Addressing the Biggest Safety Threat in CrossFit Boxes

What can we learn from the most severe CrossFit accidents? And how can we make things safer?

Crossfit Safety

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On Jan. 11, elite CrossFit athlete Kevin Ogar competed in the OC Throwdown, a two-day event held in Costa Mesa, Calif. During a Snatch lift with 240 pounds, Ogar seemed to lose his power or balance, or both, and the weight crashed down on his upper back. The weights loaded on the right side of Ogar's barbell made contact with a stack of black bumper plates behind him, and a section of the barbell to Ogar's left made contact with a stack of blue plates. A bolt of agony lit across Ogar's face, and he collapsed to the ground. The accident was severe. Ogar, who reportedly has no memory of the lift, was left paralyzed from the waist down.

(Note: At the time of this writing, a fundraising effort for Ogar has raised $365,000 toward a goal of $500,000 to assist with his medical expenses and recovery.)

From the video shot by Ogar's friend and training partner, Matt Hathcock, it's unclear precisely what role, if any, the awkward bounce of the barbell off the stacks of plates played in the injury. However, Hathcock told Sports Illustrated he thought the barbell's first contact with Ogar—roughly between the shoulder blades—is not what did the damage. He said the barbell striking Ogar's mid-back after bouncing off the plates is what severed his spine.

The initial medical report offered no conclusive analysis on what happened. Dr. Mohsin Shah, Ogar's neurosurgeon—a veteran with 15 years of experience treating spinal trauma—told SI, "This is the most freakish event I've witnessed."

A Growing Concern

What can be expected in terms of discussion and change in the aftermath of Ogar's tragic accident?

Not surprisingly, the incident sparked a fresh round of reporting on the safety concerns of CrossFit. During an ABC News story titled, "CrossFit Athlete's Paralyzing Injury Renews Concerns," Hathcock defended the popular strength and conditioning program, saying,  "You can get injured doing anything, playing soccer, football. I'm sure you can get injured doing curling."

As Andy Haley reported for STACK, a recent study suggests that CrossFit injury rates are "similar to sports such as Olympic weightlifting, power lifting and gymnastics, but less than contact sports like rugby."

With CrossFit categorized as both as a sport and a fitness activity, what can be learned from the most severe accidents to make things safer? Consider the continuing research and analysis surrounding cycling—which exists in multiple forms, from commuting to work to fitness to a competitive sport. In 2010, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 800 cyclists were killed in the U.S., and 515,000 bike accidents resulted in visits to the emergency room. In light of these statistics, the CDC officially recommends interventions with helmets, rider visibility and roadway engineering measures to make cycling a safer activity.

In an indirect way, the details surrounding Ogar's spinal injury illuminate a growing concern within the CrossFit world: dropping weights.

There are essentially two lines of discussion when it comes to dropping weights in CrossFit.

First, an athlete can "bail" on the weight, meaning he or she stalls out with the lift and lets go of the bar, getting out from underneath the load as it crashes to the floor. It's a fundamental technique in Olympic lifting. Bailing on a weight is considered a skill in itself, and a good CrossFit program teaches an athlete how to bail.

Second, weights are often dropped during the sport's flagship circuit workouts. A CrossFit workout, typically referred to as a met-con (short for metabolic conditioning), becomes an especially effective dose of training stimulus, because the workouts are performed for time, or for as many rounds as possible, in an atmosphere of competition. Movements like Kettlebell Swings, Power Cleans, Power Lifts, Burpees, Jumping Rope, Box Jumps, Pull-Ups and Rowing or Running are mixed in an endless variety of combinations.

Dropping weights or kettlebells during met-cons is a heated topic in CrossFit. Whether an athlete tries to shave a second off his or her time or imitates an elite CrossFitter throwing weights around with power and panache, there's a big difference between letting a barbell loaded with bumper plates drop from 7 feet to the floor in the gym alone with a spotter versus in a class of 10, 12 or 20 others doing the same thing. Both kettlebells and barbells with bumper weights bounce in erratic ways, and if the training floor is full of athletes who aren't controlling their weights, any sense of safety is compromised.

Details from the OC Throwdown accident indirectly relate to one of the most pressing issues within CrossFit: the stacks of plates behind a lifter. Whether a CrossFitter is bailing from a PR attempt or dropping a 52-pound kettlebell at the a apogee of his 20th and final swing, anything on the floor adds frightening randomness to the ricochet action of dropped equipment.

Consider some of the posts from CrossFit boxes wanting to rein in the practice:

From Chalkline CrossFit, Aurora Hills, Calif.: "STAY IN CONTROL - CrossFit is intense. You will push yourself harder than you ever have before. However, you should always be in control of your movements, your weights and how you affect the members around you. DO NOT drop a loaded bar from an overhead position and let it bounce wildly into someone else's workout space. You should be in control of the weight, not the other way around!"

CrossFit Hillsdale, Portland, Ore.: "When should you drop the bar? When not dropping it would result in injury. Why shouldn't you drop the bar? Because it's lazy, it puts wear on the equipment and it's loud."

CrossFit Hell's Kitchen, in NYC: "When it comes to dropping weight, there is a fundamental difference between the world of weightlifting and what we do in CrossFit. Because of this difference, we allow you to drop weights when working with max weights, but not at other times, such as during WODs. No matter how cool it may seem to drop that last rep on Fran (or the first rep for some), we are not concerned with how cool people look. We are concerned with increasing our athletes' strength and efficiency, which in turn enables them to finish WODs faster and with heavier weights."

CrossFit Zone, Victoria, Canada: "Please remember that at CrossFit you need to check your ego at the door.  Ask yourself why you're unnecessarily tossing the weights, and remember that everyone in the gym does not need to know how much weight you just lifted. If you think you might be inadvertently alerting people of your strength by crashing weights to the floor, this is not an appropriate way to gain attention. You'll impress everyone more with your respectful and considerate behavior!"

Making Safety A Habit

After reporting on CrossFit for more than two years and training as an avid CrossFitter for even longer, I've visited and trained at more than 20 CrossFit boxes across the country. Most have had vigorous policies on bailing. At CrossFit Elysium, my original home box, the most severe penalties were reserved for a gym member who allowed his or her equipment to touch a fellow member. If your barbell slowly rolled into the workout space of another and came into contact with the athlete, you'd be spending at least a half hour after class doing Burpees.

At gyms like Elysium, and those mentioned above, aggressive policies, across the days, weeks and months of training, make safety techniques a habit. Whether it's a 6 a.m. workout or the CrossFit Games, the athletes handle their equipment automatically. But the differences among boxes is apparent at local "Throwdown" competitions, when affiliates compete against one another. At once such Throwdown, almost all of the athletes representing one gym dropped kettlebells and barbells in a reckless fashion, while athletes from the rival gym controlled their equipment from the completion of a lift to the ground, holding it in place until still. It was pure habit. Observationally, it also appeared that the quality of movement practiced by the more safety-inclined athletes was far more in line with core CrossFit principles as taught at the Level 1 Seminar.

The takeaway for those looking to start CrossFit? When looking for a good gym, ask about their safety and movement policies. This may be the number one most important factor in making your pursuit of CrossFit both successful and safe.

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