So what sets CrossFit apart from all the other programmes out there?
What I love about CrossFit is that you never quite know what you are coming up against. Every workout is different in length and in the combination of exercises. One day you combine running with press ups and dips, the next day you are short stints on the rower combined with heavy deadlifts. And what thatleads to is being FIT in the true sense of the word. Cardio will improve your endurance and stamina, weightlifting and powerlifting movements improve your strength, speed, power and gymnastic and body weight movements help you develop balance, coordination, flexibility and accuracy. CrossFit is all about specializing in NOT specializing in order to be FIT for all life can throw at you. Nothing come close to helping you achieve this fitness like CrossFit.
Because you are not concentrating on any one length or time of workout CrossFit gives you the ability to work all of the different energy systems in the body. A long distance runner will not cope with short, fast sprints in the same way that a powerlifter who lifts heavy weights wouldnt have the cardio endurance to run 5 kilometres in a reasonable time. Because of the constant change in length of workout a CrossFitter is able to cope with anything thrown at them.
But it goes beyond that. With CrossFit you are always pushing the perimeters in each workout whether it is 5mins or 30mins helping you improve in the three energy systems in the body. Phosagen, Glyocgen and Oxygen. With this high intensity form of training you develop all round fitness. And because of the intensity of the sessions, workouts tend to be shorter so you are maximising the time you set aside for training. Where most people are finishing their warm ups, CrossFitters are finishing their workouts……
All movements in CrossFit are functional which means they are movements that are multi-joint, using a lots of muscles, and require a lot of energy to perform. They are movements that pertain to life unlike many of the machines and isolation exercises that are performed in a normal gym setting. These movements are unbeatable in producing strength and power as well as raising the heart rate. Combined with body weight and cardio components it doesnt take long to realise you dont have to be training for 45min-1hour to get an effective workout.
There is honestly no way to describe CrossFit. The only way to find out for yourself is give it a go. I am constantly taking people through entry level CrossFit workouts who have trained in or out of the gym for a long time and cant believe the effect on their heart rate and muscles in as little as 5minutes.
A Beginner’s Guide to CrossFit
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.
What the Hell is CrossFit?
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.
Who is CrossFit for?
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:
- 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…GASP…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. When Nerd Fitness gyms start popping up (don’t think it won’t happen!), I’ll be drawing a lot of inspiration from CF as to how members are so supportive and inclusive of each other.
- 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 (cough Staci cough) 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 go online to see how you did against the world’s elite CrossFit athletes. 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 powerlifter) 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 (see things like CrossFit Football) in their offseason for conditioning, but that’s up to each sport’s coach.
- Solo trainers – Some people, myself included, 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.
Is it dangerous?
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.
What’s a CrossFit class like?
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:
- 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 muscle 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. This would also be the time for people who pushed too hard to go puke in a trash can and stretch their stomach muscles.
How to find a CrossFit Gym
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:
- CrossFit Level 1 – an ANSI-accredited certification. This means the person went to a weekend long course and passed the exam. You’re taught the basic movements, how to scale each movements with, but not really much more. There are no specifics on how to deal with injuries, anatomy, etc.
- CrossFit Level 2 – This is the next level up from Level 1, and is currently being revised by CrossFit HQ. It involves far more in depth training in coaching
- Specialty Seminars – These are one to two day courses on specific topics like gymnastics, Olympic lifting, and running.
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.
Can I do it at home?
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.
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
Frequently asked questions:
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:
Pros and Cons of CrossFit
- 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.
- Some CrossFitters drink WAYYY too much kool-aid. You’ll run into CrossFit people who think Crossfit is the end-all, be-all training solution, and anybody that doesn’t do CrossFit is a wuss. If you can do 20 pull ups, they can do 22, and do them faster than you, after doing 25 handstand push ups and running 400 meters. Note: I’ve only run into these people online, never in person…so the troll community is alive an well. Just look at the comments on this video and you’ll see – the 309 people that gave this dude doing 160+ burpees in 7 minutes thumbs DOWN are idiots.
Other Critiques and Articles
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.