Every year, the most advanced CrossFit athletes around the world gather for regional contests in hopes of advancing to the CrossFit Games in August. Injuries at this level of competition are not uncommon — particularly for a style of fitness that “can kill you,” as proudly noted by its outspoken creator, Greg Glassman. But this year’s regionals reportedly brought an unprecedented number of one specific injury — pectoral tears and strains among men (and one woman), which numbered, by latest count, at a whopping 36.
“There have always been tons [of these injures], but this is quite unique, affecting 10 percent of male competitors. And it’s beyond what’s acceptable, in my opinion,” Ryan DeBell, a Washington-based chiropractor, sports-injuries expert, and longtime CrossFit adherent, tells Yahoo Beauty.
The pectoralis major is a powerful chest muscle that causes the arm to rotate inward and move closer to the body, originating from both the breastbone and the collarbone. It’s most commonly injured, according to an explanation by two orthopedic surgeons of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, “when the external force on the muscle is greater than the force that the muscle can generate” and “when the arm is extended and externally (outwardly) rotated, such as when performing a bench press.” Surgery is typically required to repair the tear, the doctors add.
In the case of the regionals, which concluded on June 4, the tears and strains, according to a detailed tally by the Barbell Spin, seem to be generally related to ring dips — in which you are balanced, with hands on rings, and dip down and back up again in quick succession.
“The intent of the article is not to point fingers or to place blame on the programming, CrossFit, the athletes, the movement standards, the space between the rings or anything else,” the story on the Barbell Spin, which covers barbell-specific sports such as CrossFit and Powerlifting. “Instead, we wanted to provide a comprehensive list of athletes who were affected by a pec injury over the past month.” It notes that, “The fact is that 36 athletes (35 men and 1 woman) either withdrew from competition, were eliminated due to not meeting minimum work requirements or just couldn’t compete at the highest level.”
CrossFit and CrossFit Games contacts did not respond to requests from Yahoo Beauty for comment on the pectoral injuries — nor did any of the injured athletes themselves, a number of whom were contacted by Yahoo Beauty for more details. But most of the injured competitors wrote about their torn pecs on Instagram, sometimes including videos, such as the one from Alex Vigneault, who withdrew early. “I’m sorry to all of you. Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned. This situation is out of my control and the only thing I can change is the way I react to it. The last few days were very tough mentally but I have amazing people around me,” he wrote in a May 18 post.
A couple of days later, Christian Harris detailed his own pec problems: “Well, this weekend definitely didn’t go as planned. Felt a pop in my right pec during the ring dips in Event 2 and had to withdraw from the competition. Although I’m extremely bummed out about the situation, I know there has to be a reason for this. It was an honor competing alongside the East Regional competitors.”
Dozens more followed, with apologies to fans and stunned declarations of this year’s competition being “over.”
DeBell, who has been doing CrossFit trainings for the past decade but stresses that there’s a “big difference between the sport and competition and the training,” wrote an in-depth blog about the pectoral injuries, curious to find out what had gone wrong. “As I watched all of this happen, I started thinking: what is going on here? Why are these highly conditioned and strong athletes injuring their pecs on a movement they’ve done thousands of times? Why is it only males? Why does it seem to be some of the strongest athletes?” he wrote.
He concludes that it was a combination of factors, and one part of the equation, he figured, was “the volume of weighted chest to bar pull ups, a movement many athletes don’t train regularly above.” Also playing into it, DeBell believes, is “how hard and fast the athletes can push out of the bottom of the dip.”
In competition, he says, injuries happen. “However, they should be minimized by the event organizer — by learning about what happened this year to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” DeBell doesn’t blame the injuries on CrossFit itself, noting, “People in the culture don’t like it. It doesn’t sit well with people. I don’t think it’s coming from the top down.”
A commenter on DeBell’s blog post, from a user named Tiago, felt differently. “Doing multiple repetitions on rings, in fast and furious mode, with all the instability they have, and considering the value of good shoulder health for a good LIFE until old age, is simply a stupid choice, and it is very sad that trainers and proponents of Cross Fit install this kind of madness, for sake of profit,” he wrote. “Cross Fit has originally many good things to it, but it is — to be short — too ‘Yang,’ there is not enough ‘Yin.’ It is unbalanced. Over competitive. Highly prone to injury. Ineffective in many ways for the average person.”
Another commenter wondered why it wasn’t Cross Fit itself forging an open dialogue about the injuries, while another became defensive in response to Tiago, noting, “…CrossFit works, ESPECIALLY for the average person, people love it and like the ancient Greeks, we want to know who’s best. You have attempted to conflate injuries across CF with injuries associated with competitive CF. It’s well worn road that there is NO credible research to support a higher rate of incidence in CF across the general population.”
Ryan Daniel Beck is a New York City–based dancer, choreographer, and instructor of bodyART, a functional movement training system created in Austria and based on principles of Yin and Yang. He watched the CrossFit regionals with both interest and concern.
“There have always been concerns with the way that some people abuse the CrossFit methodology. I’m by no means the ‘fitness police,’ but I do find it interesting to observe high intensity training when it shifts from useful to destructive,” Beck tells Yahoo Beauty.
Beck notes that, of course, “Elite athletes are by nature competitive and thrive on pushing the limits of functionality. But when 36 athletes are hit with the same overuse injury, it’s less anomaly and clearly systemic. So you have to re-evaluate the methodology, and find more balance.”
For example, he suggests, “what if the CrossFit games also included a full range of motion, flexibility, component and a five hour standing, blindfolded, motionless, silent meditation? Of course, they would never do this, because it doesn’t play well for TV and is not commercially aligned with the ‘hard-core’ mentality that CrossFit culture embodies. There have been attempts to bridge this disconnect by introducing ‘bro-ga’ or (yoga for bros) at CrossFit, but it’s an addendum rather than an integral part of the method.”
CrossFit, “on paper,” is solid and science-based, Beck adds. But, he stresses, “it’s also, by nature, high intensity, dynamic, plyometric, interval cross training, rather than therapeutic and restorative. This kind of training is like fire, it can be a useful tool or very destructive.” The key to all training, he says, “is to remember that the therapeutic and restorative aspect is as important as the high intensity, high impact side.”
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