A Beginners Guide to Crossfit
CrossFit is EVERYWHERE!
You can watch the CrossFit Games on ESPN and Reebok even has a CrossFit commercial. It is in magazines and several places online. If you have friends or coworkers that enjoy working out, you might have even heard them talking about the newest CrossFit “box” (gym) that just opened up down the street.
With constantly varied, high-intensity functional movements, CrossFit is a training philosophy that coaches people of all shapes and sizes to improve their physical well-being and cardiovascular fitness in a hardcore yet accepting and encouraging environment.
Here’s the definition of CrossFit from the official site:
CrossFit is the principal strength and conditioning program for many police academies and tactical operations teams, military special operations units, champion martial artists, and hundreds of other elite and professional athletes worldwide.
Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.
CrossFit contends that a person is as fit as they are proficient in each of ten general physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy
According to the CrossFit site, this program “is designed for universal scalability making it the perfect application for any committed individual regardless of experience.”
We’ve used our same routines for elderly individuals with heart disease and 21 year old athletes and active Military. ”We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.”
What that means is that every day there is a particular workout prescribed for everybody that comes to CrossFit. Rather than having one workout for older women and another for hardcore athletes – there’s ONE workout each day that is completely scalable based on your skill. For example, if the workout calls for squats with 135 pounds but you can only do squats with the bar (45 pounds), then that’s where you’ll start. If you’re injured and can’t do squats at all, a similar movement will be substituted, and if the number of reps is too many for your current ability, that will be reduced. As you get stronger and more experienced you’ll work your way towards eventually doing the workouts as prescribed.
Now, although CrossFit can be for everybody, it certainly ISN’T for everybody.
- Beginners to weight training – If you have NEVER weight trained before (or trained only on machines), CrossFit is a great place for you to start (provided you have a great coach, which I’ll cover shortly). You’ll learn how to do all of the important lifts in a super supportive and nonjudgmental environment. You might even find that you love strength training!
- People looking for support and community – This is the appeal to CrossFit for me…every CrossFit gym has a really tight knit community feel to it. You’re not just a membership payment to them…you’re a person that needs help.
- Fitness fanatics – You know those people that love to work out every day and feel like something is missing if they don’t? The way CrossFit is structured, you are working out with regular consistency. The general protocol is 3 days on, 1 day off…but many CrossFitters end up at the gym every day, or sometimes even twice a day. It’s addicting.
- Masochists – and I mean that in the nicest way possible. CrossFit rewards people for finishing workouts in the least amount of time possible. This means that you’ll often be in situations where you are using 100% of your effort to finish a workout, exhausting yourself, and forcing yourself through incredible amounts of pain.
- Former athletes – CrossFit has built-in teamwork, camaraderie, and competition. Almost all workouts have a time component to them, where you either have to finish a certain number of repetitions of exercises in a certain amount of time, or the time is fixed and you need to see how many repetitions you can do of an exercise. You get to compete with people in your class, and see how your scores compare to others. There are even nationwide competitions for those that become truly dedicated.
There are a few people for whom I don’t think CrossFit would be as beneficial, but this doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy it:
- Specialists. CrossFit prides itself on not specializing, which means that anybody who is looking to specialize (like, let’s say a marathon racer) will not get the best results following the standard CrossFit workout schedule. If you want to be good at a specific activity, that’s where your focus should be.
- Sport-specific athletes. Like the specialists, If you are an athlete training for a sport, you’d be better off finding a coach that is trained in getting great performances out of athletes in your specific sport. Every sport has special movements that require certain types of power in specific muscles. CrossFit prepares you for everything, but won’t improve your specific sport skills unless you are training for those specific sport skills! Many athletes choose to combine CrossFit with sport-specific workouts in their offseason for conditioning, but that’s up to each sport’s coach.
- Solo trainers – Some people love to work out alone. Crossfit is group training, which means you won’t have that opportunity to get your stuff done on your own.
1) During a CrossFit workout, you’re generally told to complete a number of strength training or endurance exercises as fast as possible, or complete as many repetitions as possible in a certain amount of time. For that reason, it’s REALLY easy to sacrifice form in exchange for finishing the workout quicker. If you don’t have somebody spotting you or telling you to keep your form correct, then you’re in trouble.
When it comes to strength training, improper form (especially at high speeds with heavy weights) is the FASTEST way to get seriously injured. If a CrossFit gym is run by inexperienced and unproven coaches – which definitely happens – then things like this happen and they happen frequently.
2) CrossFit attracts a certain type of person…namely folks who push themselves so hard they actually do bodily harm. Due to the nature of competition, the motivating atmosphere, and people’s desire to do well, many people in CrossFit often push themselves beyond their personal limitations (which can be a good thing)…but oftentimes they push themselves beyond that.
3) In some extreme cases with a VERY small portion of CrossFitters, an incredibly serious medical condition called rhabdomyolysis can take place. When people push themselves too hard, too much, too fast, their muscle fiber break down and are released into the bloodstream, poisoning the kidneys. You can read all about the condition and issues it can cause here. This typically occurs with (primarily male) ex-athletes who have not exercised for a while and come back trying to prove something and go at a higher intensity than their body can handle.
So…like with any activity, you can have people that like to push themselves too far, too hard, too fast, and too often. Unfortunately, due to the nature of CrossFit (where this behavior is encouraged and endorsed), you can end up in some serious danger if you don’t know when to stop or have a coach that will tell you when to stop.
Personally, I find these issues to be more with individual people than with the CrossFit system as a whole, but it is the nature of CrossFit that attracts these people and encourages them to behave dangerously. I’ll let you make your own decision here.
Most CrossFit gyms will split their classes into three or four sections:
- Dynamic warm up – not jogging on a treadmill for 5 minutes, but jumps, jumping jacks, jump rope, squats, push ups, lunges, pull ups. Functional movements, stretches, and mobility work that compliment the movements you’ll be doing in the workout that day.
- Skill/Strength work: If it’s a strength day, then you’ll work on a pure strength movement (like squats or deadlifts). If it’s not a strength day, then you’ll work on a skill and try to improve, like one-legged squats or pull-ups.
- ?WOD: the workout of the day. This is where you’ll be told to do a certain number of reps of particular exercises as quickly as possible, or you’ll have a set time limit to do as many of a certain exercise as possible.
- Cool down and stretching. Either as a group, or you’re allowed to stretch out on your own.
The other important thing to check out is PROGRAMING! CrossFits program can be truly random, and an inexperienced coach can accidentally program back to back workouts that use the same muscle groups in the same way, not giving you enough time to recover. On every CrossFit gym’s website, there’s a blog where they post the workout of the day. Look over this for the gym you want to check out – see what they typically do. If they do high rep cleans three days in a row, they obviously don’t program well. Or if you see every day for a week with heavy shoulders movements, be wary!
Remember, most CrossFits will let you attend one class for free. If you have a few in your area, try out each of them once before making your decision. Go to each of them, and make note of the other members there – are they supportive of each other? Did they introduce themselves and welcome you? Were the coaches nice and hands-on with their advice during the workout?
Every CrossFit gym will put out their own WOD as well, which can be different from the CrossFit.com site – if you happen to find a local CrossFit site that you enjoy but don’t attend fulltime, it’s more than okay to follow their workouts.
The best news about this is the workouts are posted free of charge to anybody that is interested in doing them. There is even a site dedicated to scaling the workout posted on CrossFit.com to account for different abilities. CrossFits are often prohibitively expensive, so if you love CrossFit but are looking to save money, you can follow along at home or in your office gym provided they have the right equipment.
Many times, you’ll run into situations where you can’t complete a particular workout because you don’t have the right equipment – do the best you can with what’s available to you, and keep track of how you made your modification for tracking purposes.
Now, there are a few issues with following CrossFit at home or by yourself in a gym:
- Nobody is checking your form – CrossFit requires many incredibly specific movements, if you start by yourself at home, you’ll never know if you’re doing them wrong and could severely hurt yourself as you increase the amount of weights with which you work.
- Nobody is cheering you on – A HUGE part of CrossFit is the supportive community aspect that comes with each gym. I guarantee you’d finish a workout a few seconds (or minutes) faster if you had 50 people screaming your name and cheering you toward the finish line.
- You probably don’t have all of the equipment – If you’re working out at home, you probably don’t have a full squat rack, bumper plates, kettlebells, medicine balls, and so on….so you’ll often be creating your own workouts that are modified versions of the online versions.
- You will want to buy all of the equipment – The more you do it, the more you’ll want to do it properly. This might not cost as much as an actual box, but it will cost.
Even with all of these negatives, it could save you a few hundred bucks a month by not joining a gym, so I don’t blame you – just be smart about it.
Is it just classes? If I want to workout in addition to my CrossFit classes, would I need a separate gym membership? At most CrossFits, yes – CrossFit Commanders offers one on one personal training if you are not yet comfortable with class settings, or want to specialize in other aspects of a sport.
Do I have to eat Paleo if I do CrossFit? Absolutely not. Paleo is the diet recommended by CrossFit and a lot of CrossFits have paleo challenges – but you don’t have to (and I’ve never had it pushed on me).
What is a kipping pull up? Isn’t that cheating? A kipping pull up is a form of pullups where you swing your body and use the momentum and a hip drive to get your body to the bar. It’s not cheating because it’s not meant to be the same exercise as a deadhang pullup. Some workouts call for a deadhang pullup – and in those you would not be allowed to kip.
Will CrossFit make me lose weight? If you push yourself and change your diet. Diet will be 80% of success or failure, but combine a healthy diet with CrossFit and I’d bet anything you start to look better, get stronger, and feel better within 30 days.
What’s with the girls names? Why do people say things like “We’re doing Mary at CrossFit today!”CrossFit has what are called “benchmark workouts” which are named after girls (or heroes – fallen military personnel). Crossfit’s reasoning is this:
“…anything that leaves you flat on your back and incapacitated only to lure you back for more at a later date certainly deserves naming.” (CF Journal – Issue 13, September 2003)
- GREAT community aspect. Unlike a commercial gym, you actually get to know the people at your box. Most gyms will have outings that a LOT of people show up to. There’s always that feeling of team work and camaraderie.
- Constant coaching and support – in a commercial gym you have no clue if you’re doing an exercise right or not. While it’s not 1:1 training, you have a coach with you during every workout to help out.
- If you don’t show up, not only do people notice, but they call you and ask where you’ve been. The only time that happens in a commercial gym is when you miss a session with your overpaid trainer.
- Leveling up – Because you get to keep track of how much you’re lifting, and you know how many reps and sets you’re doing…you get to see constant improvement. You also get to advance at your own pace, slowly working your way up towards doing the workouts as prescribed.
- Humbling yet encouraging – yeah, you might end your workout lying on your back, but you have a sense of accomplishment when you finish a workout faster than last time.
- Competition – it’s amazing how much further you’ll push yourself when surrounded by other people cheering you on and competing with them.
- It introduces SO MANY people to weight lifting, especially women who would have never ever attempted to get off the treadmill and strength train. It’s like a gateway workout – you learn what you love and can specialize further from there.
- It’s a good outlet for former athletes who like to compete. After playing competitive sports through high school and college, all of a sudden there’s nothing left to compete in…CrossFit gives people that outlet
- You get to find out what you’re made of. CrossFit can be miserable, but it can also teach you how to push through mental barriers, build mental toughness and more.
- It builds hot bodies. While every woman says they want that “toned” look and try to get it with hours of cardio, those bodies are being built every day in CrossFit gyms. Seriously, take a look at any serious CrossFit female and tell me she doesn’t have a rockin’ bod!
- It builds good muscular endurance and all around fitness – your body is prepared for pretty much any athletic situation after a few months of CrossFit.
- Not great for specialization – you kind of get good at a lot of things, but not great at any one particular thing. If you want to be a great powerlifter or athlete, you’d be better suited finding a sport specific coach.
- Lack of consistency – You oftentimes never do the same workout twice, which makes it incredibly difficult to track your progress. You might go down one week on squat strength and be disappointed, but it’s because you destroyed your legs two days earlier with 150 wall balls.
- Odd programming – As you’ll read in another critique later in this article, I don’t agree with some of the workouts that are prescribed at some CrossFit. For example, some workouts might call for high reps of snatches – snatches are a power olympic move that require perfect form in order to be done successfully. Doing 30 reps of them is a sure fire way to sacrifice form and dramatically increase the risk for injury.
- Price – Crossfit boxes can be two or three times the monthly cost of a commercial gym, and this is just for the group classes, not use of the facilities any time you want.
- A bad coach can REALLY cause problems – you’re doing advanced moves that often takes months of learning to do right; with heavy weights, this can lead to horrible injuries. Make sure you have a great coach that doesn’t rush you into anything!
- Almost everything is for time or most reps possible, which means form starts to slip in order to finish quicker. This can be fixed with a coach…but I still find it to be an issue.
- You start to talk a language nobody understands – talking to a CrossFitter is like talking to somebody in a foreign language. CrossFit people oftentimes forget that nobody outside of CF understands what half the stuff they say means, so they shout out achievements or accomplishments and explain how quickly they did specific exercises…but they don’t realize nobody really cares!
- You can get addicted! This can go in either Pro or Con depending on how you look at it, but I know many people that started going to a CrossFit and now all they do or talk about is CrossFit. After a month or two, for better or worse, you might find yourself married to your CrossFit and CrossFit community.