CrossFit is EVERYWHERE these days.
You can watch the CrossFit Games on ESPN. Last night I saw a commercial with CrossFit and Reebok. It’s showing up in magazines everywhere and has a huge presence 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.
You might be wondering, “Hey Steve! What the hell is CrossFit, and is it for me?”
If you ARE wondering that, my response is “wow I’m good at reading minds.” If you WEREN’T wondering that before, you are now…which means I’m good at mind control. You see, either way I win.
But that’s neither here nor there.
Anyways…I’ve been talking with Staci – a CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, a dedicated CrossFit participant, and the first addition to Team Nerd Fitness (whose first full day is TODAY!) – over the past few weeks about how we couldn’t find a decent “Beginner’s Guide to CrossFit” anywhere on the Internet that wasn’t heavily biased in one direction or the other. On top of that, any time there’s an article that mentions the word CrossFit, a quick trip to the comment section reveals so much support or hatred that it’s almost comical.
Well, rather than wait for that beginner’s guide to CrossFit resource to get written, I figured why not write it ourselves?
Let’s figure out what CrossFit is, who it’s for, how it works, and if you should join your local CrossFit gym.
WARNING: At 6,000 words, this is the longest post that has ever appeared on NF. If you have NO interest in CrossFit, check back in on Monday with your regularly scheduled nerdiness.
Note – if you already worship or loathe CrossFit, this article won’t change your mind. Just don’t kill me…I like living.
CrossFit is advertised, in four words, as “the sport of fitness.”
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
Or, in nerd speak – CrossFit is a training program that builds strength and conditioning through extremely varied and challenging workouts. Each day the workout will test a different part of your functional strength or conditioning, not specializing in one particular thing, but rather with the goal of building a body that’s capable of practically anything and everything.
CrossFit is extremely different from a commercial gym…and not just because you won’t find any ellipticals, weight machines (gross), or Zumba classes. I’ll explain what makes CrossFit different later in the article.
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 cage fighters one month out from televised bouts. We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.”
What that means is that every day there is a particular workout prescribed (you’ll often see this written as Rx’ed) 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. In this blogger’s humble opinion, CrossFit is perfect for a few types of people:
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:
In short, yes it can be, for a few reasons…but not as dangerous as you might be led to believe.
In the wrong situations, with the wrong coaches, and a person with the wrong attitude, CrossFit can absolutely be very dangerous.
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. Ask any CrossFitter if they’ve met “Pukey the Clown” and they’ll probably tell you yes. 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.
I totally get it. In my first CrossFit experience three years ago, I almost made myself puke because I wanted so badly to do well (even though I finished with a time that would make most regular CrossFitters probably laugh at me). Last year, I did another CrossFit workout that I hadn’t properly prepared for and cranked out 100 pull ups quickly…and I ended up walking around with T-rex arms for a WEEK because I physically could not straighten them. Not kidding.
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. At CrossFit, they refer to this as “Uncle Rahbdo,” though it’s not something funny or enjoyable. 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.
Let’s say you’re interested in joining a CrossFit class…but you don’t know what you’re getting into!
Practically every CrossFit gym around the world will let you come in and try out a class for free, so contact your local gyms and find out what dates and time they’re having newbie sessions. This is how the classes are usually structured:
Introduction class - For people who have never tried CrossFit before. Usually there’s a quick overview, and then a basic body weight movement workout, and then they talk to you about joining. These are usually free.
On ramp/Elements - If you’re interested in joining the regular CrossFit workout, you’ll most likely be required to go through the On ramp/Elements course. The purpose of these is to teach you the nine foundational movements of CrossFit and all about proper form. No matter how experienced you are, these are valuable and worth the time and money. Even if you think you have perfect form on your squats, deadlifts and/or overhead presses, it’s amazing what can be fixed when you have a trained set of eyes watching you do them.
Regular classes: This is what you’re probably used to seeing or hearing about. A regular CrossFit class takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. Everybody starts at the same time, there are instructors walking around helping out and keeping track, and everybody is supporting each other and probably swearing a lot.
Most CrossFit gyms will split their classes into three or four sections:
So, let’s say you’re interested in trying out a CrossFit class or maybe joining a CrossFit gym. If you happen to live in a city, there are probably more than a dozen CrossFits in your area. Other than picking the one that’s closest to you, why not put a bit more thought into it? This isn’t like picking a commercial gym – the community and coach are so freaking important.
First and foremost, you need a gym with competent, experienced coaches. You should be able to see through that particular CrossFit gym’s website - not the main CF site – who the coaches are and how long they have been teaching, including their certifications.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what you might see from coaches:
There’s big money in CrossFit these days, which is why so many gyms are opening up all over the country. Make sure to do the research on who your coaches are…and if they have actual coaching experience.
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? If you’ve been reading Nerd Fitness, you know how important a good community can be for success. CrossFit gyms are no different.
Every day, CrossFit.com puts out the a workout of the day (or WOD), which can be done at home, in a commercial gym, or in a CrossFit gym.
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:
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.
One of my favorite “first time” CrossFit workouts is a benchmark workout named Cindy. It’s a simple bodyweight circuit and can be done practically anywhere – the only equipment you need is a pullup bar. It’s a favorite for travelling, and shorter versions of it (3 rounds) is often used as a warmup.
20 minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible)
What this means is that you put 20 minutes on the clock and then, you do as many rounds as possible (AMRAP) of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats before the time runs out. There is no rest in between rounds – so as soon as you finish your 15 squats you start on the pullups again.
Now, lets look at each movement and how to scale it down if necessary.
5 Pullups – You’re allowed to kip these (which is a useful skill any time that your goal is not pure strength). If you can’t do regular pullups, you can do banded pullups, chair assisted pullups, or jumping pullups instead. Don’t have a pullup bar? Do bodyweight rows.
10 pushups – The standard CrossFit pushup is chest to the deck, but if you can’t do that, you can substitute knee pushups or wall pushups.
15 squats - this is a basic air squat, with no weight.
There are also other variations of this workout for beginner athletes. Some examples are:
|AMRAP 12 min
|AMRAP 10 min
Sound too easy? Go faster. While you are getting strength benefits from this workout, the goal of this workout is more metabolic conditioning, so making the movements harder (like switching to divebomber pushups) isn’t something you would want to do here. You can find some of the other benchmark workouts here.
Why is it so expensive? CrossFit is group classes. Think of yoga classes – they are typically $10-20 each. It’s not like a normal gym where there are hundreds of members who come in, use the elliptical for 20 minutes and go home – there is a coach teaching the class.
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 – it’s just group classes. Some CrossFits have “open gym” hours – but not many are open for use 5am-11pm like your local commercial gym.
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)
If you’re new to CrossFit, you might not know that it is an INCREDIBLY polarizing topic.
If you have 15 minutes to kill, a quick look at this Anti-Crossfit timeline (created by a person who truly dislikes CrossFit) will explain why so many people are pissed off about it.
We’ve tracked down a few other articles, some biased, some not so, that explain a lot of the background and why Crossfit is the way it is.
I LOVED this critique of CrossFit by 70′s Big, which I found to be incredibly fair and very objective. The fact that the author starts with “Note: Read ALL of this before attacking me” goes to show you how hardcore some CrossFitters can be. Although long, this article does a GREAT job explaining why CrossFit is the way it is, coming from a guy who has a CrossFit II certification and spent a few months following the main site workouts. This paragraph sums up the appeal of CrossFit:
CrossFit can be fun, especially if you’re a person who hasn’t done anything physically challenging since playing sports, or ever. Athletes enjoy it because it because it provides that difficulty that their training did. Unathletic people like it because it makes them feel athletic. People who never had good social group experiences like it because, even if they are crazy, CF communities are always positive, supportive, and good natured. CF brings people together and makes them compete every day in a society that shies away from competition. The challenge creates a heightened sense of self worth that develops into being an elitist..
…The forum addicts are proud of the fact that they think other populations can’t do what they can do. They revel in the fact that they got injured doing CF. They want to push so hard that they vomit. This only reflects a certain percentage of the CF population, yet the worst part of any population will create the stereotype.
I have a few problems with CrossFit. The conditioning often doesn’t apply an optimal stress and it’s superfluous. It doesn’t have any real element of consistent strength training…It has entirely too much frequency at high intensity and almost always results in injury. It doesn’t follow a logical application of stress to induce adaptation….but CrossFit gets people to do something rather than nothing. It also gets the exercising population to do something better than 45 minutes on the elliptical.
…It’s a nice gateway into other forms of training and the people are always great.
This T-Nation article also does a solid job of explaining the potential pitfalls of CrossFit and tracks down some big names to give their input:
Alwyn Cosgrove notes that this “all over the place” programming can be dangerous: “A recent CrossFit workout was 30 reps of snatches with 135 pounds. A snatch is an explosive exercise designed to train power development. Thirty reps is endurance. You don’t use an explosive exercise to train endurance; there are more effective and safer choices. Another one was 30 muscle-ups. And if you can’t do muscle-ups, do 120 pull-ups and 120 dips. It’s just random; it makes no sense. Two days later the program was five sets of five in the push jerk with max loads. That’s not looking too healthy for the shoulder joint if you just did 120 dips 48 hours ago.”
Mike Boyle adds, “I think high-rep Olympic lifting is dangerous. Be careful with CrossFit.”
First, I’m obviously a fan of CrossFit – I do it on a regular basis and have my CrossFit Level 1 Trainer Certificate – but I didn’t start out with CrossFit and it’s not all I do – so don’t think I’m completely biased here
I think if you find the right box, CrossFit is an awesome choice for a lot of people.
It’s different every day, so it’s never boring, someone is writing your workouts for you so you don’t have to think about it, and its fun.
When I don’t show up, people notice and ask where I was.
It gets you to do things you wouldn’t do on your own. I would never go running or rowing on my own – but if it’s in the WOD, I don’t have a choice. Also, I’ll go and do things that I would never do before (such as yoga classes, or spending a saturday afternoon doing hill sprints) because I know it will help me get a better time on a WOD later on.
My biggest issue with CrossFit is that it has no quality control across the boxes – all you need to start an affiliate is to pass the CF-L1 course and pay a $3000 affiliate fee, and once you are affiliated there are no checkins or anything – you just have to pay the fee every year. I have now been to 13 CrossFits in my travels and while most of them were great, the quality of a few of them scared me. I would absolutely love to see CrossFit take some of the money they are making now that it’s becoming more mainstream and invest in a quality control system.
I personally struggle on a regular basis because I’m much more interested in heavy strength training than anything else – and I’m one of those people who really likes seeing very linear graphs and results to my training, and I do want to specialize. I have a very hard time creating workout plans because with CrossFit, you never know what’s coming next. I’m lucky enough to have a coach that will work with me and will also let me do my own strength training and work the WODs around that.
Does it work? Well, what’s your goal? If it’s to get in better shape or to lose weight, then yes, it works. However, it’s not some cureall magic pill – as with any other training program, you will get out of it what you put into it.
So do I think you should try it? Of course, if you want to and aren’t afraid of putting in a little work to get what you want.
This is tough…I understand the appeal, and I love the community aspect of it…but it’s just not for me. I like feeling like I just had a great workout, but I don’t enjoy feeling like I want to die at the end of each workout - I know that’s how I’d feel at the end of each CrossFit workout because of my competitiveness.
The biggest reason for me why I’m not a CrossFitter? Well, other than my crazy travel schedule… I LOVE working out alone. I know at CrossFit I’d be part of a team workout and constantly ripping myself for not being as good as the guy next to me. From a programing standpoint, I don’t agree with some of the workouts (mostly the high repetition olympic lifting), but I understand that there are GREAT CF trainers that create amazing programs.
For those of you keeping track at home (thanks Staci for reminding me), CrossFit does in fact pass all rules of the Nerd Fitness Rebellion!
I love that it gets people started with barbell training and heavy lifting, because nothing makes me happier than watching guys doing proper squats and women doing deadlifts
Like with anything related to fitness, a good coach can be the difference between a great CrossFit experience and a dangerous one.
I wish it wasn’t so prohibitively expensive, but I understand why it is (everything is groups taught by coaches). Even so, most CrossFit gyms have no problem filling their classes. I’d guess a HUGE portion of Crossfitters would cut out anything else in their life other than give up
I think everybody should try it (your first trip will be free) and decide if it’s for you. If you decide it isn’t for you – that’s okay! I’ll admit that CrossFit isn’t for me and I have no intentions on ever joining a CrossFit gym, but I don’t have any problems with others doing it if they enjoy it and they’re safe.
However, when the day comes that I open Nerd Fitness gyms (and it’ll happen), I’m going to be taking a LOT from CrossFit on how to build a great, supportive gym environment and community…something you won’t find at any commercial gym.
My final advice: If you’re interested, give it a shot. If you can afford it, and you enjoy it, keep doing it. If you don’t or can’t afford it, don’t. And don’t feel like less of a person because of it I’ll still like you.
Good lord that took a while. Thanks for taking the time to get through it, as it took Staci and I a few weeks of research, hours of writing, and LOTS of back and forth conversations to put this post together.
So, what say you – do you have any additional questions? What have your experiences been like with CrossFit?
Note: I have no problem with civilized discussions taking place in the comments about your thoughts for or against CrossFit. What I won’t tolerate is anybody attacking anybody else for liking/not liking CrossFit. I have a quick trigger finger, and crap like that won’t be tolerated.