By Ken Reed

Anyone who’s read this blog for any length of time knows I’m a strong advocate for cardiovascular-based physical education in our schools, and regular exercise and sports participation for adults. In general, people who are physically fit are healthier, perform better cognitively, and have fewer emotional and behavioral problems.

So, today, the fact I’m questioning the tactics of an organization that promotes exercise for adults is certainly an unusual development.

CrossFit, according to its own literature, is a “fitness regimen developed by Coach Greg Glassman over several decades … CrossFit is also the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together. In fact, the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it’s so effective.”

And why it can be so dangerous.

The CrossFit culture is one of push your body to the point of exhaustion. It is built on peer pressure. Exercisers push fellow CrossFit members beyond the point they want to go. To a certain point this is okay. It’s why we all like to join health clubs. The club atmosphere helps us exercise a little harder than we would at home, where the TV, couch, and snacks loom nearby.

But in the last decade, there have been way too many cases of CrossFit-induced rhabdomyolysis. Rhabdomyolysis is a “serious and potentially fatal condition resulting from the catastrophic breakdown of muscle cells.” In rare cases, it’s come about due to workouts led by overzealous football and/or strength and conditioning coaches.

Rhabdomyolysis, or Rhabdo for short, is a well-known condition in CrossFit circles. CrossFit trainers talk about it on a fairly regular basis. CrossFit even has an unofficial mascot named “Uncle Rhabdo.” An Uncle Rhabdo cartoon depicts a muscular clown, standing in a pool of blood, hooked up to a dialysis machine next to some workout equipment. Uncle Rhabdo has Rhabdomyolysis, a far from funny medical condition.

Here’s a quote from a fit, young physical therapist who was a CrossFit advocate and member before being stricken with Rhabdomyolysis:

“I didn’t want to not match my partner. Normally, I may have rested a little, but the partner workout kept me going.”

There’s that infamous CrossFit group pressure again.

Eric Robertson, a physical therapist, wrote a piece called “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret.” In it he writes, “Rhabdomyolysis isn’t a common condition, yet it’s so commonly encountered in CrossFit that they have a cartoon about it, nonchalantly casting humor on something that should never happen.”

CrossFit’s founder is quoted in the article saying, “It [Rhabdo] can kill you. I’ve always been completely honest about that.”

A former CrossFit member who quit said, “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 ….”

Robertson concludes:

“CrossFitters, largely unaware of the Rhabdo risk, will continue to charge ahead, pressured and happily coerced into exercising to depletion and exhaustion. My prediction: in a few years, the peer-reviewed scientific literature will be ripe with articles about CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis. Health providers will be there to scoop up the pieces, but who is there to protect those people unknowingly at risk?”

It’s important to note that for people who just enjoy exercising on a regular basis in order to stay physically fit and feel sharper mentally, Rhabdo is a very rare occurrence. One study reported the annual incidence of Rhabdomyolysis is only 0.06%.

Exercise is critically important to the health of all Americans. The vast majority of us need to work out harder and more often. The key takeaway here is that if you decide to get your exercise through the CrossFit program it’s important to know that the motivation that comes from the “communal aspect” of CrossFit can become very dangerous if taken to the extreme.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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