CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

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A few days ago Medium.com published an article titled, “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret” written by a physical therapy professor named Eric Robertson. Professor Robertson’s article details a condition called rhabdomyolysis, which is extreme kidney malfunction due to excessive muscle damage. While he makes the case that rhabdomyolysis is commonplace in CrossFit gyms, I will argue that his position is exaggerated and perhaps even dishonest.

CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

The first issue that we must address is the elephant in the room whenever you talk to experienced CrossFit trainers: there is no one single thing that you can point at and say, “THAT is CrossFit.” Due to Greg Glassman’s theoretical idealizations of general physical preparedness, constant variance, and functionality, you can make an argument for virtually any physical activity fitting under the CrossFit umbrella. A short list of activities that could easily pass for CrossFit includes weightlifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, sprinting, calisthenics, kettlebell training, triathlon, running, and even certain types of yoga. Clearly, this makes defining the term ‘CrossFit’ very challenging.

Next stop on the debunking train: CrossFit gyms and trainers vary WIDELY from place-to-place. While some people may argue that CrossFit HQ has a quality control problem, it is worthwhile to consider that ANY large corporation runs into this issue. Have you ever been to a Starbucks that just “feels better” than another Starbucks? Similarly, there are plenty of yoga studios, for instance, that have much more experienced teachers than others. Thus, extrapolating an individual’s experience with one CrossFit gym to CrossFit as a whole is a bit misleading. There are CrossFit gyms, and then there are CrossFit gyms. Just as with any act of consumerism in a free market, the buyer must make a smart, educated choice when choosing a gym and trainer.

My main problem Professor Robertson’s article is that the title is overly sensationalized (just like a piece published on Salon.com in early September that was originally titled, “CrossFit embodies everything that’s wrong with America”). To write an article about one individual’s experience with rhabdomyolysis is one thing, but to then state, without evidence, that rhabdomyolysis is “commonly encountered in CrossFit” is just blatantly dishonest. To provide some perspective, I have been training in a CrossFit gym since June of 2009, and I have witnessed exactly ZERO instances of rhabdomyolysis in that time.

Lastly, this argument is from a commenter on reddit (hat tip to Brian Sawyer from CrossFit 908):

Let’s say, internationally there are 100 cases a year (pure guess – if there were more I’d imagine we’d hear more about it). There are probably 10 people at a WOD, twice a day, 5 days a week, at 6,000 affiliates. That means in any given week there are 600,000 WOD’s – and I think I’ve been fairly conservative there not including non-affiliate workouts. That’s 31.2 million workouts a year.

So we’ve got 100 cases from 31.2 million workouts. That’s a 0.0003% incidence, making up half a percent of all reported cases. Even if it was 10,000 reported Rhabdo’s a year, that would only be 0.03% of all CrossFitters, hardly “commonly encountered.”

Thanks for reading! If you found this post interesting, helpful, or even controversial, please share it! On Thursday I will be writing about some Practical Tips for Prioritizing Quality over Quantity in a CrossFit Setting.