The popular workout CrossFit has come under fire for its link to the potentially deadly kidney condition rhabdomyolysis. Fitness experts warn that rhabdomyolysis, which is usually caused by excessive exercise, can lead to kidney failure.
"With any form of severe exercise, there are risks, and CrossFit falls into extreme exercise," Eric Robertson, a rep for the American Physical Therapy Association, told ABC.
Robertson, an assistant physical-therapy professor at Regis University, penned a scathing blog post on Medium discussing the dangers of CrossFit-induced rhabdomyolysis.
"Rhabdomyolysis is an uncool, serious and potentially fatal condition resulting from the catastrophic breakdown of muscle cells," he wrote. "Under extreme conditions your muscles cells explode. They die."
Cavalier Attitude Toward Overexertion
Robertson was also disturbed by the CrossFit culture's idolization of sports injuries as badges of honor, pointing out that its mascot is a garish-looking carton clown named Uncle Rhabdo.
"Rhabdo isn't a common condition, yet it's so commonly encountered in CrossFit that they have a cartoon about it," he observed.
But CrossFit reps say rhabdomyolysis occurs in other rigorous sports, and isn't unique to CrossFit. “There are cases of rhabdo from football players, people who run triathlons, marathon runners to military trainees to bodybuilding communities,” said Russell Berger, a CrossFit course supervisor.
Most experts agree that CrossFit, a strength and conditioning program that combines weightlifting, sprinting and body-weight exercises done at high intensity, can be an excellent workout, even for pregnant women. But they're concerned about the high injury rate.
Dr. Richard Besser, the chief medical editor for ABC News, says rhabdomyolysis can be prevented by staying hydrated before and during workouts and by stopping when you're in real pain. " 'No pain, no gain' is the worst approach to exercise," he said. "[Rhabdo] can fry your kidneys."
Fitness Experts Raised Rhabo Issue Years Ago
While the debate over rhabdomyolysis may seem new, fitness experts who are familiar with CrossFit have discussed the condition and CrossFit's seemingly cavalier attitude toward excessive exertion before.
Fitness coach Robb Wolf says CrossFit does not invest enough time or effort into properly educating its trainers to ensure that beginning and intermediate CrossFitters don't get injured. "I was pushing for moderated volume and intensity but then they decided to go down this path of elite athleticism," Wolf said in a 2011.
Similarly, former triathlete Mark Sisson has noted that while CrossFit is a great workout, injuries are a recurring problem. "I love CrossFit, but people do get injured," he wrote in 2010. "Either they don’t have their forms locked in, or they’re going too hard for too long, but injuries do occur.
CrossFitters will plainly admit that there is an inherent danger to going all out, day in and day out, and that’s actually part of the appeal. But at my age, I’m not interested in pushing my limits."
Alan Aragon, the nutrition advisor for "Men's Health," has also expressed concern over the CrossFit movement's gung-ho celebration of injuries. "CrossFit is kind of a rebellion against the pink-dumbbell, Universal-machine gym culture," said Aragon, a continuing-education provider for the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
"But they kind of swing the pendulum the other way around, where you get people doing a bunch of funny movements to utter exhaustion and bleeding all over the place and thinking it's cool."
Fitness guru Tony Horton, creator of the best-selling workout regimen P90X, has also criticized CrossFit's high injury rate, but diplomatically softened his stance, saying workout injuries can be mitigated by being careful.
"I guess my issue has been that CrossFit causes injuries, but truth be told, people can get hurt using P90X too," he said. "So the enemy here is not CrossFit. It's most likely our egos. We push too hard because our mind wants something before our body is ready."
$300,000 Jury Award to Navy Officer for Rhabdo
In 2008, a Virginia jury awarded $300,000 to former U.S. Navy technician Makimba Mimms for injuries he sustained during a CrossFit workout in 2005. Mimms was allegedly hospitalized for a week, urinated blood, suffered rhabdo and swollen legs after being poorly supervised during his workout by a gym employee who was not certified.
Mimms, now 34, says he's permanently disabled as a result. CrossFit responded to the lawsuit by sarcastically renaming the WOD (Workout of the Day) that injured Mimms the "Makimba" and recategorizing it as a children's workout.
Meanwhile, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman has boasted that WODs "are designed to exceed the capacities of the world’s fittest athletes." He admitted the brutal workouts can cause serious injury or even death.
"If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don't want you in our ranks," Glassman, 56, told the New York Times. "[CrossFit] can kill you. I've always been completely honest about that."