Don’t Worry, Be CrossFit.
If you know me, or even if you have just glanced at my Facebook page, you know that I’m a full-fledged member of the CrossFit cult. I am a Level 1 trainer; my husband, Brady, and I own a CrossFit gym along with our dear friends Jeremiah and Laura. I believe in it, big time.
That said, I’m a cynical cult member, I see and talk a lot about the problems with how CrossFit manifests in the world around me. I think it’s akin to being a true Christian and wanting to yell obscenities at the likes of the Westborough Baptist church for giving Christianity a bad name.
Not a week, or even more than two consecutive days goes by when someone doesn’t send me an email asking me about CrossFit. If they could do it. Why they should do it. Why I do it. And always, somewhere in there, is some form of the following question: “Don’t you worry about injuries, it sounds like people are getting injured a lot, especially people our age.”
Oh, and “our age,” means people over 40. You know, ooooollllddddd.
The simple answer is, “No, I do not worry about CrossFit over the age of 40, at all.” Brady and I are both over 40, plenty of elite athletes are over 40. Age is a modifying factor, for sure, but not inherently a limiting one. But let’s look at this question of injury and CrossFit.
Injury is a inevitable in any sport or activity—hell, typing can led to carpal tunnel surgery if done wrong over a prolonged period of time. In fact, injury happens because of, well, life. One of the worst injuries I ever had was to the primary tendon—can’t remember what it’s called—that moves your hand. I somehow tore part of it while brushing my teeth.
But that’s an outlier to be sure. The point is, if you have ever heard of Tennis Elbow, known anyone who messed up a meniscus, sprained and ankle playing soccer, herniated a disc rowing, strained a muscle playing basketball… you know that injuries happen.
CrossFit is no worse than any sport, when done properly.
In fact, when done properly, it does more to prevent injuries in daily life than any other sport I can think of. Why? Because the basic core philosophy of Crossfit is “Constantly Varied Functional Movement Executed at High Intensity.” That means that we are not overusing any particular joint or muscle, and we are strengthening them to be able to do the kinds of things that you would do in real life. For me, those are things like carrying lots of groceries up the steps of my house, slinging a toddler on one hip while lifting a stroller with the other arm, pulling my dog back when he lurches for a squirrel, and, of course, being able to exercise at an intensity that prolongs my health and wellness as I age—and with it my ability to live independently because I won’t need someone else to lift my groceries for me.
And that is core to how CrossFit defines “fitness,” which is different from anything else. Most other sports define fitness as being the best at one thing: basketball, lifting weight, tennis, swimming. But anyone who is the “best” at any one of those things is likely fairly weak at others. Have you ever seen a marathoner try to lift heavy weight, or a weightlifter try to sprint? (Or, tried to outrun imminent danger with a bicep curl?)
Our idea of fitness is based on having the strength to handle anything that life throws at you without fatigue or injury, for as long as possible as you age. Although, sure, our top athletes can throw around some impressive weight, I am far more impressed by the 80-year-old Crossfitter who is still carrying their own suitcase.
That is the point of CrossFit. In order to achieve that, CrossFit focuses obsessively on form. We focus on proper alignment of joints, repetition of movements until the correct form is what comes naturally, and then—and only then—on increasing load. Doing that is what makes you able to use those same strong movements outside the gym, reducing the risk of injury from independent living. And that is why, when CrossFit is done right, I don’t worry about injuries any more than with any other sport. In fact, I worry far less.
Now, that’s in my ideal CrossFit world. In the real world, I see at least two problems on a regular basis. I see people who are not trained at CrossFit doing the workouts posted on the web site, and I see trainers training who are not ready to train. “Certified” does not mean prepared. (I am certified, I am not ready to lead a class on my own, and even though I, for all intents and purposes own the gym and could do whatever I wanted, none of us would consider letting me lead a class yet. Not all gyms are so meticulous!)
I do worry about people who do not have enough working knowledge of Crossfit who do CrossFit workouts on their own, and do not know either the limitations of their bodies or the proper alignments of the movements. That is not a problem with Crossfit itself, but how it’s used.
If you are doing it on your own (which, by the way, even trainers will rarely do), then you are likely dealing with both a limitation of knowledge and an obvious inability to see yourself from afar. In short, I worry about people doing Crossfit without the benefit of certified Crossfit trainers. You simply need another set of eyes to make sure that you are doing it properly.Photo of Alyssa Royse and her husband Brady by Paolo Sanchez.
The moves in Crossfit are nothing special at all, so it’s easy to think that you can just slam it out on your own. They are borrowed from other sports, or from generations of sporting tradition. The Kettlebell swing is no longer unique to Crossfit than the pushup or the deadlift. What is unique to Crossfit is the trainers, and how we not only look for micro-flaws in a move that could lead to injury, and also pair exercises with stretching, rest and mobility. And then, can work with athletes to figure out what is realistic for their bodies at their stage in life.
Yes, anyone can do a push-up, one way or another, but most people will relax their shoulder blades and sway their backs. Do that 100 times, and you’re setting yourself up for a torn rotator cuff, a herniated disc or the kind of muscle pain that, while nameless, limits your movement for days afterwards.
Backing it up, core to how Crossfit approached fitness is the goal to increase work capacity over time and broad modal domains. Jargony, I know, but think about it. We don’t want athletes to be the best at anything, we want them to be strong at everything. Able to handle anything that is thrown at you. If you are injured, you can’t do that. (And yes, as you age, injuries are a hell of a lot harder to heal from.) So we avoid injury!
We are also all trained in how to modify a workout for reality—the reality of any athlete’s strength and ability. That’s the idea of relative intensity, rather than objective intensity. Even if a workout on the web site says 50 lifts at 95#, we don’t ever think that everyone can or should do that. That number is meant for the best of the best, essentially. I can count on one finger the number of times in a week that I can do a workout as prescribed. (And I’m counting the minutes until I am of the age that my prescribed weights and moves are the ones I can do, which is in two years. We call those the Master Moves. I call them the “old people moves.” Modified relative intensity as a guiding principle is built in to the language of CrossFit!) So, if you’re reading it off the site, think that’s what you should do, and give it your all, I can promise you that you will injure yourself, even if you don’t do it at the time. As a trainer, I would never let you do that in my gym.
So we immediately start modifying workouts for our athletes—all of them. When we look at relative intensity, we look at two limiting factors: physical and psychological. It is never worth injuring or terrifying someone. They will not increase their work capacity if we do that.
So if I had a 43-year-old guy in my gym, who is constantly complaining of soft tissue or connective tissue injuries that are slow to heal, I would back off of intensity in one or more ways: load, mechanics or repetitions. And of course, I would be able to watch him move and see if he had proper posterior chain engagement, if he was using the strong muscles in his core for the majority of the work before engaging the weaker muscles in his extremities, if his core was stable, and I’d be able to fix position and/or change the load. So, adjusting mechanics and load gets me to an intensity where he can do the work without being injured.
Doing so would enable him to keep going, at peak intensity for him, which is still where progress is made. Progress is made at peak intensity, and the border between “I’ve got this” and “I don’t think I can do this.” That can be a dangerous place, you want a qualified guide to take you there.
But fitness, like the stock market, is not an always increasing skyrocketing proposition, especially as we age. It can be, sure, in some areas, but all in all, it is going to look like “less” as you age, even though it feels like more—because you are not as strong as you were when you were younger. You may be healthier, you may be relatively fitter, but like it or not, our metabolic systems do slow down, our tissues do regenerate more slowly.
So, can you go balls to the wall in your 40s? Totally. But the wall is a smaller wall. I am in the best shape of my life at 43. But I guarantee, if I had found CrossFit in my 20s, I’d be lifting heavier weights and doing more reps in less time.
The thing that I love about Crossfit is that you can do it at any age. But I don’t know that you can do it safely without someone there to watch your form. I freely admit that I am terrified about the idea of people who don’t know what they’re doing, looking at the workouts that are posted on CrossFit sites and just doing them at home. I am just as terrified by the idea of people going to gyms that are any less diligent than we are, and I know there are a lot of them. Look, CrossFit has exploded in popularity. We are churning out trainers like Big Macs and there’s a gym in every neighborhood. They are not all awesome. I’m the first to admit that. Hell, I scream about it.
What some of us are excited by as a lifestyle devoted to fitness, others are excited by as a way to make money. And sometimes, those things work at odds. There are gyms that I personally think are too focused on increasing membership and not focused enough on building strong members. The math is simple: too many people in a class can mean not enough attention to each member. Likewise, too much focus on Bigger, Heavier, Faster, More can mean not enough focus on safety and accuracy. Again, the problem is not with CrossFit—it’s with how CrossFit is manifested in those cases. Christianity vs. Westborough Baptist Chruch.
If you are interested in starting CrossFit, I highly encourage you to visit several gyms before finding the one that fits for you. We are all different. Here’s a good checklist of things to think about when choosing CrossFit, and a gym:
- Are they listening to what your personal goals are? There is a difference between recovering from illness or injury, getting as strong as possible, maintaining strength, or any of the myriad goals you may have. If they don’t ask you what your personal goals are, that’s a red flag for me.
- Do they have a diverse variety of experienced trainers? No matter how awesome a trainer is, he or she does not speak the “right” language for every member. We all process instruction differently, and all trainers train differently, and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. You want access to a variety of coaches because that increases the chances that your specific needs and communication style will be addressed.
- Do they have a diverse variety of members? The beauty of CrossFit is that works for every body. Old, young, big, small, injured…. (I, for instance, have an inoperable broken C2 vertebrae, and I can CrossFit safely.) Variety has a unique ability to inspire others, as well as make you feel like you belong. If you walk into a gym and are the only person who looks like you, that can make it hard to really feel like you fit in. Additionally, it means the trainers aren’t being exposed often to the issues that you are bringing in. While we all have unique issues (I’m the only person in our gym with a broken neck), there are some basic situations that you want to know your gym can handle: age, gender, weight, fitness level, etc. If you are 65 and overweight, and everyone else in your gym is 25 and a competitive body builder, it might be wise to look for a more diverse gym community.
- How does it feel to you? When you walked in, did it feel like some place you would be comfortable pushing your boundaries? Did the people feel friendly and inviting, even if the prospect of intense fitness was scary? You’re going to be spending a lot of time there, working hard, it has to feel good to you.
- Do they have a special process for beginners? Although I’m willing to believe it can be done well, generally speaking, it is a bad idea to just put beginners in with advanced CrossFitters and give them “a little extra attention.” We have a Blast Off course that is a month long, and we require beginners to take it. During that time, we teach them the basics of all the moves and how our workouts work. It is partly intellectual, so that they learn the mechanics, but it is also a prolonged warmup for the body, so that it is ready to handle the impending intensity.
- Please do not start CrossFit on your own by reading a web site. Invest six months in a gym membership at a gym where you feel like you are both encouraged and protected. Learn the mechanics like your life depends on it. If after six months you want to leave and do it on your own, you will at least have a strong working knowledge, and lowered your likelihood of injury. I know, it’s not cheap, but on average, it’s probably not that much more than your co-pay for weekly visits to the physical therapist.
Lastly, CrossFit trainers are addicted to mobility—or what some might call stretching. A CrossFit class will spend almost as much time warming up and cooling down, with a variety of carefully organized stretches focusing on muscles and joints that were used in that workout, as it did working out those muscles. It is every bit as important and the workout itself. So, if you are going to WOD on your own at home, please, please, I implore you, go to MobilityWOD online and find a series of stretches that will warm up and cool down whatever muscles and joints you just used.
Look, I love CrossFit. Passionately. Done properly, I think it’s the most amazing thing out there. Done improperly, it scares me as much as anything does when done improperly (bad drivers, skiers who don’t pay attention, people on the elliptical machine with their shoulders hunched forward and backs swayed).
This is about being strong. It’s not about being skinny, muscly or tough, it’s about the strength to live your life with gusto, however you want. I’ve seen it change bodies and lives. In my perfect world, everyone would do it, so that they could go out in the world and do whatever they want, safely.
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Ed: Brianna Bemel