CrossFit debate not going away

Olympic-style lifts like the snatch are a CrossFit staple, but some question their safety. Courtesy CrossFit, Inc.

Almost 10 years ago, a story about CrossFit in the New York Times was headlined, "Getting Fit, Even if it Kills You."

In the years since, CrossFit has been at the center of a public feud between its legions of believers and its critics, each arguing that: (A) CrossFit is the best and most challenging fitness program they've ever found, or (B) it's a program that recklessly pushes practitioners into danger zones.

Since that Times article in 2005, other pieces about CrossFit have carried headlines such as "CrossFit's Dirty Little Secret" and "Can CrossFit Kill You?" More often than not, the comments sections on those stories online have degenerated into nasty digital duels between the passionate supporters and detractors. The only absolute certainty about CrossFit seems to be that it's a polarizing topic.

So when a CrossFit athlete and trainer named Kevin Ogar was injured seriously in a recent Southern California competition that featured CrossFit-like events (but was not sanctioned by CrossFit), the tragedy sparked yet another series of national stories and a war of words.

To Dr. Andrew Galpin, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton -- in Orange County where Ogar's injury occurred -- the latest stories were to be expected.

"You don't like CrossFit, so you see this thing and there you go, it confirmed your bias," said Galpin, who is familiar with CrossFit and specializes in the study of performance enhancement and strength and conditioning.

That doesn't necessarily mean there's nothing wrong with CrossFit, he says, adding there are "a lot of things that CrossFit does really, really bad." But he says it's "a massive failure in logic" to single out one injury in one event and declare it to be proof that the program is dangerous.

Since Ogar was injured on Jan. 12, Galpin says he hasn't noticed any increase in negative buzz about CrossFit from his students or the people he talks to. And, in fact, the incident doesn't seem to have dissuaded people from trying CrossFit. Down the road in San Diego, for instance, Aush Chatman, who owns and operates the CrossFit San Diego gym, says he had more newcomers in January 2014 than in any previous January.

Galpin says questions about CrossFit haven't increased because it's always being questioned.

"You know, honestly it hasn't picked up that much because actually it's pretty prevalent as it is," Galpin said. "We get it quite a bit, and honestly I get a lot of that question from even my grad students or my senior-level kinesiology students. They'll say, sort of tentatively, 'What's the deal with that CrossFit, is that all right?'

"There's a lot of unsurety behind it and I tell them the same sort of thing: there's some really bad CrossFit and some really bad CrossFit trainers, and there's some really bad tire companies and some really bad insurance companies and there's some really bad computer makers. It's just like anything else. You have to be an aware consumer."

A "tragic, freak event"

The injury to Ogar -- an experienced CrossFit competitor and trainer -- occurred while he was performing a snatch lift in the Olympic-style weightlifting competition of a three-day annual event called the OCT at the Orange County Fairgrounds that began Jan. 10.

On the final day, Ogar, 28, was lifting a barbell weighing 240 pounds. It's uncertain exactly what happened, but Ogar released the barbell when it was above his head. Some reports say it hit his spine as it fell behind him; others say it hit the floor, bounced and hit his spine.

Whichever actually happened, his spinal cord was severed and he's been paralyzed below the waist. Now back home in Colorado, he's already had two surgeries. The CrossFit community has rallied to support him through a website (kevinogar.com) that has raised nearly $350,000. And CrossFit, Inc., has donated $100,000, said Dale Saran, the company's general counsel.

Many in CrossFit have called what happened to Ogar a "freak event," a tragic, one-time happenstance that doesn't relate to anything else. Even Galpin -- who says "I am no CrossFit advocate, I don't do CrossFit and I don't have any stock in CrossFit" -- calls the incident "a very tragic freak event, but it speaks nothing to CrossFit being a problem."

Yet CrossFit has been a problem for many, who believe the program that emphasizes high-volume, high-intensity workouts can lead to serious injuries.

Among their arguments: training is insufficient, weightlifting technique is sacrificed for speed and volume, the culture of CrossFit pushes people beyond their limits and the high-intensity training can lead to a serious condition called rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo) in which muscle tissue breaks down and is carried by the bloodstream to the kidneys, which can't handle the load and shut down.

Darren McGuire, the executive director of the event in which Ogar was injured, says CrossFitters in Orange County were saddened by the accident, but he doesn't get the sense they see it as an indication there's something inherently unsafe about CrossFit.

"I think overall, 99 percent feel it's a terrible sports injury, but they're going on and still continuing to work out and trying to work their bodies into the best physical condition they can," he said. "I think people are realizing that it's just unfortunately a sports injury. If you play football, if you get hit you can sustain injuries, or play baseball or anything else."

Saran says his company's first concern is with Ogar and his life-changing injury. But he dismisses arguments that CrossFit is somehow responsible.

"When people started saying, 'Well, it's CrossFit, it's CrossFit,' look, the guy was doing an Olympic lift, the snatch," he said. "I have yet to hear somebody demanding that the IOC [International Olympic Committee] issue a statement about what happened and why, or whether USA Weightlifting should be issuing a statement on how safe the snatch is."

McGuire says if anything, Ogar's injury might cause CrossFit athletes to pay more attention to their bodies and back off if they're feeling tired or sick, or to pay more attention to technique. But, he says, working out in a gym -- almost any gym -- or exercising or playing any sport can lead to injury.

"If you go into a [CrossFit] gym there are very few things in there that won't kill you," he said. "You can fall off a box and break your neck. You can have a kettlebell hit you in the head, there could be a barbell swinging. There's a plethora of things in there that could just take your life. If you want to be safe, you know what they say, sit on the couch."

Chatman, who has the gym in San Diego (a "box" in the language of CrossFit), hopes perhaps something good will come out of a tragic event.

"Obviously, there's been a ton of articles, which I think is good, that analyze what happened, why it happened, could it have been prevented, that kind of stuff," he said. "I think that's all great. I'm glad people are digging into it."

He says he's always tried to emphasize safety to keep people from pushing themselves too far. He talks with each new member about limits and not crossing the "red line."

"Because rhabdo isn't the only thing that can go wrong in a workout," he said. "Throwing up is also a sign that you went too hard. Throwing up is not a good sign. It means something is not going right. So I talk about the red line. I talk about how in CrossFit what we want to do is get you comfortable with approaching that red line, but what we don't want is we don't want you to go over the edge. That's bad. You get hurt or you get sick."

Chatman said CrossFit originally was designed for elite athletes. As its popularity has increased -- there are more than 5,000 CrossFit-affiliated gyms across the U.S. and hundreds overseas -- and non-elite men and women have been drawn to it, CrossFit has become more "scale-able" to their limits and talents, and people should seek out trainers willing to scale programs to their abilities.

JP Bolwahnn of San Diego, a former Navy SEAL and college football player, works for CrossFit as a Level I trainer and travels in and outside the U.S. giving seminars to CrossFit instructors. He's certain that CrossFit, when done properly, is not dangerous.

"When you do what you're supposed to, and what we teach, then you're going to be safe," he said.

CrossFit backlash

In a way, Chatman understands the CrossFit critics. So many CrossFitters have become so passionate they've also become unbearable, he says.

"People get sick of their friends who have now found a new thing that is changing their life, talking about it all the time," he said. "So I think what happens is we have a lot of zealots out there and we have a lot of people who are like, 'Just shut up about CrossFit.'"

Galpin, too, says the camaraderie of CrossFit is one of the best aspects of the program, but it can be grating to those on the outside.

"People dress funny, there's definitely an elitist attitude," he said. "If you're a CrossFitter you look down on other people who aren't CrossFitters and, because of that, from the outside you get annoyed. They're wearing silly things and saying silly things and always making up terms. I can see why people get irritated by it."

And Chatman and Saran claim proponents of other gyms and workout programs love to take shots at CrossFit.

"If you don't have haters, you probably don't matter," said Chatman, laughing.

Added Saran: "These claims [that CrossFit is unsafe] always come from our competitors. People who are getting their asses kicked in the marketplace."

Yet if so many people have been blowing smoke at CrossFit, there must be fires, right? Are there some fundamental problems with the program?

To Galpin, the No. 1 problem is some bad trainers and poorly run gyms. But that isn't unique to CrossFit.

"Are there some bad CrossFit trainers? Oh yeah, really bad," he said. "We have some really bad CrossFit gyms, for sure. But there's a whole lot more really bad personal trainers."

Galpin says the three most important things with exercise are variety, patience and planning. Variety has been CrossFit's strength, and it's getting better with planning, but patience -- "a lot of the complaints are, well, it's too much, too fast," he said -- is still a weakness.

Galpin doesn't deny that CrossFit can lead to injuries. But he says the perception that CrossFit is inherently dangerous is wrong, and points to runners who do half-marathons or longer distances as having much higher rates of injury.

In an article by the Military Times in 2013, CrossFit was credited as being a great program to increase fitness, citing an Ohio State study. But Ohio State kinesiology professor Steven T. Devor also told the Military Times it can lead to injuries.

"As with any high-intensity power training -- including CrossFit -- your likelihood of having an overuse injury is greater. It is the nature of the intensity," he said.

Saran knows Ogar's injury has again pointed a spotlight on CrossFit, but he argues there are no definitive studies that prove it's more dangerous than other pursuits, and claims it has lower rates of injury than most competitive youth sports.

"I can tell you this, if the claims that CrossFit's dangerous and we know it, that would make us the most immoral people on the planet, and I can tell you fundamentally that's not true," he said.

"That I do know. If we thought it were unsafe we would try to make it safer."