August 1, 2019

CrossFit: A physical therapist's perspective

An athlete swinging a kettle bell while a UW Health athletic trainer watches technique

UW Health Sports Rehabilitation experts explain what CrossFit is, and how you can participate safely.

What is CrossFit?

For those who don’t know, CrossFit is a specific type of group exercise that has progressed into its own sport (an event/competition that athletes train for) developed by Greg Glassman. Its self-described identity is "constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity" and "moving large loads."

Greg founded CrossFit as he was training policeman and fireman and was struggling to challenge them in workouts to be fit for their jobs by using traditional resistance machines and equipment found in most gyms. It quickly grew to a common workout technique for the military as well.

CrossFit “Workouts of the Day (WODs)” now consist of any number of exercises drawing from the likes of Olympic Lifting, Power lifting, gymnastics, plyometrics, Strongman competitions etc., with the goal of preparing the athlete for any potential task he/she may face. The number of CrossFit gyms or “boxes” has grown from the first one in Santa Cruz, CA. to over 13,000 affiliates worldwide.

CrossFit fits into a category of exercise known as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) similar to other programs such as P90X, Insanity and many independently run group programs at gyms and fitness centers. Workouts consist of simple or complex circuits of “intense” exercise which can mean heavy weight/load, high reps or challenging cardio work. Often the workouts are broken up into a strength component comprised of slow and controlled movements going for a heavy load with low reps followed by the MetCon (metabolic conditioning) portion which includes more of the speed work with lighter weights and higher repetitions. Though workouts can certainly be done independently, a group atmosphere is common which promotes camaraderie, a sense of team, and friendly competition.

How to safely participate

There has been controversy surrounding CrossFit since its inception under the myth that the high intensity workouts can lead to injury more so than traditional gym regimens. But at UW Health, we are excited that athletes are passionate about exercise and see CrossFit as another sport. We are passionate about teaching athletes how to reduce injury in their sport of choice whether that is football, soccer, hockey, CrossFit, etc. While a long list of safety measures could be developed for any sport, here are few tips for participating in CrossFit or other high intensity workouts safely:

1. Form First

It seems like a simple idea, but an athlete has to be able to perform a particular movement well before adding speed, weight or high repetitions to that movement. Sports Rehab Physical Therapists understand the mechanics of the human body and the demand placed on joints and tissues through the range of simple to complex exercises.

2. Mobility vs. stability: Know the difference

Mobility as the ability to achieve a particular movement, while stability is the ability to control that movement. Different joints in the body have different demands placed on them during exercise. The ankles, hips and mid back generally require a lot of mobility while the low back/pelvis and shoulder blade require more stability. But that doesn’t mean that every athlete needs to aggressively stretch/mobilize his/her hips or ankles as every body is different. Here at UW Health, experienced Sports Rehab Physical Therapists assess which joints in the body may need more mobility or stability to effectively improve performance.

3. Scaling workouts (exercise progression/regression)

Similar to needing good form before adding speed, reps or weight as mentioned above, being able to perform a basic movement is crucial before progressing to a more complex one. In CrossFit, for instance, an athlete may need to “scale” the recommended workout by modifying technique or exercise selection a bit until that particular skill can be achieved. This is where working with a Sports Rehab PT skilled in these movements and communicating with a coach can be vital for preventing or rehabbing an injury. It is not our intent to keep an athlete out of the box/gym, but to assist him/her in maximizing performance in the gym.