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Fitness as Sport: Potential Pitfalls

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

Over the last three or four decades the idea of a fitness program or going to the gym has gone from a cultural oddity to a normative practice. So much so that yoga pants are now a normal acceptable everyday clothing item for many women. I remember when I got my first gym membership in 1998 in 8th grade my grandpa giving me a hard time and telling me to just bail more hay or other miscellaneous farm work. His generation didn’t have gyms, and didn’t understand the value in a solid fitness program. Fast forward to today and you have a billion dollar industry selling workouts, gym memberships, supplements, clothing, diets, etc. Over that last couple of decades we have seen a rise fitness competition. The popularity of Powerlifting, Weightlifting, Strongman, Crossfit games, and even running events has exploded recently. As a nation that is perpetually becoming less fit, healthy, more obese, and finally producing the first generation that will have a shorter life expectancy than their parents we would think this is great. Before we pat our back in celebration of all these fitness events let's pump the brakes for a second and look at some potential problems here.

It used to be that people worked out to look better, feel better, or perform better at a given sport. We now have fitness with the intent to compete at being the most fit (crossfit), strongest (powerlifting and strongman), most powerful (weightlifting), or most endurance (marathons). I believe many people have the misguided notion that getting better at any of these given sports means an improvement to health/fitness. However, with increased specificity, training volume, and intensity needed to ultimately progress in these various competitions this risk of both chronic and acute injuries increases. Most of us would not attempt to pick up American tackle football, boxing, hockey, etc. in a hope to look and feel better. We tend to inherently understand that the reward of increased fitness is not worth the risk of injury associated with these activities.

A good fitness program should increase strength, power, mobility, stability, endurance, muscle mass, make us more resilient, and decrease body fat. However, it should not come at the expense of injury. In the world of Strength and Conditioning it is accepted that injury is a possibility both in competition and to a lesser degree in training. We are willing to take on this risk in order to compete at higher and higher levels. In the general population there is no reason to take on this risk. We tend to look at top competitors in one of these fitness sports and admire their physiques and think that if we do what they do we will look like them. In some cases this might be true. But we must realize that it is possible to get into great shape with a smarter/safer training and nutrition plan. Following a more well rounded program may not offer the same performance enhancements as a highly specialized training plan, but will still allow you to see progress in performance and should make you more resilient. Top priority of any program should be to not get hurt. If we are hurt we can’t train, and we can’t progress long term. Here are a few tips to keep you improving and injury free long term:

  1. Train movements for 4-12 weeks then switch them. This allows for adequate skill development to build competency and then progress, but avoids overtraining by not doing the same pattern over and over indefinitely.

  2. Ensure that you have adequate mobility/stability to include a given exercise. If you can’t get into the required positions at slow speeds without load then you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

  3. Keep effort at a 7-8 most of the time. If we use an RPE scale of 1-10 where a 1 means you could perform 9 more reps and a 10 being as much weight as you could possibly do for the prescribed reps, we want most of our exercises to be in a 7-8 range meaning we could perform 2-3 more reps if we had to.

  4. Avoid doing highly technical or dynamic movements in a state of fatigue. Doing weightlifting variations, box jumps, or agility drills for conditioning work is typically a recipe for form breakdown and increased risk of injury.

  5. Address all areas of fitness and movement patterns. Work on improving mobility, stability, strength, power, conditioning, increasing muscle mass. Make sure all movement patterns are included: Push, pull, hinge, squat, lunge/step up, Anti-Core work, carries/crawls. Tailor the program based on needs, goals, and injury history.

If you do decide to move forward competing in some form of fitness endeavor

just make sure you understand the increased risk inherent with that activity and have somebody help you set up an annual training plan to best manage fatigue, and peaking for performance while minimizing inherent injury risk.

-Jeff Tirrell, CSCS, CFSC, Pn2

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