How to Help the 5 Most Common CROSSFIT Complaints of Pain

When we talk PAIN, athletes generally start with one of two choices:

NUMBER ONE – They GOOGLE how they feel.

They include symptoms, descriptions of what creates the pain and maybe a location on their body. In under a second it is not uncommon to get 500000 results. (TRY IT!! GOOGLE – back pain, deadlifts & squats) That is a lot of opinions, terms, treatment options, expectations, and often many confusing and BIG WORDS!


Big Words + Frustrations = Athletes who aren’t confident they can get better.


Denial is always an easy way out. No athlete wants to admit to being injured or being in pain. Being in pain or being injured means that typically there is no training and that an athlete is forced to sit out. For an athlete chasing a goal this can be very damaging emotionally and psychologically….so they push through the pain of being injured.


An injured joint + stress of exercise = An athlete who gets even worse.

SO……,” What do we do?”


Every good relationship is built on COMMUNICATION. Now obviously, pain is a very personal thing BUT if we understand what our body is telling us than we can be more confident in HOW we go about treating it ourselves or working with a specialist. The goal of this article is cover THE FIVE MOST COMPLAINTS OF PAIN that I hear from Crossfit athletes from all over the world.

YES…there are PHYSICIANS, SURGEONS and HIGH-LEVEL STUDENTS of ANATOMY that “Forge Elite Fitness,” but for the scope of this article let’s talk about the most common athlete.

When we talk about the average Crossfit athlete we are talking about the man or woman that wakes up at 5 o’clock to drive in traffic for two hours to get to a job that they don’t want to be at for another eight only so they can drive back another two hours so they can head to their gym. These are typically people who look at fitness to feel good about themselves. Crossfit is so good at creating a sense of individual empowerment. A PR on a Snatch or Back Squat will make a person feel in a way that can’t be duplicated. To take this away from a person can be crippling.

When we talk the average CROSSFIT athlete we are also talking the person who couldn’t tell you the difference between SUBACROMINAL SPACE and the LINEA ABLA. As a matter fact, they don’t care and GUESS WHAT…. they don’t really need to care.

“So what does an athlete need to know?”

GRADE SCHOOL: It is all connected

The things the athlete need to know starts back with what they learned in grade. It goes back to the song we learned when we were 6 years old,

“The foot bone is connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone, the leg bone to the……”

This song really should be an anthem for athletes that are frustrated with being in pain. Often, our inclinations are correct, if something is tight we should stretch it. I think all understand that tightness changes how we move. Additionally, we all understand that when we change how move we can set our body for stresses that easily lead to injury.

Once we can channel our youth, it makes it easier to understand why all the stretching in the world doesn’t seem to be helping getting ankles to be any less stiff. Go back to the opening line of the song for a second….

“The foot bone is connected to the ankle bone; the ankle bone is connected to the leg bone….”

So by now you are either thinking one of two things,

  • “So…that is obvious.”
  • “I get it!!!”

Yes. It is plain and clear how the foot and ankle is put together with the lower leg. What you need to understand now is that if you have been working hard at just the ankle to get the ankle to move better, you have been missing something. Don’t worry I am going to tie up some answers in just a bit.

But first, how about a little proof of how all things are connected:

The Five Most Common Complaints of Pain: Bones shouldn’t CLICK, Muscles shouldn’t BURN….

Again, when talking with the average Crossfit athlete we don’t need a whole lot of sophistication to attempt some self-treatment type techniques. Before we do so we really need to understand the following is NOT NORMAL:

  • Pinching feeling when try to stretch just a little bit more.
  • Clicking or cracking sounds coming ANYWHERE in your body
  • Tightness…. like ALL OF THE TIME!!
  • Burning as soon as you start moving a little bit.
  • Stiffness that doesn’t seem to go away.

1. “What is that “PINCH” in my hip?”

This is one the biggest complaints for those athletes who,

  • Do a lot of squatting and/or sitting (i.e. flexing at the hip).
  • Have had an old leg injury (often on the opposite side).

WHY: A pinch in the hip often times there isn’t a whole lot room for the ball that sits around in the hip socket to “roll around.” Often, this means that the athletes hip has tilted too far forward and has a tailbone that has shifted over.

WHAT TO DO: Make some space. This is where the jump bands come in handy. Often times, if we use the band appropriately we can use the bands not to just stretch muscles but actually apply some traction and separate two bones that are too close to one another. Take a look here for a few ideas:

WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO DO: Figure out WHY you are shifting over.

2. “Why does my shoulder “CLICK” when I raise my arm?”

REPEAT AFTER ME: “Clicking is NOT normal.”

This is another complaint for those athletes who,

  1. Like to raise their arm overhead.
  2. Sit behind a desk or who have enjoyed way too many sets on the bench.

WHY: This is another one that be answered much like the PINCH in the hip example. The shoulder is just a ball at the end of your arm that sits in a socket on your scapula. Problems start for athletes when they do too much horizontal pressing (push-ups, bench press, etc) or sit behind a desk/steering wheel. When this happens there is a lot of rounding that occurs in the upper back. This changes where the shoulder blades sit and cause a bit of crowding for that ball to move around. The sound could be a collision of bones or a tendon that isn’t moving a correctly. Tendons are connective tissue that attach bones to muscle. When a muscle contracts it pulls on the tendon to allow the joint to move. As the muscle contracts, it is supposed to travel along a groove that is made in the muscle. Often times that “click” is a tendon not traveling on the “groove” correctly.

WHAT TO DO: Either way, there are some muscle imbalances. If this is an issue of a tendon, there is a muscle on one end that is pulling too tightly and forcing the tendon “off track.” Sometimes we can use simple massage techniques and force it back in place. It is great if this helps, but remember there is a reason why this is occurring.

WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO DO: Get your posture assessed and determine if your shoulders are rolling too far forward.

Shoulder mobility in CrossfitSource: RX'd Photography
Shoulder pain in Crossfit

3. “Why is my back always STIFF when I get out of the chair?”

First thing we need to understand is that STIFFNESS is not always a bad thing. For us to the ability to move, one end of a joint needs to be stiff so the other end can move. Stiffness in the back gets to be a problem when it takes more than just a few steps loosen up after sitting for a length of time.

WHY: We have to understand that we are talking about the lower back we are really talking about your spine. When we talk about your spine, we must remember that your spine ends as your tailbone. Since your tailbone sits between your two pelvic bones, when we talk about the arch in your lower back we are really talking about the position of your hips. Remember what we said about your tailbone living between your two pelvic bones. If your hips tilt too far forward, your lower back is forced to arch to keep your eyes level with the horizon. (in other words, you would always be looking at the ground if your back didn’t arch.) That STIFFNESS many times is either one of two things:

  1. The muscles/connective tissue connecting from hips to lower back just working too hard to keep you upright.
  2. The bones of the pelvis and lower vertebrae locking together.

WHAT TO DO: Either way, we have to remember that this conversation is about your spine. Since your spine is you tailbone and your pelvis but also your upper back, rib cage and shoulders, we really need to get them moving better if we want to “free up” our lower back.  Take a look at this quick video for some idea to integrate the pieces together.

WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO DO: Get a better understanding for which muscles and/or habits are responsible for pulling your hips too far forward.

4. “Why are my ankles so TIGHT when I get to of the bottom of a squat?”

This seems to be a particularly big complaint for female athletes for a couple of reasons,

  1. Footwear
  2. Babies

WHY: We already confirmed that your ankle isn’t just your ankle. When we understand the function of the ankle during the squat then it gets pretty easy to understand how footwear can have an impact on ankle tightness. Your ankle can do many things but for our purposes, we are concerned with two movements; your ability to point your toes (plantarflexion) and pull your toes towards your shoulder (dorsiflexion). When we squat we need the ability to dorsiflex at the ankle. Tight calf muscles prevent this from happening.  Proper dorsiflexion gives our calf muscles the length they need the ability to control our knee into bottom position of our squat safely.

If the muscles of our lower leg get too tight, then we get really good at standing on our toes but not so good at lower into the bottom position of our squat. Footwear with a raised heel (particularly high heeled shoes, even running shoes, etc) raise us up on toes more and tighten up our calves. We really need to appreciate the interconnectedness of the body to fully appreciate how pregnancy can influence tightness in the calves. During development, a pregnant mothers center of gravity will change. More weight in front, essentially means they are falling forward more. This can create many imbalances throughout the musculature system as the brain tries to keep the body upright. It ends up being the responsibility of the feet and the muscles of lower to prevent one from falling face down on the ground!!

Squat mobility flowSource: Heartcore Athletics
Squat movement

DON’T BELIEVE IT?!?!? Try standing in the best posture that you possibly can. Now keeping alignment from head to toe, lean as far forward as you can without falling. You should feel just how hard your lower body has to work to prevent the crash to the ground.

WHAT TO DO: Before we can get the calf muscles t0 fully lengthen out, we really need to relax them. This is where is the foam roller and lacrosse/tennis ball come in handy.

WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO DO: Slowly ditch the high-heeled shoes, but get a better understanding of why you are out alignment and “falling forward.”

5. “Why do my feet BURN when I run?”

A quick fact to answer this: you have an ARCH in your foot to help you pass weight from one side of you body to the other when we do things like walking and running. Lose that arch, and you foot will feel the fire. Again, this might not be just a foot problem.

WHY: First of all, people aren’t just born without arches. We either don’t full develop them or we lose them. If we are thrown into shoes at too young of an age, then all of the little bones and muscles of our feet never get the chance to adapt to different terrains. Being barefoot and climbing over many surfaces often at an early age, give of foot the opportunity to optimize its movement. Even if an athlete does have this opportunity at a young age, it doesn’t mean that their arch is safe as they progress into adulthood. As we age, we have a tendency (often out of neccisity) to become more sedentary. This spells doom on the arch, because this weakens the glutes.

REPEAT AFTER ME, “Weak glutes, collapse arches.”

Here is a tiny anatomy lesson everyone should want to know. Our glutes, attach at the tailbone and connect to our IT band on the side our leg. Our IT band travels down our leg into the bottom of our foot. So ultimately we can say that our glutes attach from our tailbone to our foot.

DON’T BELIEVE IT?!?!? From a standing position with toes straight ahead, try squeezing your butt (NOT WITH YOUR HANDS!!) You will feel your knees rotate outward and your arch pick up.

WHAT TO DO: To rejuvenate and calm down the painful burn in  your arch, roll a tennis/golf ball on the bottom of our foot.

WHAT YOU REALLY NEED TO DO: Figure out (1) why your glutes are being shut off and (2) what you need to do to “turn” them back on.

Remember that corrective exercise is a process that starts with assessment. This doesn’t just mean only what you see but also an assessment of what you feel, hear and do. Understanding the there is a process to re-align joints, relax overworking tissue, lengthening short muscle, and restoring strength makes Performance Self Therapy Possible.

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