CrossFit is Dangerous: When is Enough, Enough?

Though it seems to be happening less often as more and more visible data is compiled in support of CrossFit being a good strength and conditioning program, comments on its potentially dangerous nature continue to emerge and many times find their way to my email inbox, Facebook page, or other avenues of communication with the same ending:

“Dr.J, I think this is bs… am I right?”

Obviously, the people who look to me for advice are those who have a personal or professional relationship that is based on trust and shared experience.  Therefore, it is only natural that we decipher the same conclusion.  But, what about those who don’t know me and don’t share the same experience?

We’ll take a side step here and bring you back to the stimulus of this post.  A patient and friend of mine recently asked me a question regarding the validity of some advice his wife received from a health care provider.  Hearing it third from the source, I did not want to name names, or professions, or ultimately throw anyone under the bus.  Especially when that person might not have a fair avenue to defend themselves.  That said, we will just touch on the concept.

“Was highly annoyed by what my wife’s (doctor) told her today.  “Oh a person shouldn’t do CrossFit 2 days in a row, because ligaments don’t have time to heal and you certainly shouldn’t workout more than 3 times a week.” This seems like an extreme oversimplification with no real definition of what he thinks “doing CrossFit” is. Thoughts Dr.J?”

For those of us who train between 5-7 times a week and have done so for the last 5+ years while experiencing some of the most significant physical and mental improvements of our life, not to mention noticing the spreading gap between our awareness, perception, and progression in comparison to those who train 0-3 times a week, we know, understand, feel, and breath the fact that such a comment is wrong. That is, if it was stated in such an “ultimate” fashion as described above.

On the other hand, perception is reality for all people. Those who have never trained above 0-3 times a week; who have never progressed through and beyond a transient learning opportunity/injury; those who have been feed passive lifestyle garbage do not have the experience to make our understanding a part of their own awareness. Therefore, instead of name calling and belittlement, we should instead focus on the irrefutable data that supports our reality versus that of their perception.

Why would someone say such a thing?

Because you only know what you know. Much the same you don’t know what you don’t know. And though many avenues exist for diminishing the validity of the statement in question, I will use only the concept of sustained objective improvements to bridge the gap between unknown and known.


Concept – Objective Improvement: Rich Froning, Annie Thorisdottir, and all the others who came before and after

The CrossFit games, specifically “The Open”, started in 2011 as a fairness based and scientifically objective fitness competition. Rich Froning has won 4 out of the 5 individual competitions and, last year, won as a member of a team. His instantaneous dominance is a testament to a combination of his genetics and his work ethic. His continued dominance is a testament to the understanding of his body’s capability to recover and progress over several years.

What do we know about Rich Froning’s training regimen?

From what he has told us and what we have heard from training partners like Jason Khalipa, Dan Bailey, and Matt Fraser, he trains nearly every day and most often multiple times a day. So, we can estimate, on the very low end, that Rich has 10+ training sessions each week (probably more). We also know that he has been objectively proven to be the fittest male human on earth for 4 consecutive years, and it can be argued that he has been the fittest male human for the last 6 years running.

That data alone can diminish nearly all support for the statement in question. But to give it even less support we can extrapolate that to the thousand, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands who have competed alongside Rich in the Open and sustained significant relative improvements with a 3+ times a week training regimen. Honestly, I think a better hypothesis might be:

Those who train more than 3 times a week experience greater objective improvements and longevity in the Open than those who train less than 3 times a week.

Now comes the obvious rebuttal of, “it causes too much damage and all of these people will fall apart later in life.”

The response to this could be another 5 page post, but we will keep it simple by highlighting the struggle and return of Annie Thorisdottir.

Annie was right alongside Rich as a repeat champion of the CrossFit Games, but experienced a low back injury, specifically a disc herniation. She was forced to drop out of the Open competition and lost her chance to continue as Fittest Woman on Earth.

Many times, this  diagnosis is delivered with a prognosis that the patient may never lift again, and potentially never should.

This advice, as it often does, comes from an educated academic. Therefore, it naturally carries enough weight to cause concern and doubt. But was it accurate in Annie’s situation? Would Annie experience repetitive injury on her progression back to elite competitive status? Would she only be a shell of herself?

She finished as the 2nd Fittest Woman on Earth the very next year with a similar training regimen to Mr. Froning’s.

And now, the remark of, “but they are elite genetic freaks and it is still dangerous and bad to train that much”

Well, unlike Insanity, the Gazelle, and Buns of Steel, CrossFit is here to stay and continues to grow in popularity with most athletes progressing to a training regimen that far exceeds 3 times a week. It has been progressing like this for the last 16 years and shows no signs of a chronic negative impact on athletes. In fact, this sustained progression is a result of the opposite impact. More specifically, CrossFit has seen a remarkable percentage of its members experiencing not only life changing improvement, but improvements that are sustained and progressed for years. This is true within CrossFit’s own confines, but also with the rest of the industry making drastic modifications to mimic constantly varied, functional movement, performed at high intensity.

All of this supports the understanding that the body has amazing adaptation skills and is capable of progressing to a status that is far more than what the average person may assume regardless of the starting point.

Concession of Potential Truth

Injuries happen within all strength and conditioning programs and CrossFit is no exception. To argue differently is ignorant. However, rarely is the strength and conditioning at fault for the injuries sustained while it is utilized.

Wait, are you saying that I am responsible for my own actions.

Yup! That is exactly what I am saying. And if that is the truth, than a strength and conditioning program that provides ample opportunity for a member to learn about appropriate body mechanics and the mobility necessary to achieve such mechanics is one that is best for positive adaptations: Results!

To neglect the body’s necessary mobility and movement mechanic progression is to invite the occurrence of injury. To neglect the modification of habits necessary to change toward desired mobility and movement mechanics is to invite injury to recur and sustain.

Therefore it may be true that certain individuals should consider only training 3 times a week while avoiding back to back days until their body and brain has achieved the necessary changes in mobility and movement pattern progression to sustain and improve with a regimen that is more intense.

That would be the only truth within the statement in question.

On the contrary, imagine a world where we were only allowed to train 3 times a week and never on back to back days… because “it was for our own good”. The thought alone sends an eerie chill throughout my body. Just think of the number of people that would be a marginalized shell of their true capability. How big would the number be? I would contest it to be the population of the world.

Hope this helps and I leave you with one final thought…

“In God we Trust.  All others, bring data.”

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. Good Luck and Keep Moving.


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