CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret: A Rebuttal

I pick and choose my battles. As a small business owner, free time is sparse. So, engaging in conversation every time someone questions something I believe in would paralyze me. There’s also a time and a place to respond. This is one of them.

A recent article in Medium titled “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret” outlines the dangers of a condition called Rhabdomyolsis. Let me begin by saying that rhabdo is a very serious condition. Yes, it can kill you. Yes, I know numerous folks who have had an experience with it. Let me also tell you why I think this article shouldn’t scare you.

If you’re a student at DEUCE, you’ll know (at least, from your ‘Intro’) that CrossFit is a general physical preparedness (GPP) program that takes (1) functional movements, (2) constantly varies them, and (3) performs them at high intensity. That’s it. Period.

We are a gym that’s one of a few that I can count of on two hands that is not only savvy around the concept of scaling, but we’re also progression based. New students at DEUCE can attest to this. We scale not just load, but we scale volume. And, we embrace a progression-based approach, meaning our athletes don’t jerk before they press nor do they kip before they demonstrate strict pulling strength. In the world of CrossFit, this can be rare.

In the world of, well.. anything, we are rare.

Of our students, a small percentage can say they perform any of our training sessions exactly as they are written, especially in the beginning. And, the reasoning for this is that we have your fitness gains, your health, sustainable progress, and yes, even rhabdo in mind.

Again, if you’re a student at DEUCE, you’ll also know that we are one of 7000 CrossFit affiliates on Earth that practice our own interpretation of the three things mentioned above. And we’re damn good at it, too. We’re good, in part, because unlike the author’s assertion we’ve got responsible goals to use CrossFit as a tool for general fitness rather than kneel, blindfolded to the alter of “Pukie” the clown.

This is important to note because folks, like the author of this article, often link all gyms, coaches, and athletes of CrossFit into one group. Let’s put it this way, I’ll be the first to tell you that  I wouldn’t feel comfortable taking “the under” when betting that their will be 0.5 cases of rhabdo this year at a dozen gyms in the area.

So, how does one get rhabdo?

Anyone can get rhabdo. According to the Sports Injury Bulletin, “Moderate cases of rhabdo are common after triathlons. For example, when 25 triathletes were studied during a triathlon which included 1.25 miles of swimming, 53.5 miles of biking, and 13.5 miles of running, it was found that most of the participants had unusually high levels of myoglobin in their blood immediately after the competition” Is rhabdo a big secret in triathlon? In addition, the bulletin explains that “other studies indicate that rowers and cross-country skiers are susceptible to rhabdo, and some reports have indicated that acute rhabdomyolysis can strike about one out of every 300 military recruits during their first week of training.”

It’s worth mentioning, then, that rhabdo is not a CrossFit disease. It’s condition of overtraining/exertion in general.

Key contributors to the condition seem to be volume, gregarious eccentric loading, and/or a lack of necessary recent training volume. In the article mentioned above, the author describes a CrossFitter in Texas who got rhabdo after “hundreds” of push ups and presses (SEE: volume, gregarious eccentric loading), who stated she normally would have rested. As a coach, I see this as a case where the coaches/programmers at this facility weren’t prepared to make proper adjustments for this individual. As a result, she was inevitably held to the fitness level of her partner, and rhabdo was the result.

Many cases of rhabdo come with folks of a strong fitness base who have an ability to perform, but don’t necessarily have the recent training volume to support, large volumes of work. Like the article notes, “Most people who experience exertional rhabdomyolysis are very fit. This is not a case of out-of-shape newbies doing too much.”

Rhabdo takes commitment. As a coach, workouts like “Murph” (1 Mile Run, 100 Pull Ups, 200 Push Ups, 300 Squats, 1 Mile Run) and “Angie” (100 Pull Ups, 100 Push Ups, 100 Sit Ups, 100 Squats) are one’s that come to mind as red flag days. Athletes that are advanced enough to do these workouts but don’t have a recent training volume to support these training sessions are ripe for a case of rhabdo. What do these workouts look like on our whiteboard? Bill does half “Murph” and Jane does 40% of “Angie,” and everyone walks away fitter and rhabdo free.

As for the title of the blog, I’d say it does the standard journalistic trick with fear and wonderment. But, is it accurate? Just a paragraph into the article he mentions that rhabdo was nearly common knowledge in the CrossFit community. Since we seem to be so educated on the topic, it would be far from a secret. Sure, there’s plenty of folks in the CrossFit community doling out unsafe conditions and sometimes even rhabdo. But, I’d argue that the community has done more for understanding and prevention of the condition than any other modality out there. Unlike the endurance world, where a friend of mine left doctors baffled when his mystery ailment took days to diagnose after a grueling run.

The author continues to take witty jabs at CrossFit when he describes his friend “still entrenched in the CrossFit culture of deplete, endure, repeat.” And, it’s this part of the article that motivated me to write this blog. I’m tired of having to answer to someone else’s interpretation of “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity.” For those of you in our community, when has there ever been an inkling of a culture of “deplete, endure, repeat?” Does it feel that way here? Do we preach a glorification of hardcore, all-or-nothing training?

Hell, 80% of our students train just twice a week because we won’t let them train more. They are on a progression. So, for this author to assume he knows Crossfit because he knows one CrossFitter at one CrossFit gym is a failure that, in my opinion, turns this article into hyperbole and fear mongering.

I can’t say that this is one of those cases for sure, but CrossFit is a powerful term these days. Plus, the community is big on the shares, retweets, and social commentary. Journalists are kin to this and you’d be surprised what people will write when they know that having CrossFit in the headline sells. The same thing happened when Steve Jobs passed away. Every NY Times blog and Huffington Post article with Jobs in the headline broke records for views and page hits.

Anyway, how do you avoid this secret disease that is lurking in CrossFit gyms?

Talk with your coach. Get invested in our daily process to find relative intensity for you. Take cues from the context of your workout and your recent training history to approach each day with a mindset that we’re here to get better, not to prove something.

As for me, I love to entertain open conversation with anyone and everyone. Believe it or not, I’m not tied to CrossFit or anyone else’s beliefs. I’d like to think I’ve arrived at my own worldview with a great deal of critical thinking and I’m excited at the opportunity to challenge that. Tap me on the shoulder and let’s talk about our ethos. And, I’d hope that when worried friends and family members email this article to you all this week you can respond confidently with, “Not at my gym.”


Logan Gelbrich

9/23/13 WOD

4 Rounds:
Every 5 minutes, complete the following for time:
10 Romanian Deadlift (185/130)
20 KB Swing (53/35)
400m Run