This short article is purely informative. Its goal is not to scare you but to bring about an awareness that others in the field may or may not want to share. I have been in the wellness and fitness industry for over three decades and I love my work so if you read this and think that I’m against CrossFit or any other fitness modality, your assumption is wrong. If CrossFit has changed your life positively, I’m happy for you!
This said I’d like to introduce you to Rhabdomyolysis or “rhabdo” for short. Rhabdo is CrossFit’s and other high-intensity workouts off-the-record and troubling dirty secret.
A very dangerous secret indeed!
Rhabdomyolysis is a rare and potentially fatal condition that causes the breakdown of muscle tissue. When muscle is damaged, a protein called myoglobin is released into the bloodstream. It is then cleaned out off the body by the kidneys. Myoglobin breaks down into substances that can damage the kidney’s cells.
People who experience exertional rhabdomyolysis end up in the emergency room and remain in the hospital for several days. Their creatinine kinase (CPK) levels are dangerously high, thus indicating damage to the kidneys.
What the heck is going on?
The reason most instructors are not familiar with this condition is because it’s uncommon and studies show that annual incidence of Rhabdomyolysis is very low. They also reveal that exertional Rhabdomyolysis is normally reserved for the elite athletes or hardcore military personnel, yet it’s showing up more often in super high-intensity workout facilities. Even Joe Blow can get rhabdo now!!!
This is what WebMd posted in their website as part of their excellent article on CrossFit:
“WARNING: A very serious, yet rare muscular injury known as Rhabdomyolysis is also a major concern with participation in vigorous exercise. In short, Rhabdomyolysis is a condition in which skeletal muscle becomes so severely damaged that it rapidly breaks down. If this happens, muscle cells may rupture and important contents could leak out into the bloodstream, eventually damaging the kidneys even to the point of kidney failure. It must be treated in a medical facility as it is potentially life threatening.”
Now this is what the same site (WebMd) says about Circuit Training for example, just to name one other safe workout solution (notice there is no warning in this article):
“If you have other physical limitations, you can likely find something that works for you. An instructor or trainer can work with you to find moves that will still get your heart pumping and tone your muscles.”
I could of chosen Kettlebell or any other more traditional Strength Training and Cardio workouts as an example, I can assure you that they have no such warnings as in the CrossFit‘s article, just plain ole disclaimer.
Here is what I say about CrossFit:
There are other common risks of injury with CrossFit than rhabdo. For instance, if you are overweight (whether it is fat or muscle), you will most likely have to “scale” the WOD (Workout Of the Day). Scaling means you will have to perform the exercise in a different manner, or assisted. Which is perfectly fine to finish the WOD. The other issue is that you will be performing extremely high repetitions of various exercises, bodyweight, Olympic lifting, and others. The problem with high rep anything, is that at some point, your body will not be able to perform good quality reps, and your form will begin to breakdown. What will you do in this situation? Continue onward, with sloppy form, caving into peer pressure to finish the WOD, risking injury? Or, will you listen to your body, and stop? Competition is all well and good; but only if you compete against yourself, and not constantly measuring yourself against others. Sports medicine doctors and orthopedic surgeons are treating an increasingly high number of CrossFit related injuries due to the high amount of stress placed on the body.
Other causes for Rhabdomyolysis:
- Traumatic or muscle compression (E.g. crush syndrome or prolonged immobilization)
- Non-traumatic non-exertional (E.g. drugs or toxins, infections, or electrolyte disorders)
- Infections: Rhabdomyolysis has also been associated with a variety of infections viral and bacterial
- Electrical shock injury, lightning strike, or third-degree burn
- Venom from a snake or insect bite
Symptoms may be very difficult to isolate but here are a few (people may have no muscle-related symptoms):
- Muscle pain in the shoulders, thighs, or lower back
- Muscle weakness
- Trouble moving your limbs
- Dark red or brown urine or decreased urination
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid heart rate
- Lack of consciousness
What do I really think?
It has been long known to me that abusing your body can never be good for you. My philosophy has always been one that advocates wholeness to promote balance between health, wellbeing and fitness. You can achieve your goals with safer and more traditional exercise modalities such as the ones I teach and have been teaching for over three decades. Moreover, training to get fit or lose weight is not exactly the same as training to be a crossfitter, a bodybuilder, a powerlifter or simply training for other sports. Although, arguably, you could certainly incorporate exercises that these athletes perform into your routine, so long as you take a common sense approach in choosing a modality that fits your goals and desires. Also, having a personal trainer analyze your programming and helping you make modifications in your protocol will help keep you on track toward your goals.
My tips to stay clear of injury (no matter what exercise modality you choose):
- Consult with a physician before any exercise regimen.
- Be smart and get rid of your ego driven self.
- Always listen to your body. For that you’ll have to be mindful of any weird emotional or physical feelings you are experiencing.
- Keep hydrated by sipping water during exercise and drink plenty of fluids after strenuous exercise. This will help to dilute your urine and flush any substance that is released from your muscles out of your kidneys.
- Take a week of total rest from exercising every 90 days.
- Contact me if you have any concern.
Nordine is an internationally acclaimed high-performance coach and wellness expert, bestselling author of Mind Over Body and Keynote Speaker fluent in English, French and Italian. He developed and led the revolutionary fitness program at Miraval Resort, a world-class destination spa in Tucson, Arizona for 10 years where he conducted over 8,000 individual coaching sessions with celebrities, high-performance athletes and executives.