With the arrival of a new year and the commitment many of us have to fitness, we’re taking a deeper look into the world of CrossFit, a fitness regimen rapidly growing in popularity around the world. CrossFit is based on the idea that constantly changing functional movements and performing them at high intensity yields better results than traditional cardiovascular workouts.
Most CrossFit workouts use a variety of moves from sports such as gymnastics, weightlifting, running and rowing. CrossFit is commonly performed as a group workout that’s competitive, uses rules and standards for performance, and leverages scores and records.
CrossFit’s popularity has soared in the last five years with professional leagues and competitive-style championships, including the Reebok-sponsored Annual Games.
We sat down with two experts to get a better understanding of CrossFit. First, we chatted with former NFL superstar-turned-CrossFit professional Willis McGahee.
Tell us how you got involved in CrossFit.
Willis: After I left the NFL I wanted to stay in shape. My good friend Moises Hernandez owns a CrossFit box (workout location). I dropped in to visit and train and instantly realized I loved the competition and the bond. We had trained together during my Buffalo days so it was like continuing something I knew already worked.
How does training for CrossFit differ from training for the NFL?
With CrossFit there is no stopping, everything is rapid fire and you have to keep up. There is crossover with the type of moves, but the pace is definitely different.
You were a part of a professional CrossFit team in Miami. What was that like?
Being a part of the professional team gave me even more respect for the sport itself. It also gave me an understanding of how to put together a smart group of athletes. Everyone has their individual strengths but the team fits together like a puzzle. One person's strengths compensate for someone else's weaknesses. It’s true in most sports, but even stronger in something like this.
How important is nutrition in your overall fitness routine, but especially as it relates to CrossFit?
The thing about nutrition is you get out what you put into it. My performance is completely different after staying hydrated, eating right and resting. Food is your fuel and you can get stronger and recover faster when eating the right fuel. It’s an important piece some people miss when it comes to working out and athletics.
What is the role of community and competitiveness for CrossFit?
When it comes to CrossFit, it’s truly the community that keeps you coming back. It's like having teammates -- you show up for each other. You get into a groove when you work out with the same people repeatedly. You start pushing each other to go harder and be better.
There’s a lot of debate about whether CrossFit is too intensive or causes too many injuries for participants. What are your thoughts on that?
I think any athlete will tell you that you’re going to have injuries over time – especially if you’re doing something as often as you do in CrossFit. However, CrossFit really needs to be scaled for each person. People forget that the point is to work out to your own body's ability. When people rush the process, they can get hurt. When you listen to your body and practice properly, it can be a very safe sport.
What would you say are the biggest advantages and disadvantages of CrosssFit?
There are a lot of benefits to doing CrossFit. It’s a great feeling—there is so much positivity about the community side. But I think the biggest advantages are that it will completely transform your body and your mind. As for the disadvantages, I’d say it really comes down to the fact that it can be tough on the body over time if you don’t take the right precautions.
Research shows that almost 20 percent of new CrossFit participants drop out in the first four weeks. Why do you think that is?
I think it really comes down to some people that don’t like a challenge, or who are not willing to be humbled. Most people have never heard of a "snatch" (a weightlifting technique) before walking into a CrossFit gym. You have to be willing to not be great at something right away in order to get better and stick around. It takes patience and humility.
What’s your favorite CrossFit move or WOD (workout of the day)?
My favorite is the thruster. It’s a compound exercise that combines a clean, front squat and push-press. Because the exercise combines multiple movements into one, you get multiple benefits.
Is there any advice you’d offer people considering getting into CrossFit?
I’d tell people to embrace it with an open mind and approach it as a learning opportunity. You’re going to learn about a new sport, learn about your body and you’ll test your boundaries. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable and take direction because you’re going to be learning things you may have never done before.
A doctor weighs in
Next, we chatted with Bryan S. Mitchell, M.D., with Providence Health & Services in Spokane, Wash.
Dr. Mitchell’s practice is in orthopedic sports medicine and surgery. In addition to caring for athletes in traditional team sports, he also takes care of a large population of mountain and endurance athletes. CrossFit is used by many of them as an all-around fitness regimen outside of their specialized training.
What is CrossFit?
Dr. Mitchell: CrossFit is a fitness regimen and associated community focusing on high-intensity training, focused on various exercises with an emphasis on core movements that are strategically chosen for maximal result in a short period of time.
Is CrossFit safe?
This question really is: What is the risk of developing an injury doing CrossFit? Like all sport and exercise trends, an associated amount of risk comes with taking on a new exercise regimen. Some recent studies, including in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, have reported a 20 percent prevalence of injury (those active with an injury) with an incidence of 73.5 percent over the time they participated. These injuries were reported among 132 athletes and were severe enough to prevent them from working, training or competing. Nine of these injuries resulted in surgical management. For reference, this rate is slightly lower than that seen in most contact sports.
What type of injury is most common?
Injuries to the spine and shoulders are the most common in CrossFit. Olympic-style lifting is a key component to the regimen and proper form is critical to prevent injury. Severe fatigue and improper coaching, or no coaching at all, will result in higher chance of injury. Fatigue often results in poor form.
Why can fatigue be a danger?
Fatigue is often defined as exercise to failure. This can be failure of form or failure of the muscle itself. My view on exercise is that it should be done with precautions to avoid injury while still improving your health and lean body mass. I would recommend training with intensity but avoiding going past failure of form and certainly not to muscle failure. A rare but serious consequence of muscle failure from extreme exercise is rhabdomyolysis, or destruction of muscle cells with permanent damage to the muscles and other organs in the body.
Exercise and using your body are paramount. You have many choices of how to do this. Here are a few things to do and consider as you decide which fitness regimen is right for you.
- What are your fitness goals? Do they include:
- Weight loss
- Training for a particular sport
- Assess your current health and fitness level:
- Do you have a current injury?
- Are you prone to a type of overuse injury?
- Talk to your doctor about any medical conditions that may affect your choice of exercise.
- How is your nutrition?
- Think about your time commitment. This includes time for doing an exercise and time for recovery.
- Check out the resources in your community. Make sure you have a coach and take beginner classes when starting CrossFit.
- Understand that there is always some risk in any physical activity, and in some more than others, for injury. Mountain biking, playing soccer, triathlons and CrossFit develop your fitness and can be fun, but do take precautions to limit the possibility of injury. This will allow you to enjoy the benefits of a healthier body longer with fewer visits to the therapy room.
To learn more about CrossFit and your health, check out this article from St. Joseph Health
Providence St. Joseph would like to thank Willis for being a paid partner with us on this important topic.
Providence is pleased to share the stories of great people who have overcome health conditions. As part of our population health program, we want to share insights and stories that help bring awareness to common health conditions. Not all the people featured in our stories are Providence patients.
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