Why “Extreme Workouts” Are Bad For Your Body and Soul

If you’ve been paying attention to the fitness world at all over the past few years, you’ve probably heard of Crossfit. Started in Seattle by a former gymnast named Greg Glassman, it takes an almost militaristic approach to fitness, and prides itself on not needing much in the way of machines or accessories beyond a wooden box, a medicine ball, and a “rig,” or pull-up/chin-up device. It calls upon CrossFitters to perform a Workout of the Day, or WOD, which involves high-intensity interval training and a total body workout.

Sounds great, right? Not so fast. An increasing number of CrossFitters have complained of severe injuries related to their workouts. This Magazine editor Laurean McKeon shattered her leg and dislocated her ankle, resulting in nerve damage in her toes and the need for months of physiotherapy so she could re-learn how to walk. Brian Anderson, a New York attorney, went to the emergency room with a rare kidney aliment called rhabdomyolis — the result of muscle tissues wearing down and entering the bloodstream where they are processed by the kidneys, causing kidney failure. And he’s not the only one. All over North America, more and more CrossFitters are wondering if the risk of enduring a life-threatening injury is worth the potential of gaining the body they’ve always wanted.

And now there’s science to back up the suspicion:

Yuri Feito, a professor of exercise science at Kennesaw State University in Georgia (and a CrossFitter himself), analyzed data from 737 CrossFit participants and found that 51 percent had experienced an injury in the year prior – from minor sprains to muscle tears to broken fingers. Of those, 10 to 15 percent warranted a trip to the hospital.

Why do CrossFitters experience so many injuries? There are multiple reasons. First, CrossFit is highly competitive. Gym members are timed during their WODs, and then ranked against each other on leaderboards in the gym. The goal is to rise higher, and try harder, and lift more, but that same competitive spirit can lead participants to get lost and over-extend themselves. Second, CrossFit gyms are licensed franchises that operate on their own. CrossFit instructors need only complete a two-day certification process before they can open up a licensed, branded gym. Preventing injuries and educating people about their abilities isn’t their goal. Encouraging members to compete with each other is. And that is what kept this college athlete out of the gym:

CrossFit seems to think that the more pain you are in, whether on that day or the days following the workout, the better. The more you disregard the pain and keep pushing through it, the “tougher” you are. But this is not true, and more importantly, it’s not healthy.

Erin Simmons is right. Pain should never be the goal of your workout. It’s normal to experience pain, but pain itself is a message from your body to proceed with caution. It doesn’t mean you have to stop, but it does mean you have to be careful. Dizziness, vomiting, or passing out are not signs that you’re hardcore. They’re signs that you’re human. And that’s just fine with us.

So the next time you worry that you’re not tough enough, stop. You’re making progress, and you’re working towards your goals. You should be proud of that. And you should be even prouder of being able to do so without seriously compromising your health, or your ability to continue getting stronger.