The Downside of Extreme Workouts You Might Not Know About

You might be a CrossFit or HIIT junkie.  If you’re not, you probably know someone who is.

High Intensity Interval Training, CrossFit and Sparten workouts are some of the most popular fitness programs of the decade.  These killer workouts turn couch potatoes into lean, mean machines in a few weeks and challenge even the most athletic individuals to train outside of their comfort zone.


CrossFit Workout   (Flickr photo by Julianne)

Doctors are now urging participants to approach these extreme workouts with caution due to an increase in a condition known as rhabdomyolysis that has become more common with their rise in popularity.

What is Rhabdomyolysis (rhabdo)

Rhabdomyolysis takes place when muscle fibers break down and release their contents into the bloodstream which, in severe cases, can lead to kidney failure.  There are many causes of rhabdo.  The most common are extreme muscle strain from exercise, a crush injury that occurs from a car or other crash, and the use of both legal and illegal drugs.

A quick Google search will lead you to numerous stories about people who went to a fitness class, pushed themselves to the limits and wound up in the hospital the next day. Jay Armitage, who was interviewed by Global News, says she came down with rhabdo after attending her first Spartan workout class.

She describes the workout as being like nothing she had ever done before.  “We’re talking kettle bells, we’re talking burpees, endless amounts of using your own body weight to do sumo squats, push-ups and it just went on . . . .,” Armitage said.

The next day she was in such agony she couldn’t move her arms to do her hair or dress herself. She was in incredible pain and she noticed her arms were swollen. Armitage was diagnosed with rhabdo and hospitalized.  In the hospital she was hooked up to IV fluids to flush the muscle tissue out of the blood and was closely monitored for kidney and liver failure.  A nurse that was treating Armitage said her Creatine Kinase (CK) levels were hovering around 95,000.

A CK test measures the amount of the protein, creatine kinase, in your blood.  Normal levels are between 120 and 150. Levels outside of the normal range can end up damaging the kidneys.  Sometimes that damage is irreversible.

Symptoms of Rhabdo

The symptoms are very similar to those experienced by Armitage:

  • Painful, swollen, bruised or tender areas of the body
  • Muscle weakness or trouble moving arms and legs
  • General feeling of illness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Confusion, dehydration, fever, or lack of consciousness
  • Dark-colored urine, reduced or no urine output.
    Early diagnosis of rhabdo can lead to good outcomes. Outside of spending a couple of unpleasant days in the hospital, most people with rhabdo can expect to have a full recovery although there are personal stories on the internet that tell a grimmer tale of people with extreme cases that have long term muscle and kidney damage.

    Rhabdo doesn’t just occur after an intense CrossFit, Sparten or boot camp workout.  Runners, weight lifters and athletes can also suffer from muscle tissue melt down.  In 2011 the University of Iowa had 13 of their football players hospitalized early in the training season after an extreme strengthening workout.

    Experts agree physically fit people don’t have to worry about rhabdo as much as the weekend warrior or a person just starting into a fitness program does.  However, the effects of rhabdo can be even more dangerous for an athlete because there is more muscle available that can break down, therefore more tissue available to get into the bloodstream.

    They also agree that it is up to fitness trainers and instructors to warn their participants of the risks of over doing it and coach them to start slow and work up to their goal.

    What This Means For You

    This article wasn’t written to condemn CrossFit, HIIT or boot camp workouts.  I’m a big fan of all three and admit that I find myself in the no-pain-no-gain category when it comes to exercise.  But, after researching this sometimes fatal condition, I plan to do a better job of checking myself when I find I want to push someone too far or tell them that they can do something that they may not be ready for. I think I owe that to them.

    As a participant, you owe it to yourself to stay in tune with what you can and cannot do and not cross that line because of peer pressure or an overzealous fitness instructor.

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  1. Great article!