How to Avoid the Top 5 Crossfit Injuries

CrossFit is a good way to improve your physical fitness, but that can come at a price due to the demanding nature of the workouts.  CrossFit injuries occur occasionally and usually boil down to misuse or overuse of certain parts of the body. Here are 5 of the most common CrossFit injuries that I see in my chiropractic clinic.

Does CrossFit cause injuries?
While CrossFit’s structured group workouts can improve health and fitness, due to its high intensity and competitive nature, injuries do happen.  On the bright side, many of these are muscle strains or tendinitis injuries. These injuries usually do not require surgery and can be managed conservatively with the help of a sports chiropractor or physical therapist.

When it comes to exercise-induced injuries, the bulk of the issue is dependent on your lifting technique and whether you are attuned to the signals that your body sends you—what I call “listening to your body.” These two principles apply to any exercise routine. If you exercise incorrectly or have lazy and unfocused moments, you will likely get injured.  Good technique is a must.

Listening to your body is vital because not all people respond to specific exercises the same way.  That is why there is no silver bullet approach that works for all. You may find that your body continually gets hurt when you do certain lifts at a high intensity.  If this is the case, modifying that lift or leaving it out becomes necessary.


What injuries are most common?
1. Rotator Cuff Strain
The rotator cuff consists of the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis muscles.  The rotator cuff muscles are located around different parts of the shoulder blade and control rotation of the arm and help to stabilize the shoulder.  A common example of the rotator cuff in action is throwing a ball.

The rotator cuff is a crucial link in the chain that connects your hands to your torso.  There is the saying, “you are only as strong as your weakest link”. This becomes especially evident when you try to do a bench or incline press with a strained rotator cuff.  In addition to some of the pressing motions, you may notice pain with overhead lifts, deltoid lateral raises, dips, and push-ups.

2) Tennis Elbow
Tennis elbow is also known as Lateral Epicondylitis.  It is tendinitis that involves the muscles of your forearm.  Place the palm of your hand flat on the table. Now, lift your fingers up and down, and then your hand.  You will see the muscles of your forearm moving. These are your finger and wrist extensor muscles. A tendon connects the extensor muscles to the outside of the bone of your upper arm (humerus).  When these muscles put too much pressure on the tendon, it gets inflamed and begins to hurt. As the injury increases, the pain increases.

These muscles are smaller and very important for stabilizing your wrist while you work out.  Think about the wrist motions that take place when doing a power clean, over-hand biceps curl, or reverse fly for the rhomboids.  The muscles that are the main target of these lifts are much stronger than the wrist and finger extensor muscles. Sometimes these muscles get overworked because they are trying to assist the bigger muscles with a lift.  It is like the little sibling that gets hurt trying to keep up with the older siblings.

3) Low Back Sprain/Strain
Your low back is involved in virtually everything you do, both inside and outside of the gym.  This becomes painfully evident when you hurt your back. The easiest way to avoid this injury is to maintain perfect posture while you are exercising.

I usually see this injury with patients that are doing deadlifts or squats.  Since these two exercises can be done with a lot more weight than other exercises, the margin for error is very small.  One bad rep can sprain the ligaments or strain the muscles of your low back. Stay focused and make sure your lifting technique is perfect (keep your back straight and engage your core). Never sacrifice good technique for more weight, repetitions, or speed.

4) Patellar Tendinitis
The quadriceps muscles are some of the strongest muscles in your body.  The patellar tendon connects them to the bone right below the knee. When continuous and intense pressure is placed on the tendon, it becomes inflamed.  You may feel an achy pain when it is a newer injury and then more of an intense stabbing pain as it gets worse.

Patellar tendinitis most commonly happens with explosive movements like jumping and sprinting.  These are very common with plyometric exercises.

5) Achilles Tendinitis
The Achilles tendon connects your calves to your heal.  As your calves are used more and with higher intensity activities, the Achilles tendon starts to flare up from the constant pulling of the calves.

Like patellar tendinitis, Achilles tendinitis usually occurs with explosive exercises and sports such as basketball and plyometrics.

How can these injuries be avoided & treated?
When it comes to avoiding these injuries, you need to take your warm-up, cool down, and recovery seriously.  Warming up prepares your body for the exercises you are about to do by increasing the blood flow to your muscles.  You will know if your warm-up is effective if you begin to feel like you might sweat soon. You will also feel more coordinated and limber in your movements.

Your warm-up needs to include slow and easy movements that gradually become more intense; along with light stretching to ensure full range of motion.  Your cool down can be the same routine as your warm-up, except you generally will go from high intensity to low intensity. Foam rolling is also a good practice after a workout to further help the muscles stay loose and push out lactic acid.

Make sure you allow enough time for your body to recover from the previous workout.  Many people in CrossFit implement an alternating 3 days on, 1 day off approach. Do not think of the off day as a day where you are missing out on “gains”.  Think of it as your chance to reload and recover so that you can make the most of the next 3 days of working out. The off day is essentially your pit stop. Without it, you will eventually blow out your tires and be incapable of finishing the race.

The older you are, the more crucial it is to follow these guidelines.  If you are new to CrossFit, ease your way into it. Be sure to gradually increase the intensity of the workout.  I usually recommend that people start light and increase the intensity gradually after 1-2 good weeks in a row. Take a step-by-step approach to reach your goals.  Remember that you can always add more in the future, but you cannot take it back if you do too much too soon.

What Do I Do If I Get Injured?
If you get injured, some common treatment options include sports massage, therapeutic exercises, electrical stimulation, and ultrasound.  These need to be done in a clinic by a professional. At home, you can benefit from icing the injured area to control inflammation in the early stages of the injury.  As it gets better, you can begin to alternate heat and ice.

Refer to the following table for estimated recovery times based on the injury.  Remember that the longer the injury has been there the longer it takes to heal, so start treatment early.  Also, understand that adequate rest is an important part of the recovery equation. Just like continued over-exertion will cause a cold to linger, overworking an already injured muscle will lead to extended recovery times.

Injury Treated Area Recovery Time

Rotator Cuff Strain

Rotator Cuff muscles

3-6 Weeks
Tennis Elbow Forearm Muscles 4-9 Weeks
Low Back Sprain/Strain Low Back Muscles Sprain: 4-6 Weeks
Strain: 3-6 Weeks
Patellar Tendinitis Quadriceps 4-9 Weeks
Achilles Tendinitis Calf Muscles 4-9 Weeks

To Sum It All Up
CrossFit is a way to help you improve your health and avoid more serious medical conditions down the road.  The injuries that commonly accompany CrossFit can be limited with proper technique, listening to your body, a good exercise routine, and by being an educated lifter.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!


About the author
Dr. Stephen Workman is a chiropractic physician practicing in Cedar City, Utah.  Dr. Workman specializes in sports injuries and performance. He has treated many professional athletes, dancers, and musicians over the years. In addition to his Doctorate in Chiropractic, he has a Master’s degree in Sports Medicine and two Bachelor’s degrees in Human Biology and Exercise Science.  Dr. Workman enjoys all forms of exercise, sports, and outdoor activities. He is also a drummer and an avid foodie. Dr. Workman can be reached at DocSWorkman@gmail.com.

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