My Workout From Hell: The Dangers of Crossfit

CrossFit, the latest trend in extreme exercise, is as physically gruelling as it is cult-like. But is it fitness if you shatter your leg doing it?

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My Workout From Hell: The Dangers of Crossfit
Photo: Markian Lozowchuk

In early fall 2013, my husband, Andrew, and I joined a popular CrossFit gym in Toronto’s east end. Our first class consisted of an intensive hour of non-stop sit-ups, push-ups and squats. It left me riding an adrenalin high. Andrew threw up as soon as we got home. When he staggered out of the bathroom, I danced around him, bouncing on the balls of my feet. He had barely finished telling me he felt a little better before I said, “We’re still going back, though, right?”

Like thousands of Canadians, I was hooked. Of all the trendy workouts, from boot camps to hot yoga, CrossFit is the one that fulfills extreme get-fit dreams best-not a slow progression toward moderate health and average bodies but a breakneck pace to the exceptional. To an outsider, a CrossFit workout can look nuts. Participants heave 27-kilogram kettlebells high over their heads in repetitions of 50, slam medicine balls at a three-metre-high target on the wall, pull themselves in a swinging arc above the bar of the CrossFit rig-a metal structure that resembles a jungle gym on ster­oids. Then there are the Olympic-style weightlifting movements. Oh, and intervals of intense running. The regimen is designed to make everything your body does better, from stamina to strength to flexibility. If there is ever a zombie apocalypse, CrossFitters will be the ones who survive.

Andrew and I reorganized our lives around CrossFit. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6:50 a.m., we’d arrive at our utilitarian gym, or “box” in CrossFit parlance, swathed in layers of sweats and spandex. The hour’s agenda would be scrawled on a whiteboard near a set of rowing machines. It always included a warm-up, stretching and skills improvement, then the Workout of the Day, or WOD, ending with a cool-down and the posting of your numbers (times, weights, reps) on another board. Guided by the coach, everyone followed the same workout-whether you were a 250-pound tank, like one intimidating class member, or a 165-pound, five-foot-eight woman (me).

As a newbie, I wasn’t strong or skilled enough to do everything the agenda prescribed. In my teens, I’d competed in kick-boxing fights but slowed down after I popped ligaments in my left knee. I was wary of reinjuring that same knee in CrossFit and had to remember not to push myself too hard. Some coaches were great; others seemed unsure of how much weight I should be lifting. At times, the workouts made no sense to me, more a random testament to machismo than a targeted program.

My love affair with CrossFit ended on January 6. That day, we had one minute to do 12 burpees. Next came 12 box jumps-launching yourself onto a wooden box from a two-footed stance, no running starts allowed-also in one minute. We had to do both sets six times. I’d waffled over what box to use and was unhelpfully instructed to try “whatever felt comfortable.” I chose one about 60 centimetres high-slightly smaller than everyone else’s. Midway into the workout, my left knee began to feel wobbly. When I told the instructor, he swapped the box for another that was 10 centimetres lower. I should have stopped-but that was unthinkable. Two sloppy jumps later, my left knee gave out. I could hear my leg bones shattering-it sounded like gunfire.

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CrossFit, like other fitness fads, seemed to come out of nowhere. But a former teenage gymnast named Greg Glassman had been developing the workout as a gym trainer for years. He officially incorporated CrossFit in 2000, and the first affiliate gym opened in Seattle. Five years later, its popularity exploded. In 2010, Reebok signed on as the lead sponsor for the CrossFit Games, which were founded in relative obscurity in 2007; the 10-year deal was rumoured to have been worth $10 million. In 2011, ESPN further legitimized the sport when it began airing the finals of the newly rebranded Reebok CrossFit Games. It’s surprisingly easy to become a CrossFit affiliate gym. Potential owners must pass a two-day CrossFit Level 1 certificate course, then fill out a short application form. If approved, the new affiliate pays an annual $3,000 licensing fee to use the name. That’s it. Good CrossFit gyms won’t let their coaches stop at Level 1, but there’s also nothing to keep people from teaching at a gym the day after they receive their certification.

High-intensity fitness regimes seem like a natural fit for people who are already ripped, but they also appeal to those of us who spend long days in front of a computer screen-and feel guilty about it. CrossFit promises to turn people into an ideal version of themselves, so long as they’re willing to work really, really hard. This transformation is often so intense that CrossFitters can’t shut up about it. We’re like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the fitness world.

But as much as CrossFit has created a legion of stronger people, its ranks have also suffered numerous injuries. CrossFit’s safety standards first came into question in earnest in December 2005, when 38-year-old former American army ranger Brian Anderson ended up in the emergency room after his first CrossFit class. Anderson was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a rare condition in which your muscle fibre breaks down, is released into the bloodstream and poisons your kidneys-sometimes resulting in the need for dialysis and causing permanent damage.

That same year, former United States navy technician Makimba Mimms developed rhabdomyolysis after participating in CrossFit-type training-he later won a $300,000 lawsuit against the Virginia gym where he’d trained. In 2011, the American College of Sports Medicine released a research paper noting a “potential emerging problem of disproportionate musculoskeletal injury risk” in extreme conditioning programs such as CrossFit, especially among newbies. It concluded that the group atmosphere fosters a potentially dangerous “keep up” attitude: participants abandon sensible pacing because they don’t want to appear weak.

The debate over the safety of CrossFit got louder last January, around the time of my injury, when Kevin Ogar, one of the world’s top CrossFit competitors, dropped a bar weighted with 109 kilograms on his spine in a snatch-lifting a weighted barbell from the ground to overhead in one explosive motion-gone bad. He’s now a paraplegic. And the argument has been fuelled by CrossFit headquarters itself, particularly by Glassman, who considers injuries a badge of honour. In 2005, he responded to Anderson’s injury. CrossFit “can kill you,” he told The New York Times. “I’ve always been completely honest about that…. If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don’t want you in our ranks.” As for Mimms, the man who won the rhabdomyolysis lawsuit? Some gyms renamed the workout that injured him the Makimba and then recategorized it as a workout for kids.

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I can understand why CrossFitters resent academics scrutinizing them. Injuries are common in sports, and couch potato-ism endangers a person’s overall health, too. For this story, I spoke to physiotherapists and athletic therapists, sports trainers, the chair of the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology’s gold standard certification and McMaster University’s Martin Gibala, one of the world’s leading experts in high-intensity interval training. They all agreed the principles of CrossFit were sound: varied, full-body targeted movement, all done at high-intensity intervals. As the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology’s chair Bart Arnold told me, “There’s no such thing as a bad exercise.” But a workout culture that obsessively charts personal records and constantly encourages you to one-up yourself quickly erodes your judgment, morphing it into a constant refrain of “just one more.”

The moment I fell down, Andrew and our coach dashed to my side. I started shaking as my body went into shock. The class formed a semicircle around me. The coach, eyes pinballing from my foot to my face, called 9-1-1, then went out into the street to flag down the ambulance. As I was carted out on the stretcher, I saw everyone resume the WOD. I felt bad for interrupting them. The parts between my fall and the hospital are fuzzy. I remember being grateful that the paramedics didn’t have to cut off my new neon-pink Reebok shoe. I wasn’t able to correctly recall my address or phone number. Initial X-rays revealed my lower tibia and fibula bones were broken, but it was hard to tell how badly: my ankle had dislocated, obscuring the break lines. I kept telling myself not to scream, stuffing the hospital blanket into my mouth as a DIY gag.

My doctors decided I needed surgery. My break was both bad and intricate-in med-speak, a “spiral fracture.” I came out three hours later with a metal plate and 18 screws and pins that will never leave my leg. And so began the two-month period I came to call Broken Leg Life. In the early days, I could barely move at all; I needed help getting out of bed, help to sit on the toilet, help to get off the toilet. The slightest touch was agony. My own helplessness was worse.

At night, the pain spiked. I’d down foul-smelling valerian pills to help me sleep but still lie awake for hours, my mind replaying my fall in a macabre loop. I spent months like this-failing to confront how I broke my leg, what role I played in it, what role CrossFit played in it. Like a true devotee, I wanted to power through it. I stayed in this irrational state until March 11, when I went to the hospital for a checkup and the doctor told me I’d need three months of physical therapy just to relearn how to walk. Digesting this news on the way home, I confessed to Andrew for the first time: “You know, I knew something bad was going to happen.” And then in a whisper: “But I jumped anyway.”

As I began to leave my house more, I encountered people who had their own cautionary tales. One night I called a concert venue to ask if there was anywhere I’d be able to sit, and the door person told me how she ripped her Achilles tendon at CrossFit and will never go again. My friends ask me if I’ll go back, expecting a firm no. Yet, even now, there is a small part of me that doesn’t want to give up the thrill of a session at the box.

This is the strange alchemy of CrossFit. If you get all the elements right-good coaching, proper skill progression and the iron will to abstain from the pressure to go too hard-it can be golden. As I write this in mid-May, I’ve only just begun to walk without crutches. I have a drunken-pirate limp. To help get rid of it, my physiotherapist has me doing lines of “dynamic lunges” up and down the office’s small gym space. It’s a movement I first learned at CrossFit, and each time I do one, I can’t help thinking of the way my knee used to dip much lower-to the floor, smooth and strong, as I completed 15, 20, 30 in a row. Suddenly, I’m back there again, the movie reel winding up in my head. But there’s something else, too: an urge to push my knee further down each time, past the flare of pain, just a little bit, just to see if I can.

© By Lauren McKeon. Toronto Life (July 2014)

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