Crossfit Controversy: cults, coaching and crippling moves

Whilst Crossfit’s popularity may be skyrocketing, so is the criticism. Earlier this year, Crossfit came under speculation after a competitor became paralysed from the waist down from collapsing under crippling weight whilst performing a famous Crossfit move called the snatch.

The controversy not only lies in the over-exerting nature of Crossfit, but also in the arguably “too easily-achieved” coaching qualification and its likening to a cult.

An article called ‘Why I Don’t Do Crossfit’ went viral amongst Crossfit communities earlier this year. It was written by Erin Simmons, a former college athlete turned volunteer assistant coach who slams Crossfit and everything it stands for.

An empty blackbox

An empty blackbox

Despite admitting that she knows Crossfitters won’t agree and may even react negatively to her opinions, she tells The Craze of Crossfit, “Crossfit is about going all out, as hard as you can, many times with fellow sufferers. It’s the whole theory of bonding via shared miserable experiences.”

Crossfit coach and gym co-owner Richard Edmonds says, “Erin had a right of opinion but I think she just had a bad experience of Crossfit. In Crossfit, as with any sport, there are good coaches and bad coaches. The boxes that are successful have the best coaches and I think it’s up to people to go round and suss it out, speak to other members to see what they think and get a real feel before joining.”

Physical damage sustained by Crossfit seems to vary from the small superficial niggles and twinges to the more serious life-threatening injuries, including a serious and sometimes fatal medical condition called rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle tissue which can lead to kidney problems. ‘Uncle Rhabdo’, as it has been nicknamed, has been described as Crossfit’s ‘Dirty Little Secret.’ The founder of Crossfit, Mr Glassman, has been honest about the dangers which lie behind Crossfit, admitting that it could kill you. However, NATO Crossfit coach Kostantinos Sinapis says, “Crossfit is actually the only sport where we talk about rhabdomyolysis and where the trainers are aware of the risks. The question you should ask is whether tennis or football players have heard of it?”

Millie Wise from Crossfit Poole, in Dorset, adds, ‘People love to look for problems with Crossfit. The reality of it is that rhabdomyolysis can be the consequence of any sport when you overload the muscle. I am no more conscious about it doing Crossfit than I would be doing something else.” Besides rhabdomyolysis and other series injuries, Millie says that the cuts, bruises and ‘odd niggles’ she gets from the WODs are worth it. “People I know who have been injured because of Crossfit aren’t put off by it. It’s because you know what you’re signing up for. If you get injured, then it’s because you’re not using the right form or using the wrong weight. It would be like going into a boxing ring before you were ready and being upset you were punched in the face.”

On the other hand, Erin believes that a lot of people, especially in Crossfit, seem to think that being an athlete is maximal exertion all day every day. She says, “Real athletes train smart and use periodization of workouts to cycle when you push and when you recover. When your body is so fatigued that you get into overexertion, exhaustion, and associated side effects such as vomiting or diarrhea, you aren’t getting anything from the workout anymore.” She adds, “Your body is giving you warning signals that it is in distress, and it’s really dangerous to push past that or to repeatedly put your body in those situations.”

Crossfit definitely celebrates the “biggest and baddest” mentality that encourages you to push past proper limits of training.

Erin Simmons


Doctor Eva Selhub, a Clinical Associate in Medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, tried Crossfit two years ago after suffering from a 30-year back injury history. She had previously worked with personal trainers who had not understood the nature of her back pain and gave her exercises that left her in months of agony. However, Crossfit offered her the exercise with the best suited levels of intensity. She says, “The coach took a lot of time working with me to modify the workouts so that I rarely did any lifting and focused on movements and exercises that would get my core strong.”

Richard Edmonds performing a snatch move

Richard Edmonds performing a snatch move

Where Doctor Selhub’s personal trainer failed, her Crossfit coach highly succeeded. “There are many programs out there where people can get certified online. My personal trainers supposedly had tons of experience and they did not know enough to keep me from getting injured. Ignorance is dangerous wherever it is.” This introduces another controversial aspect of Crossfit: the way in which coaches achieve their qualification. Crossfit Level 1 is a two-day course consisting of classroom instruction combined with hands-on small group training conducted under low intensity. Erin thinks that this is one of the many issues Crossfit needs to address.

“Someone with a weekend certificate shouldn’t be able to teach or supervise complex Olympic and power lifts. If Crossfit truly cared about oversight, which they don’t get involved in in order to evade liability, they would make sure that no level 1 coaches were training people to do these lifts.”

Crossfit coach Richard is also a personal trainer and has achieved coaching qualifications prior to his Crossfit level 1. “I’d been a coach for many years before doing my level 1 so from a personal point of view I thought the level 1 was good for me. There’s an argument that anybody can go and do it, but I would argue that the cream rises to the top,” he says. “On my weekend course, you could tell who were going to be the good coaches and which were going to need a lot of time. From what I’ve seen lots of different affiliate gym owners around the world don’t throw people who have just started right into the mix. They’ll intern and get them learning properly.”

Does Crossfit push you over your limits?

Does Crossfit push you beyond your limits?

Doctor Selhub adds, “I personally have worked with amazing coaches who stop the athletes from going further the minute they spot bad form and they spend session upon session working on form and building strength.”

After Erin’s article was published online, she says she received many comments and emails from therapists who were amazed at the number of Crossfitters they’ve been seeing as well as contact from people who had experienced minor or serious injuries and understood exactly what the article was saying. She says, “I personally know one of my friends who got into Crossfit and ended up pretty seriously injuring himself; I believe he pulled a hamstring and injured his knee as well. It took him quite a while to recover, but he blamed it on not warming up correctly instead of the Crossfit workout itself, which is an excuse I’ve heard many times.”

This type of behaviour is supposedly common, leading to the accusation of the Crossfit community being likened to a “brainwashing cult” by many critics. This is perhaps unsurprising due to the enormous online presence Crossfit generates. Numerous Twitter accounts and Facebook pages are devoted to the fitness where millions of Crossfitters assemble to talk about their latest achievements and exercise sessions which have left their hands blistered and legs wobbly. In addition, the founder of Crossfit Mr. Glassman’s followers call him Coach and share a cultlike devotion to his theories.

Erin says, “Crossfit can lend itself to “cult-ish” behaviour, where reasoned thinking is abandoned for impassioned defense of what they do. The types of responses that I got from my article were often vitriolic, and while I expected Crossfitters to be somewhat upset by the article, the level of aggressiveness and personal attacks lead me to believe that this fitness regime has turned into something very much resembling a cult.”

Doctor Selhub says that people who do Crossfit are not brainwashed individuals but that they actively choose to do it. “Call it what you like, but let them be healthy and happy.  What you want is people to be smart and there are tons of really smart people who do Crossfit that are part of this said “cult”. They feel like they belong and that is a really big deal, at least here in the US, where a sense of community is hard to find.”

People come to try Crossfit but the fashion seekers are soon chewed up and spat out because it’s not an easy sport. People who stay are people who care about their well-being and enjoy it.

Millie Wise, Crossfit Poole

Does Crossfit stretch you too far?

Does Crossfit stretch you too far?


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