CrossFit is like Starbucks right now. I feel like there’s one on every street corner. It’s crazy! I’m a former regionals competitor and CrossFit Coach at Huntington Beach. Within a one mile radius of my box (CrossFit Marina), there are probably five to ten gyms.
Many of you have probably tried CrossFit at a CrossFit box, at home, or maybe even on your own without actually knowing you were doing it. You may have seen CrossFit on ESPN or you may have competed in the CrossFit Open. If you happen to be a regionals or CrossFit Games competitor, then I solute you. That’s some tough stuff!
Today’s post is all about CrossFit. The good, the bad, and the ugly. If you’re thinking about trying it, this post is definitely for you. If you’re already drinking the CF Kool-Aid, feel free to skim it instead. You may particularly like the section on CrossFit as a sport versus CrossFit as an exercise regimen.
In the spirit of CrossFit, let’s get on with it, shall we?
3… 2… 1…. GO!
Table of Contents
What Is CrossFit?
Right now CrossFit is advertised as “The Sport of Fitness.” It’s hard to argue with that. If you’ve seen the CrossFit Games on ESPN, I’m sure you’ve noticed the beautiful physiques of both the men and the women who compete in them, and the amazing displays of strength, endurance, agility, and skill.
The CrossFit HQ defines CrossFit like this:
CrossFit begins with a belief in fitness. The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness. We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable. After looking at all sport and physical tasks collectively, we asked what physical skills and adaptations would most universally lend themselves to performance advantage. Capacity culled from the intersection of all sports demands would quite logically lend itself well to all sport. In sum, our specialty is not specializing.
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.
Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains). CrossFit itself is defined as that which optimizes fitness (constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.
Here’s a video of CrossFit athletes and weekend warriors describing CrossFit.
To me, Crossfit combines weight/strength training, gymnastics and bodyweight movements, Olympic lifting, running, jumping, swimming, and cardiovascular training, and meshes that all into a random exercise regimen. You really never know what you’re going to get with CrossFit.
There is now even CrossFit Kids, CrossFit Football, CrossFit Endurance, kettlebell, mobility, self-defense, powerlifting, nutrition, and even goal-setting courses that you can take.
Who Is CrossFit Good For & Who Is It Not So Good For?
Who It’s Good For
I’m a little biased because I teach classes and because I’ve seen CrossFit benefit kids with autism, teens, athletes preparing for sports competitions, weekend warriors, and seniors. Just the other weekend, an 86-year-old woman popped up in her first handstand, which was totally inspiring.
One of the best parts of CrossFit is that it’s totally scalable. This means that, no matter your level of fitness, skill, ability, or knowledge, you can easily adjust the intensity, load/weights, time, or exercises, in order to get the most out of the workout.
It’s a great way for athletes, former athletes, or workout addicts to train. It also is awesome for those of you that lack motivation and consistency when it comes to exercise. The community aspect of CrossFit and the pressure you feel (a good kinda pressure) keeps you coming back.
However, I’m going to take an impartial approach and go over a bit of what it does well, what it doesn’t do so well, and whether or not it might be for you.
Who It’s Not So Good For
CrossFit is not great for specialists, but CrossFit is OK with this. CrossFit is about not specializing in anything but instead developing fitness on a broad scale. It may help you to develop a solid base of fitness, but, to really excel at a specific sport, you would most likely need specialized training.
What CrossFit Does Well
One of the most important things CrossFit does well is teaching the basic and important lifts. The ones that give you the most bang for your buck in terms of muscular development, nervous system training, strength, and fat loss.
- The various squats
- Horizontal presses (think bench)
- Vertical pressess (think shoulder/military press)
- Olympic lifts (snatch, clean, jerk)
CrossFit also provides a terrific support system and community. For the most part, any box that you walk into will welcome you with open arms. In a matter of days, everyone will know your name, be curious about you as a person, and cheer you one as you work out, regardless of how well you perform.
Most boxes are excited that you’re taking your health seriously. I know that at my box we’ve even Facebooked or called people to see why they haven’t been in to work out for a few days.
CrossFit also gets people to do something consistently. Most people have great success with CrossFit, not because of the way the workouts are designed, but instead because CrossFit actually gets them to go and do something active.
Most of us have probably been to a globo gym. These are gyms where they give you a tour, sign you up, and then throw you into the wild on your own. You’re left to fend for yourself and, if exercising is something new to you, you may have just paid to become a hamster spending hours on a treadmill, elliptical machine, or stationary bike.
CrossFit teaches people how to train with weights and their own bodies. Although walking into a box for the first time can seem intimidating – you may hear some swearwords flying around or some loud music, see lots of shirts off, and feel the chalk in the air – it actually is quite mellow. It’s just when that clock starts things can get all kinds of crazy.
CrossFit also does a great job of developing your overall health. It address multiple definition of fitness because most boxes include strength-, endurance-, mobility-, agility-, and coordination-based movements. It’s all stuff that will help you with your day-to-day activities, whether that means lifting heavy furniture, walking up the stairs, placing something on a high shelf, or running around with your kids in the park.
In general here are the pros for CrossFit:
- The community and support system
- There’s a coach there instructing you
- The competitive atmosphere that can push you to work a little harder
- It teaches you the best lifts
- It emphasizes intensity (this can be both good and bad), but also gets you to be consistent
- Not usually overcrowded (most boxes now cap their classes)
- You don’t have to wait around for equipment (some dude isn’t doing barbell curls in the squat rack)
- It gets people to DO something
- It addresses multiple areas of fitness (cardio, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy)
What It Doesn’t Do So Well
CrossFit doesn’t do the best job of moving you in a lot of different directions. Most of the movements performed are done up and down (squats, deadlifts, presses, pull-ups, etc…). There’s not a ton of horizontal movement, trunk rotating, or adduction and abduction. This can lead to the overdevelopment of some muscles and the underdevelopment of others.
CrossFit lacks any real consistency or periodization. Some might argue that this doesn’t matter a ton. For those that are just getting into exercise, it might not, because just showing up consistently and performing the movements will do wonders for these people. However, when plateaus in gains or improvements come along, those looking to really improve their strength, Olympic lifting, or even fat loss might benefit from a more structured plan. It’s much easier to see what is working and what isn’t working when you can measure what it is you’re doing.
On a personal note, I made the best progress when I worked with a coach who structured workouts specifically for me and based on my goals and weaknesses. CrossFit was still a major component, but there were certain things we did daily, weekly, and monthly to help improve certain areas of my fitness.
I’m not a fan of the fact that someone can get their CrossFit Level 1 certification in a weekend and have a box up and running in a matter of days, and teaching clients and running classes shortly thereafter. I’d love to see a higher standard with the certification. Perhaps there needs to be a programming part of the Level 1 certification that requires you to demonstrate your ability to write up a month’s worth of workouts that will keep members healthy and strong.
Some of the subs that are provided for those who cannot perform and exercise are a little weird. For example, if you can’t do muscle-ups, I’ve seen it suggested that you do three pull-ups and three dips for every muscle-up in the workout. Thirty muscle-ups for time would mean ninety pull-ups and ninety dips. It just doesn’t make any sense.
I’d like to sum this section up by saying that it all depends on the box you go to and the quality of the coaching that is available to you there. Many boxes will have excellent programming and qualified coaches. Others may not, so take your time in finding a location that you’ll call home (more on this later).
In general, some cons of CrossFit are:
- Too much variation and no real consistent strength work
- Price ($20-$30 drop in rates, $150-$300 monthly memberships)
- Form can sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of performance, time, and reps
- Too concerned with high intensity
- In my opinion, using Olympic lifts for high reps is not an effective use of them, nor what they are designed
- Poor programming (depends on the box), for example heavy clean and jerks one day and dips the next is hell on the shoulder girdle
- It can be dangerous. The emphasis on intensity, fastest time, max reps, and maximal weight can sometimes sacrifice form, so injuries can occur, which stinks if you’re trying to build the exercise habit. The best thing you can do is work at your own pace. A good coach should spot this and have you slow down.
What To Do If You’re Thinking About Taking Your First Class
First you can use this CrossFit locator to find a facility that is close to you. But don’t just settle on the one that’s the closest. I suggest visiting a few before you decide which one to join.
Look for boxes with trainers that have more qualifications than just their CrossFit Level 1 certificates. Having more than the minimum, to me, shows that they have a real interest in becoming the best trainer possible and one that they really care about developing overall wellness for their members.
Qualifications you might look for include:
- CrossFit Level 2
- Speciality certifications like for Olympic lifting, gymnastics, and endurance
- CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist)
- NSCA-PT (National Strength and Conditioning Association Personal Trainer)
- Charles Poliquin (PICP)
- Precision Nutrition
Take a look at the type of programming they’ve set out for a given week. OPT and CrossFit Invictus do a great job of setting up workouts for all of their members. Not every box you go to will have three different workouts based on the goals of their members, but the above are a few good examples of what to look for in terms of movements. If you’re looking at CrossFit more for the sport and competitive aspects of it, you can also check out MisFit and Outlaw’s programming.
You can call most CrossFit boxes and ask if it’s ok to come by to view a class and to ask a couple of questions. This is a great way to break the ice and to get comfortable with the environment without getting overwhelmed.
Most facilities will offer a a free class as well, with many offering a free day’s access (this usually takes place on Saturdays, when members can bring a friend to check the gym out). Make sure to ask about this when you call in.
After going in to talk to a few of the coaches and members, and to get a feel for the place, ask about their On Ramp or Elements program for newbies. If they don’t have one, I’d suggest going somewhere else. Any CrossFit worth going to will have some sort of fundamentals class where you’ll learn the nine basic movements of CrossFit:
- Sumo deadlift high pull
- Front squat
- Overhead squat
- Push press
Note: In my personal opinion, the sumo deadlift high pull is not a great exercise for a beginner to learn. This should probably be swapped out for the snatch.
On Ramp, Elements, or foundational lessons are usually stretched out over the course of three days. Check Groupon, LivingSocial, and Amazon Local for discounts on these packages, as most CrossFit boxes offer them.
These classes are usually conducted one-on-one with a CrossFit instructor or in a small group. Most people will have similar abilities and skill levels, which makes for a very comfortable environment. Once you have demonstrated that you understand, and the ability to perform the movements, you graduate to join the regular classes.
What To Expect From Your First CrossFit Class
Arrive a little early for your first class, so that you can put your stuff away, familiarize yourself with the gym, and introduce yourself to other members. Also, make sure you talk to your coach about any current injuries or concerns you may have.
If you’re just getting into it, work hard but at your own pace. The other members will be cheering you on and wanting you to do your best, but focus on form first and save the record times for when you are able to perform all of the movements properly.
You’ll most likely notice a big white board that includes the Workout Of The Day or the WOD in CrossFit speak. You might also notice a few other terms that you’re not familiar with.
CrossFit Reflex did an excellent job of creating a CrossFit dictionary to help newbies understand this cray-cray lingo:
- 3,2,1, GO – A countdown used at the start of many CrossFit WODs
- AMRAP – As Many Reps/Rounds As Possible
- Athlete – This is YOU. As long as you are pursuing health and fitness here at CrossFit Reflex, we will refer to you as an athlete
- Beast – An athlete with an exceptionally good work capacity or work ethic
- Beast Mode – The state of performing like a “beast.” An athlete of any level can enter “beast mode” if they want to. Beast mode is both a state of mind and physical performance.
- Box – CrossFit gyms are typically referred to as “boxes” because they are traditionally located in industrial-type warehouses.
- BP – Bench press
- BS – Back Squat
- BW – Body Weight
- CFT – CrossFit Total – consisting of max squat, press, and deadlift
- CLN – Clean
- C&J – Clean & Jerk
- DL – Deadlift
- DNF – Did Not Finish – For WODs with a fixed amount of work and a time cap, it is possible to not finish the prescribed amount of work in the given time. In such cases, the score will be appended with “DNF”.
- DNS – Did Not Start. If for some reason an athlete is unable to start a WOD, they forfeit their efforts and receive a “DNS”.
- DUs – Double Unders – When jumping rope, the rope passes under your feet two times between each jump.
- EMOM – Every minute On The minute – So, for instance, on the whiteboard, one day it says 10 push-ups EMOM for 10 minutes. This means that you must do 10 push-ups at the top or beginning of every minute for 10 minutes.
- Fire breather – An elite-level CrossFit athlete
- FS – Front Squat
- Girls – Several classic CrossFit benchmark workouts are given female names. The names of these workouts are arbitrary and not named after actual girls.
- GPP – General Physical Preparedness, aka “fitness”
- Gymnastics – Historically, the term “gymnastics” is used relatively loosely in CrossFit to describe exercises that involve controlling body movement, typically with no weight other than body weight such as sit-ups, push-ups, air squats, ring-rows, box jumps, etc.
- Heroes – Several CrossFit benchmark workouts are named after actual military and law enforcement officers and firefighters that have died in the line of duty. These workouts are typically very difficult as a way of honoring these heroes. Unfortunately, the list of hero WODs continues to grow.
- HSPU – Hand Stand Push-Up – While in a handstand position against the wall or freestanding, you touch your head to the ground and press all the way up until your arms are locked out.
- HSQ – Hang Squat (clean or snatch) – Start with bar “at the hang,” at about knee height. Initiate pull. As the bar rises drop into a full squat and catch the bar in the racked position. From there, rise to a standing position.
- KB – Kettlebell
- KTE – Knees To Elbows – Similar to T2Bs described below.
- ME – Maximum Effort- For example, if on the board it is written “2 min ME rowing”, that means you will row as hard as you possibly can for 2 full minutes, therefore putting forth a maximum effort.
- Metcon – This is an abbreviation of ‘metabolic conditioning.’ Metcon is training with the intention of enhancing performance in the three metabolic pathways that provide energy for all human action. These metabolic pathways are known as the phosphagen pathway (10 seconds or less), the glycolytic pathway (lasts up to several minutes) and the oxidative pathway (lasts in excess of several minutes). The term “metcon” is often misunderstood and incorrectly used by CrossFitters as a synonym for longer-duration cardio vascular training.
- MP – Military Press
- MU – Muscle Ups – Hanging from rings, you do a combination pull-up and dip, so you end in an upright support.
- OHS – Overhead Squat – Full-depth squat performed while arms are locked out in a wide grip press position above (and usually behind) the head.
- Paleo – A term coined by Dr. Loren Cordain in his book “The Paleo Diet”. A theory of nutrition that humans are best suited to eating only foods that have been available in nature and eaten by hominids (including humans) for millions of years. Paleo nutrition excludes refined sweeteners, grains and grain-based foods, alcohol, legumes (beans, peas and peanuts), dairy, and other processed or artificial ingredients. Paleo nutrition is a guideline and scientific theory backed up by decades of solid research and common sense. It is not a philosophy, belief system, or a religion.
- Paleolithic lifestyle – A theory that we should try to replicate the lifestyle of our Paleolithic ancestors as well as we can (within reason) in our modern lives, including: paleo nutrition, sleeping longer and more often with no or minimal electric light at night, minimizing stress, minimizing repetitive work, walking a lot every day, moving heavy things often, exercising near maximum intensity every once in a while and maintaining close daily contact with friends and family.
- PC – Power Clean
- Pd – Pood – Weight measure for kettlebells
- PP – Push Press
- PR – Personal Record
- Primal – A term coined by Mark Sisson in his book “The Primal Blueprint”. The Primal lifestyle is nearly identical to the “Paleo” lifestyle and there are no fundamental conflicts.
- PSN -Power Snatch
- PU – Pull-Ups ad possibly push-ups, depending on the context
- Pukie – The name of a fictional clown in a cartoon drawing depicted as vomiting as a result of intense exercise. This cartoon drawing was developed by someone in the very early days of CrossFit and it made its way around the Internet as a badge of honor; i.e. ‘our method is so intense that it will make you puke!’ However, at CrossFit Reflex, we do not agree with this method. If you puke as a result of your CrossFit workout, you are doing it wrong. Tone down your intensity and pay attention to your intake before your workout.
- Rep – Repetition – One performance of an exercise
- RM – Repetition Maximum – Your 1RM is your max lift for one rep. Your 10 RM is the most you can lift 10 times.
- Rx – Or prescribed. Every WOD and movement has standards. Performing a WOD or movement according to the standards is referred to as doing it “Rx’d”; aka as prescribed. If you modify or “scale” a WOD or movement, it is not Rx. Performing a movement with a partial range of motion or with assistance is also not Rx. We urge all of our athletes to attempt both movements and WODs Rx as long as it is within their ability.
- SDHP – Sumo Deadlift High Pull – Using a wide stance and a narrow grip, you pull the bar from the ground up to your chin, keeping the bar close to your body.
- Set – A number of repetitions. For example 3 sets of 10 reps, often seen as 3×10, means do 10 reps, rest, repeat, rest, repeat.
- SN – Snatch
- SQ – Squat
- CF Games – An abbreviation of CrossFit Games. The CrossFit Games is an annual competition to find the fittest man and woman on earth. Everyone on earth that has access to the internet, a video camera, and some basic equipment or access to a CrossFit affiliated gym is welcome to participate in the 5-week “Open” qualifier to The CrossFit Games. In 2013, more than 125,000 people from all over the world participated in the Open, submitting results for one mystery workout in each of the 5 weeks. The top scorers in each region go to regional qualifier competitions. The top scorers from the regional competition go to The Games.
- T2B – Toes To Bar – Hang from bar, bending only at the waist, raise your toes to touch the bar, slowly lower them, and repeat.
- TGU – Turkish Get-Up
- WOD – Workout Of The Day
How Most Classes Are Structured
Most classes will run for roughly thirty to sixty minutes, depending on the workout that day and your skill level. I’ve noticed more and more boxes putting time caps on workouts, which prevents overlap from one class to another.
Most boxes have specific class times, typically between 5am and 10am and 4pm and 8pm. There are not usually open gym times where you are able to go in and get your own workout in, but some boxes do have this option available.
Class will normally start with a dynamic warmup, to get your body temperature up, lubricate your joints, reduce the risk for injury, improve your range of motion and mobility, and wake up your nervous system. It might involve:
- Body weight movements
- Shoulder rolls
- Moving against light resistance
- Olympic lifting practice (with PVC or an empty bar)
After about a five to ten minute warm up, you will usually be working on some sort of skill, an Olympic lift, or a strength exercise.
Skills might include:
- Handstand practice
- Handstand walks
- Muscle-ups or progressions
Some strength or Olympic work might include:
- Back squat
After that, you’ll usually take a few minutes to set up for the Workout Of The Day (WOD). CrossFit workouts can run anywhere from two to 60+ minutes. You really have no idea what you are going to get each day. However, the majority of them will fall in between ten and twenty minutes of high intensity movement. The workout of the day will be the same for everyone, but you or your coach will be able to modify it based on your goals, knowledge, and ability.
Here are a few examples of some workouts that you may see:
20 minute AMRAP:
- 5 pull-ups
- 10 push-ups
- 15 squats
3 rounds for time of:
- 20 front squats
- 40 sit-ups
- 60 double-unders
21-15-9 reps for time of:
- Handstand pushups
You will finish with some stretching and/or mobility work.
The Importance Of Having A Good Coach
A good coach can be the difference between a great CrossFit box and an awful one. A good coach will also make your time there more enjoyable and safe, and they’ll get you results.
Again, look for a coach with multiple certifications and credentials that extend beyond just the CrossFit Level 1 certification. There are roughly eight to ten CrossFit certification training events running each weekend with about sixty participants in each. With an 80% pass rate, there are a lot of Level 1 certified trainers coming out of there. A two day course does not make you a good trainer.
A good coach:
- Will make sure you’ve participated in the fundamentals
- Is not interested in only crushing you during your workouts
- Is concerned with your movement patterns and ability to perform each exercise with proper form (for example, not allowing you to add weight to a squat if you can’t perform it properly)
- Can perform the movements they are teaching
- Understands your limits
- Will push you past your limits, without going too far
In a class setting it can sometimes be tough for a coach to keep a watchful eye on everyone. Think about doing a couple of private sessions to work on your technique and on proper movement.
CrossFit The Sport Versus CrossFit The Exercise Regimen
You have probably seen elite athletes participating in the CrossFit Games on ESPN or maybe you’ve seen a local competition. Well, there’s a big difference between CrossFit as a sport and CrossFit as an exercise regimen.
The CrossFit athletes you see competing don’t really do CrossFit in the way that most CrossFitters do. Most of them have their own programming, personal coaches, and nutritional approach, and they train multiple times a day in order to address their weakness and improve as competitive athletes.
For those that train for CrossFit as a sport, it is their life. Just like for any other athlete, everything else revolves around their sport. Most of the competitors I know either own a box of their own or they have everything at home, so that they can train whenever. They are constantly dealing with various aches, pains, and injuries.
CrossFit as an exercise regimen is designed to keep you healthy, fit, and active, so that you can become a better athlete but, more importantly, become a healthier human being – one that can lift heavy boxes, play with their kids, push, pull, lift, swim, bike, run, climb, jump, and have the energy to accomplish things in everyday life. CrossFit as an exercise regimen will get you stronger, faster, and fitter.
If you’re thinking about competing, I’d first ask yourself if you want to make CrossFit a priority in your life. It will take a huge commitment if you really want to get good at it.
However, if you’re just interested in doing a couple of local competitions here and there, because you like to compete, there’s nothing wrong with that. Competing is fun and there are often different divisions that you can compete in, so you can find one that matches your skill level, age, and gender.
If you are thinking of competing (even just for fun), I would think about working with a coach one-on-one, to carry out assessments and testing, and to come up with some programming to work on what you specifically need to improve.
CrossFit At Home
One huge advantage of CrossFit is that it is easy to perform at home with minimal equipment. If you’re someone with a tight schedule or limited time, or you just doesn’t like the gym, it is a great option. The sites listed below provide free programming that you can use for your workouts.
Most boxes have their workout of the day posted for free online, so essentially you could follow any box’s programming, if you wanted to.
There are tons of body weight-only workouts that you can do, but if you want to get the most out of training, I’d suggest giving this article a look. It discusses the most important pieces of training equipment needed to do the majority of the CrossFit exercises you’ll see used at any box.
The downside to working out at home is that you’ll miss out on some of the awesome mojo, community, and instruction you receive at boxes, but if money or time are of concern, home training might be a good fit for you.
Health and fitness are very subjective areas. What one person deems healthy might not be good for someone else. How do you define fitness? How should fitness help you in your day-to-day life? Does CrossFit help you to get closer to that definition?
If you have any questions about CrossFit, please feel free to contact me directly or to post a comment below.
- What’s the deal with CrossFit?
- Why high intensity training (HIIT) is better
- Smith, MM, AJ Sommer, BE Starkoff, and ST Devor. “Crossfit-based High Intensity Power Training Improves Maximal Aerobic Fitness and Body Composition.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 22 Feb. 2013. Web. 02 Oct. 2013. (1)
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