A Physio’s Experience of Crossfit
The Crossfit craze just keeps getting bigger. We have certainly seen an increase in the number of injured crossfit athletes attending clinic. Needless to say it has a bit of a reputation for overloading and injuring athletes.
Rather than jump on the clinical bandwagon of negative press and disregard it as an activity that should only be participated in by those who are super fit, those looking for fast (unsustainable) gains or those simply a bit crazy, I decided to give it a go.
Some of my medical colleagues were not impressed and even placed bets on how quickly I would get injured! As someone who has done a lot of endurance training and truthfully not enough strength work, I found the idea of structured workouts combining gymnastics, mobility work and Olympic lifting rather appealing. It was also going in to autumn and I knew my outdoor bike rides, runs and swims would be curtailed by dark nights and wet weather.
I signed up to the nearest crossfit box and had to first go through the fundamentals course. This consisted of learning the Olympic lifts and then repeating, repeating and repeating. I must admit I felt slight exposed out at the front of the class, testing myself on these lifts and struggling to get my hips below my knees. However everybody was totally focused on his or her own workout and quite frankly uninterested. I was well coached and these first three sessions were all about getting the correct technique. I was directed to increase my weights quickly, beyond my comfort zone, but I felt safe and actually surprised myself with my ability to lift- the neuromuscular component.
I was relieved when fundamentals were over and I could join the class. There was a lot more recovery time in these workouts where we often worked in small groups on specific strength and gymnastics exercises. The body lift exercises were extremely challenging and not many people could do them in their true format, with quality movement. The good thing about crossfit is that exercises can be graded so that you can perform the exercise at a level at that suits you ie kipping pull ups. Again my colleagues had warned me about this exercise- it was a cheat’s way of lifting body weight. In fact the pre swing is much like the counter movement of a jump- you squat to position the muscles in mid range in which they fire more efficiently, then through the triple extension movement of the jump (hip, knee and ankle extension) you elicit power through an efficient leaver and myofascial system. When you think about function and well-organized movement, which is what were are all aiming for, because then we can increase our capacity to lift load- I don’t see why you wouldn’t support this?
Animal walk exercises were often given as a warm up- this involved a combination of crawling, upper body loading and anterior and posterior chain mobility exercises, with some timing elements. Crawling is a great cross lateral movement that that stimulates nerve pathways between the two hemispheres of the cerebellum (corpus callosum), using vestibular, visual and motor input. Therefore the senses more fully access the environment and both sides of the body move in a more integrated way for more efficient action (Carla Hannaford’s work). Duck walks I was a little bit more dubious of- this is test we use in Physio to assess the meniscus (cartilage) within the knee- I noticed a few participants in the class complaining of knee pain with this exercise! But all the other exercises were valid and appropriate for the forthcoming workout.
Each session finished with the workout of the day- this was the ultimate blast where you worked at your maximum intensity to do as much as you possibly could to meet the time/ rep/ distance target. It was really good fun and I was on a total high for the rest of the day afterwards.
Last summer I competed in the London Triathlon at Olympic distance after a few years of longer distance races. Crossfit definitely helped to develop my performance- I had never felt so strong on the final run section. Whilst working in professional cricket unfortunately prevented me from continuing with formal crossfit training I continue with my own workouts and look forward to returning this autumn.
Crossfit ticks a lot of boxes- it promotes the capacity of athletes to do many things, where sport is often unpredictable and random. In terms of function and physical fitness, we should all be striving to pull, push, execute bilateral and unilateral movement and handle our own body weight. Exercise should also be engaging, fun and have an element of play, which crossfit does. Crossfit also combines social interation where lifting weights can often otherwise a reclusive workout. However as with any exercise sound biomechanics are imperative- it is important to have sufficient mobility, in particular through the thoracic spine, hips, ankles and shoulders to execute more of the complex whole body movements.
Strength is the foundation to being robust and involves progression with the necessary technical elements. Movement requires efficiency and quality movement. Workload then involves the progression of these elements to winning intensity and volumes. I believe the reason athletes do get injured in crossfit, is that they do not spend enough time on proficiency of movement and biomechanics, before they progress their loads and volume. Recovery is also an important consideration- this enables tissues time to adapt and recover- we can attenuate strength gains by diving in too soon with another training stimulus.
As a Physio who has experienced Crossfit, I would definitely recommend it. But do make sure you have mastered the movement before you progress load and ensure recovery is sufficient to prevent overload and injury.
If you are considering crossfit, or already involved and would like a Physio assessment of your biomechanics and movement patterns to optimize participation and performance we would love to work with you. Any niggles also do het them checked out to prevent any persistent problems developing. Our aim is to support your safe and continued participation in the sports you love- we will advise on any complementary training or tweaks to enable this.