Is Rhabdo Really Crossfit’s Dirty Little Secret?

by Paula Jager | Affiliate linksComments: 7


By Fitness Editor Paula Jager CSCS, Owner of Crossfit Jaguar

I’m not much of a FB fan. Fortunately, I have developed a social media task force that helps me with this end of the business. Often accused of dwelling in a cave, even I could not help but notice the recent Crossfit article that had the share button being hit with rapid fire.

Whenever something gains in popularity with countless stories of success, it is completely normal for “haters” to surface trying their best to defuse the “new” theory, practice or product.

While I have read several CrossFit bashing articles in recent months, this latest one featured Uncle Rhabdo.  Short for Rhabdomyolysis.

Rhabdo is a very real and very serious condition.  To quote an article from the CF Journal–

We can dispense with much medical detail with “a quick and easy description of rhabdomyolysis as a potentially lethal systemic meltdown initiated by the kidneys in response to the presence of shed muscle-fiber debris and exhaust in the bloodstream. There are several causes and types of rhabdo, classified by the underlying cause of muscle breakdown. With CrossFit we are dealing with what is known as exertional rhabdomyolysis. It can disable, maim, and even kill.”  While that may be potentially frightening and does not sound good it is also very rare.

For those that prefer the more scientific explanation, you can click here.

Can you get Rhabdo from Crossfit?  Yes you can.

But you can also get it from endurance sports, biking and running, P90X, Instanity, BodyPump or a boot camp class.  Anytime you push yourself beyond your limits you are at risk but the risk is very minimal.

What the article fails to mention is that the incident rate is .06%.  In the 5 years my gym has been in existence and affiliated with CrossFit we have not had one case.

If you are exercising (Crossfit or other) you do need to be aware of what rhabdo is and what the symptoms are:

  • Painful, swollen, bruised, or tender areas of the body
  • Muscle weakness or trouble moving arms or legs
  • General feelings of illness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion, dehydration, fever, or lack of consciousness
  • Dark-colored urine; reduced or no urine output

More importantly you need to listen to your body.  If you have not worked out in several years and you decide to try Crossfit and the workout of the day is Angie, Barbara or Murph (very high repetition bodyweight workouts) scale, scale and scale appropriately for your level of fitness.  And if the coach doesn’t offer scaling suggestions, ask or find a better box.  Go slow and progress over a period of time in an intelligent manner.

Don’t overdue the weight or volume.  Learn the correct form.  Any good coach, Crossfit or not, will tell you these things.  There are bad gyms in general as there are bad doctors, bad lawyers, bad hair stylists etc.  Use your brain, do some research beforehand and choose a good one.  And I will be honest–most people don’t work hard enough for rhabdo to happen.

The people that are most prone to it are former Crossfitters that took a lay off, former athletes or military people that pushed hard in the past and are starting over.

The closest case we ever had at my gym was with a gentleman that wished to join our noon group which at that time consisted of four “middle aged” women. The “gentleman” in question was a 36 year in shape former NFL player with excellent genetics. There was no doubt he could keep up.  We did tell him to take it easy as he hadn’t played or worked out regularly for over a year and a half.  We told him to reduce the volume; he did not believe us and was not to be outdone by “middle aged” women–after all the man had played 8 seasons in the NFL;  surely he could workout with 40 and 50 year old women.

The workout of the day (wod) the day he came in was mainly pulling. . .

Get Back
21. 15. 9
Pull ups
Ring rows
DB rows 50#/30#

. . . not really all that volume heavy or long.  But it was intense if done as prescribed.  Being a former athlete, that’s how he performed.

He called me the next day and told me “I can’t straighten my arms”.  What do you mean you can’t straighten your arms? “I literally cannot completely straighten them, they won’t “unbend”.  Hmmm, I had never heard of such a thing.  He didn’t go to the doctor but did have a nurse friend take a look at him and it took a full week before he could straighten him arms.  He came back and continued to wod with us for well over a year and never had another incident.  That could have been a very mild case of Rhabdo.

It’s hard to not have that do or die mentality when you have been there before.  But for the majority of people–99.9% of the people that are taking up a new exercise program it is not a concern–they simply don’t work hard enough.

Again, the type of workouts that will put newcomers at risk are the wods with multiple hundreds of air squats, push ups, sit ups, pull ups, wall balls etc.  With weightlifting and strength training you can’t go fast and hard enough to really be at risk.  Make sure your programming is intelligent, the box you go to or trainer you work with is qualified and begin and progress in an appropriate manner for your current fitness level.  Assume responsibility.

The haters misplace blame on Crossfit as a whole — calling it a cult and labeling people as obsessive.  While many Crossfitters are indeed passionate I would call that passion healthy.  And one that more people need to acquire along with accountability for their workout decisions.  That’s the real “dirty little secret”.

About the Author


Paula Jager CSCS and Level 1 CrossFit and CF Nutrition Certified is the owner of CrossFit Jaguar.  Her exercise and nutrition programs yield life changing results.

You can connect with her on Facebook by clicking here.

[email protected]


Posted under: Fitness

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