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Assessing the Benefits of CrossFit: Is It Right for You?

Almost all of us have one: that friend, family member, or coworker who just can't stop expounding on the benefits of CrossFit after taking up the workout routine. Founded by former gymnast coach Greg Glassman, CrossFit incorporates high-intensity, explosive movements to increase aerobic fitness and build muscle. CrossFitters can train at home or a CrossFit gym (often called a "box") and typically focus on the Workout of the Day -- or WOD, for short -- that's posted on the CrossFit website. The basic concept is to complete the WOD as many times as possible in a certain amount of time or to go through a specific routine as quickly as possible.

It's definitely challenging, it's occasionally extreme, and its participants are seen as hard-core -- and decidedly outspoken -- exercise enthusiasts. But CrossFit also has a reputation as a potentially dangerous form of exercise, with some of its movements requiring considerable technical skill and posing an injury risk if performed incorrectly. How do these risks stack up against the benefits of CrossFit? Let's take a look to help you better understand if this popular approach to fitness is right for you.

Fast Train to Fitness

There's a reason CrossFit is so popular: Its workouts do a great job getting people in shape. Participants are drawn to the competitive atmosphere and camaraderie that their box's WODs foster. But CrossFit isn't just for the athletically inclined: People of all fitness levels and walks of life can participate in the training, although some WODs may need to be modified for beginners.

Practitioners attribute their fast transformations to CrossFit's high-intensity and continuously changing workouts. Training consists of compound exercises to build cardiovascular endurance, strength, flexibility, speed, and balance while burning more calories per minute than traditional weight-training activities. In addition to body-weight movements, the program utilizes a variety of equipment -- from barbells and medicine balls to jump ropes and elastic bands -- as part of its daily WODs.

Because of the intensity, the energy output for a CrossFit WOD can be considerable. A study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) found that, on average, men burned 20.5 calories a minute and women 12.3 calories when performing CrossFit workouts.

Asking for Injury?

But with its emphasis on swift, high-intensity movements and a constant motivation to increase performance, speeds, and weight used on the exercise, CrossFit isn't without risks. The volume, intensity, difficulty, and required power output of many WODs might not be safe and maintainable for all, especially those with preexisting cardiac or orthopedic issues.

The way CrossFit incorporates certain movements is often different than the way they're traditionally practiced. In powerlifting, for example, the squat, bench press, and deadlift are performed using heavy weights for low repetitions, with an emphasis on form and technique and the goal of building strength over time. CrossFit, on the other hand, uses these same exercises but with lighter weights, at high intensity and volume, and in quick succession, with little or no recovery time between sets. Under these conditions, form can suffer, which may lead to injury.

A 2014 study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that nearly 20 percent of the almost 400 CrossFit participants who completed the survey had sustained a shoulder, lower-back, or knee injury. Rhabdomyolysis -- a condition in which muscle fiber tissue is broken down and released into the bloodstream, potential causing kidney damage -- is also a concern with high-intensity exercise routines like CrossFit.

Play Safe

CrossFit training is fun and challenging, and when performed properly, it can certainly help you get fit -- just be sure to take steps to decrease your risk of injury. Listen to your body, and be aware of your limits. If you're new to CrossFit, start slow, and ask the coach for help with technique and mechanics. Avoid overtraining, and spend adequate time on recovery through proper hydration, nutrition, sleep, and stretching. And of course, talk with your health care provider before starting a new workout routine, especially one as rigorous as CrossFit.

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