Rhabdomyolysis is an extremely rare and potentially fatal muscle disease that fries the kidneys. This is doubtfully the first time you’ve heard of it, unless you’re a CrossFitter. CrossFit is a Marine-like workout routine that combines aerobic exercise, gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting, and Rhabdomyolysis—affectionately known as Rhabdo—is a common affliction sustained by CrossFitters. The CrossFit/Rhabdo debate was sparked last week when photos of a pregnant woman doing CrossFit went viral. Considering the disease’s disturbing associations with CrossFit, it’s worth asking whether anyone—not just an eight months pregnant woman—should CrossFit.
In 2005, there were 13 official CrossFit gyms in the United States. Now, there are more than 6,000. A CrossFit gym is more akin to a boot camp than a fitness center, and the intense workouts routinely leave exercisers with JELL-O for muscles. This is because—according to ABC News Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser, CrossFitters are “…asking [their] muscles to keep working after they’ve stopped getting any energy to get the job done.”
Let’s take a more detailed look at what Rhabdomyolysis does to the body.
At its onset, Rhabdo introduces itself as a soreness of the muscles. Hours later, when your appendages refuse to obey your brain’s commands to move, dead muscle cells have begun to release myoglobin—a protein harmful to the kidneys—into the bloodstream. Symptoms like vomiting, muscle spasms and confusion follow shortly after. And once your urine turns a lovely shade of coffee-brown, you can confidently diagnose yourself with Rhabdomyolysis. Get yourself to a hospital, because kidney failure and death are next.
This potentially fatal disease is so common an affliction for CrossFitters that CrossFit Inc.’s unofficial mascot is “Rhabdo the Clown,” and he’s even featured on a widely circulated cartoon. The cartoon depicts a spent clown hooked up to a dialysis machine while his kidneys and intestines lay spoiled on the ground. It’s super pleasant. One reason why Rhabdo is so prevalent among CrossFitters is the elitist nature of the regimen—nobody wants to be the first to quit and no one wants to be outdone.
Injuries sustained during a CrossFit routine are standard and often worn like a badge of honor. A Medium piece by Eric Robertson, Professor of Physical Therapy at Regis University, included this quote uttered by CrossFit’s founder, Greg Glassman: “It [CrossFit] can kill you. I’ve always been completely honest about that.” Such a nonchalant take on a deadly condition widely associated with your company’s practices is a cavalier and irresponsible move, but it’s done nothing to diminish the growing popularity of CrossFit.
Rhabdomyolysis permanently damages your muscles and kidneys, meaning you’re unlikely to ever regain your former strength. The “no pain, no gain” culture of CrossFit will eventually leave all its member looking like the gutless clown Rhabdo, and it surely won’t be as funny then.
image via library.crossfit.com