In Defense of Crossfit: Why Injury Fears Are Overblown

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It was the snatch that finally brought down one of a sport’s greatest men. This past January 11, the world of Crossfit erupted with news of probably its grisliest injury yet. At the OC Throwdown competition in Orange County, California, top athlete Kevin Ogar was five events deep into a roster of brutal workouts. During a strength-focused bracket, something went terribly wrong.

The required combination of feats started with three reps of a heavy snatch, a move that comes from the world of Olympic weightlifting. It’s a highly technical feat that involves pulling a heavy barbell off the ground, popping it overhead, and landing in a squat – more or less. Here’s a video of an actual Olympian performing it.


The competition called for three snatch reps in a “touch and go” style, quickly picking it back off the floor after one rep, rather than pausing and resetting the whole lift. Athletes at such events usually pick their own weights, with heavier completed reps garnering more points.

Ogar, attempting three reps at a beastly 240 pounds, according to Sports Illustrated, possibly slipped, got tired, or made a number of any micro-fumbles possible in any movement. What happened next is floating around the internet in a six-second video which is bloodless and silent, but still isn’t pretty. In it, Ogar loses control of the barbell and falls backwards, the barbell hitting his spine, with him landing either on or near a stack of bumper (dense rubber) weight plates.

According to updates on a fundraising page – established to help the insurance-less Ogar pay for his medical treatment – he currently has no movement below the waist, and faces a long road to rehabilitation. It’s surely a tragedy for any young person, and particularly for one who made physical activity such a cornerstone of his life.


But it’s also become the latest jumping-off point for a slate of articles and blogs which amount, once again, to “OMG CROSSFIT!,” using mostly anecdotal evidence to tie the combo exercise pursuit and sport to an increased risk of injury. Perhaps there are more injuries with the rise of Crossfit – because more people are now participating in Crossfit.

More than highlight its dangers for the average Joe, perhaps the discussion around Ogar’s injury denotes a few important points about the misperception of the sport itself. As Crossfit matures, there’s a growing delineation between Crossfit, the gym exercise that welcomes newbies, and Crossfit, the increasingly pro-level sport.


Pro football injuries, for instance, wouldn’t be used to warn of the dangers of recreational touch football. So how about when it comes to Crossfit?

Crossfit as a recreational exercise and Crossfit as a sport are two different things.


The confusion over this comes as a result, most likely, of the increased commercial viability of Crossfit and its participants’ growing numbers. When founder “Coach” Greg Glassman gave his workout methodology a name in 2000, it enjoyed a largely underground and hardcore following for nearly the first decade.

Early documents from Crossfit headquarters tout the sport as promoting its notion of general fitness, combining elements of calisthenics, gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, and general conditioning and fitness work. “CrossFit is a strength and conditioning system built on constantly varied, if not randomized, functional movements executed at high intensity,” wrote editors of the Crossfit Journal in a 2004 issue titled What Is Crossfit?


Ten years later, Crossfit also boasts a booming competition circuit, with the highest prizes coming at the Crossfit Games, which began in 2007 and are now televised on ESPN. They’re related in that they use similar movements and some combinations thereof that might, at the elite level, look familiar to an amateur. But that’s where the similarity ends. No beginner is going to be able to waltz into the Games – or even high-level regional games such as the one where Ogar was injured – and just pick up a barbell.

Getting there involves winning a long series of lower-level qualifying events using lighter weights and easier workouts – and the extensive, sometimes company-sponsored that involves. (Top Crossfit athletes like Rich Froning and Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, for instance, boast spokesperson contracts with sports supplement companies, among others.) Compare it to any other pro sport and its amateur competition – injuries happen in both, but necessarily not at the same level or intensity.


“I absolutely agree that it’s potentially dangerous,” says Michael de la Pava, a Miami-based strength coach who preps elite-level Crossfit athletes at his own, non-Crossfit facility, the Battle Axe Gym. (He also appeared in this earlier Fusion story.) “But that’s because it has the illusion that it’s not a sport. People think, ‘Well, it’s just exercising, and that’s cute. I’ll just do it.’ While if you step on a soccer or football field, you have that understanding where you say, ‘Well, this is a sport where I’ve seen people get hurt,’ and you have that respect.”


It is highly, highly unlikely an untrained beginner would ever come close to a 240-pound snatch a la Ogar – and if it ever happens, well, we know who will be dominating the Games in the future. In the most common beginners’ schemes at well-established Crossfit boxes, lifting technique – including how to safely bail out of a bad lift — if often taught with nothing more than a PVC pipe until the lifter masters the movement pattern.

Crossfit is not, itself, standardized.

This is potentially to its detriment, but the one issue that befalls any discussion of the “evils of Crossfit” is that it’s impossible to speak about it in absolutes. Despite Reebok’s attempts to corporatize it with branded gyms and commercials, Crossfit “boxes” – gyms – aren’t franchises following a set regimen.


Rather, after required prep courses, prospective gym owners pay to become “affiliates” and use the official name, keeping up certain certification standards. Beyond that, programming is up to gym owners. Remember that description from the Crossfit Journal: “constantly varied, if not randomized.”


The same goes for competitions – unlike other sports, there are no set structures. Competitions draw upon the elements usually seen in gym workouts, incorporating gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting, and general conditioning work and sprints.

You can argue whether this is a positive or a negative (the truth of course is that it’s probably a bit or a lot of both). But “Crossfit,” as a whole, cannot really be blamed for accidents like Ogar’s, because there is no one “Crossfit” per se — only a number of different factors and possibilities therein. Even the top-level Games events change from year to year.


The key in responsible competition programming is for extensive testing of the setup beforehand, says Alex Osuna, a coach at I AM Crossfit in Doral, Florida. That gym sponsors the annual Crush Games, one of the largest Crossfit competitions in the Southeast U.S.; the last edition, in 2013, drew more than 1,000 competitors.


“We always have team of trainers in charge of that, so there’s somebody testing the workouts, there’s somebody doing it as if it’s gonna be in the competition, there’s somebody playing devil’s advocate and going back and forth to make sure all angles are – so nothing’s overlooked,” Osuna says. “I’ve done competitions myself where I feel like it’s too shoulder-intensive. And we start questioning, ‘Did people even test these workouts? Did they think about the order in which they put them in?’”

As in any other physical pursuit, buyer beware – as a potential athlete or beginner, due diligence is a must.


Often, the kind of people who are drawn to Crossfit are the kinds of high-functioning adults who research everything else in their lives – doctors, mechanics, hairstylists. So why, then, do so many seem to turn over their autonomy and free-thinking when it comes to exercise or hobby sports?

This is a definite: Because, again, Crossfit is not particularly standardized, technically, nearly anyone can attend a level-one Crossfit coach certification and a coach’s prep course, pay the requisite fees, and set up as a Crossfit coach or gym owner. This is a known piece of information that is easily Google-able. Many of the best coaches have other degrees, independent certifications, and so on. If that’s an important factor in your participation or joining of a specific gym, why not ask the basic background questions of your potential coach?


The same goes for the would-be competitor. Again, there is no set form of competition — so studying a day of planned competition workouts, and the order in which they are structured, would seem to be common sense. Perhaps you might shy away from competitions that involve heavy, explosive movements late in the day.

Most competitions post the full planned workouts and prescribed weights in advance. Again, it’s common sense to study them – or stay away if safety is a top concern and they haven’t been published.


Then, of course, there’s this fact: There’s inherent risk in anything physical beyond lying in bed. “I wouldn’t necessarily blame Crossfit for anything, because when you step out and do anything that’s not eating or going to the bathroom, things are gonna get dangerous,” says de la Pava. “You have to suck it up when you step out of your house.”

Osuna, meanwhile, points out another aspect of the publicity over Ogar’s accident. It’s spreading so widely because it is the first serious injury of its kind in the sport – which, compared to other pro sports, may not be such a telling statistic.


“If this competition is the first competition – where you really hear about a major injury like this, compare it to football,” he says. “I think the fact that you’re hearing about this and there’s such a big commotion about such a serious injury is because it’s never really happened in Crossfit.”

Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.

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