Is CrossFit for Kids Safe?

A look at the ups and downs of the children’s version, which is gaining just as much popularity as the adult program.

CrossFit Kids has become more and more popular in recent years. But many skeptics question its safety for children. Photograph courtesy of Mary Miller.

“Butts in the air!” shouts CrossFit Chantilly cofounder Mary Miller. About a dozen kids lined up along the glass wall at the front of the gym bend over to touch their palms to the ground, stick their butts toward the ceiling, and begin bear-crawling across the black rubber floor as Miller scans the class to make sure all the kids look like moving teepees.

While most youngsters can be found lounging on a couch watching cartoons on a Saturday morning, these ones are in a CrossFit gym at 9 AM, warming up for the day’s workout.

“If you teach your children at a very early age the right things to do—eat well, exercise, move often—it’s not something they’re gonna think about,” Miller says. “It’s going to come naturally to them.”

CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program that has spread to gyms across the country, attracting a huge and dedicated following. The Washington area alone is home to dozens of affiliations, including CrossFit Kids programs. But like all things that become extremely popular, CrossFit has its detractors. Doubters are alarmed by the exercise regimen’s competitive nature and say the focus on number of repetitions detracts from learning the correct form, leading to injuries. So when CrossFit Kids started in 2003, some became even more concerned, saying kids were especially at risk for injury because of the weight training involved in many of the drills.

“We really encourage kids to be active, but we temper that with caution that they don’t go unsupervised,” says Dr. Laurel Blakemore, chief of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at Children’s National Medical Center. She says weights can and should be used sparingly with kids. As recently as 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that light strength training was safe for preadolescents and adolescents, with adult supervision. Blakemore adds that while it’s fine for adults to push their physiological capacity with CrossFit, the focus for kids must be on fitness.

Fitness—and fun, according to CrossFit Kids cofounder Jeff Martin.

“If they think it’s fun, you know they’re gonna tell their parents, ‘I want to go back,’” he says. “Anything you think of as fun you’re much more apt to make room for in your daily life.”

And that’s Martin’s goal: getting exercise to become a daily part of life for children. If fun and a small amount of success are built into the workouts, he said, kids won’t associate exercise with boredom or pain, and children with abilities ranging from the star athlete to the kid never picked at recess will benefit.

But some people are worried by the idea that CrossFit can provide uniform benefits for children. CrossFit workouts change every day, and are provided by the program’s website. The Workout of the Day, or WOD, has the same premise for everyone, but its intensity can be tailored to each person’s fitness level.

“That aspect of tailoring the intensity is very important,” says Shane Beatty, general manager at the personal training gym BodySmith DC. “Weight training is not one size fits all.” 

Even so, he says, every person has specific needs that are difficult to address or even notice when one trainer is in charge of a group workout. Beatty says many of his clients have hip imbalances, for example, and their workouts need to be altered accordingly.

“When you’re working in a scenario in a competitive group environment, it’s really hard for one or two instructors to maintain form throughout the program,” he says.

Martin recognizes that this is a potential problem, and recommends having “many more” instructors in a kids’ class than in an average adult class. When he trains CrossFit Kids coaches, he says he emphasizes that they should never tell a child to move faster. When they’re young, they need to learn the technique before anything else.

“Our goal is to allow the child to bring the intensity that he wants,” Martin says.

In Chantilly, the group of kids bear-crawled, climbed ropes, ran sprints, did situps, and even lifted small weights from a squat over the course of an hour, without losing focus. Some parents were in the back of the gym doing a CrossFit workout of their own, while others cheered them on.

Miller, herself the mother of two of the kids participating in the workout, says she has seen plenty of families come in to do CrossFit workouts together, and that it gives them something in common.

When the workout was over, the kids walked across the gym, high-fived a few parents, and pleaded with Miller to let them jump rope, climb a rope, or just do something with the few minutes they had until their parents were finished.

Miller gave in and watched as the youngsters walked over to a wall, planted their palms on the ground, and flipped upside down.

“They couldn’t wait to show off their handstand pushups,” Miller says.