What is CrossFit and do physiotherapists recommend it?




Different CrossFit exercises

Many of our patients ask us if physiotherapists recommend CrossFit as a sport. The short answer is yes, physiotherapists recommend CrossFit. However, there are a few things we would like to point out to make sure you don’t injure yourself. So lets first understand what CrossFit is all about.

What is CrossFit?

CrossFit is known to be the “Sport of Fitness”. CrossFit training is defined as: “Constantly varied, functional movement executed at high intensity in order to achieve fitness”. Exercises used in CrossFit are compound movements that engage multiple muscles and joints, making them functional. Exercise routines are constantly changed to incorporate a variety of movements. Weights and other equipment are also used to up the intensity of the training. Furthermore, exercises are done at high intensity with minimal or no rest in-between, which challenges your body to achieve peak fitness.

What are the main objectives of CrossFit?

The main objective of CrossFit training is to prepare your body for physical challenges, whether these challenges come in the form of daily life activities or sports performance. This is achieved by optimizing the following 10 domains of your fitness:

  1. Cardiovascular & respiratory endurance
  2. Stamina
  3. Strength
  4. Flexibility
  5. Power
  6. Speed
  7. Co-ordination
  8. Agility
  9. Balance
  10. Accuracy

These domains are the foundations of sport or physical fitness. Improve in any of these 10 areas, and you will definitely improve your performance and enjoy quicker and better recovery. Since the exercises are functional movements that are natural for your body, CrossFit is a suitable exercise option for anyone.  Especially since the training programs can be modified to suit each person’s fitness level and their specific goals. That is also why we as physiotherapists recommend CrossFit.

Most routines are done in a group setting, and are typically goal-driven. You will have a goal to complete a set of repetitions within a specific time limit, or to perform your maximal effort with a single exercise. Personal and group efforts and achievements are often recorded. This creates a very healthy competitive environment for everyone to perform at their best.

What are the health benefits of CrossFit?

The effectiveness of CrossFit is supported by some evidence. The health benefits of CrossFit have been studied and observed in different populations. This includes young, active individuals, sedentary or overweight people, and even senior citizens. In all these people, true and measurable benefits could be seen.


The health benefits that you can expect with CrossFit include the following:

  • Improvements in any of the 10 fitness domains of strength, flexibility, balance etc.
  • Healthy weight management
  • Boosts immune system
  • Reduced risk or better management of chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and cholesterol
  • Improved bone density (prevention of fractures)
  • Reduced cancer and stroke risk
  • Reduction in pain
  • Improved mood (helps manage depression and other mental health conditions)
  • Better sleep
  • Improved quality of life

How did CrossFit Start?

The CrossFit fitness revolution was first established in 2000 by Greg Glassman. Glassman himself was a gymnast and fitness enthusiast. His vision was to encourage people to move more by taking part in high-intensity functional physical activity. However, with its emergence, CrossFit was criticised as being aggressive, extreme and inappropriate. It was perceived to be a dangerous sport, with athletes doing the exercises all wrong and thus injuring themselves. 

As with any sport, you can potentially get injured doing CrossFit. However, the injury rates are similar to, or less than, that of Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics, running, tennis, rugby etc.[3] More and more emphasis is now being placed on technique and how to perform the exercises correctly. If you are new to CrossFit, you should ideally first master the basics before you progress to intermediate or advanced workouts. This will not only reduce your chance of injury, but also improve your body awareness for other daily activities.

Why do we as physiotherapists recommend CrossFit?

CrossFit targets muscles that are used for everyday living. We call this functional training. If you can get stronger in the basics it will help you to prevent and manage injuries. Let’s explore this more deeply.

What is Functional Training?

CrossFit training is rooted in functional body movements. Functional movements are natural for your body, and used innately to go about your daily life. Think of when you have to sit or stand up from your chair. This is a squat movement. Or, when you lift a container to the top of your closet, you need to perform a shoulder press. These movements are best performed when they are done from your center, your core.

CrossFit draws on the principle of working from your core outward in order to make your movements more effective and efficient. Any body movement needs a stable core. By varying the types of exercises that are done in CrossFit, you constantly challenge your body to perform better and adapt to more demanding challenges in different ways. So next time you need to stow away the container at the top of your closet, you will do so much easier and without potentially injuring yourself.  

Let’s take a deeper look at the principles of functional movement, and the fundamentals of CrossFit. Functional movements are compound movements, meaning that they engage many joints and muscles. They are natural and safe because it’s the way our bodies are made to move.

The Basic Human Movements

There are 7 basic movements our bodies can perform:

  1. Pull
  2. Push
  3. Squat
  4. Lunge
  5. Hinge
  6. Rotate
  7. Walk (jogging, jumping etc. all stem from this)

Exercises are merely variations of these basic human movements. A good exercise routine includes all of these movements. The more variety and balance can be included in a routine, the better. This allows for all major muscle groups to be worked, and to be worked together instead of in isolation. Isolated movements are not functional.  This makes CrossFit different from your traditional gym workout, which often consist of exercises focusing on a single muscle group.

Now, when we look at the 9 Fundamental Movements of CrossFit, we can see that it is, without doubt, very functional:

  1. Air Squat
  2. Front Squat
  3. Overhead Squat
  4. Shoulder Press
  5. Push Press
  6. Push Jerk
  7. Sumo Deadlift High Pull
  8. Medicine Ball Clean
The Squat
Squat with bar

The squat is considered the most complex movement that your body is capable of doing, but it is essential to your well being. Without even knowing it, you perform squats multiple times each day. When done as an exercise, the squat can improve your general strength, mobility and sports performance. Also, contrary to some beliefs, the squat is remarkably healthy for your knees and other joints. It strengthens your ankles, knees, hips, back and core muscles.

In CrossFit, athletes are taught to squat low, past a 90° angle. This position is avoided by many, since it is wrongfully believed to be detrimental to your joints. However, we need it for daily life. E.g. when getting up from the floor, at least one of your knees will need to bend more than 90°, and power you up into standing.  

Besides, nature’s intended sitting position is a low squat. Chairs were not always part of our lives, and people used to squat down low to sit. This low squat position is also the best position for bowel movement. It improves general pelvic, hip and back health.

Of course it is possible to injure yourself by squatting incorrectly. This is especially true for people who never do a proper squat. Your body then becomes deconditioned to its own natural movement. When done as an exercise, poor squat technique can be caused by any of the following:

  • Weak glutes or hamstring muscles
  • Tightness of your hamstring or other hip muscles
  • Tightness in your ankle, knee or hip joints
  • Weakness in your core (compensating with other body areas)
  • Poor engagement, awareness or control
  • Poor focus or effort

The Deadlift


The deadlift exercise is another one that is frequently criticised as being unsafe. However, we need to be able to bend forward and lift objects up from the floor. Rather consider it as a “health lift”. The lift strengthens your legs, glutes, back and core muscles. Therefore it inherently protects your back from potential injuries and can prevent, rather than cause, back pain.

The Shoulder Press

The shoulder Press

Few of us are required to do hard manual labour nowadays. Our bodies are not used to push and pull heavy objects all day. Then, when you finally decide to take on that DIY home project you’ve been postponing for so long, your shoulder or back packs up.

Your shoulder relies solely on muscular strength and control for movement. When your shoulder muscles become weak and deconditioned, you can injure your shoulder much easier when you suddenly have to push, pull or lift something. The shoulder press exercise prepares you for physical challenges that require overhead movements such as opening an old garage door or packing groceries into your kitchen cupboard.

It is not the shoulder press exercise that is unsafe, but simply a matter of being deconditioned to it. The shoulder press is also a great way to strengthen your core.

So, is CrossFit Safe?

In short, YES! Physiotherapists recommend CrossFit. As long as you:

  • Take time to understand and master the basics of CrossFit training
  • Consult your physiotherapist before you start training (read on to see why)
  • Find a knowledgeable coach who takes time to teach you proper technique, who can supervise your workouts, and correct you when necessary
  • Know your limits
  • Take into consideration your age, current fitness level, and other life stressors
  • Avoid overtraining
  • Increase your intensity gradually over time
  • Progress slowly
  • Dedicate some days for low intensity skills training where you focus on improving your technique
  • Communicate any pain, discomfort or intense fatigue to your coach immediately
  • Manage injuries as soon as possible by visiting your physiotherapist
  • Take time to recover properly with adequate sleep and good nutrition, and take time to rest between intense sessions

A study done by Feito et al[1+2], which assessed injuries among individuals doing CrossFit, indicated that it was a safe training modality. However, those who did sustain injuries were the ones who were new to CrossFit and who trained more than 3x per week. This, again, shows that you need to start and progress slowly, and avoid overtraining.  This is no different to any other sport: if you train incorrectly or do too much too soon, you can injure yourself.

Therefore, considering all these factors, CrossFit can be a very beneficial and enjoyable form of exercise for anyone.

Trainer teaching CrossFit technique

Injury Prevention And Physiotherapy for CrossFit:

Injuries are prevented by consistently applying the basics of training. How you monitor your own body’s responses to exercise is also important. You need to take into consideration other life stressors and learn to find a balance between exercise, rest and recovery.  

As physiotherapists, we are experts in analysing movement patterns. Whether you have areas of tightness, weakness or pain that make you perform movements incorrectly, we can help you identify the cause of the problem. Once we have identified the problem, we help you to manage it effectively so that you can return to your activities as soon and as safely as possible.

As physiotherapists, recommend that you consult your us before starting your CrossFit journey. A thorough assessment of your movements will help detect any areas of your body that require some attention. We are skilled to guide you through the basic training principles: how to train and progress safely to minimise your chance of injury. “Avoiding injury is better than dealing with injuries”[3].

Book a consultation online with a Physiotherapist in Pretoria East

Book a consultation online with a Physiotherapist in Pretoria East
Physiotheapy rehab for crossFit (image from “https://www.carinaphysio.com.au/crossfit.html“)

If you have an injury, getting the appropriate treatment is crucial. Training with an injury that has not been properly assessed and effectively managed will put you at risk for further injury. It will also extend you recovery period and result in many missed training sessions, which will ultimately hinder your performance.

The CrossFit Community

CrossFit also creates the opportunity for you to be part of a community of like-minded people, people who care about their health and wellbeing. It’s a place where you can make friends. Being part of a community is a great way to stay motivated and have fun while exercising. 

CrossFit really is for anyone, from the athlete wanting to improve their sports performance, to the sedentary office worker looking to start exercising. Due to the high-intensity of CrossFit training, sessions are generally only 45min in duration, making it easy to incorporate into your busy schedule. Therefore, we as physiotherapists recommend CrossFit as a fun and very effective exercise option.

Contact us today if you consider starting your CrossFit journey, or if you are a regular CrossFitter wanting to improve your performance. You can book a free non-obligation telephonic consultation to find out more.

If you have suffered a low back injury at CrossFit, please visit our blog at https://justphysio.co.za/causes-of-low-back-pain/ for more info.

Written By: Marelize Grobler