Why I loved CrossFit and Why it’s Not Right for Me (ie My Back Pain Exercise Saga)

Before you ask, it has nothing to do with the CrossFit gym I went to.  The coaches at CrossFit West Chester are absolutely fantastic.  For this reason I had a really hard time leaving them, but let me back up a little and give you my whole story.  But first, I want you to know that this post is in no way sponsored and my only affiliations with the people I have linked to are in that I’ve personally used their services or programs.  I am in no way receiving funding for what I am linking too (but if any of you guys would like to throw some green my way, let me know!)

Soon after I graduated PT school I competed in a triathlon the week before my licensure exam and subsequently studied on picnic benches the entire weekend.  I had already previously had issues with my back and these two events are a dangerous combination. The day of my exam, my now husband had to lift me out of bed and help me into the car.  I pushed through with ibuprofen and icy hot patches and immediately drove myself to the emergency room following the test.  X-rays, as typical, were negative and I was sent home with strong pain meds and recommended follow up with my primary physician.  I was denied for an MRI at the time but decided to treat myself with my knowledge as a PT.

In general, I was able to manage this ebb and flow of back pain mostly with exercise – core strengthening, swimming, basic aerobics classes, yoga, etc.  It was pretty under control for my day to day life.  When I was pregnant a few years later, I had some recurrent issues but managed them with chiropractor appointments (and of course exercises).  My official diagnosis was 2 mildly bulging/herniated discs in my lumbar spine.  Which as a PT I know that many people have these but mine combined with what I now know of as mechanical alignment issues led to recurrent muscle spasms which can be truly debilitating.

Then the best thing in the world happened and I had my amazing daughter.  I’m still coming to terms with my semi-emergency C-section but overall I felt as though I healed well from it.  I started with baby and me yoga and similar classes getting to more intense fitness with the kid classes.  One of those classes I did a few burpees, which seemed fine, but then I bent over the stroller to check on the baby and <ping> I felt that all too familiar twinge of an oncoming muscle spasm.  This was my first time at this class though so I decided, being active is good for me, I’ll just keep going.  I made it through the rest of the class with only minimal pain and thought I was in the clear…until the next day.  I was sitting on the couch and I heard the baby cry and went to run up the stairs and my legs completely gave out from severe muscle spasm/back pain.  I couldn’t move.  I started screaming for my husband who thankfully works from home and was just in the shower.  He carried me to the couch where I was fairly paralyzed from the pain alone.  Because this story is getting way too long, ultimately we had to call an ambulance to take me to the emergency room because I couldn’t move.  Guess what, it was just a muscle spasm and maybe the bulging discs were a little bit worse.  I kicked it with some major drugs followed by 2 epidural injections.  Honestly, I attribute most of my success to working with an amazing personal trainer.

We learned a lot from each other, me as a PT and him as a trainer.  I learned that the crux of my mechanical issues including tight-ass hip flexors and major weakness in my left glutes and quadratus lumborum.  My back reach a point of stability that I could’ve never imagined while working with him.  We ended up moving away and I followed a program by him at a gym on my own for a short while then participated in some gym classes like body pump and kettlebell.  I was feeling good but as our bodies continue to adapt to what we give them, I felt I needed to try something new.

My husband had been going to CrossFit for awhile and was totally hooked so I finally decided to check it out.  And here’s where we get to the amazingness of CrossFit, at least at my gym.

The on-boarding is very regimented and I was required to work with one of the coaches and get checked off on all of the skills needed to participate in the class.  They said it usually takes 6-10 classes, I did it in 3 (I am a PT afterall!). Not only is it so important to be able to go over all of the ‘moves’ one on one, they also reviewed modifications that I might need in work outs.  Then, as you move on to classes, they want you to stick with the coach that did your on-boarding so they can keep an eye on you.  This is what you don’t get in big box gyms.  Often times the trainers and class instructors are different people and I’ve never truly had a relationship with my class instructors that enhanced my training.  My coach knew when to push me a little and when to back off.  When I continued to have back issues (which never happened during classes, only a day or two after some specific workouts) he worked with me to help me get the most out of all of it.  It was truly great.

Not only do we have great coaches, but I truly enjoy CrossFit itself.  It’s such an easy entry into weightlifting and bursts those fears of lifting heavy weights that I was hesitant to try on my own.  I have a true passion for lifting these days and it is all thanks to CrossFit.  And then there’s the WOD. I’ve done a variety of cardio training up until this point including a few triathlons (mostly sprint, one Olympic) and a half marathon and I really don’t love how much time I need to spend on the training.  Go all out for 8-15 minutes; however, that I can handle.  I’m very competitive, mostly internally, so the style of the work outs worked great for me and were incredibly motivating, not to mention fun.

So this all sounds great, right?  Well yeah it was.  Unfortunately/fortunately, as I mentioned before my back always felt great during workouts.  No twinges or anything; however, pretty much every time I did something that used spinal flexion the next 1-2 days I almost without failed pull my back out over the littlest things like bending over the sink or going to the bathroom.  The first and second time this happened I started modifying more and more of the workouts.  I would look each night at the work out for the next day and figure out how I could modify it but eventually I started to get lazy.  One of the reasons I go to classes like these is so I don’t have to think and can just follow.  I was now only going maybe once a week and that wasn’t helping anything.  So after a lot of hard thinking and talking it over with my husband and coaches I decided that CrossFit wasn’t going to get me to my goals.  It’s definitely on the right track but it was becoming too much to modify everything and I was missing out on a lot of good potential by only being able to go once per week.

That’s when I found Bedrock Strength by Jen Sinkler and JVB. There was one line in the program that mentioned that this was a program designed with carrying a tantruming toddler in mind.  That sold me.  I’m 11 weeks in and it has been amazing.  That combined with nutritional therapy tools I’m learning as a student, I haven’t needed pain medication for my back in 3 months.  I’m stronger than I’ve ever been and I haven’t missed a workout.  It’s only 3 days a week so I can fit that in pretty easily.  The other nice thing about it is that there are some great modifications so when I’m having a day that I’m feeling a little off I can easily adjust, no external pressure.

I now know that it’s better to take the day if I’m sore or if I’m feeling ‘at risk’ for injury because it’s not worth the 7 days of near bed rest when I do injure it.  I’ve figured out that my back injuries most often occur at the same point in my menstrual cycle. I take care to be careful during those few days especially and I’m continually trying to balance my hormones through nutrition so I have less of those dips. Although, as a woman, I’m supposed to have different hormone levels at certain parts of my cycle so I understand that I may always need to be a little careful during those times.  (Noelle Tarr recently put out this article which is fantastic if you want any more information on that.) Being pregnant  changed my body alignment and is so much more responsive to all of those hormonal changes.

On the topic of following program; while I’m an obliger, I found that having a program alone to follow keeps me easily on track.  Especially since I found work outs that I love.  I love seeing my muscles start to pop, I keep getting lifting PRs, and while I still can’t do a full pull up, I’m getting measurably closer.

Fitness, Nutrition and Health are intertwined.  I still have a ways to go in all areas but I know I’m on the right track.  Thanks for coming along for the ride. Stay tuned for someday I will have a post on what nutritional protocols and supplements helped me as well!

Until next time,