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.

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3 thoughts on “CrossFit and Rhabdomyolysis

  1. What’s your response to the CrossFit clown cartoon that seems to mock Rhabdomyolysis and the fact that this could potentially happen to someone because of over-exertion in this program? Is a clown with an IV who just finished a WOD really the best way to approach a potentially life-threatening condition, no matter how rare? A cartoon at all seems like a bad idea, but a clown tries to make it seem humorous and plays down the severity of this…

    disclaimer: I don’t do CrossFit and obviously respect what CrossFitters do and the type of physical strength and dedication it takes to do it. And I think the Medium.com article does include a lot of sensationalism.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Fletcher! Yeah the funny thing about the clown cartoon is that, in 100% honesty, the ONLY place I have EVER seen it in over 4 years of doing CrossFit at multiple gyms across the entire country… is on the CrossFit.com website. So yes, it exists, and yes, it’s stupid, but no, no one actually doing CrossFit actually uses it or thinks it’s funny.

  2. Chris,

    Great response to an article that was overly sensational/fear-mongering and did not really provide much evidence to bolster its claims. As someone active in the CrossFit community for more than 5 years, I have never seen anyone treat rhabdo or the risks for rhabdo lightly.

    While CrossFit HQ’s rhabdo image strikes some as in poor taste, it was initially deployed in a series of PDFs in the CrossFit Journal in 2005 to bring attention to the risk of exertional rhabdo and outline mechanisms for trainers to proactively identify athletes and workout conditions that created elevated risk for rhabdo (e.g., former elite athletes returning to workout after a period of sustained time off, hot conditions, dehydration, etc.). A quote from Glassman from one of these articles suggests that it is an image meant to create a visual reminder of the potential risks, and is not meant to be for comedic effect: “We are talking with our website designer about more visible warnings to catch any unsuspecting folks who may imprudently decide, despite our warnings, to tackle a workout full throttle and fully unprepared.”

    Granted, HQ hasn’t had the greatest track record with visuals (cf., CrossFit for Hope debacle!) 🙂

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