How to Reduce Injury in CrossFit

Like all competitive sports, CrossFit has a significant risk of injury associated with it. If you train hard and compete over the course of a year, you’ll probably encounter at least a couple of minor issues. Hopefully you haven’t encountered a major injury or something that puts you out for a long period of time.

I see three reasons for the injury problem: heavy loads, poor technique, and unstructured training. I define “unstructured training” as training volume and intensity that isn’t periodized, or at best structured in a haphazard way.

If your gym manages all three well, then great, this post might not apply to you. Otherwise, here are some solutions to reduce injury for your members.

Don’t Always Lift Heavy

First, let’s address the load issue. Lifting heavy is a core value of CrossFit, and depending on what box you’re at it’s either overtly or tacitly encouraged. Which is totally fine (I love lifting heavy), but you have to be smart about how much you’re lifting heavy. Common sense tells you don’t go for a max every single time you lift. Also importantly, mix in lighter loads during WODs and don’t always approach your max when you have a high rep count coupled with high intensity. Don’t be afraid to go light.

Example: On Monday our WOD called for 15 reps per round of 1.5 pood KB. I scaled down to 40# KB because my shoulders and hips were still sore from competing on Saturday. I also brought down the intensity of the workout, ie how fast I was doing it, to about 70%. Thus, the workout acted as an active recovery and there was minimal chance of me getting injured.

Don’t be afraid to scale down your loads even if you’re a badass firebreather. A couple of light WODs here and there can totally eliminate the threat of an overuse injury.

When going for a max test, I think every 4-6 weeks is about right. Any more and you’re stressing the shit out of your athletes and increasing injury risk. I don’t recommend trying to set PR’s every single week.

Improve Technique

Over the weekend I had an epiphany about this. I was at the Iron Curtain competition and doing a 1RM squat clean test. There were 12 dudes sharing one bar and we’d take turns doing reps as we built up to a max attempt. One thing I noticed, along with the help of an excellent coach (Fortune Santos from CrossFit Hardbodies) who was standing next to me, was the HUGE range in technique quality amongst the 12 guys. Most guys had below average technique, with only 1 guy having “excellent” technique…that one guy was not me.

(Interestingly, the guy with the best technique had the lowest body weight at 145 lbs, and he tied for the heaviest lift in my group, at 235#. Having awesome technique has the enviable benefit of allowing you to lift heavier safely).

This made me realize that the majority of CrossFitters do not have good technique on the Olympic lifts. When you go heavy with poor technique at high intensity, your risk of injury shoots through the roof.

It’s the responsibility of all instructors to coach the lifts closely and get their members to a point where technique is reasonably good. If that’s impossible for whatever reasons, then load and intensity needs to be taken down to safe levels.

One solution here is for the instructor to tell an athlete what intensity he should be working out at for a particular WOD. Thus, he could say go at 80% speed and focus on good technique on whatever skill-driven lift there is.

Another solution would be to cap loads on all inexperienced or newbie members, with exceptions made for folks who bring in good lifting experience or otherwise have awesome technique.

Athletes aren’t off the hook either. Wodkillas need to police themselves and reduce load and intensity if they know their technique is a work-in-progress. I’m guilty of pushing the boundaries like every other competitor…I have to force myself to reduce load every so often, because there is peer pressure to put up bigger numbers.

Here’s a great article on technique and training errors in lifting just published on CrossFit Journal.

Solutions for Athletes:

  1. Get the best instructors at your gym to coach you through technique one-on-one.
  2. Check out videos online of elite lifters.
  3. Find a way to lift in front of a mirror and self-coach. This is an awesome way to improve technique and it kills me that very few CrossFit boxes take advantage of mirrors. I go to a regular gym that allows Olympic lifting and has mirrors just for this purpose.
  4. Take video of yourself doing lifts and break it down.

Vary and Plan Your Intensity

This is a solution that will come across as anathema to most CrossFitters, but can save you a lot of grief. Don’t be afraid to bring down your intensity in a WOD to something less than 100%.

When I say reduce your intensity level, I mean literally slowing down how fast you’re doing a WOD. If your fastest Diane time is 8:00, slow it down to a 10:00 pace and make sure you have excellent technique on the deadlifts and HSPU.

You don’t always have to go 100 mph on every WOD, contrary to what Pukie and Uncle Rhabdo tell you.

I train six days per week, with Sunday either off or low-impact active recovery (like biking). On Monday – Saturday, I might roughly plan these intensity levels:

  • Monday – 60-70%
  • Tuesday – 70%
  • Wednesday – 80 – 90%
  • Thursday – 60-70%
  • Friday – 100% (competition intensity)
  • Saturday – 90 – 100%

What you can see here is that I have one day — Friday — where I absolutely go balls to the wall. The reason is on Friday mornings we have our top guys compete in a 7:00 am WOD for bragging rights. I bring my A game and the competitive atmosphere brings out the best in all of us. I will push the boundaries in terms of speed, intensity, and load.

For the rest of the week I’ll play it safe and vary my intensity below 100%. On Saturdays, if we have a kickass WOD planned than I may go all-out or dial it back slightly depending on how my body is feeling.

The variance and planning has three big benefits:

1. I can work on specific movements and not worry about winning. For example, if there’s 30 squat snatches planned in a WOD, I’ll focus on that one movement and slow everything else down to reduce fatigue and improve technique.

2. By lowering my intensity below race pace, I can train my other aerobic energy systems. The aerobic systems are undervalued in CrossFit…actually, they’re pretty much ignored altogether, but that’s a subject for another blog. I wrote about adding in heart rate training to CrossFit previously. The bottom line is, if I do a WOD around 75%, I’m training the low-end aerobic energy system and that has huge value for my performance.

3. I can increase my volume. By managing intensity and load, I can work out more, sometimes much more. It now becomes possible to do two or more workouts in a day and keep my injury risk at a minimum. By planning out my volume and intensity intelligently, I also reduce the risk of over training.

My Injuries This Year

I stress fractured by right foot in December from doing the GoRuck Challenge. I believe I’ve fixed that issue by switching footwear. Foot is now 100%

I hyper-extended my left elbow while getting bumped during an obstacle course race. That bothered me for about two months and it’s finally at 100%.

I’ve got gnarly tendonitis in both achilles that gets aggravated when I jump rope and do box jumps. I believe this is related to switching to minimal footwear but I haven’t quite pinned it down. I have to ice them after almost every workout.

I strained my right shoulder something fierce after doing Gator in the morning and then a shoulder heavy workout that night. That was too much and could have been avoided had I heeded my own advice. My shoulder is still jacked up. To solve this, I’m planning on taking November and December off from shoulder work and rehabbing it.

Bottom Line

Two things. First, I’ve had to manage the most injuries ever this year. Second, this year is the hardest I’ve worked and the most I’ve pushed my boundaries since college. I think the risk/reward is totally worth it. From my years of coaching rowing, I know being a competitor and pushing hard and dealing with injury go hand-in-hand. It’s inevitable. But you can manage and minimize by being smart and implementing some of the ideas above.

Oh yeah, don’t forget to do your mobility and take your fish oil. In the end, having awesome athletic experiences makes the risk worth it. Good luck!

  • Jason Cabal

    Hey great write up on injuries. Some big things are rest days. People always overlook that. And the theory of only using WOD weight that is 50% of your one rep max weight is definitely a good plan. Good technique is always golden. Unfortunately in order to compete nowadays you have to go heavier and faster tearing your body up with overtraining makes it very tough to be competitive in Crossfit

    I’m learning that the top athletes don’t go to every competition under the sun to pick a few a year and if you’re training around that schedule therefore they won’t be overtrained or injured. I say this while I am guilty of lifting to much overtraining and not taking the appropriate rest days.
    It’s tough since now I am out for 4 to 6 months due to shoulder surgery. I thought your article was pretty good already hope this helps call me if you have more questions I just lay around in bed all day

  • Jphillips

    What are you planning to rehab your shoulder? Do you know if there is a journal article on this? Here is a list of videos I compiled from mobility wod that might be helpful:

  • Thanks for the link to the resource page! Some awesome resources on there, I read one of the articles and started going through the MWOD videos already. To answer your question, I’m just this week changing up my training schedule drastically to reduce the loads on my shoulder (ie doing much less crossfit) and implementing a rehab and mobility regimen. I’ll keep you updated.

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