Makimba Mimms with his wife Lynne at their home in Virginia. Makimba Mimms has filed a lawsuit involving Crossfit, a popular fitness program in the military. (Tom Brown / Staff)
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MANASSAS, Va. — A lawsuit filed by a former sailor has raised concerns about the dangers of a workout regimen that is rapidly growing in popularity across the military.
The lawsuit, filed by former Information Systems Technician 1st Class Makimba Mimms in Prince William County, Va., Circuit Court late last year, seeks $500,000, as well as punitive damages, in connection with the permanent disability Mimms allegedly suffered as a result of performing the CrossFit workout under the direction of a trainer at a Manassas gym.
CrossFit, an intense strength and conditioning regimen, is practiced by thousands worldwide at dozens of ad-hoc clubs and is especially popular with military and law enforcement communities.
Neither CrossFit nor its founder, Greg Glassman, is listed as defendants in the lawsuit, but the word "CrossFit" appears dozens of times throughout the legal documents connected to the suit. Glassman could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit is part of an emerging body of evidence that CrossFit may be damaging to participants' health, perhaps even causing death — a possibility acknowledged by its founder as early as 2005.
Following a June story on the popularity of CrossFit in Military Times newspapers, Capt. Jonathan Picker, commander of the Navy's Center for Personal and Professional Development, posted a story that raised concerns about CrossFit in the July issue of the center's internal magazine.
"Several [experts] in the sports medicine field (military and civilian) have addressed a concern that the program has the potential for causing an increased incidence of musculoskeletal injuries and even muscle breakdown (rhabdomyoloysis) and therefore is not supported by [Navy Center for Personal and Professional Development]," the story states. "Granted, anyone can develop a program that's very intense, but there's a safer way of doing this for our sailors." Picker could not be reached for comment.
Navy officials said studies are underway to examine CrossFit and its potential effects on service members, but those involved with the studies declined to discuss the specifics.
A section of Picker's story was posted on a CrossFit Web site and subsequently mocked by some of CrossFit's more strident advocates.
"You know what's another excellent way to get a musculoskeletal injury?" one poster asked in reply to Picker's assessment. "Getting shot because you can't run fast enough with 50 [pounds] on your back!"
However, Glassman posted a warning on the CrossFit site in October 2005 labeled "CrossFit induced Rhabdo," telling participants about the potential problems associated with the unforgiving workout, while Eugene Allen — a Washington State law enforcement officer who runs a CrossFit blog — posted an even less ambiguous warning in May 2005 titled "Killer Workouts."
"With CrossFit, we are dealing with what is known as exertional rhabdomyolysis," he wrote. "It can disable, maim and even kill."
That's what Mimms contends happened to him in one intense exercise session Dec. 11, 2005, in which, he said, he suffered injuries he has yet to recover from.
In the initial seven-page complaint filed Nov. 21, Mimms' attorney, Phillip Walsh, contends that Manassas World Gym, Ruthless Training Concepts and Ruthless trainer Javier Lopez failed to exercise diligence before instructing an unprepared Mimms in performing CrossFit.
"The defendants, in concert with one another, entreated, promoted, encouraged and coached Mr. Mimms to perform and endure the extreme exertion prescribed by the CrossFit regimen," court records state.
The suit claims Mimms suffered from rhabdomyolysis — which occurs when tiny shreds of muscle fiber are absorbed by the bloodstream and ultimately poison the kidneys — as a result of performing a CrossFit workout under the direction of Lopez, who worked as Ruthless Training Concepts trainer at the now-defunct Manassas World Gym.
Mimms, who was in the Navy for 11 years, got out in May and was not separated for medical reasons, declined to discuss the case, pending a trial slated to begin Oct. 6 in Manassas.
Lopez could not be reached for comment. However, statements made by Lopez to court officials during a pretrial deposition indicate he was aware that "people who perform too intensely perhaps can undergo this rhabdomyolysis," he said.
Ruthless Training Concepts, as well as attorneys representing Ruthless and Manassas World Gym, declined to comment on the suit.
Several physicians, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center neurophysiologist Lt. Col. Mark Landau, concluded that Mimms suffered severe injuries following his intense CrossFit workout, according to court records.
The injuries included rhabdomyolysis, lumbosacral spine strain and strain of the bilateral quadriceps, according to court documents. As a result of these injuries, Mimms was incapacitated, lost time from work and required surgery, court records show.
"[He] endured great mental and physical pain, mental anguish and inconvenience," court records state. "[He] has incurred and will in the future incur medical and related expenses, has sustained permanent disability." The extent of his physical disability was not outlined in court documents.
Dr. Priscilla Clarkson of the University of Massachusetts contends that Lopez encouraged Mimms to perform exercises known to produce rhabdomyolysis. "Adequate precautions to prevent such a condition from occurring were not taken," Clarkson wrote in documents prepared for the lawsuit.
Gray Cook, a physical therapist who consults with a host of NFL teams on strength and conditioning, said CrossFit is not dangerous unless performed by people not physically prepared for its intensity.
Cook stressed that he did not want to disparage CrossFit, and that the program has inherent benefits, such as keeping people active and preventing boredom by mixing up workouts. His concern is that novice participants don't know what they're getting into.
"Football players practice a lot more than they play for a reason," Cook said. "You are not supposed to test drive the system as much as you tune it up."
Mimms is certainly not the only service member to induce rhabdo with a strenuous workout. An article in the February/March 2008 issue of the Medical Surveillance Monthly Report, published by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, indicates the ailment is on the rise across the services.
There were 114 cases of rhabdo across the military services in 2004, four of which required hospitalization. The number rose to 159 in 2007, including 34 that required hospital visits.
No individual cause is provided for the rise in the number of rhabdo cases, and CrossFit is not mentioned in the four-page article.
The article states that troops struck with rhabdo are more likely to be from Army and Marine units, that cases tend to occur in the summer, and that blacks and other nonwhite service members are at a higher risk of suffering from the ailment.