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Is CrossFit Safe?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in recent years, you’ve probably heard about CrossFit, or have at least one friend or family member who participates in the fitness regimen. Perhaps you even workout at a CrossFit gym yourself.
If you have been living under a rock, according to their website, CrossFit is “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity.” It’s no secret that the culture of CrossFit has a devoted and intense band of followers. The community even has its own jargon paired with its unique acronyms: AMRAP (as many reps as possible), WOD (Workout of the day), Chipper (a workout with many reps and many movements that you chip away at) and the list goes on.
As in any fitness community, there are typical uniforms or workout gear involved and tattoos are a positive. Most of the CrossFit devotees are “Type A”, intense, hard-working individuals. I give kudos to the intensity of the regimen. CrossFit has been highlighted in the mainstream media on news programs and interviews with the founder Greg Glassman, a former gymnast that has brought weightlifting paired with the Paleo diet together in a unique brand. Glassman has been quoted as saying that this is the “only way to work out,” that started back in 2006.
CrossFit is like most other recent breakthroughs, often built on previous concepts and repackaged as the next bigger, better thing. Lifting heavy weights and ascribing to a particular diet or eating regimen is nothing new. Intense weight lifting was the norm with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the crew that trained at Gold’s Gym in Venice, California under Joe Weider in the early 70’s.
CrossFit is a topic that comes up often in my PT clinic; patients ask me my opinion on whether or not it is safe. The answer is not simple, partly because I feel the human body’s ability to adapt to different circumstances is incredible. This is evident when watching people run barefoot to reading about Wim Hoff, the cold guru who can sustain extremely low temperatures with little more than shorts on.
So how do we decide whether this particular workout regimen is something we can adapt to? I would consider the following factors:
(1) Get a clearance from your doctor prior to starting and a physical.
(2) Inform the CrossFit instructor of any cardiovascular or orthopedic concerns you may have.
(3) Focus on proper lifting technique. This must be mastered prior to starting the classes, especially for the Olympic lifts.
(4) You must leave your ego at the door. Compete against yourself, not your fellow gym rats.
(5) Seek an instructor who can modify the WOD (workout of the day) in order to accommodate different abilities.
(6) Perform all movements in a slow, controlled format prior to increasing the speed, reps or weight. Forget about the clock.
The combination of heavyweights, speed and high repetitions can be the perfect combination to get you in great shape … or to cause an injury. The key is to modify your workouts by listening to your body, proper supervision by the CrossFit instructors, and a systematic increase in loads, speed and reps.
It’s important to note that that the minimum standard to open a CrossFit box is a Level 1 trainer Crossfit certification that is comprised of just ONE weekend course, or two nine-hour days. On the flip side, you could end up in the hands of a physical therapist, athletic trainer or exercise physiologist with extensive physical fitness training. Every CrossFit is different and checking the backgrounds of the owners prior to picking a gym is a must.
As a now 50 year-old physical therapist, I performed CrossFit in the past year. With a slightly type A personality, it was difficult at times to rein myself in and adjust my weights or repetitions even with my knowledge base. The group dynamic is awesome, but cuts in both directions. The pressure of the group would push me past my comfort level; this was helpful during the low motivation days when I wish I forgot my gear as an excuse to bypass the gym. At other times, it was a disservice as I ignored the signs of irritating an old injury or when I was losing my form. If you’re tempted to give CrossFit a try, make sure you abide by the simple rules and be honest with yourself.

Tom Willemann

Tom Willemann

Tom Willemann is a premier physical therapist based out of Bergen County, New Jersey. He holds an MS in physical therapy from the University of Miami, is credentialed in the world-renowned McKenzie Method of Mechanical Diagnosis and Therapy (MDT), and holds an OCS (Orthopedic Clinical Specialist) certification. As of 2018, there are approximately 14,000 ABPTS certified specialists in the nation and less than 400 of them are located in the state of New Jersey. Tom is the owner and director of Apex Orthopedic Rehabilitation in Paramus. He opened the clinic, which specializes in spine and sports injury prevention, in 2004 after many years of experience in the field. Tom’s caring interest in others and his strong belief in continuity of care, combined with his clinic’s ability to find solutions for the most difficult orthopedic problems, have earned Apex Orthopedic Rehabilitation its excellent reputation with patients and medical professionals in northeastern New Jersey and beyond. A true “family man,” Tom takes pride in his clinic’s warm and welcoming environment.
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