lot of flak for being dangerous, it ultimately comes down to the individual and his or her limits. As with any intensive physical activity, pain can serve a purpose — but should only be tested to a reasonable extent.

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