4 Common Exercises That Could Hurt Your Members

Popular Internet pastimes in the world of fitness include, but are not limited to: making blanket statements about various exercises or training programs, and providing specific recommendations to an invisible audience without context. Sometimes, these recommendations are based on science and backed up by common sense, such as the statement: "Having novice lifters attempt rep maxes on their lifts is both dangerous, inappropriate, and an ineffective use of their training time." That particular blanket statement is sound advice and any prudent coach should at this point be nodding along in agreement. Other times, general statements require a little more nuance and context, and thus, become confusing and inconsequential. For example, a warning like: "If you bound your box jumps your calves will immediately explode upon making contact with the ground." Well, some people certainly shouldn't be doing high rep bounded box jumps, but depending on their tissue quality, technique, and the volume of reps being programmed, others will probably be just fine. Often the reality behind a recommendation falls in a grey area and depends on analysis of the situation sitting in front of you—not something you read about on the Internet.

The majority of training-related injuries any facility will encounter are usually progressive in nature, meaning they’re the result of inefficient technique, inherent orthopedic limitations, or overuse of a particular movement pattern. These issues are systemic and minimizing them depends on your ability to program intelligently  and make thoughtful and specific recommendations to athletes about how to modify or scale their workouts on a daily basis. Below, we address commonly-seen situations in CrossFit gyms that have the potential for acute or catastrophic injuries—and are often completely avoidable. To be clear, this article is not meant to condemn the movements themselves, but to offer some context as to how to implement them responsibly at your gym. 

1. Bounding Box Jumps

So, let’s talk about those now infamous box jumps. The issue of dangers with high rep bounded box jumps became a hot topic a couple years ago when a series of Achilles tendon ruptures were reported post Open workout 11.2. Personally, in the seven years I've been running CFSBK, many of which included people bounding their box jumps, I'd never seen or heard of anyone experiencing an injury from them. Regardless, upon analysis of the movement after the 11.2 aftermath, our coaches decided to hedge our bets and modify how we taught and implemented the exercise. While experience seems to dictate that most people can buffer the movement, preventing even one trip for someone to the ER is TOTALLY WORTH IT.

We're big fans of the now prevalent “CrossFit Games standard" box jump, which requires the athlete to show full extension and control above the box as opposed to being able to rebound off the top and reach extension midair. The Games standard landing coupled with a step down should be the default version you teach all your members. This minimizes many of the ballistic components in the prior version and focuses on simple jumping and landing mechanics onto the box, while still providing an effective metabolic stimulus when programmed in conditioning workouts. 

Those who have the capacity to bound are going to be your more advanced athletes who compete in the sport of CrossFit. Teaching proper mechanics and not programming a fuck ton of reps in any given workout are going to be the best ways to keep these folks safe.

2. Max Height Box Jumps

Similarly, something you see in many gyms is the max height box jump. The set up for these usually includes a standard box with a small skyscraper of bumpers stacked on top of it. I still have a vivid memory from several years ago, when CFSBK was doing max height box jumps in a class and a member missed the landing and toppled off the side onto the ground. He was totally fine, but the return-on-investment of programming max height box jumps to a large group of people is minimal (more below), and the potential is high for someone to miss a jump and either injure themselves upon hitting the ground or worse yet, have any of those bumpers chase him or her to the ground. That incident immediately set off panic alarms in my head and we have not since performed the movement at CFSBK. It's exactly the kind of scenario where everyone is having a good time and having fun with it until something catastrophic happens and everyone thinks to themselves, “Oh yeah, I guess we could have seen that coming.”

Furthermore, max height box jumps are less an indicator of vertical jump prowess and much more an indicator of some vertical jump ability plus enough hip mobility to quickly get your feet on top of a surface. That's not to say that they're totally worthless as something to mess around with once in a blue moon, but if your intention is to assess or develop explosive power, then power cleans are by far a more effective and trainable indicator of exactly that.

If you still want to perform max height box jumps, you need the right equipment. Foam versions of plyo boxes are readily available online. Though they do cost a premium and take up a larger footprint for storage than traditional wooden boxes, this,is a scenario where without the proper equipment, the movement isn’t worth doing at all. 

If you’re programming this exercise, remember to keep them in context. For the most part, these types of box jumps are more of a novelty than any sort of serious training protocol. Have fun with them but don't put anyone at risk for injury due to a botched jump.

3. Sprints

Everyone loves sprints. They're effective, efficient, and generally speaking really good for you. If you're programming them intelligently, then kudos to you. But of course, there's a caveat (there always a caveat!). Here's a perfect storm that's unfortunately not a unique set of circumstances: "John" has pretty shitty hip mobility, no real experience running HARD and fast, and sits in an office all day. He comes to class, does a modest and general warm-up with the group before heading outside for some 200m repeats. On his first sprint, he takes off like a lion and mid-stride, he feels like he's been shot below his buttcheek and limps back to the start line. No bueno. Given that sprinting is a highly explosive activity, the easiest way to have someone pull a hamstring within 20 feet of saying "Go!" is to inadequately warm him or her up before heading outside to hit the track or pavement.

If you're going to program sprints, be sure to thoroughly warm your athletes up with sprint specific movement prep, especially their hips and hamstrings. Start slow with some tempo runs and gradually build up velocity from there. For members without any significant speed training (probably all of them), remind them that the point is to go fast, but not necessarily "all out.” You can still get many of the benefits and adaptations of sprinting without completely redlining, especially if it's only something you'll be doing occasionally.

Also: be aware of and defer to your environment. Many urban affiliates such as CFSBK can't program sprinting on any regular basis as our "track" is the sidewalk outside our gym. Distracted pedestrians, limited space for multiple people, as well as the novel obstacles like bags of trash and used condoms can all become potential tripping and collision hazards.

4. 1 Rep Max Benching

While an important lift, generally speaking benching is something we don't do a terrible amount of in CrossFit. Benching is often the only form of legitimate barbell training that many athletes have been exposed to pre-CrossFit. Thus when it does come up, it can be tempting for them to want to move some big weights—and perhaps not be as smart about it as they should be. The ability of a relatively small mass of muscle to move a large load can potentially set someone up for a pec tear, especially when coupled with the average posture of people in The Information Age. That being said, in CFSBK's seven-year history, we've coached thousands of exposures to the movement and have witnessed only three pec tears. While a statistically low figure, the acute and disastrous nature of an injury like this requires being as safe and smart as possible when approaching maxing out this lift.

If you want to test your athletes’ bench press, program an appropriate cycle several weeks leading up to it so your more advanced lifters can reacclimate themselves to the lift and gain more exposure to moving progressively heavier loads before attempting a new max.

Novice lifters have no business finding 1RMs and their programming should reflect that accordingly. If you're going to do a "once off" exposure of benching, programming a heavy set of 5 is much safer than a 1 or even 5RM lift. Encourage people to go heavy but only so heavy that they’re making all of their reps.

Bench pressing, like any other lift requires proper technique to be understood before programming it. I've corrected too many visitors to my gym that were "suicide gripping" the bar, had no idea how to spot their partners, or set their shoulders back and down for the lift. Just because it looks really straightforward doesn’t mean it is. There are specific nuances and protocols that allow for safe benching and very easy ways to make a mess of yourself by not following them. Get on it, bro.

How do you implement these movements with your athletes?

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Reader Comments (3)

The one time I have truly felt unsafe when traveling and visiting another affiliate was bench pressing. We were paired off -- not by intended weights, mind you, I was just put on a bar with a couple of other women because of course women are going to be doing less weight, right? And then the coach said go.

It became clear to me immediately that the two women I was sharing a bar with did not know how to spot. Not their fault -- they'd never been taught. But I immediately revised down in my head the weight that I planned to hit, because I didn't want to go for anything I had more than a slim chance of failing.

I really wish that coach had gone over movement standards and ESPECIALLY spotting standards before we had started.

September 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStella

For our max height "box" jumps, we stack plates on two boxes that are about 3 feet apart. We have 2 people hold a skipping rope (loosely) at a given height. Each athlete attempts to clear the rope. No fear of falling. No potential damage to the shins. And if they miss, the skipping rope falls to the floor. We did these last week and people enjoyed them a lot.

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKevin W.

Great article Dave. These articles have really put me at a different level with my coaching abilities and have opened up a whole new world of resources to further our staff's education. Keep em' coming. However you know what they say, "more plates more dates", so 1RM Bench Press today, j/k ;)

September 9, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNate

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