OutsideOnline CrossFit NorCal powerlift gym high-intensity ligitation
Powerlifter at NorCal CrossFit (Photo: NorCal Crossfit/Ali Samieivafa/F)

Why Is a CrossFit Gym Suing Scientists?

An Ohio CrossFit affiliate says an academic study got stats about injury rates in the popular workout program wrong. And it’s suing the researchers behind the data. Should science be scared?

OutsideOnline CrossFit NorCal powerlift gym high-intensity ligitation

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Editor’s Note: (1/15/2020) The 2013 study mentioned in this article was later retracted for falsifying the percentage of participants who dropped out of a CrossFit program because of injury. The author of the study subsequently resigned from the Ohio State University. And in December 2019, a judge ruled in favor of CrossFit in a federal lawsuit the company brought against the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the organization that publishes the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The judge determined the NSCA “deceived and continue[s] to deceive the public and consumers regarding the safety and effectiveness of CrossFit training” and ordered the organization to pay CrossFit a terminating sanction of $4 million after determining it interfered with the lawsuit's discovery process.

CrossFit’s reputation as a workout with a pitbull personality is moving from the gym to the courtroom. A Columbus, Ohio, CrossFit gym is suing the scientists behind a 2013 study, alleging the reseachers fabricated data that 16 percent of people in a program at the gym dropped out due to injury or overuse.

The fight is the latest skirmish in an escalating debate over the potential hazards of CrossFit, a routine that melds weightlifting and calisthenics into a 10- to 20-minute swirl of muscle-burning intensity. The move presents an unusual, and troubling, dilemma for the world of academic research, where disputes are usually sorted out between scientists or by university overseers.

But Mitch Potterf, owner of the Fit Club, said he’s resorting to legal action after the scientists and the journal that published the study were unresponsive to his complaints that the study was inaccurate. “I don't like people lying about me,” Potterf said.

Since its inception in the mid-1990s, CrossFit has mushroomed into a fitness craze crossed with a social movement. As many as 8,900 gyms have sprung up worldwide. The CrossFit Games, featuring ripped athletes in dueling workouts, was televised on ESPN. While few scientific studies of CrossFit have been published, several, including the disputed one, found people made considerable fitness gains by following the routines.

But along with the popularity has come concerns that the intense workouts and the technical difficulty of some of the movements could lead to injuries. CrossFit has been associated with cases of rhabdomyolysis, a rare condition in which muscle trauma can cause kidney damage. And some experts, including a panel of military and sports researchers, cautioned that high-intensity routines like CrossFit could lead to injuries.

“If a particular group brings a lawsuit against publishers of studies, then in the future people will become more chastened about taking any time to look into this.”

CrossFit’s corporate headquarters and its devoted fans have responded with a ferocity that mirrors the workout. The company’s chief scientist—also the father of founder Greg Glassman—rebutted the military report with a 92-page critique. A company spokesman has dismissed some scientists as “experts” in quotes, and accused the chief professional association for exercise scientists, the American College of Sports Medicine, of having an anti-CrossFit bias.

But this is the first time it’s come to a lawsuit from a CrossFit-affiliated business. The suit raises this question: Is it a case of an innocent businessman ambushed by scientists peddling fraudulent data? Or is it a company trying to bully researchers when it doesn’t like the results?

This much is clear: Michael Smith, a graduate student working under Prof. Steven Devor, an Ohio State exercise physiologist, approached Potterf about studying members of his gym as a way to gauge how CrossFit changed people’s fitness. The researchers put 54 gym members through a battery of tests, then did the same tests following ten weeks of workouts. When the study was published, it stated that nine people dropped out due to “overuse or injury.”

But Potterf said nobody got injured from the workouts—that people missed the final testing for a variety of reasons such as busy schedules. Potterf said he never spoke with the scientists about injuries, and he doesn’t know where they got the data. The lawsuit says the gym has suffered more than $25,000 in damages. “The case is about a guy who starts a gym from scratch and works like crazy to put every ounce of blood sweat and tears into it, and then suffers harm by some unscrupulous doctors,” said Kenneth Donchatz, Potterf’s attorney, who is also a member of the gym and took part in the study.

Smith didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment. Devor referred questions to his attorney and attorneys for Ohio State University. A university spokesman said he couldn’t comment. The National Strength and Conditioning Association, whose journal published the study and who is also being sued, declined to comment.

But in an e-mail before the lawsuit, Smith said he collected the injury information from Potterf. When people didn’t return for the second test, Smith asked Potterf what happened. “(T)he gym owner went on to tell me how one participant was a wimp, one of them couldn’t stick with the program because of their knee, one because of their back, one was too fat, etc. … All of the explanations he gave to me matched up with overuse/overtraining issues, so that is the wording we used in the manuscript,” Smith wrote.

In an interview before the lawsuit, Devor defended the study, and chalked the criticism up to an overreaction to a single paragraph in the study. “CrossFit has a bit of history that if you speak out against them they are going to attack you. And I have been attacked,” he said. “It’s all just such silliness.”

It’s not clear whether this case will ripple into the broader world of sports science. Courts have generally shied away from getting involved in scientific disputes, said David S. Korzenik, a New York attorney. He has represented consumer magazines facing complaints from companies unhappy with product reviews, and teaches media law at the Benjamin N. Cardozo Law School.

Some companies have tried to get around this by claiming scientists faked their data, Korzenik said. But the lawyer, who represents plaintiffs in these cases, said such claims are usually little more than legal tactics. Still, just the threat of a lawsuit could have a chilling effect on scientists worried about legal action if study results aren’t complementary to CrossFit. “If a particular product manufacturer or product group brings a lawsuit against publishers of studies, then in the future people will become more chastened about taking any time to look into this,” he said.

Lawsuits alleging damage from research in peer-reviewed academic journals are rare, said Williams S. Bailey, a University of Washington law professor whose book about science and the law is scheduled to be released this summer.

This case could come down to a question of whether the research was up to snuff or not, Bailey said. The way the injury data was gathered sounded potentially “shaky” to him, but a court would have to decide if it amounted to scientific malpractice. Either way, he said, the gym can’t lose. It wins the case, or the lawsuit sends a message to other researchers to beware of CrossFit.

A CrossFit spokesman, Russell Berger, said scientists don’t have anything to worry about, as long as they don’t make up information. “The lesson here for anybody whose paying attention isn’t ‘Don’t research CrossFit.’ The lesson is. ‘Don’t do bad science and lie about your results.’”

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