Image Source: Flickr user CrossFit Fever
Even though CrossFit has been around since 2000, many of us gym rats are still puzzled over exactly what CrossFit is and why people are still so excited about it. CrossFit.com estimates there are over 13,000 licensed affiliates worldwide, so the chances of CrossFit being in your area are pretty high. There are 11 locations near my home in the northern suburbs of Dallas alone. Why is it so popular, and why is it still so enigmatic? When thinking about CrossFit, the key terms you should know are variety, intensity, competition/metrics, and community.
CrossFit defines itself as "constantly varied functional movements at high intensity." What does that mean? It means that a daily WOD (workout of the day) is posted online at CrossFit.com, but each box (CrossFit lingo for "gym") can change or select a different workout, depending on their trainers and goals. The variety of exercises comes from the underlying sports CrossFit draws from, namely gymnastics, weightlifting (e.g., Olympic competition style, not the weight training you'd find in a gym), running, and rowing. CrossFit bases its workouts on 10 general areas of physical skill: cardiorespiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. Many of the exercises selected for the WODs combine or test multiple skills at once.
CrossFit is typically associated with high-intensity work for short, repetitive durations. Imagine throwing a weighted medicine ball against a wall for 60 seconds without stopping — then doing it again, several times. The idea is to achieve muscle fatigue or failure as quickly as possible in order to fast track your fitness gains. It can be a very effective paradigm if done safely with correct form and proper supervision. If someone is new, overly ambitious, or fails to recognize signals from their body indicating that it's had enough, injury and overtraining is possible. To combat this, most boxes require an on-boarding process where after an introductory session you complete several sessions to learn the moves and proper techniques before diving into the WODs with the rest of the crew.
CrossFit is based on several complicated energy and metabolic concepts, which you don't need to know in order to do the exercises. The main thing to understand is that your workout may not be as long as your typical gym class, but it is designed to be significantly harder. There are several methods to modify or "scale" movements to make them accessible to all levels of participants. Depending on the quality of instruction, the trainers in each box should be able to help attendees complete each required session with some level of success and to build up to the peak moves. And because the nature of the work is so intense, most trainers recommend a regimen of three days on, one day off — and that's only once you've acclimated to the work.
CrossFit utilizes our human propensity toward competitiveness to motivate improvement through measurable increments. Every exercise is timed and/or counted and written on a giant whiteboard so that you can see how you are stacking up against your fellow CrossFitters. The data, or metrics, also serve as a benchmark for you to work to improve each session. If you were able to do 10 deadlifts at 100 lbs. this WOD, maybe you'll aim for 15 next time to increase endurance or add weight to increase power. Whatever you do gets written on the board and you are accountable to yourself AND you trainer/coach.
As much as you are competing against others in your box, your main competitor is you. Former athletes find this aspect of CrossFit one of the major reasons they keep coming back. Pushing yourself to be better every interval, every session, is part of the CrossFit philosophy. It can create impressive physical gains but can be dangerous if not moderated properly. That's why picking the right CrossFit location is vital. According to Carey Robinson, a Level 1 CrossFit Trainer in Foxboro, MA, "some affliates [CrossFit locations] are geared toward competition, others are just a great place for your whole family to be a part of and get stronger." You can show up just to work out, or you can become a high-level competitor in the CrossFit games; it's all dependent on how hard you want to work and what you set for your CrossFit goals.
The mystique of CrossFit is part of its appeal, because the boxes are a place for people looking for something other than the typical gym experience. Most people, fans or not, recognize the strong sense of "family" when walking into a box on any particular day. People root for each other, they challenge each other, and they help each other. As Robinson relates, "Usually the last guy or gal to finish gets the biggest clap! Where else do you see that happen?" That kind of camaraderie is hard to replicate in a typical group exercise class. People wear their CrossFit gear with pride, inside and outside of the box.
CrossFit even has its own workout language, from the easy-to-understand WOD and "box" to short-form references to typical exercises (e.g., BW for body weight or DU for double-unders, when you take the jump rope under your feet twice before hitting the ground), and CrossFit-centric terms (e.g., DNF for Did Not Finish, written on the board for particular segments of the WOD not completed). Mastering the lingo is secondary to mastering the moves, but the trainers and other participants can help, as well as online CrossFit glossaries.
Another concept unique to CrossFit is the naming of certain WODs. The benchmark workouts used to test your progress are called "girls" and are named things like "Cindy" or "Fran." Others are tributes to fallen servicemen, firefighters, and law enforcement officers. This creates a strong feeling of community both inside and outside of the box.
Is CrossFit Right For You?
This depends entirely on what you are looking for in a workout environment and what physical changes you are hoping to see in your body. One less-marketed aspect of Crossfit you may not know of is the central importance of nutrition. Many CrossFitters utilize some form of a Paleo diet. Due to the highly demanding nature of the work, participants must have proper fuel for energy and recovery. As with any training discipline, the results gained in they gym (or box) will be either helped or harmed by what you do in the kitchen.
Physical changes are most obvious in the upper body and torso, with increased muscle mass in the shoulders, back, neck, and chest. Robinson cautions against fear of bulking up, saying, "Those who do 'bulk' will tell you it takes a great deal of effort on their part and is attributable to a strict and deliberate diet and exercise regimen." Many users report tightening and shifting of muscle mass, as well as overall weight loss. CrossFit has taught Robinson to "not be controlled by her scale," though, and to accept the outward changes as part of the overall journey. Robinson's biggest accomplishments after five years of dedicated CrossFitting has been developing the mental strength and stamina required to finish the workouts day in, day out. Either way, she says, "What have you got to lose? Just leave your ego at the door and go for it!"
A note of caution: due to its overall intensity, CrossFit injuries do occur, and there have been reports of the "CrossFit disease." Trainers assert that any physical exercise has a potential for injury if undertaken improperly without appropriate supervision, so the key is finding a good box with experienced trainers. Try several before zeroing in on one particular location. Listen to your body and work as smart as you are working hard. If you decide it isn't for you, you can find plenty of CrossFit-style workouts here to get the feeling of the workout without the commitment.