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Ask someone on the street, “Is CrossFit bad for you?” and they might answer with a snort and “Is the sky blue?”
Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you are), it’s not that cut-and-dry.
The debate around whether or not CrossFit training is safe—or not—is a complex topic and one that requires a deeper look into CrossFit programs, CrossFit for different fitness levels, risk of injury, and much more.
Today we answer the question that’s been plaguing the fitness industry—and confusing the public—since the inception of “constantly varied training” in the year 2000.
What Is CrossFit?
I’ll start with the actual definition of CrossFit, as written by CrossFit founder and longtime CEO Greg Glassman.
According to Glassman, CrossFit is, in so few words: “constantly varied functional movement at high intensity.”
OK. Let’s break down what that actually means. Because quite truthfully, it’s a bunch of gibberish to any community outside of the CrossFit community.
In 2002, Glassman expanded on this with a now-famous (among CrossFitters) article in the CrossFit Journal, stating that CrossFit is a regimen that improves and is measured against the 10 general physical skills.
These 10 skills are:
- Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance
Why all 10? Well, Glassman felt that it was unfair to crown an athlete in any specific discipline as “the fittest on earth.” So he took it upon himself to create a new definition of fitness, which essentially requires athletes to be pretty good at a LOT of things—rather than exceptional at any ONE thing.
And every CrossFit workout you encounter will support this definition of fitness, with movements ranging from single-modality aerobic work, like running, to gymnastics to Olympic weightlifting.
So this does beg the question: How can it possibly be safe to pursue so many forms of exercise simultaneously? We’ll get to that.
CrossFit as a Sport vs CrossFit as an Exercise Program
There’s one more thing we need to get out of the way before we bluntly address the question of whether CrossFit is safe—the gaping difference between CrossFit as a sport and the “workout of the day” (WOD) at your local CrossFit gym.
The athletes you see on the competition floor at The CrossFit Games each year are a huge reason for the preconceived notions that people hold about CrossFit, says Kate Meier, GGR Head of Content, who is also a CrossFit Level 1 coach and certified personal trainer.
CrossFit the sport (which is different from CrossFit the training methodology) pits people against each other to complete workouts faster or with more weight or at higher reps, Kate explains.
“This can be dangerous for people who are competitive in nature and want to ramp up before they are ready to, whether to top the leaderboard in their own box or to win a local competition,” she says.
In cases like this, people may put more weight on the bar before their technique is solid, or they may try kipping pull-ups before they can do a strict one—a personal pet peeve of both Kate and myself—all in the name of so-called glory.
Additionally, the sport of CrossFit at the elite level includes activities that do carry a greater risk than the basic functional movements you see at a local box.
For example, Kate calls out handstand-walking over obstacles or doing handstand push-ups on rings suspended high over the ground (hello, 2016 CrossFit Games event, “The Separator”).
There is a reason you won’t see beginners doing these types of movements in CrossFit classes at the local level. Because, yes, they are very dangerous for people who haven’t spent hundreds of hours mastering body control and maintaining proper form under fatigue and through high-volume repetitions.
CrossFit as an exercise program is—or should be—a regimen that actually brings a lot of fitness and health benefits to the average person.
So long as there’s a good coach in the room (much more on that below), the benefits of CrossFit very much mirror the well-documented benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and mixed-modality training, which includes elements of powerlifting (squat, deadlift, bench), cardio, traditional weightlifting and heavy weight training, and bodyweight training.
A Word on Coaching
There are good CrossFit coaches and bad CrossFit coaches, and some REALLY bad CrossFit coaches out there. This is an unfortunate fact about CrossFit as a whole, and it’s largely to blame for the prevalence of injuries.
“Bad coaches don’t correct form, they don’t suggest modifications for people who can’t do the movement as intended, and they don’t demand athletes move well before they move quickly or load a movement [with weight],” Kate says. “And that is where injuries can happen.”
“I know them; I’ve taken classes from them,” she continues. “I’ve been horrified when coaches don’t properly warm up the class. Even worse? When coaches don’t teach progressions in movements or offer sufficient modifications.”
Bluntly, there is far too much poor coaching across the board. The reason for this saturation is the ease at which someone—anyone—can become a credentialed CrossFit coach.
To become a CrossFit L-1 coach, all you have to do is pay $1,000 and spend two days listening to a seminar staff member talk about what I mentioned in the “What Is CrossFit?” section. You practice some squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, and before you know it, you can put “CF-L1” behind your name.
“I’ve never loved the way CrossFit entrusts unqualified people with human movement,” Kate says. “This is where, at least in the athletic community, CrossFit doesn’t just get a bad wrap; it becomes the stuff of memes and internet jokes.”
I, too, have a CF-L1 among other credentials and my CF-L1 is the least valuable to me. To actually help people progress in the gym, I lean on knowledge from my personal training, corrective exercise, and functional training certifications.
This isn’t just something noticed by people who are entrenched in the CrossFit community. Other fitness professionals notice it, too.
Nicole Davis, GGR editor, who did CrossFit consistently for the better part of a year, feels that a CrossFit box is not the place to be for beginners unless they have a very knowledgeable and attentive coach.
“It’s critical to have a coach who can show you how to scale back all of the movements and volume accordingly,” she says. “Even for intermediate exercisers, having a good coach is really key to progressing with form and weight.”
So how do you know who’s a good coach and who’s not? Kate says to look for a CF-L2 coach at a bare minimum, and/or coaching staff that includes certified personal trainers and people with degrees in exercise science. There’s much more to a good coach than credentials alone, but that’s a good place to start.
Risks of Injury In CrossFit
First of all, you’re more likely to get injured doing something versus doing nothing. That’s a given. As Kate puts it: “Stand in a gym, the risk is low. Put a barbell in your hands, the risk of injury increases. Put a barbell over your head, the risk increases again. Put weight on the bar, the risk jumps again.”
That said, CrossFitters are no strangers to injuries. And physical therapists, personal trainers, and other movement professionals are no strangers to people with CrossFit injuries.
“The gym I used to coach at often had people become clients after horrible experiences with CrossFit,” she says. “That said, most of my clients were learning how to lift weights for the first time in their lives (or getting back into it after not being active for 10+ years)”.
“In my opinion, CrossFit is not for beginners,” she continues. “I think the volume is too high for true beginners and people end up getting hurt trying to keep up with the herd (with both weight and volume).”
Among CrossFitters, you’ll see two common types of injuries: overuse injuries and/or symptoms of overtraining, and acute injuries.
Overuse Injuries and Overtraining
The truth is, any type of high-intensity exercise performed for a prolonged amount of time or done at too high a frequency puts you at risk of overuse injuries and overtraining syndrome. This isn’t exclusive to CrossFit at all.
I believe that the combination of the very nature of CrossFit and the type of people who generally pursue it is what makes CrossFitters more susceptible to overuse and overtraining.
While there’s no black-and-white definition of “overuse injuries,” it’s widely accepted that this type of injury occurs when prolonged stress on the musculoskeletal system eventually results in decreased performance, nagging pain, increased inflammation in a joint, or an identifiable injury such as a sprain or strain.
One 2014 systematic review in the journal Sports Medicine1 calls for a universal definition of overuse injury that should “emphasize that overuse injuries are characterized by (1) a mechanism of gradual onset, and (2) an underlying pathogenesis of repetitive microtrauma.”
Considering the high-volume rep schemes and repetition of movement patterns in CrossFit—specifically overhead pressing and squatting movements—it shouldn’t come as a surprise that overuse injuries are a plague amongst CrossFitters.
However, there’s no real data to support that overuse injuries are more common in CrossFit than in any other sport or physical activity.
An acute injury is defined as one that occurs suddenly2; they often happen when a person falls or twists a joint. Sprained ankles, torn ACLs, and hamstring strains are common examples of acute injuries.
Kate, who’s been a certified CrossFit coach for the better part of a decade, has seen acute injuries happen for all sorts of reasons:
- Someone trips over a curb when running during a workout
- Someone drops a kettlebell
- Someone has an old injury and it flares up during a heavy set
- Someone refuses to listen to the coach when they tell them NOT to add more weight because their technique is garbage
“It can be an accident, an ego, or just flat out something that was bound to happen,” Kate says, “That doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily CrossFit that injured the person; the injury could have happened doing literally anything else.”
Kate says the CrossFit L-1 course doesn’t provide in-depth instructions on how to teach these complex movements and instead merely glosses over them. And we all know that one of the greatest ways to learn is to learn by example.
I wouldn’t say that’s the case in CrossFit, where even at the elite level, athletes aren’t held accountable to exhibit proper technique and sound form.
“It counts in CrossFit”—referring to things like pressing out a snatch or severely rounding the back during a deadlift—is a common expression among both CrossFitters themselves and people ridiculing the sport/exercise regimen.
What About Rhabdo?
Rhabdo is short for “rhabdomyolysis” and there’s a reason I didn’t include it in the main section on common CrossFit injuries. Rhabdo deserves its own section because it is both a severe and potentially life-threatening medical condition—but it’s also overplayed in the fitness community as a condition exclusive to CrossFit. It’s not.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention3, rhabdomyolysis is a condition in which “damaged muscle tissue releases its protein and electrolytes into the blood.”
The CDC states that individuals with physically demanding jobs, especially those who work in hot environments, are susceptible to the condition. This includes athletes, construction workers, firemen, and a number of others.
Rhabdo can cause kidney damage and kidney failure, nausea, vomiting, arrhythmias of the heart (irregular heartbeat), seizures, and, in extreme cases, death.
It’s nothing to joke about, and part of the reason for CrossFit’s bad rap is “Uncle Rhabdo,” a fictional character of a clown hooked up to medical devices and leaking blood—and a kidney. Let’s not forget about “Pukie the Clown,” another cartoon clown; this time pictured keeled over and vomiting from exertion.
(The characters have since been shunned by CrossFit HQ.)
Anyway, exertional rhabdomyolysis or exercise-induced rhabdomyolysis can occur when a person pushes their physical limits to the point of excessive muscular breakdown. In 2005, the CrossFit Journal published an article4 stating that there had been five reported cases of “CrossFit-induced rhabdo.”
There have been a few case studies published on CrossFit-induced rhabdo, such as this one from 20215 that details the elevated creatine kinase levels of a young man and this one that highlights similar information about a woman6. Both of these people presented to emergency departments two days following an exhaustive CrossFit workout.
The latter of the two case studies suggests that CrossFit-induced rhabdo may be an underreported issue, but on the whole, exertional rhabdo is not all that common, with about 3 cases per 10,000 people as reported in a 2014 study in the journal American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine7. The study used data from 2003 to 2013 (which encompasses the realm of both Uncle Rhabdo and Pukie, by the way.)
What Does Science Say?
I searched long and hard for evidence that CrossFit is more dangerous than any other workout regimen and/or sport. I didn’t find much cold, hard evidence comparing CrossFit injury prevalence directly to the injury prevalence in a different activity. Part of the reason for this is that CrossFit is a relatively new activity.
However, I did find some interesting literature. Here’s a synopsis of what’s been reported as far as CrossFit injuries are concerned:
- A 2021 systematic review8 of CrossFit pathology that included 25 studies and a total of more than 12,000 CrossFit participants reported that the incidence of injury in CrossFit is similar to that in powerlifting and weightlifting, with most injuries affecting the spine, knee, and shoulder. A 2016 study9 also concluded that rates of shoulder injury in CrossFit are comparable to other sports of similar intensity.
- A 2022 review of literature10 that looked specifically at upper-extremity injuries states that “CrossFit athletes are vulnerable to high rates of upper-extremity injury” but makes no comparison to other physical pursuits.
- In 2020, during a 12-week study of 515 CrossFit participants11, 133 of those participants reported at least one “CrossFit-related musculoskeletal injury.” There were 247 total injuries reported across more than 13,000 hours of training, with the majority being reports of muscle injuries and joint pain. Switching between prescribed (RX) and scaled loads, as well as previous injuries, were determined as risk factors for injury, while previous CrossFit experience was determined to be a protective factor.
- Beginners are at a greater risk of injury, according to a 2020 study12 that followed novice CrossFitters for eight weeks, although it probably goes without saying that beginners are more at risk for injury than experienced individuals in literally any activity.
- A four-year study published in 201813 actually concluded that CrossFit is “relatively safe compared with more traditional training modalities,” with the study results showing an average injury rate of 0.74 per 1,000 hours. The study also found that those who participate on fewer than three days per week are at a greater risk of injury. I find that tidbit especially interesting.
The Bottom Line: Is CrossFit Bad For You?
So, is CrossFit dangerous? As it’s intended, no, it isn’t. While some people will never see it as anything more than a dangerous fad, CrossFit is functional fitness, period.
“Unfortunately, in practice, CrossFit is often bastardized due to ego and poor coaching,” Kate says.
“You can do CrossFit safely if you find a good box with good coaches,” she continues, “but you have to check your ego at the door. Learn to listen to the people who are teaching you proper form and helping to keep you safe.”
Is CrossFit Safe FAQs
Is CrossFit good for weight loss?
Sure, any type of exercise can be good for weight loss, but that might not be the result you see with CrossFit. If you’re just starting to do resistance training, you may find that you actually gain weight after some time, but lose body fat. This is called body recomposition. Also remember that sustainable weight loss is achieved with a caloric deficit as well.
Does CrossFit cause injuries?
CrossFit can cause injuries, as can any other type of physical activity. But CrossFit is not any more inherently dangerous than a different type of exercise that involves high-intensity movement and/or weight training.
How to stay safe while doing CrossFit?
There are a few things you can do to safeguard yourself against CrossFit injuries. First, if you have an old injury or any nagging musculoskeletal pain, get cleared by a doctor and/or physical therapist before starting CrossFit. Additionally, do your research before joining a box and evaluate the credentials of the coaches. Don’t let your ego get in the way of your performance and learn the difference between pushing your limits and setting yourself up for failure.
What kind of diet do CrossFitters follow?
In CrossFit founder Greg Glassman’s original synopsis of CrossFit as a lifestyle, paleo was the way to go. That is, minimal carbs, lots of veggies and fruit and meat, and no processed foods. However, CrossFitters (both the high-level athletes and the everyday box-goers) follow all sorts of diets. What’s important is that you follow an eating pattern that supports your level of exercise and helps you meet your various wellness goals.
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