I would like to first share my background with CrossFit. I was very skeptical at first like most people are. I never in a million years thought I would join a gym. I saw videos online of terrible lifting technique as well as read (and often joined in on) the bashing of the sport. I was talked into joining a gym for a month just to try it by my brother and sister-in-law. It took about one class to realize that there was something very special about this sport. I would just like to say this sport has evolved immensely and way more refined than the early years of CrossFit. If you are thinking about joining a gym make sure you find a gym with very knowledgeable coaches with technique being their number 1 priority.
I recently attended a CrossFit level 1 trainers seminar. I think being a healthcare practitioner specialized in a bio-mechanical health profession, this experience was likely different than most of the other coaches there. I would first like to acknowledge how intelligent these instructors are that run the course. Their knowledge of bio-mechanics and movement was above and beyond my expectations. One of the things that stood out for me was the importance of proper mechanics and technique. These instructors made sure that all of the coaches in training were competent and able to move properly in order for them to teach others how to move properly. If you don’t know anything about CrossFit, put simply it utilizes functional movements to produce arguably (hard to argue against it) the fittest people in the world.
CrossFit is one of the fastest growing fitness movements in the world. CrossFit is defined as constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. The ideology behind the sport of CrossFit is that you are able to perform any task or movement that is thrown at you. The intention of the sport is to be the “fittest” and be able to perform a wide range of different movements. Fitness is defined as “work capacity across broad time and modal domains”. So basically the more work (no matter the task) you can perform in shorter amount of time, the more ‘fit’ you are.
The big knock on CrossFit is that the “average” person should not be performing some of these highly skilled movements such as the snatch and the clean and jerk, etc. Since these movements are so highly skilled, these movement patterns are taught in CrossFit gyms over and over again until they are mastered. The issue becomes when people try to load too much weight too soon before they have mastered the movement. I cannot stress enough the importance of proper technique when performing these highly skilled movements. Not only is proper technique going to allow you to lift more weight, but it is going to allow you to do it safely. A good gym owner will program technique work daily and drill it into your head until the cows come home.
If we look at movements like the deadlift, squat, overhead press, etc., these are all movements that can help us function better on a day to day basis. Now lets look at how these movements can be detrimental to your back, neck, shoulder, and hip if not performed properly. With light weight (e.g., PVC pipe) all of the barbell movements are safe to perform and practice your technique. Most healthy people are able to do this safely with no issues, no matter their age. The most important thing that a CrossFit trainer will learn in order for them to teach to their athletes the importance of a healthy spine is to have a “neutral spine and abdominal brace” during the barbell movements. If this is not being performed correctly the athlete should not be loading weight onto a bar. Without a neutral spine and abdominal brace the spine will move into hyperflexed or hyperextended positions. Repetitive loading in these positions (with a heavy load) will more than likely cause pain and damage the spine. If you are a Crossfit athlete that is currently experiencing chronic pain in your joints you should probably consider going back to the basics and master your technique.
A competent coach should understand technique of the basic movements and should constantly be helping their athletes whether beginners or elite athletes master these movements. A good technique will utilize the big strong muscles in the legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteal musculature) while maintaining an abdominal brace (iliopsoas, erectors, abdominal musculature). The big muscles of the legs will help generate power, while the musculature around the spine will help protect it by creating a ‘belt’ of stability around it. Another very important aspect of technique is the sequencing of movements. The reason this is so important is it allows you to utilize the major muscles in your legs while maintaining the neutral brace in your spine. Now lets compare an olympic lift like the snatch to the more common golf swing; if you are not firing your hips through before your shoulders during the golf swing the result will not be pretty and you will not maximize your power output. The same is true with the snatch, if you are pulling before fully extending your hips you will not maximize your power output. Timing and sequencing is so important for barbell movements. If your timing and sequencing is off and you’re are lifting heavy, it could result in injury. Let me give an example, during a push press you need to dip, drive, and extend your hips and knees before you initiate the press. If you start pressing too soon you will not be using the power generated from your legs and you will likely lose that neutral spine and abdominal brace, putting your spine in an injurious position.
So the answer to my initial question! When performed properly CrossFit is VERY good for your spine and joints. The issue becomes when you start to sacrifice your technique in order to get a better time or a better score. I am not talking about minor technique issues, but more gross movement issues where you are not protecting your spine and joints! Repeated stress (from poor technique) to disc and ligaments of the spine, as well as cartilage and ligaments of any other joints of the body can take years to heal. Make sure you are mastering your technique before you start to throw on heavy weight or progressing to more dynamic movements!