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High intensity exercise: CrossFit spinal injury questions safety of top trend

Repeated box jumps are a common CrossFit xercise, seen here at the Reebok campaign launch March 13 in Berlin. Germany
Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for Reebok

While more details on the spine severing injury suffered by a CrossFit trainer were released Jan. 18 on NBC, the debate over the safety of high intensity regimens such as CrossFit continues as its popularity increases.

Following the CrossFit regimen since 2008, the injury to 28-year old Kevin Ogar occurred last Sunday when he attempted consecutive lifts of over 200 pounds, at the "2014 OC Throwdown" competition in Costa Mesa, CA. One friend described the injury as a "freak accident." Now the CrossFit community is spearheading efforts to raise money to help pay the medical costs for Ogar, who does not have health insurance.

While CrossFit, Inc. did not organize, sanction or license the Costa Mesa event, the Throwdown series which began in 2010 has grown to be the second-largest competition worldwide attracting CrossFit athletes outside of the CrossFit Games. The Throwdown invites the highest-caliber CrossFit athletes to compete in events that include multiple 250-meter swims with “burpees,” or squat thrusts, in between; a three-mile run with kettlebells; and other standard CrossFit techniques.

A form of High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) which involves short bursts of activity followed by a short period of rest or recovery, the CrossFit prescription is comprised of “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement” in order to develop the necessary capacity to move large loads over long distances, and to do so quickly.

Gaining in popularity since the first CrossFit gym opened in 1995, HIIT has emerged as the number one fitness trend in the ACSM Top 20 Fitness Trends of 2014 survey. According to lead author Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM, “Its appearance in the top spot on the list reflects how this form of exercise has taken the fitness community by storm in recent months."

But are high intensity regimens such as those adhered to by CrossFit followers safe? Orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert Dr. Vonda Wright, has seen a rise in the number of CrossFit-associated injuries that result from overuse and bad technique.

"There's a real competitive nature to fight through the pain, to get through it and do really, really high numbers of reps, and there's not a lot of listening to your body going on," Wright told ABC News. "That's when people get stress injuries."

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), high intensity exercise of any type brings with it a higher risk of musculoskeletal injury and cardiac events, but under the proper supervision high-intensity intervals can offer significant improvements in cardiovascular function without negative effects.

Yet they may not be safe for everyone, so one should consult a health care provider before adding HIIT to a personal exercise plan. HIIT protocols can vary widely, and depending on experience and fitness level, what one athlete can tolerate in terms of work/rest ratio as well as intensity, may be potentially dangerous for another. To maximize the fitness benefits while reducing the risk of injury, ACE recommendations are to perform HIIT workouts 1-2 times per week, periodically for up to 6 weeks as a means to enhance regular training rather than as a year-round continuous fitness strategy. It is also advisable to work with a certified personal trainer with experience in successfully adapting high intensity interval protocols to best meet varying client needs.

CrossFit Trainer Suffers Spinal Injury During Weightlifting Competition, NBC Los Angeles, Jan. 18, Vikki Vargas

CrossFit Athlete's Paralyzing Injury Renews Concerns, ABC News, Jan. 16, COLLEEN CURRY

Survey Predicts Top 20 Fitness Trends for 2014, “Now Trending: Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2014” issue of ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, November/December 2013, Walter R. Thompson, Ph.D., FACSM

CrossFit Trainer Receives Support after Injury in Competition Leaves Him Paralyzed, Club Industry, Jan. 17, Stuart Goldman, Executive Editor