Understanding Training Loads, CrossFit and Injury Prevention.

Is CrossFit is dangerous? No.

Do people get injured participating in CrossFit? Yes.

Do people get injured training at regular Gyms? Yes.

Why? Because at times, individuals (and coaches for that matter) don’t understand the Acute: Chronic Workload Principle.

The objective of CrossFit is to encourage individuals to exercise and move in the correct way in an environment that they feel motivated and achieve things they never thought possible before. In today’s society a large proportion of our population live a very sedentary lifestyle that eventually leads to on going health issues, and as a result, a restriction of living a happy and active lifestyle.

CrossFit training is a fun and sociable training method that will help to develop an individuals all round fitness (General Physical Preparedness) and support a healthy lifestyle.

So why at times does CrossFit get a negative reputation? Quite simply it usually comes down to poor practice and individuals not understanding the key principles of training.

As a Strength and Conditioning Coach in professional rugby, the roles and responsibilities of our S&C department is to improve the physical qualities of our players within the squad, as well as monitoring and managing the training loads of our players from session to session, day to day and week to week, to reduce fatigue and injury and allow them to perform on match day to the best of their ability.

One of the ways that we monitor our players is through ‘running’ loads by the use of GPS, this allows us to look at a number of KPIs such as running volumes (total distance) and running intensities (in particular, high speed running).

Last year, Australian Sports Scientist, Dr. Tim Gabbett, a world leader in training load management presented to a number of S&C coaches involved in rugby. A key area of the presentation was on Acute to Chronic workload ratios and ways to avoid rapid acute training load increases known as ‘spikes’ that put players at risk of injury.

When we monitor players running loads each session, each day, each week (referred to as ‘Acute’ workload) we compare it to what a player has done over the previous 3 weeks (referred to as the ‘Chronic’ workload). Our main objective is to make sure that there aren’t any big spikes in our acute workload compared to our chronic workload, as this will lead to putting our players at an increased risk of unnecessary fatigue and as a result lead to poor performance and potential injury. As you can see from Gabbetts diagram above, if there is a big increase in the acute workload you can see a big spike in the red zone that indicates a far higher chance of injury.

The challenge is to gradually increase the training load of the players throughout preseason and leading into the in season period, this allows us to improve their physical capabilities along with preparing them to sustain the rigors of on field training and match day performance.

Reverting back to CrossFit, one of the best analogies I heard during Gabbetts presentation with regards training load was, believe it or not, ‘Alcohol Consumption’.

We all remember (well maybe) our first night out sipping away on that first lager and it hitting hard and going straight to your head, well the reason for this is that you simply have no tolerance to lager at this stage as you have never been exposed to it before. Over time you go out more frequently and expose yourself to more lager and become more tolerant to it. It’s the exact same principle for CrossFit training.

Continuing with this analogy by Gabbett, as you become more accustomed to lager you grow more adventurous and move away from lager and start sinking some Sambuca’s with friends and that quickly leads you to heading straight for the toilet to be sick. Once you’ve recovered from your Sambuca induced hangover the next day you quickly realize that you have varying tolerance levels for different alcoholic drinks that you consume.

The key thing to understand is that carrying out too much exercise too soon increases the risk of injury dramatically or increasing training volume/intensity above your normal training levels also increases the risk of injury – this is the acute: chronic training load.

If you are starting CrossFit for the first time it is important to expose your body to CrossFit workouts in a gentle manner and that is what our coaches at ION Strength and Conditioning will provide. In order to improve your tolerance for this style of training and improve your general physical preparedness then you need to be exposed to certain key compound movements but not all, you need time to build up your chronic training load and make sure that you don’t allow yourself to spike in your training load.

Again, referring back to Gabbetts analogy, a different training stimulus will result in different adaptations.  Think of ‘lager’ as low skilled and less demanding exercises such as rowing, assault bike, ski erg, air squats, ring rows, kettlebell swings and then think of ‘shorts’, like Sambuca as highly skilled and highly demanding exercises such as kipping pull ups, heavy backs squats, cleans, snatches, time is needed to develop the skill/technique gradually.

Kipping pull-ups are always the talking point when people throw stones at CrossFit training.

Are kipping pull-ups dangerous? If not performed correctly then yes, but most exercises you could say that about. If kipping pull-ups are coached through progressions gradually and performed correctly then no they are not dangerous!

CrossFits definition of fitness is demonstrated as ‘work capacity over broad time and modal domains. Work equals the fore required to move an object or your body multiplied by distance it travels divided by the time it takes to complete the movements’. When it comes to a workout that has handstand push ups, pull ups or muscle ups then using a kipping movement allows you to increase your work capacity that you may not be able to do if these exercises were performed in a strict manner. Increased work capacity is different to building strength and in that regard you can’t compare kipping to strict as its 2 different exercises.

So why are kipping pull-ups the talking point of CrossFit injuries then? Because people commonly try to perform ‘kipping pull ups’ prior to developing the underpinning strength (ability to do a strict pull up), mobility and stability of the shoulder joint. On top of this, people go from never doing pull ups to performing a countless number of reps in an attempt to achieve that first pull up – this results in a huge spike and as discussed already, spikes causes injuries!

This is something everyone should be aware of whether you are an experienced CrossFitter or complete novice, if you have sudden ‘spikes’ in your training load then it massively increases the likelihood of injury. For example, if you are someone that trains 4 times a week, then you have annual leave and increase your training to 2 sessions a day, 5 days a week then there is a very good chance that your body will breakdown as a result of the sudden spike in your training regime.

We’ve all seen the Rich Froning or Matt Fraser documentaries where they train a countless number of times a day and it all looks effortless but what is important to remember is that both have come from an elite sporting background where they have a significant training age that has allowed their bodies to be able to tolerate the training loads they carryout – that’s why they are the best but its taken them years and years to get to the level they are now.

The key to longevity in your CrossFit training and progressing in a healthy sustainable manner is to develop patience and see it as a marathon not a sprint. Look to make small improvements on a regular basis such as grasping the technique of an exercise or performing a workout in the correct manner – technique is everything!

Robin Sowden-Taylor

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