"Do not wait until the conditions are perfect to begin. Beginning makes the conditions perfect." — Alan Cohen
A Look Inside the World of CrossFit
On a recent Wednesday night, I stuffed myself into a tiny elevator with six others, and made my way up to the fourth floor of a modest building hidden in the bustle of Midtown Manhattan. The doors opened to a gray space with barbells, kettlebells, pull-up bars, and gymnastic rings scattered around the room. No fancy dumbbell racks, no mirrors, no television sets.
Training gyms for CrossFit are called boxes, and for good reason. There are no bells and whistles— just a bleak, unassuming space that reflects a mysterious exercise phenomenon.
As a runner familiar with weight machines and the occasional sun salutation, could I handle the much-hyped intensity of CrossFit? The growing strength and condition program calls for more than simple stamina; it combines weightlifting with sprinting, gymnastics with kettlebells, plus the fundamentals of powerlifting. Some call it God’s workout, and others, a cult. Some say it’s the quickest way to get fit, yet many question if the speedy results outweigh the safety risks. I was more than curious to dive in headfirst. Was CrossFit really for everyone— even a newbie like me?
I met Mike Kalajian, a trainer from CrossFit NYC who was leading the evening's beginner’s class. He could sense my intimidation. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “You won’t die. You’ll either leave thinking that was the craziest thing you’ve ever done and can’t wait to do it again, or that was the craziest thing you’ve ever done and are never coming back.”
Well then. And so we began.
Learning How to Move
CrossFit is built around functional movements, which mimic how we stand, step, and move through everyday life. According to Tony Budding, CrossFit Director of Media and Co-Director of the CrossFit Games, “We have evolved a set of standards for movement that are the most effective, efficient, and safe we know of.” So unlike crunching on a BOSU ball (how often are we doing that in the kitchen?), these strength and balance exercises aim to improve daily activity, making us stronger everywhere— not just at the gym.
The Internet has been essential to CrossFit’s compelling, and perhaps surprising, growth. Every morning, CrossFit.com posts a workout of the day (or “W.O.D.”) that many (but not all) boxes emulate. According to Budding, there were 13 CrossFit affiliates in 2005. Today, there are roughly 3,400. “And we’ve done nothing directly to create that growth,” Budding added.
“We used to ask people how they discovered CrossFit,” Kalajian said, “but we stopped because everyone usually had the same answer: Someone they know does CrossFit.”
And it’s true: Someone I know does do CrossFit. And for him, Sean Quinn, CrossFit is all about versatility and thrill: “Truly, everyday is something different. You can do bodyweight workouts alone in your apartment, or you can go to a black box and get more pumped up about a daily workout than you've ever been in your life.”
One of CrossFit’s main principles is to work weaknesses in order to improve overall fitness. “Always work at what you suck at,” Budding advised. “You work as hard as you possibly can— it changes people for the better.”
And here, Jordan Syatt, a trainer who is Westside Barbell certified, tends to agree. “[CrossFit] promotes hard work and lets people know you can’t just sit on your ass and make progress. You have to do something.”
So I did. After a rudimentary warm-up, I embarked on a 10-minute W.O.D. of pushups (the “what I sucked at” part), lunges, and sit-ups— as many as I could, and as fast as possible. It may not sound too terrible, but what amounted to 50 push-ups, 100 lunges, and 150 sit-ups was more challenging than any 10K road race I’ve ever run (and those aren’t exactly cake).
As with any exercise program, there’s always a risk of getting hurt . CrossFit has been criticized for pushing people past their limits, which can lead to serious injury. A New York Times piece suggested CrossFit puts the focus on speed and weight over proper technique, which can lead to chronic soreness, pulled muscles, and even rapid muscle breakdown in the form of rhabdomyolysis. But as Budding insists, “There’s no substitute for common sense. We never ask people to push past a sustainable limit.”
A recent video gone viral showed CrossFitters attempting the Continental clean & jerk, which had some in the fitness community up in arms. While the lift is a traditional strongman movement, many argued the athletes were using incorrect and potentially dangerous form, and some suggested the instructors shown were unqualified to teach the movement. Currently, aspiring CrossFit instructors can be certified by attending a course that includes lectures, demonstrations, presentations, and a hand-written test— all in one weekend.
But according to Budding, “The first and most important rule as a good trainer is you have to care. And no matter how good, strict, and refined we are, we can never enforce caring.” Still, Syatt had his own opinion. “Caring is irrelevant. If they can't teach it or spot a weakness, they shouldn’t be certified.”
However, to prove the “no pain, no gain” mentality isn’t the way to go, instructors point to two (rather grotesque) mascots: Pukie the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo, a graphic cartoon oozing blood, sweat, and toxins. “It’s a dramatic example designed to make you pay attention,” Budding says. “But we’re doing it to keep people safe.”
And perhaps Quinn is paying attention. “I have never been injured doing the workouts, but that has a lot to do with the fact that I know my body well enough to modify the next day’s workout or take an additional rest day. When doing such a total-body workout, it is especially important to identify different types of pain.” CrossFit.com prescribes every fourth day’s workout as a “Rest Day.” Yet whether or not people actually stick to this recommendation is unclear.
So, do we or do we not all head to the box? Perhaps there is no one answer, or as Quinn says, “CrossFit is and isn't for everyone.” For starters, CrossFit definitely pointed out my weaknesses (wait, that’s not a real push-up?). Yet those heated 10 minutes made me think twice about the idea of an hour-long run as the way to stay fit. I was happily exhausted in the time it normally takes to put on my cold-weather running gear, so who knows. I may give tomorrow’s W.O.D. a whirl.
Have you ever done CrossFit? Love it, hate it? Share in the comments below!
Updated on Tuesday, January 24, 2011.
- Is it possible to prevent sports injuries? Review of controlled clinical trials and recommendations for future work. Parkkari, J, Kujala, U.M., Kannus, P. Tampere Research Center of Sports Medicine, President Urho Kaleva Kekkonen Institute for Health Promotion Research, Finland. Sports Medicine, 2001;31(14):985-95.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
CrossFit saved my life. Well, probably saved my life. I have been CrossFitting for about 19 months and have seen marked improvements in my health. My scale says that I have lost 50 pounds (while adding muscle), my clothes say I have lost many, many inches, my irregular heartbeat is gone, my cholesterol is excellent, and my general state of being is great. It has been such a life-changing thing that my wife and kids have joined and we participate as a family.
By the way, I have been participating with a bad knee that will have to be replaced. The original goal was to replace it at age 45 (I'm 43), now the doc says it looks like I'll be good until 50 or so.
I was really surprised to read the comment that Crossfit has been criticized for pushing people beyond their limits as that doesn't happen at our box! Yes we get pushed, because sometimes we don't realize just how much we can do, but our trainers will be the first ones to tell us to do a lighter weight because we are sacrificing form, or they will tell us to stop doing pull ups because they can see we are struggling and they don't want us to walk around with what I call "monkey arms". Crossfit has done more for me in a year than multiple years at a chain type gym, and I yes I am now one of the obsessed!
I LOVE CrossFit. Is it hard? Yes. Does it push one to their limits? YES!! What is a workout if it does not push you to do your very best?? What is a workout if it does not reveal your weaknesses so you can strengthen them??
But does that mean everyone has to do every workout with the same level intensity? No.... The gym I go to starts everyone with a beginners class or one on one training, before they are able to join the main classes. And in the main classes, all workouts are "scaled" to the individuals ability through lighter weights, pull up assistance bands, and other equipment.
There are safety risks in anything worth doing in life. There is risk in following a workout video at home. There is risk in driving a car. There is risk in walking on the sidewalk. There is even risk in brushing your teeth!
But safety risks during a workout are reduced by having well knowledgeable and competent trainers. And safety risks are reduced by following what your trainer tells you to do.
No matter what gym, or workout philosophy you follow, there will always be moron" trainers" and moron "trainees" who do not listen to or practice common sense. There will always be renegades who go farther than common sense would call for. Those are the ones who get the majority of the injuries.
I have been a CrossFitter for years, and have watched other CrossFitters for years and watched the results and how improved their lives are overall. I think CrossFit is for EVERYONE.... but not everyone is for CrossFit. So yes... find a local CrossFit "Box" with good trainers and head there!
I'm 36 and have been crossfitting for 2+ years. I am in the best shape of my life; it works. With regard to the dangers-it's all on your ego. I have never received coaching that put me in danger; it was always my ego that had me go too heavy, push a rep when my I knew my form was bad, or workout when I needed a rest day.
I have been crossfitting for a little over 2 years. I do think is a pretty good GPP program, but not the very best, depending of what temperament and character the athlete has, can be fun...it is hard, yes! IIs it for everyone...hell NO...Is it risky...pretty much. I am an athlete that comes from the endurance world of marathoning, triathlon and mountain climbing. I think that crossfit has help me in some ways to improve my overall fitness and physical capacity. Do I think is the answer for everything...absolutely NO. Do I buy everything they say at a box, over the internet or and their journal...never. I absolutely disagree that at the Games they crown the fittest in the world...I don´t think so. I haven´t seen an elite crossfiter, like all those rock stars that fill youtube with videos, winning an Ironman or summiting a big mountain with no oxygen somewhere in the world. What do I think...that the slogan is catchy and smart, it is genius...Ohh yes!!!! And that as a result is helping make HQ and Reebook millions of dollars.
One other thing that bothers me is the attitude and unethical talk that some box owners and trainers have towards their clients. Bad language and the word "fuck" is just as necesary as breathing for this individuals, a tone of agresiveness and tribe like attitude too. If crossfit as a sport and a general physical prepeardness program is so great, they say is the best, why a whole lot of trainers and owners talk shit about other systems, gyms and people? If is is so good...there is no need to trash your competition with your mouth and no brains. I really don´t like the attitude, ethics and appearance of the big honcho of HQ...he loves to make his "seminars" and talks about coursing, bad mouthing and spiting crap about other systems, medical profesionals, trainers and all of the people that do not practice his sport and promotes his company...I have paid myself for one of his talks and they are irritating...besides he looks like anything else but and athlete, like he slept in his clothes and drank plenty of Absolut the night before....So there is no relation between the greatness of the sport of fitness and his creator.
As a medical profesional, I would like to see how the athletic careers of the elites or pros in this sport evolve. All of them are young...some, pretty young, so down the road in a good bunch of years, I would like to someone conduct a study, independent and serious to study what aftermath leaves into the joints and conective tissues of this youngsters that practice crossfit at elite level...spine, hip, shoulders and knees...that for sure is going to be interesting.
And to my fellow box owners stop saying that you don´t do this for the money....beacuse you DO!
If there is a problem with CrossFit, it is the connection between its goals and means,. I remember reading its manifesto years ago, and I really think it was right in concluding that, for example, a triathelete is not necessarily the fittest person around. However, to try and replace that with some other model of fitness rather than take away the real lesson, namely, that that whole idea of 'fitness' is flawed, is silly. You should work on doing things you would like to do better. Training is training to do something. I feel like CrossFit needed to come up with the CrossFit Games so that they could correlate the training to something.
This may be a bit late, but I just heard about this site through TechCrunch. Anyway, there's a documentary style web show that is still being released weekly that shows one man's first few weeks with CrossFit: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL2933E03B622D0EEA&feature=plcp
@bholub Thanks for sharing — definitely shows CrossFit in another interesting and valuable light. And glad you stumbled upon Greatist through TechCrunch (http://techcrunch.com/2012/05/07/greatist/) . Are you enjoying the site?
I have much to say about crossfit I could write an entire paper on it. In fact, I will this week. Look for it on www.theebodyshop.blogspot.com In short, I believe that crossfit is truly exercise on crack. It is definately not for everyone. You have to be in a totally different state of mind to workout on that level. The sport is made up of insane individuals (such as myself). It burns a lot of calories and has the potential to build a lot of muscle to shred you up. BUT, I am a firm believer that this type of exercise is too advanced for the sedentary lifestyles of today. Out bodies are way too deconditioned and imbalanced for this advanced workout. Crossfit is NOT a starting place for exercise. It is something to work yourself up too.
Yes, they may indeed teach basic functional movements, but most people can't even perform these exercises without compensation. Even if participants were instructed correctly, they are grossly imbalanced and not aware enough of their own bodies to mimic the instruction. What is needed is a beginner bootcamp that establishes skilled movement patterns for every joint action. The "basic" exercises need to be learned in stages (series of small movements), with each movement being mastered, before attempting to have someone push themselves for time. Once they are aware of thier entire muscular system and free of all major muscle imbalances, then, and only then are they ready to challege their bodies with crossfit.
Even those who are avid crossfit experts need to go through this course every month or so to prevent injury, and make sure their bodies are staying in line.
I have created such a bootcamp and am looking for opportunities to implement it into advaced workout modes.
What scares me most in all of this is that the fitness industry is largely unregulated, and in this instance, you can become "certified" as a Level 1 Coach in just one weekend. I looked at the site, and found no pre-requisites to attending, so any fitness enthusiast can be given a piece of paper that deems them an expert. Further, it has no NCCA accredidation (instead it uses an alternate), which is what the major certifying bodies in the fitness industry use. Nobody learns functional anatomy, physiology, or biomechanics in one weekend; and, for a "methodology" that touts functional movement as its mainstay, having very little formal knowledge of those three is a recipe for disaster.
Obviously, as a regular consumer, you don't know what you don't know...but when you do know, Crossfit raises eyebrows and weariness. For me, the jury is still out.