It wouldn’t be fair to say that CrossFit gyms have the most back pain cases out of any one “style” of exercise. I strongly believe that there are people sitting at home doing chores who are doing just as much damage to their lower back as the guy in the CrossFit gym doing burpees. What is fair to say, is there aren’t enough educated coaches in the area of back pain leading these CrossFit clients through workouts. We need to stop selling gym memberships to any Tom, Dick, and Harry that walks in and start treating the ones you have. If you experience back pain before, during or after your WOD I am here to tell you it may be time to hang it up for a while. What I want to cover today are 3 key areas in CrossFit that are keeping you from recovering and seeing lasting relief when trying to beat your back pain.
I caught the Crossfit bug for about a year. I was doing WODS off of CrossfitJax.com every day with friends at my local gym. It was awesome and it sucked so bad at the same time. Around this same time I had already been dealing with my lower back issues but back then I was young and dumb and just thought that if I was “fitter” then maybe my body would repair itself. After all, my trusted spine specialists said I needed to continue exercising to strengthen the muscles around my blown disc.
Makes total sense.
Crossfit is far from my normal exercise routine today but I can’t help to look back on those days and wonder what I was doing and why so many people with ANY kind of back injury keep going back. I will hand it to you, the clients I speak with who do Crossfit with a bad back are some of the toughest people I know. So tough sometimes, they will refuse to stop working out to let their backs heal.
Crossfit is far from my normal exercise routine today but I can’t help to look back on those days and wonder what I was doing and why so many people with ANY kind of back injury keep going back. I will hand it to you, the clients I speak with who do Crossfit with a bad back are some of the toughest people I know. So tough sometimes will refuse to stop working out to let their backs heal.
CrossFit is far from my normal exercise routine today but I can’t help to look back on those days and wonder what I was doing and why so many people with ANY kind of back injury keep going back. I will hand it to you; the clients I speak with who do CrossFit with a bad back are some of the toughest people I know. So tough they will refuse to stop working out to let their backs heal.
I want to touch on a few areas of CrossFit that if you consider yourself a back pain suffer (which includes ANYONE who has acute or chronic lower back pain) and a CrossFitter, you will at least consider rethinking your approach to getting or staying in shape. At least until you do a full recovery.
3 Reasons CrossFit is Causing You Back Pain
Most of the time people with bad backs got there from an accumulation or poor movements whether under load or not, over a period of time. Doctors telling their patients to simply “start exercising” is some of the worst blanket advice they could give someone. Their intentions are good but delivery on the best recovery plan is terrible. The people who are told this normally go out and start searching for a gym without giving any thought as to why their backs are hurt in the first place or what will they do inside the gym that will help prevent it from happening again. If anything, I want someone considering CrossFit and dealing with lower back pain to take a second and really dig into what they have going on.
-The programming can be terrible:
Let’s just jump right in. Just because it’s exercise doesn’t mean it’s healthy. You have to understand one thing. Y0ur back is jacked up for a reason. These reasons are specific to you. Which means doing what everyone else in the gym is doing may not be the best option for you. On top of that, even if you have been cleared to exercise your number one goal needs to be to continue to reduce the inflammation and sensitivity in that area. Most of CrossFit’s programming does NOT support that key element of beating back pain. Movements such as Toes To Bar, Ab-Mat sit-ups, Deadlifts, Kipping Pull-Ups, Muscle-Ups, Squats, most Olympic lifts etc. Put the lower back in some suspect positions or cause a lot of excessive movements in an end range of motion. This will not only cause more inflammation but further destroy any hopes of beating your pain.
Think about it.
Let’s say it hurts to bend over to tie your shoe. Odds are, you could have some variation of flexion intolerance. This same person will go to their favorite CrossFit Box and get hype over a “5 rounds for time” of Deadlifts, Burpees, and Toes to Bar. Burpees alone are not only created by the devil himself but WILL destroy your lower back. I don’t need a clinical study to prove that. It’s common freaking sense. If you have instability in your lower back your discs are going to absorb the trauma from your training session. Please explain to me how pairing a loaded lift such as a Deadlift with an exercise like Burpees (insert whatever you want: Toes to Bar, Pull ups etc.) is going to help bring that stability let alone not cause further destruction to this clients back.
It’s not just Burpees and Deadlifts either. It’s this idea of ultimate elites that we think we get from stacking a bunch of complicated multi-level movements together. For the Rich Froning’s of the world, this works and has turned a lot of people into some of the fittest in the world. You can’t deny that but I am talking about the average Joe or Jane who has been dealing with some level of back pain for years and their doctor says to start exercising and they come to you because of the community and “great workout”. What are we doing to ensure that they will come out 3-6-12 months later pain-free?
Whether it’s a CrossFit gym or not, there needs to be a standard in our coaches that are adamant about addressing these fundamental issues. Back pain should literally be one of the questions you have to check yes or no to before you join a gym and from there they need to be paired with a trainer or group that’s starting with not just the “basics of strength” but the fundamentals of basic movement mechanics. Simply showing someone how to hip hinge with a PVC pipe isn’t enough, they need to make the connection between home life and gym life and how form, posture, and mechanics are important no matter where they are.
A lot of coaches here this and respond with “that’s not practical” or “We don’t have the time or resources to spend on those details” the only response I can give to that is, Why bother coaching than? What’s the point?
As far as the structures of the workout. This won’t change but if I can get someone to read this article that is dealing with back pain or thinking about joining a CrossFit gym I want him or her to hear one thing. CrossFit may not be your best FIRST step. You can always come back to it but for now, you need to stop what you’re doing and get to the root of your issue. Fix those issues and come back pain-free than worry about how terrible Burpees are for you. 🙂
-You need a licensed professional to undo all the crap you did.
There is a reason why guys like WODdoc and Kelly Starrett are so valuable to the CrossFit community. They are the only ones who know how to keep your body from falling apart after every workout. The average person doesn’t have a fat clue as to why their back hurts let alone that their WOD’s are the sole reason their lower back feels like a slab of concrete.
It’s fun to watch all the creative ways they teach us how to repair or prevent damage to our bodies but let’s be real. Like anyone else, you want to get your workout done and get out the door to work or home. You don’t have time to spend rolling around on the floor for 15-20 minutes and even if you do have the time, you probably won’t be consistent enough to keep up with the demand your putting on your body during your workout. Because of this, two things will more than likely happen.
You become this elite level beast (a small handful of people actually become this) where you rarely get injured and only get bigger, faster and stronger.
Your body will create this buildup of over-worked and under-treated muscle to the point where there is nothing left for your lower back to do than start breaking down.
Doing CrossFit comes with a level of responsibility that a lot of back pain suffers I talk to don’t seem to understand. You can recover from a typical bodybuilder style workout without much attention but doing the average CrossFit workout requires more attention to ensure you’re recovering well. You can’t just pick yourself up off the floor and head home to start cleaning your house, picking up your kids, commuting back and forth to work and/or sitting at the office all day.
If you’re trying to do CrossFit and rehab a bad back there has to be daily effort towards repairing the tissues that are causing the problem in the first place. If you’re willing to spend the $100+ a month to be a member of a CrossFit gym then make that same investment in taking care of your body. Don’t let issues build up or brush small injuries under the rug. For example: If you have any kind of disc issue and/or currently working through an Anterior Pelvic Tilt.
Going hard in a workout isn’t going to fix that. Truth be told, your quads and hip flexors are only going to clamp down even tighter and the over-compensations your body will develop will be far beyond a 5-minute stretch session and one deep tissue massage a month.
Either take the time to understand why your back hurts to begin with, and treat it or pay someone to do it for you. Whatever you do, don’t allow the workouts to dig you into a deeper hole. If you have back pain before, during or after your workout, unless you make changes, the pain will not go away. Odds are it will only get worse until you’re face down on an operating table.
–The greater the demand the less you think.
When you do CrossFit, you gotta dig deep. I mean really deep. I remember pushing through lifts being so tired I really don’t know how I managed to get out without breaking something. The first thing to go out the window when you’re waist deep in a workout is technique and awareness of your mechanics. No, I’m not saying everyone’s form does this but for the average joe and jane not looking to compete, they just want to finish, which means they are going through the motions and just doing the work. This is what I call “Snap-City”. They start their 6th set of a 5 rep max on deads and it’s all lower back. Core bracing is an after thought and they are over extending at the top to get that extra second break before the drop the weight to the floor.
“Snap-City” is no place for someone dealing with back pain. It’s not worth it. The harder they push, the more tired they get, the more they let the important things slip. I spent years rebuilding my lower back after my L5-S1 Rupture (not CrossFit related). I would consider myself very aware of what good bracing, core stability, and body mechanics looks like and I know for a fact if you put me in my 10th round for time, I will throw most of it out the window. It’s the nature of the beast. For the small group of elite, these workouts are great and can be managed but for the weekend warrior or the stay at home mom/dad, it’s not a place where a bad back can be rehabbed the right way. For those entry level CrossFitters it’s a very dangerous place to be. Period.
Screen your members. Find out if they have any history of back pain. If they do, odds are they will only make things worse in your gym. I don’t care if they spend 6 weeks in “starting strength” before getting to sit at the big kid table. Your level 1 certification doesn’t cover what that person needs. It’s nothing against level 1 certs or any level certs for that matter. It’s just not your area of study. Teach your clients how to operate under high-stress situations. When form starts to fail or exhaustion kicks in, stop them and force them to regroup and focus. I know what I’m saying fly’s in the face of what CrossFit is but seriously, we can’t just sit back and watch people who come in with some underlying back injury to fall apart.
As a back pain sufferer, all I ask is for you to take a minute and think about what you want the next 5 years of your life to be like. Do you like working out? Do you like not having been operated on? Think about what you’re doing to your body. Not all exercise is created equal. Just because your friends are all doing it and your coach is super nice, think about what’s good for you and what’s going to allow you to continue to work out as the year’s progress.
Thanks for reading!