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Should young athletes do CrossFit?

CrossFit for Kids: Good Potential, Just Be Careful

By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University

Key Points:

• CrossFit is a multi-joint high intensity exercise regimen with the potential to be an excellent total body training for the young athlete
• Young athletes can participate in CrossFit as long as it is an age specific class, and there is very close supervision from the instructor to ensure perfect form
• Performing age inappropriate activity, or doing “too much, too soon” can risk growth plate or tendon problems in the growing athlete

I see a lot of adults with various injuries from CrossFit and lately I’m starting to see a few young athletes with injuries from CrossFit too. It seems that CrossFit programs for teenagers and adolescents are becoming more popular, so it’s only natural that larger numbers of participants will lead to a few injuries no matter the sport or activity. But on the adult side we really do see a lot of injuries, so I wonder whether there’s something intrinsically wrong with the training, or whether it’s a great regimen where some other factors lead to injury.

crossfit

What exactly is CrossFit? CrossFit is an exercise regimen typically performed in a group class setting that aims to use multiple joint full body functional movements to improve health and fitness. The programs are designed to be constantly varied, high intensity, and often with multiple repetitions. In the adult version, the individual is supposed to modify load and intensity if they have a particular injury, or are starting from a lower level of fitness. And for the adults, I think that’s where the problem comes in: we see a lot of injuries from “too much, too soon”. The group class setting can make it very difficult for someone to cut back due to the fairly intense peer pressure.

On the kids and young athlete side, CrossFit has a similar program called CrossFit Kids. The goals of the program are admirable and on the face of it I like what I am seeing. “The CrossFit Kids program uses the template of randomized, functional exercises, performed at high intensity. Adjustments are made to accommodate the specific needs and requirements of children and teens.”

The template shown on the website is divided into appropriate age groups starting from preschool up to “varsity”, which typically refers to high school aged athletes. As the ages increase and the athlete’s skill level increases there is an emphasis on movements such as weighted lunges, barbell cleans, handstands, and plyometric activities. A young athlete absolutely must not enter into an adult class. If you do CrossFit make sure it’s in an age specific class for young bodies.

When performed with perfect form, I find the activities listed to be safe and effective ways to build overall fitness, and should translate to improved sport performance. I also like the variety and changing routines. The risk is that the exercises absolutely must be performed with perfect form, and if they are not there is risk for creating conditions across the open growth plates of growing athletes such as Osgood-Schlatter syndrome at the knee, or Sever’s apophysitis at the heel. A group setting with other motivated athletes and instructor can be a lot of fun, and perhaps lead to a higher level of compliance with the program. Be careful of giving in to peer pressure to try loads and moves your body is not ready for. “Too much, too soon” can easily happen for kids and teenagers. And to be sure, these cautions apply to many different exercise regimens and sports for kids, not limited to CrossFit.

Overall, I feel the objectives and program plan for CrossFit kids has the potential to be an engaging and effective way to improve total body fitness for young athletes. For some kids the group setting in a warehouse is fun and motivational, and other kids may prefer training individually or in smaller groups. You may want to do a sample class to see how you feel about that. But the most important aspect in my opinion is the close supervision needed from the trainer/instructor to ensure perfect form from the students. Other keys would be to make sure you are in an age appropriate session, and be wary of overextending yourself from peer pressure. For now I’ll give CrossFit Kids the benefit of a doubt. I’m hoping it doesn’t change my mind over the coming year.

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