CrossFit Gym Owner So Upset With a University Study Reporting Injuries That He Just Took a Major Step

Note: CrossFit HQ’s Russell Berger will join TheBlaze Editor-in-Chief Scott Baker (@bakerlink) for today’s live BlazeCast at 3pm ET:

The CrossFit craze is in full swing. Since the fitness regimen’s founding in 2000, thousands of affiliated gyms have popped up, and, according to Russell Berger with CrossFit headquarters, the vast majority of these gyms are successful business.

“We have 9,000-plus small-business owners and a less than 2 percent failure rate on those businesses,” he told TheBlaze.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Photo credit: Shutterstock

That said, recent reports of injuries among CrossFit athletes could be an enemy to the trend. One such report of injuries at a CrossFit gym comes in the form of a study out of Ohio State University published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2013. This study reported 16 percent of participants in a local CrossFit gym’s 10-week challenge were injured or suffered overuse during this timeframe.

But now that gym owner is taking legal action.

Mitch Potterf is alleging the study made its claims fraudulently and he’s seeking compensatory and punitive damages. He counters that none of the 54 participants for this study were injured or suffered overuse.

He thinks the injury claims in the study have impacted his business.

“Since this study went out, this is the first year we haven’t grown,” he said of his membership numbers. “That’s what people find out about me when they Google me — 18,000 hits related to my business on Google that are complete fabrications.”

Though Potterf’s gym is not mentioned by name in the study, Berger noted that other affiliates are being broached with questions about safety.

Data for the study was collected by the university researchers in a “test-in” before the CrossFit challenge period began and at a “test-out” after the 10 weeks were up. The purpose of the study was to measure the aerobic fitness and body composition from such a training regimen. The study ultimately found that “high-intensity power training” helps improve both of these factors, which Potterf and Berger said is intuitive given that it’s a fitness program.

While the study is positive overall about the physical benefits of CrossFit, the men say that almost everyone who cites it seizes on the injury reports.

“Of the 11 subjects who dropped out of the training program, [two] cited time concerns with the remaining [nine] subjects (16 [percent] of total recruited subjects) citing overuse or injury for failing to complete the program and finish follow-up testing,” the study stated.

“Although peer-reviewed evidence of injury rates pertaining to high-intensity training programs is sparse, there are emerging reports of increased rates of musculoskeletal and metabolic injury in these programs,” the study noted at another point. “This may call into question the risk-benefit ratio for such extreme training programs […].”

Lita Collins does a deadlift during a CrossFit workout at Ross Valley CrossFit on March 14, 2014 in San Anselmo, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Lita Collins does a deadlift during a CrossFit workout at Ross Valley CrossFit on March 14, 2014 in San Anselmo, Calif. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)

While 11 participants might not have participated in the test-out portion of the study, Potterf said none of them cited overuse or injury. In fact, Potterf and his attorney, Ken Donchatz, who was actually a study participant who completed the program, said they interviewed each of these people and claim that they said they were never hurt.

Berger said that the study authors could never have contacted these participants anyway because they were blind to participant names.

Ohio State University researcher Steven Devor, who has spoken with Berger and other publications about the study, did not respond to TheBlaze’s request for comment.

To Outside Online in December, Devor said the percentage of participants with reported overuse or injury was not supposed to be used to represent overall injury rates for people participating in CrossFit. He told the magazine that the original draft of the study didn’t even include injury statistics but the publisher asked for this information, which Devor alleges was provided to the study owners by the gym owner, which would be Potterf who says this isn’t the case.

Berger said he had a conversation, which he recorded and posted a transcript online, in which Devor said that study participants told the researchers why they were not completing the program. In the transcript, Berger reported that Devor said his colleague and co-author of the study was the one who had contact with some of the study participants who reported the injuries. Berger alleged that Devor seemed to be changing his story.

Class participants toss medicine balls during a CrossFit workout at Ross Valley CrossFit on March 14, 2014 in San Anselmo, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Class participants toss medicine balls during a CrossFit workout at Ross Valley CrossFit on March 14, 2014 in San Anselmo, Calif. (Getty Images/Justin Sullivan)

Potterf said that he has tried to work with the study authors to get the information he thinks is falsified fixed.

But people do get injured in CrossFit — and any other sport, for that matter. We can’t forget the horrifying video of the owner of a CrossFit trainer in Colorado snapping his spine while lifting at weight at an athletic competition.

Another study accepted for publication in the same journal said it found an injury rate of 3.1 per 1,000 hours of training, based on a survey it conducted of CrossFit athletes. That said, it likened injury rates to other sports such as different forms of weight lifting, gymnastics, sprint distance running and contact sports like rugby.

Berger says “you can get hurt doing anything.

“A lot of it comes down to common sense,” he added. “Everything we have seen seems to indicate that CrossFit is basically as dangerous as any recreational activity.”

Going forward, Donchatz, Potterf’s lawyer, said that the two study authors are being served the complaint and will have 28 days to respond. Though Donchatz hopes the issue can be resolved without going to trial, a date is set for next year and he said that those who claimed they were not injured doing CrossFit, though the study said they were, might testify.

This story has been updated.