I’m neither a Physiotherapist nor an Ergonomist, but I can say that after being exposed to CrossFit for the past 5 years, I believe its movement concepts are a goldmine in assisting Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) professionals in reducing the risk of Musculo-Skeletal Diseases/Disorders (MSDs) that can be developed in the workplace. MSDs are on the list of recognized occupational diseases according to the TT OSH Act.
MSDs are conditions that affect the nerves, tendons, muscles and supporting structures, such as the discs in your back. Examples include: Carpel tunnel syndrome, Tendinitis, Rotator cuff injuries, Epicondylitis, Muscle strains and low back injuries.
CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more. These are the core movements of life. They move the largest loads the longest distances, so they are ideal for maximising the amount of work done in the shortest time.
Before continuing, I acknowledge that there are a lot of articles on CrossFit being the cause of MSDs, but that’s a different argument. I’m here explore the option of its concepts and principles as a tool in the prevention of MSDs outside the gym i.e. the workplace.
What we’re trained to tell you…
The UK’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Toolbox Manual advises the following, by way of mitigation:
- Plan to rest along the route or change grip
- Keep the load closest to the waist
- Keep the heaviest side of the load next to the body
- Adopt a stable position and make sure your feet are apart, with one leg slightly forward to main balance.
These guidelines are usually given to employees without a proper consideration of their physical condition more specifically their strength and mobility. It can also be seen that these principles are adaptations of some of the fundamentals already used in CrossFit. For example, it’s evident that:
- Planned rest can relate to the ‘Every Minute On the Minute’ (EMOM) concept
- Keeping the load closest to the waist can relate to a med-ball carry
- Keep the heaviest side of the load next to the body is essentially effective deadlift and ‘clean’ form which stipulates keeping the barbell close to the body
- Adopting a stable position is the stance assumed when performing a power clean
In order to maintain and carry out these movements, CrossFit promotes the concept of mobility as opposed to flexibility. Men’s Health describes mobility as the ability to perform functional pattern with no restrictions in range of motion (ROM) while a flexible persons may not have the core strength, balance or coordination to perform the same movements as the person with greater mobility.
Which do you think is more desirable in the prevention of MSDs?
Prior to starting CrossFit, I was naturally strong (for a girl), but my mobility sucked. I, like a lot of people out there had limited mobility due to long periods of sitting and a lack of knowledge about mobility. My mobility has improved since training, but inconsistency has been my limiting reagent.
Another issue is that of form. The CrossFit community places a heavy emphasis on form, so strict that they’ve established standards and certifications around it, utilised in practice and competition. The OSH community mentions form, but I don’t think most safety practitioners have an understanding of what it means, especially the contribution that a person’s mobility plays in executing proper form. This, I believe may be a contributing factor to some instances of MSDs in the workplace.
The above image doesn’t portray the best form…We’re assuming the worker’s leg muscles are strong enough to maintain a healthy posture-mobility hasn’t been taken into account with this. In my experience, I would not have been able to carry out this type of movement without having some knowledge of squatting or dead-lifting.
CrossFit Gyms vs Workplaces
To balance the discussion, we must acknowledge the obvious differences between lifting at a (CrossFit) gym and that of a workplace.
The free-weights in a CrossFit gym are well balanced, precise and designed not to shift when in motion. They also have fairly decent gripping points. Perhaps a sandbag may be the only weight that can be likened to an ‘uneven’ load. It is also important to note that you will not find machines such as a pec deck, leg press or ab crunchers etc. at a CrossFit gym, making it more applicable to real-life situations.
Just like wrist wraps and lifting belts aim to provide stabilisation while lifting in the gym, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as back braces and Mechanix gloves work in a similar fashion and do NOT prevent injury. I can choose to further nit-pick at lifting shoes vs steel toe boots as well as coveralls vs tights in affecting a persons ability to carry out such tasks. However, I think many companies are now engineering their coverall designs to reduce fatigue and promote bodily movement.
Environmental conditions are also expected to vary but CrossFit is usually done in gyms without a/c and welcome outdoor activity, so there exists some measure of overlap in this regard. However, factors such as flooring surfaces may be different- gym flooring is impact resistant allowing for loads to be dropped and provides a somewhat cushioned surface to prevent in fall injuries-most workplaces don’t provide this ‘luxury’.
It’s apples and oranges when it comes to duration. You may only spend 1-2 hours per day in a gym, while most persons are engaged in work activities for 6-8 hours. Workouts are also broken up either by a fixed time or fixed set of reps. I think a major cause for Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs) is simply engaging in the same task day after day for weeks and months on end. CrossFit is constantly varied, whereby it’s workouts eliminate the repetitive movements that induce such conditions.
The demographic of persons currently engaged in CrossFit is also of concern to me. Most CrossFitters at my gym have desk jobs and are not employed in professions which entail manually intensive labour. It seems that the target group that needs it the most may not be the ones hitting the gym, perhaps because they ‘get enough exercise at work’? This is all the more reason for employers to seek its infiltration in the workplace.
CrossFit is not a perfect ‘cure’ for all causes of workplace MSDs. Disorders resulting from fine motor movement, like carpel tunnel syndrome, may find little aid by this means. Additionally, I don’t think CrossFit addresses conditions induced by mechanical vibration such as Whole Body Vibration (WBV) or Hand Arm Vibration (HAV). In spite of this, knowledge on general body maintenance is still essential for general health and well being.
If the culture is shifted to encompass mobility as a functional part of manual labour it may mean we see airport baggage handlers stretching, or even using a foam roller before the start of their shift. It creates a funny visual, but if it means decreased loss time due to injury, I think it’s a well warranted ‘joke’. CrossFit already has an established link with the protective services in the USA, but what about broadening it’s scope to directly influence other sectors, OSHA perhaps?
Examples of where the concepts can be applied
1. Construction-based tasks
Trainer and gym owner Mikhail Ragoonanan demonstrates key differences in lifting a ‘cement bag’ from the floor. The images on the left simulate proper form when performing a sandbag clean in the gym, while those of the right simulate what commonly occurs on a work site. A sand bag is a fair substitute to simulate this load, but there are key differences in form.
The bending of the legs, allowing allowing spinal alignment is desired and practiced in the gym. Clothing design is a major contributor in allowing bending at the hips, knees and ankles with ease. CrossFit athletes would also have been doing routine mobility exercises to maintain their ROM.
Jeans and high top sneakers or boots are typically worn on most construction sites. Even with a fairly decent ROM, clothing may contribute to improper lifting form. That coupled with the fact that most workers don’t have prior knowledge of form or mobility would result in lifts similar to that seen on the images on the right.
While lifting with proper form in a gym is only done for a fraction of the time that a worker performs his task, we can easily see how the cumulative effect of the above mentioned factors can contribute to work related MSDs.
2. Working at Height
This example focuses less on mobility and more on skill and strength. Occupations that would find such a skills essential may encompass utility lines men, window washers and persons working on scaffolding. Having this skill should be considered as a pre-requisite for such jobs, just as swimming is a pre-requisite to being a life guard. It can potentially safe your life.
Here are my humble suggestions:
- Include CrossFit at company gyms or company wellness programs to improve the health of both clerical and technical workers.
- Include mobility as a recognised training component for worker groups engaged in manual handling tasks.
- Include an assessment of strength and mobility as part of a worker’s pre-employment medical.
- Less loss time injury
- Less compensation claims
- Increased productivity
- Greater gender equality in the workplace, greater inclusion of women in manual handling tasks (CrossFit chicks are very strong 🙂 )
CrossFit is a growing community locally. To date there are 4 gyms (Boxes) in Trinidad. Feel free to check any of them out if you want to learn more about this type of training. The CrossFit Open has just finished, perhaps you may consider signing up for it next year!
I currently train at CrossFit Iron Chin in San Juan with trainer and gym owner Mikhail Ragoonan. Special thanks for Mik for letting me feature him and his gym in sharing my thoughts and ideas! You can also check out CrossFit 12-12-12, igone CrossFit and WeHeart CrossFit.
Hope I’ve given both the CrossFit and OSH communities something to think about.