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Doctors: Exercise Caution When Introducing CrossFit

Despite CrossFit's growing popularity among military fitness facilities - a topic that we covered in a previous article - it has its fair share of opponents.

Before launching your CrossFit program, consider both sides of the debate. For many facility operators, it's a matter of gauging injury frequency (which many say is elevated with CrossFit), against its physical fitness benefits.

Regardless of what side of the argument you fall, this much is certain: More data is needed.

In 2011, the Consortium for Health and Military Performance and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) released the "Consensus Paper on Extreme Conditioning Programs in Military Personnel." The paper looked at extreme conditioning programs, including CrossFit and Insanity, and revealed that "physicians and other primary care and rehabilitation providers have identified a potential emerging problem of disproportionate musculoskeletal injury risk, particularly for novice participants."

Injuries translate to "lost duty time, medical treatment and extensive rehabilitation."

Dr. David Geier, director of sports medicine at Medical University of South Carolina and assistant professor of orthopedic surgery, notes that CrossFit practitioners are people looking for dramatic health and fitness changes, which can lead to injury.

"You're getting people who haven't done a lot of those different types of moves before," he says. "They're determined, no question — they don't quit, or they try not to quit, their bodies get tired, they lose their form and they get hurt."

The ACSM paper recommends that "an effective and safe conditioning regimen must consist of incremental, progressive introduction of exercises and workloads based on fitness and specific conditioning needs and limitations of the individual" (emphasis original).

Geier notes that he has no real problems with CrossFit when performed correctly, and he appreciates the variety of exercises available to participants; however, he insists that individuals must discriminate when looking at a CrossFit program.

"I think a CrossFit program is probably only as good as the people that do it and the instructors that are teaching it," Geier says. "I think people who go into it need to do their homework a little bit and maybe look at more than one CrossFit [facility].

Dr. Michael Esco, associate professor of physical education and exercise science at Auburn University at Montgomery agrees. A fan of a variety of workouts, including some CrossFit workouts, he recommends caution, particularly when looking at a facility's CrossFit trainers.

"Even though you go to an affiliate, the coaches have a weekend certificate," he says. "I'm in a field of academics where we teach students; it takes years to learn the proper mechanics of an Olympic lift, for example, or a plyometrics exercise - far more than just a weekend certificate."

The Level 1 Certificate Course: Fundamentals of CrossFit, is a two-day introduction to CrossFit designed to "provide attendees the knowledge to better use CrossFit methods for themselves … and provide attendees an initial and foundational education to begin training others using CrossFit," according to the CrossFit website.

Some risks are real. And it's something to which facilities might want to pay attention. In 2008 a jury awarded a former Navy sailor $300,000 after suing a commercial gym following a CrossFit workout that he said left him disabled.

Anecdotal? Yes. And a variety of exercises and workouts are potentially dangerous - from riding a bike to ultramarathon running. Still, overtraining and injury remain a primary concern of some CrossFit detractors. And there's no shortage of them - just as there's no shortage of supporters.

One of the most active news repositories for CrossFit-on both sides of the equation-is The Huffington Post, but that's by no means the only place. Overall, it's a matter of personal education. This goes not only for practitioners, but the dozens of military facilities that attract the CrossFit crowd.

The ACSM paper recommends a variety of approaches to help prevent injuries among CrossFit participants. Among them is the encouragement that fitness facility officials perform detailed inspections of equipment and exercise areas to ensure the atmosphere is as safe as possible for those working out.

For many, however, it's still not quite enough. ACSM researchers note the need for more research on the subject, and they're not alone. Just ask Esco.

"I do a Google search on 'CrossFit exercise,' just those two words, and I'm getting 11.3 million [links]," he says. "I do the same phrase in a [medical publication] scientific search engine, and I get one scientific study. We definitely need to catch up."

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