Editor’s Note: After Amber published her story about overcoming depression and anxiety after amputation in part through CrossFit, many of our community members asked questions about CrossFit and how it works for amputees. In this post, Amber not only documented her start in CrossFit, she also got her coach and a prosthetist to contribute. Collectively the three provide an in-depth perspective of CrossFit and why it works so well for amputees and other adaptive athletes.

An Adaptive Athlete’s Experience Getting Started with CrossFit

When I first thought of starting CrossFit, I was intimidated by the entire thing, pretty much like anyone else would be. Yet, I had seen amputees on Facebook do CrossFit, mainly Derek Weida, and thought if another above knee amputee could do it, I could do it.

Little did I know, there’s so much to think about when going into a “box” aka a CrossFit gym and starting to get back into shape. Some of the things that ran through my head were:

  • “Are they going to accept me?”
  • “Will they even be able to help me?”
  • “How am I even going to do this?!”

Honestly, when trying to figure out how to describe what an adaptive athlete should look for when trying to find any kind of workout facility, I drew such a blank. I sat at my computer for hours trying to figure out what to write. How would I describe something like this when all experiences are different?

So I thought, why not ask my coach, Kyle Canady, what coaches should look for when first starting to work with adaptive athletes. I also reached out to a prosthetist for his opinion as well. Justin Mellis-Gruba, CP COA, has gone from dismissing CrossFit to admiring how great it is for amputees.

But first, I want to tell you my thoughts from my own personal experience. While all experiences are different, I hope this helps someone find the confidence and courage to get active again, and not be scared to try something new!

Taking the First Steps

When I walked into my first box, I kinda, sorta knew what CrossFit was. I had seen Facebook videos of other amputees doing it and I thought “what the hell, can’t be any worse than what I’ve already tried.” Let me tell you though, that first day was rough!

If another above knee amputee could do it, I could do it.

Prior to going in person, the coaches spent an hour with me on the phone. They asked questions about what I thought I could potentially do, what I had trouble with, and what I wanted out of the experience as a whole. I had a few things in mind, but they were simple. I wanted to:

  • be able to stand longer than 30 minutes and not hurt,
  • have better balance and control; and
  • walk better…not with a limp.

So here are some of the things that I looked for, and learned, from starting CrossFit:

  • Don’t be scared to try something completely out of your comfort zone. These experiences will help you grow as a person, and become more confident in your abilities, even though you are missing a limb.
  • Talk to your coaches about how they plan on adapting movements. If you aren’t comfortable with a certain movement, TELL THEM! 
  • There are no stupid questions. Whatever the question may be, don’t be scared to ask. It can be something like: “what if I don’t think I can do this, are there ways to adapt a movement?”  
  • Coaches go through every movement every time. This is a great thing about CrossFit! In every class (for able bodied and adaptive), a CrossFit coach reviews all the movements.
  • Understand what CrossFit is and what it means for you. The very definition of CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. DO NOT let this scare you!
  • Know that CrossFit is the ultimate adaptive sport. When I first started I was told that CrossFit was inclusive, not exclusive. There are endless ways to adapt every movement. Able bodied, adaptive, young and old athletes work out together doing the same exercises in different forms and intensities.
  • Celebrate the small and big wins. There have been so many benefits in my life because of CrossFit. I can stand longer without hurting, I can walk longer without becoming winded or sore, my balance has become absolutely incredible, and my gait has improved 10 fold. When I was at the ACA Conference, Bob Gailey, the #1 gait trainer in the US, told me that if I wore jeans, he wouldn’t have known that I was an amputee, yet alone an AK (Above Knee). That’s incredible!!! My mind was completely blown!

adaptive athlete in crossfit

When I first started I was told that CrossFit was inclusive, not exclusive. There are endless ways to adapt every movement. 

What I can tell you is this: Don’t let the thought of failing scare you away from trying to start living a fit, healthy lifestyle. List your goals, know what you want out of working out, and becoming physically active again. I know that it’s scary, and very intimidating, but you are awesome! Whatever you set your mind to, you can do it!

A year ago, when I first started, I had to adapt every single movement. It’s frustrating. But I got stronger, I became more confident, and I kept growing. Now, there are only a few movements I have to adapt, specifically squats… and that’s okay! I don’t have a knee, and no matter how far technology comes, I will always have trouble with squats of any kind. But I know how to adapt them, and I know my limits, even though I keep pushing them! Now that you’ve heard from me, here’s my awesome coach, Kyle Canady, and Justin Mellis-Gruba, CP COA.

Advice for CrossFit Coaches Who Want to Work with Adaptive Athletes

My name is Kyle Canady and I own Gymology Fitness in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had seen Amber prior to her coming to our box. She competed against some of our athletes earlier in the year and I was very impressed with her drive. When she came to me I knew we had the perfect family atmosphere that would push Amber but also welcome her. I have been privileged to work with Amber the past few months and am excited to see her progress.

When an adaptive athlete reaches out to you or your gym, here are a few tips on how to welcome them and coach them alongside your other members:

Interview your athlete to find out what challenges them and figure out how to overcome those obstacles.

When Amber walked through the doors of Gymology Tulsa she was far from shy and excited to get started. She probably didn’t notice but I “interviewed” her off and on for about two weeks trying to learn as much about her as I could, especially her physical limitations.

Amber is an “AK” or above knee amputee and has a pretty awesome iron man themed prosthetic cover and an obsession with Tony Stark to match.  As you know in CrossFit we tend to do a lot of squats. One obstacle we faced right from the start was how do we modify a squat to benefit her needs?

This was a simple task of learning a box squat to build the stability and strength up enough to start doing wall balls, back squats, front squats and her favorite… pistol squats! The physical limitations can be overcome with simple attention to details and understanding how your athlete moves.

One of the best moments with Amber was the day she brought her blade in and she attempted to jump rope for the first time. She was terrified of losing balance and falling so I assured her that falling is part of the game and if it happens we get our butt back up and do it again. Did she fall? Hell no she didn’t! She jumped 26 singles her first try! Then she informed me she wasn’t supposed to be jumping around on her blade because it wasn’t built for that…as the owner of Gymology I thought to myself “I sure am glad she signed a waiver!”

Jump roping with a prosthetic blade

I believe the hardest part about being a coach for an adaptive athlete is understanding how their mind works.

With Amber we went through a dark phase where she didn’t attend the gym due to anxiety and depression. This can take your athlete to a very deep dark place with no hope. Some adaptive athletes have been through a traumatic experience causing them these mental obstacles that knock them off track. It’s important to build the best atmosphere and provide light in the form of fitness and nutrition. Fitness is a way to release stress and anger not only for adaptive athletes but for all athletes.

So how do we overcome the mental obstacles? It’s not an easy task to overcome but it does help when you have a community of people in your gym who love and push one another to be the best version of themselves possible.

Expect greatness and you’ll receive greatness, treat your athlete just like all the others.

You can ask Amber if I treat her any differently than I do the other clients and the answer will be no. Why do I do that? Because she is an athlete! All athletes start somewhere and modifications are typically needed for everyone. When I feel an athlete is ready for the next level we progress up to a more advanced movement. It’s the best feeling as a coach to hear a member say, “I can’t believe I started on box squats and now I’m back squatting 200lbs”. You have to be a caring knowledgeable coach yet sometimes be harsh and firm when it comes to movements. You know your athletes ability and you will not settle for less.

Amber has become an amazing part of the Gymology family. Our gym family wouldn’t be the same without her smile and her Iron Man leg!

Adaptive and able bodied athletes working out together

Amber alongside other members at Gymology where adaptive and able bodied athletes work out side by side. Amber is wearing a UNYQ Galaxy prosthetic cover.

A Prosthetist’s Point of View on CrossFit for Amputees

CrossFit was a sport I knew nothing about, but full of stereotypical visuals & conceptions.  I wondered, Is it a fad like Buns of Steel? Is it a name attached to some kind of elaborate exercise routine like Buns of Steel? Are there rules and objectives? Why all the heavy lifting and high jumping, because that looks painful? Moving an insanely large tire instead of weights? Seems like a shtick. I thought, have fun, and don’t call me when you need a custom clamshell back-brace to control your cervical, thoracic, and/or lumbar spinal fractures.

However, after an instructional seminar co-hosted by Amber, and Evy from UNYQ, at ACA 2016, I now understand how CrossFit is such a driving & positive endeavor. I get why people talk about the sport with enthusiasm. To say the least, it is light-years beyond my biased and vague prior notions.

CrossFit is a legitimate, organized sport that demands dedication to bring out one’s personal best. This is the source of tremendous focus, which is excellent because being our best selves requires consistent dedication and sharpening of skills. But CrossFit takes this concept to the next level by acknowledging that we all have different functional strengths and weaknesses. These range from supreme capabilities to physical inabilities.  

It’s almost as if CrossFit were designed for people with unique body configurations, including limb-loss.

The realistic outcome of one’s functional ability is based on the willingness for improvement, strength building, and the consistent dedication toward these two essential goals. The key to CrossFit is adaptation.

From the perspective of a prosthetist, this is the exact concept that I convey to my patients. When faced with limb loss, the path to regained functionality begins with determination from your heart and mind that you will meet this goal. Without strong personal dedication, the outcome will not be optimal, no matter how many hours you spend strength training through exercise.  

Within the goal of adequate physical strength, whether an athlete, person with limb loss or both, lays the critical component of adaptation. This is how one builds optimal strength with a body of unique functional abilities.  

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Ultimately, CrossFit enthusiasts and determined people of the amputee community are cut from the same cloth. Amber is wearing a UNYQ Next prosthetic cover. 

It’s almost as if CrossFit were designed for people with unique body configurations, including limb-loss.  The sport allows, encourages, and facilitates adaptation to meet optimal functional levels.  And because functional challenges in life are random, so are the training sessions during Crossfit. I can’t think of a better sport that best meets the needs of an amputee seeking to optimize overall functional ability.

Ultimately, CrossFit enthusiasts and determined people of the amputee community are cut from the same cloth. Both have mental and heartfelt desire for personal improvement. Both understand that adaptation is an essential skill toward maximum functional ability.

Crossfit is not a brand or religion or a fad. It’s an endeavor that transcends mere sport by encouraging and achieving one’s best self.

Looking for next steps? There are many organizations dedicated to supporting adaptive athletes. Check out Crossroads Adaptive Athletic Alliance or leave questions in the comments here!  

Photos courtesy of Kyle Canady / Gymology and Amber.