When Chiropractors Watch the CrossFit Games

I watch people inflict suffering on themselves for science

Chiropractors don’t look at people the way other people look at people. While I’m walking along a recreation trail and a group of high school students are running past for gym class or track and field training, I’m watching for the standard pattern to present itself, and it almost always does.

  • First come the the elites, they’re running strong with perfectly square posture. Their breathing matches their running cadence perfectly, and their feet strike the ground for barely an instant.
  • Then come the competent, they’re running with the same posture, in a group, and all joking around with each other.
  • Then come the strugglers. Their pace is slower, they’re breathing heavy, they’re hunched down a bit, and their gate is loping – their feet seem to take forever to pick up off the ground and they wobble side to side with each step, just a little, just enough to let you know they’re struggling and enough to keep them form ever reaching the front of the pack.
  • They are followed by the stragglers and sufferers, head tilted to the side, one shoulder is hiked up, and they’re gasping for breath. Their feet are all over the place as their upper and lower bodies try to figure out how to work together. I usually walk up on these people from behind since they run slower than I walk after they’ve made it a mile or two.

Watching the CrossFit games like a chiropractor

Maybe you’re thinking I’m watching these runners, or the CrossFit games, judging people for their posture, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I watch to learn how human bodies perform and fall apart under stress. I do that because knowing how peoples bodies fall apart helps me make them better.

Just watching the competitions is one thing, but watching the documentary, Fittest on Earth: A Decade of Fitness, on Netflix is a whole new level of observation. The film follows some favorites to win the 2016 CrossFit Games as they train and compete. You get to see their personalities, attitudes about training, and the difference between the ways they move during training, day one of competition, all the way up to the final challenge. It’s fascinating to see the difference in movement quality and emotional expression between the athletes across those time frames.

The most impressive athlete by far was Mat Fraser whose movement and attitude throughout competition was absolutely indefatigable. For most of the athletes you could see fatigue impact performance very predictably. This athlete would develop a left head tilt and pull up that shoulder towards the end of a workout, that athlete’s right arm would predictable become less controlled during overhead lifts when fatigued. Other athletes would mentally fall apart and make mistakes, or emotionally check out.

This isn’t a criticism of any of the athletes at all. It’s amazing what they are able to do and just how much stress they can endure before even beginning to fall apart. If they weren’t falling apart at the end, the event would have been too easy, it wouldn’t have actually tested them.

Why do athletes fall apart when they get tired?

Did you know the most people have the same amount of mental horsepower, but differ in IQ because of how efficiently one person utilizes that horsepower over another?

… we found that individuals of low- and high-IQ did not differ in the amount of available resources. Rather they differed in the timing with which they allocate them, with high-IQ individuals choosing the most beneficial moment.

Your brain has to decide where to pay attention and what to control at each moment in time. It only has so much horsepower to lay down and it has to decide how to use it. It has to monitor and control what is happening inside of the body and adapt to the demands coming from outside the body at the same exact time.

For an athlete at the CrossFit games that means sacrifices are going to be made. Those sacrifices show up as bad biomechanics and poorly controlled movements when the workout gets to be too much for the brain to deal with. Our muscles can be split into two different groups to explain how this happens. There are muscles that work to control and fine tune the motion and position of joints, and muscles that deliver power for big quick movement.

When a workout gets to be too much, their isn’t enough mental horsepower to use both groups to their full capacity at the same time. You can watch this happen in these CrossFit documentaries I mentioned at the beginning of this post. The athlete’s movements at the ends of each workout, and during the final days of the event, become less and less well controlled, jerkier, clumsy even. They drop the bars, they cannot complete some of the movements in the workouts. They begin to fail.

Why does this happen asymmetrically?

Something else you’ll notice is that the athletes don’t get universally clumsy. They get clumsy in patterns that are predictable for each athlete. They have more trouble controlling one arm over the other, their posture torques the same way at the end of each workout. Why?

The answer is a pattern of neural and musculoskeletal dysfunction that has built up in their body over time. It may have started after an accident. It may have been present since birth secondary to birth trauma to the spine or brain. They may have failed to develop synchrony between opposing muscle groups during early childhood. They may have become de-conditioned, or had postural adaptations to sitting all day, or doing movements with just one side of the body.

No matter how it happened, their is something in their structural framework that is taking up extra brainpower to adapt to and when the workout gets to be too much, they start to mess up. The person who most efficiently adapts to these challenges, or requires the least amount of background brainpower just to maintain themselves upright in gravity, is the person who is going to lay down the power for forward momentum.

How this decides the winner

The most efficient, least encumbered person is also able to make the best use of all their hard work. When it comes down to the elite level everyone is working hard. Some people might work a little harder than others, but usually that is because they are capable of doing so without causing injury. Lots of athletes start out working just as hard as the guys and gals that make it to the CrossFit games, but they end up injured or too fatigued to continue. They have too much background demand on their nerve system to get to elite level.

Another thing you’ll notice in that documentary is the amount of care those athletes receive. Some are getting myofascial release, cryotherapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic between workouts. Others are seeing sports psychologists, meditating and using float tanks during their training season. They are doing anything they can do to limit the amount of horsepower their brains are devoting to past problems so they can deal with the challenge of the workout itself.


No matter how freakishly athletic someone is, when they are pushed to the limits their performance will eventually suffer. No matter who you are, there are things you can do to remove as many barriers from optimum performance as possible. The chiropractic adjustment can help restore the brains ability to regain control of those fine tuned posture and movement muscles to break those old patterns crude movements that can become dominant when we train while injured or over fatigued. Most elite athletes, including those in the CrossFit games, see chiropractors as part of their lifestyles. The chiropractor is one essential member of their support team.

Life is a contact sport, you should have a chiropractor on your support team too. Those strugglers, stragglers and sufferers I see running for high school PE class could transform their running experience with chiropractic care. If it’s something they care about they could even become one of the fitness elites. They have the capacity, they just need to remove all the impediments to using their full neural horsepower.

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash


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