Does CrossFit Ruin Your Body? What are the Long-Term Effects?

Will CrossFit ruin your body? There are some intense emotions on both sides of this debate. On one hand, we have the dedicated fans who swear the fitness program transformed their bodies as well as their lives. On the other hand are those who believe the program is too intense and may lead to unhealthy lifestyles and mindsets.

CrossFit was introduced to the world in 2000. In 2007, the first CrossFit Games were announced. By 2012, there were more than 3,000 boxes (locations) around the world. By 2021, there were more than 250,000 dedicated members. The gym has enjoyed appearances on 60 Minutes and in other popular media outlets with mostly positive commentary from journalists.

It’s easy to look at the super sculpted bodies that cross through CrossFit box doors every day, but those aren’t the only people joining the movement. Many people go into their first workout looking anything but hard and chiseled. That has led many people to question what the long-term effects are and how many injuries are sustained by followers every year.

Will CrossFit ruin your body, or should you jump in and brace yourself for the transformation of a lifetime? We dug into the issue deeper to help you can make an informed decision for your body.

Is CrossFit Bad for Your Body?

Before we can fairly answer that question, we have to look at the arguments for and against CrossFit. The next step is to see what research—if any—backs up each side of the debate. Let’s get started.

The Arguments Against CrossFit

  • Members develop a cult-like mindset. That mindset is displayed in the CrossFit branded attire that most participants wear to their box daily.
  • Intense competition within and between boxes creates a toxic environment that pushes some members to unhealthy habits.
  • CrossFit endorses building mental toughness by pushing past physical and mental limits. Some believe it leads to unhealthy mindsets that can lead to more physical injuries. Instead of recognizing they’re not ready for a workout or movement, members may try to push through it anyway.
  • New members are thrown into super intense workouts before they’re physically ready.
  • Members are encouraged to follow the Paleo Diet, which isn’t a healthy option for everyone.
  • The workouts are generalized to include everyone, which means participants never receive workouts tailored to their individual fitness goals.

The Arguments for CrossFit

  • CrossFit encourages teamwork and ensures members feel like part of a group. That mentality leads to many new members feeling included rather than self-conscious and alone.  
  • Feeling like part of a group or movement allows many new members to stick to fitness goals when they have failed at consistency in the past.
  • CrossFit workouts are effective for enhancing endurance, increasing maximal aerobic capacity, building strength, improving flexibility and balance, decreasing fat mass, and lowering body mass index.
  • The boxes feel like exclusive clubs. People want to take part and join the movement, which encourages more people to become physically active.
  • The program encourages healthy nutrition rather than focusing only on exercise. It creates a full lifestyle that improves health in all aspects of life.
  • The focus on mental toughness and breaking limiting beliefs allows members to push harder in many aspects of life, creating more successful careers as well as stronger, fitter bodies.

The Potential Hazards of CrossFit Workouts

Will CrossFit ruin your body, or is it an aggressive fitness plan that could transform my body? The truth is probably in the middle of these radical sides for most people. There are some clear benefits, such as encouraging nutrition in addition to exercise and getting more people to workout consistently. You will find it much easier to lose weight, develop muscle, or hit other fitness goals if you are consistent to a well-rounded fitness program.

But what does the research say about the long-term effects of CrossFit? We need to look at each element of the program to see:

  • Weightlifting
  • High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)
  • Paleolithic (Paleo) Diet

While some will argue that the Paleo Diet isn’t a requirement for CrossFit membership, the program has endorsed the diet openly for many years. It’s even offered to new members as one of the best eating plans for success at CrossFit.

What are the Long-term Effects of Weightlifting?

An historical cohort study published in the journal Spine in 1995 compared the risk of back-related injuries in weightlifters, runners, soccer players, and other athletes. The study is often quoted for its finding that the weightlifters were more prone to disc degeneration and bulging.

That may sound as if programs like CrossFit that rest heavily on intense weightlifting are unhealthy for the back, but you have to look at some other findings of the study. For instance, the researchers found that back pain was less common for all the athletes than the less athletic control subjects. That is a benefit that comes from consistently following any aggressive fitness program.

So, what are the most common injuries experienced by CrossFit participants? Disc degeneration and bulging are potential issues for the long term, but what about short-term injuries occurring directly from the program’s workouts?

In 2020, the results for a study on CrossFit injuries was released by German researchers. They found that the risk of injury for the program’s participants was comparable to injuries for Olympic weightlifters, powerlifters, and gymnasts. They found the following injuries prominent for CrossFit participants:

  • Shoulder joint injuries
  • Shoulder girdle injuries
  • Spine injuries

Another study released in 2013 collected questionnaire responses regarding CrossFit injuries from 132 program participants. The following statistics resulted:

  • More than 73% of respondents were injured during CrossFit workouts.
  • Surgery was required for 7% of the CrossFit injuries.
  • The injury rate per 1,000 training hours was 3.1.

It’s clear that there is a risk of injury when performing intense weightlifting workouts. The research does highlight that the involvement of experienced trainers can reduce the risk of injury. The quality of supervision and training can vary by box, which is a weakness of the CrossFit program.

What are the Long-Term Effects of HIIT Training?

HIIT training requires short bursts of high-intensity exercise followed by periods of lower intensity. The heart rate gets high and then lowers during the recovery periods. This type of workout is often promoted for its ability to burn more fat, but you can include some strength-building movements in HIIT workouts as well.

Burning more fat through high-intensity exercise sounds like a great thing, but there is increased risk of injury when you push your body to extremes. It doesn’t matter if the workout is strength-training or cardio. Overtraining is possible, especially when new members who aren’t physically fit aren’t properly supervised and eased into workouts by experienced trainers.

The results of several studies related to HIIT training were discussed in a 2021 article published by The New York Times. The results of those studies pointed to the following potential downsides to HIIT training:

  • Short, intense HIIT workouts performed three times a week were less effective for reducing blood pressure and body fat than more moderate exercise performed five times a week.
  • Starting a strenuous workout program that requires almost daily workouts leads to a severe decline in mitochondria functionality. Mitochondria are found within human cells and are often referred to as the “powerhouses” that trigger energy.
  • While HIIT training may lead to increased exercise performance in the short-term, it can lead to reductions in power and energy in the long term.

The studies hit on a dilemma for fitness programs like CrossFit that heavily promote HIIT training. Two or three intense HIIT workouts a week will leave participants sedentary most of the week, which leads to setbacks in results. If HIIT workouts are performed throughout the week, mitochondria lose some of their power and results aren’t as impressive as they were in the short term.

The solution? Perform HIIT workouts two to three times a week and stay active with more moderate exercise the rest of the week. All the research together hints that a program like that may work, but that’s not at all what the hardcore members of CrossFit boxes endure through their workouts.

We’ll talk about how often CrossFit participants workout in a moment. Right now, let’s move on to the research regarding long-term effects of the Paleo Diet.

What are the Long-Term Effects of the Paleo Diet?

The Paleo Diet requires you to eat only foods that our ancestors would have eaten in the Paleolithic Era. We’re talking about before all the technology of our modern world forever changed the eating habits of humans. The diet is limited to the following foods:

  • Lean meat and fish
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Legumes

If your ancestors could have hunted or gathered the food in the distant past, it’s likely acceptable on the Paleo Diet. If it’s heavily processed and comes in a box, then it’s probably off limits.

Some of the biggest criticisms against this diet are that it’s too extreme and that many people find it near impossible to stick to long term. You could easily argue back that sticking to an intense diet is likely easier for the type of person who can also endure intense workouts almost daily. It could complement the CrossFit program nicely, but what about the long-term health impact?

In a review of the long-term effects of the Paleo Diet published by Harvard, the following short-term benefits (up to 6 months on the diet) were highlighted:

  • Weight loss
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced waist circumference
  • Increased insulin insensitivity
  • Improved cholesterol

Another study discussed by Harvard revealed that the Paleo Diet delivered ongoing health benefits when followed for up to two years. They did note that the results were less dramatic at 24 months than at 6 months.

The Harvard report highlighted the following issues as potential risk factors when following the Paleo Diet:

  • Focus on fresh food makes meal planning difficult
  • Buying fresh food is more expensive than buying other foods
  • Excluding whole grains and dairy may lead to nutrient deficiencies
  • Consuming a lot of meat may have some long-term health consequences
  • It’s too restrictive for some people to follow consistently

Will CrossFit Ruin Your Body Over Time? The Verdict

Now that we’ve gone through the research behind the main components of the CrossFit program, let’s revisit our original question: Will CrossFit ruin your body?

The short answer is no, CrossFit likely will not ruin your body. It’s important to keep reading the longer answer, though.

Is there a high risk of injury when you jump into the program hardcore? Yes. The intense exercise with a heavy focus on HIIT training and weightlifting could lead to injuries if you don’t use common sense. Following a few guidelines may help reduce the risk:

  • Don’t push yourself to complete five or more workouts every week. Even though the program has their “Workout of the Day” or WOD, you don’t have to do it every day when starting out. Allow your body to gain strength and improve with time.
  • Seek out experienced trainers and role models within the CrossFit community. Don’t follow where they are today because they’re likely more physically fit and have adjusted to the intense workouts over time. Listen to their advice on working out safely at your current level. Learn from their experience rather than copying their current moves.
  • Push beyond your comfort zone a little more each workout. Don’t push too hard, and never push so hard that you could harm your body. Not even the CrossFit Games are worth the long recovery time and pain of an injury.
  • You don’t need to go hardcore on every workout. Mix in some more moderate workouts like walking to keep your body active without overusing your muscles and joints.

Finally, look into the Paleo Diet but get your doctor’s opinion on its safety for your body. While it is an effective diet for some people, weight loss and muscle gain is a personal journey for everyone. Follow a nutrient-rich diet that works for your body, even if it’s not the one promoted by CrossFit.

How Many Days a Week Should You Do CrossFit?

Let’s cover this one last question before releasing you to determine where CrossFit should fit into your life today. In general, most CrossFit boxes recommend three to five workouts per week. Intense workouts five days a week could lead to overuse injuries if you aren’t already accustomed to the physical stress.

Try to start out with three CrossFit workouts per week. You can then add one or two more weekly workouts as your body gets stronger and healthier. Many boxes promote a schedule of three consecutive daily workouts followed by a day of rest. You can go for a walk or take a deep stretching class to stay active on your rest days.  

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