Imagine, if you can, a picnic basket brimming with random physical challenges, all scrawled on small slips of paper. These challenges might have anything printed on them : you might be asked to row a boat for 2 miles, you might be asked to pull a kid out of a burning building, you might be asked to hold a hefty weight above your head for five minutes. There won’t be any bias towards any particular measure of fitness, but you’ll have to perform at a consistently higher level than your peers, even at challenges you don’t have any familiarity with. Are you absolutely sure that you have the range to perform at any challenge that’s thrown your way?
What if your life depended on it?
Thousands of people whose lives really do depend on that kind of adaptability – firefighters, soldiers, police officers – swear by the Crossfit training regimen. It’s so popular that the Canadian Armed Forced and US Marine Corps have allowed top Crossfit trainers to speak to unti leaders and extend their knowledge of fitness and operational readiness.
Of course, Crossfit isn’t just for steely-eyed combat professionals. It’s one of the fastest growing trends on the exercise circuit, and it’s easy to see why. It combines movements and drills from many different exercise disciplines, like track, Olympic lifting, and gymnastics.
In a serious, real world emergency situation, you’re not likely to lift a huge amount of weight, take ten minutes to breathe, and lift another huge amount of weight. You’re going to make smaller presses at full intensity for a longer period of time. There are plenty of ripped weightlifting types who couldn’t jog for a mile to save their lives, and plenty of sleek runners or swimmers who don’t have the raw power needed to be much use to you and your friends on moving day. If your goal is to swell up until you look like a character from Street Fighter, Crossfit isn’t for you. Crossfit builds a strong base of fitness without bias, under the assumption that a real world condition like combat, sports, or survival will reward peak all-around fitness and punish a specialist who isn’t as well rounded.
As a result, it’s built around these base measures of fitness: endurance, stamina, flexibility, speed, agility, balance, strength, coordination, accuracy and explosive power.
Crossfit’s targeted to build your competency in each measure of cardiovascular fitness. It works to build a strong base of metabolism across the phosphagen pathway, which you tap into for activities that last fewer than ten seconds, the glycolytic pathway, used for moderately powered activities that last for several minutes, and the oxidative pathway, used for low impact activities that last for an extended amount of time.
It’s scalable to all age and fitness levels - if you’ve got the dedication to drop the Cool Ranch Doritos (do they even make those anymore?), you’re qualified to try Crossfit.
So, are you fit enough to Crossfit? If you’re doing it for the first time, the answer’s probably along the lines of “Absolutely Not Man, Are You Insane Or Something”? I looked into the program to provide some first-hand insight, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that Crossfit will break you, and do it brutally enough to make Ivan Drago grin in appreciation.
I hopped into my car and drove to a local Crossfit affiliate one evening to take advantage of a discounted trial period . Greg Glassman, the group’s founder, has always placed an emphasis on franchising in the hopes that each of his affiliates will develop their own approaches to fitness. The gym I reached out to didn’t advertise innovation, instead working to adhere mostly to the standard Crossfit regimens promoted by the national organization, which was more than enough for my purposes. The facilities were clean, well maintained, and thanks to the small class sizes, it was impossible to blend into the background. You won’t get started here without a few minutes worth of small talk and handshaking.
But the mood quickly altered when the workout started, and a room full of grinning suburbanites transformed into stoic warriors in front of my eyes. Thirty seconds of spectating was nearly enough to send me into a sweat. The intensity and focus of both the workouts themselves and the people going through them is an amazing sight to watch for the first time. Even casual observation of a room of Crossfitters will let you know that you’re going to get in shape fast… or die trying.
A petite hand tapped me on the shoulder, distracting me from the “swinging the kettle bell a little bit too high” movie that was playing out in my brain in disturbing realistic picture and sound. It still wasn’t too late to dash back to the Saturn and…
“Are you ready for your first date?” She said. My fears were calmed a little bit. The other schmoes were here for a workout, which sounded pretty stressful… but a date? That didn’t sound bad at all.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Before you can start formally working in a Crossfit group, you’ve got to take a skill evaluation. Crossfit trainers refer to this part of training as the “On-Ramp”, and it’s very fast and very steep.
I took my first workout – one of three total that’s required before you’re graduated to a standard workout. What I’ve learned is that Crossfit workouts are deceptively simple until you’re halfway through them and hurting everywhere. I was asked to do 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 body weight squats, as many reps as I could in 20 minutes. This workout was called the Cindy. Cindy isn’t much of a first date.
I was ready to get carried out of that place on a stretcher in less time than it takes to watch a sitcom. I only managed 15 reps in those 20 minutes, and by the time the bell rang, my throat was dry and ragged, my arms felt hollow and heavy, and I probably would have vomited enough to fill a paper bag if I hadn’t sweated out every drop of bodily fluid inside of me by the ten minute mark.
I could barely walk back to my car, and I woke up covered in sweat the next morning, reeling from a night of fever dreams. You know agony until a ripped, 5 foot tall trainer lady is shaking her head with an odd mixture of pity and amusement, telling you 5 minutes have passed when your body swears it’s been an hour.
I wasn’t sure what motivated me to go in for my next “date” outside of masochism and the hope that if a regular workout hurt, this must have been some sort of super-workout. The next session hit me even harder than the first one, stressed out my abs and calves, and my thighs were so shredded up that it took me 3 days to feel normal again.
Many of the standard Crossfit exercises have been given proper names, named either after soldiers who’ve fallen in the line of duty (the guys behind Crossfit have been working to build close ties with the armed forces for years now) or women. Generally, the men are workouts designed to increase your performance, while the ladies are used as repeated benchmarks to test your overall progression in Crossfit. Fran is another benchmark by which Crossfit trainers measure your overall fitness. Combining (grueling) weightlifting with (equally grueling) calisthenics, Fran brutalizes every muscle group and focuses in on your physical weak links like a laser pointer.
• 95 lb. Thrusters : 21 reps
• Pullups : 21 reps
• 95 lb. Thrusters : 15 reps
• Pullups : 15 reps
• 95 lb. Thrusters : 9reps
• Pullups : 9 reps
Sounds easy, right? Try it. Perform this continuously in as quick a time as you can manage.
Linda is another Crossfit benchmark that places more stress on the upper body’s ability to take an assault over time. It’s so feared that it’s earned the nickname “The Three Bars Of Death”. It’s time effective (the average person can finish this workout in under 45 minutes), but it’s also one of the most physically grueling workouts I’ve ever come across. But like all Crossfit exercises, it’s fine to scale down while you build up your skill level.
• Descending reps from ten, composed of
• Dead Lift: 1.5x your weight
• Bench Press: Your weight
• Clean: 0.75x your weight
The next lady was named Helga. One of the cool things about Crossfit is that it’s introduced casual fitness enthusiasts to styles of exercise that they may not have gotten familiar with otherwise, such as the kettle bell. You’re still working for time, but there are only three reps.
• A 400 meter run
• 1 1/2 pood Kettlebell swings: 21 reps
• Pullups: 12 reps
If you’re in decent shape, you should knock this exercise out in ten minutes. Swinging the bell back and forth really squeezes the blood out of your posterior and makes the 400 meter run a stressful endeavor.
The Murph was named in honor of Mike Murphy, a Navy SEAL who invented the workout and was killed in Afghanistan in 2005. It’s a full bodyweight workout sandwiched between two mile long runs, and while Murph himself liked to wear full body armor while doing this routine, even my curiosity as a journalist has its limits. Unlike the benchmarks, which are high impact and focused on rapid repetition, you’ll only do the Murph once, and trust me, that’s all you’ll need.
• A one mile run
• Pushups: 100 reps
• Pullups: 200 reps
• Body Squats: 300 reps
• Another mile run
It reads like an exercise in sadism – and that’s nothing compared to how it feels! I can guarantee you that you’ll be begging for the sweet embrace of death after filling a quarter of this. The average completion time is 40 minutes.
If you’re willing to stick with it like I was, your body gradually adjusts to the trauma, and you start waking up from workouts with less and less pain until you don’t feel any at all. Crossfit just works, and because of the extraordinary intensity, the changes are dramatic, and your body adjusts to the shock much more quickly than with a standard weight training system.
Pros and Cons
The Crossfit program has a great deal of strengths, but even though it covers the fundamentals of many disciplines and provides a strong base of athleticism, it will not turn you into an elite sprinter or bodybuilder. There’s a very strong emphasis on metabolic conditioning in a Crossfit program, and even though there’s been an increased emphasis on strength training in newer CF programs, it still won’t be enough to maintain an extremely high level of strength. Crossfit is great for improving general physical readiness, but remember that a specialized athlete still needs specialized training.
I also have concerns about applying intensity-based benchmarks to lifts that should be based in technique. If a person’s doing power cleans and presses for speed, their natural inclination will be to lose emphasis on technique as their fatigue increases, and as any experienced lifter will tell you, your technique is much more important than your reps and max for technical lifts. You’ll eventually lose the benefits of a clean and jerk if you’re doing them for speed rather than proper technique, and when you do need to max out on say, an Olympic lift, you may find it’s harder to get there with flaws in your lifting style.
Crossfit’s still expanding as a business model, and as the people behind the movement are eager to get fitness instructors certified and opening franchises in their local areas. At the moment, it only takes $2000 and a weekend’s worth of classes to get officially certified. While there are Level Two certifications that require the instructors to build a stronger base of knowledge, it’s clearly a case where profit and expansion is taking precedence over customer care. This problem’s easily solved by making sure that you have an experienced instructor, but it’s still worth being aware of.
Lastly, Crossfit is expensive, upwards of $200 for a monthly gym membership. This is also for economic reasons. One of the reasons Crossfit has such a strong sense of community is because 70% of people who try Crossfit leave the program after their first workout. The people that stick it out are dedicated, but the diminished customer base means that the salad eating, treadmill walking lunch-hour crowd isn’t there to help pay the rent. This might be good for you – my Crossfit classes had less than five people in them, which meant I got plenty of personal critique of my form and plenty of encouragement when I struggled. While most of Crossfit’s basic exercises can be done from a home gym, I can’t stress enough how important it is to start your work at a gym that specializes in Crossfit. Your initial foray into these workouts will physically break you unless you’re already highly trained, and you’ll be pushed far beyond your strength and stamina limits. The average person will quit many times over without a trainer and a crowd of like minded people working right beside you.
But if you tend to zone out while you’re in the gym and you’re starting to feel like your workout regimen is a chore instead of the challenge that it should be, Crossfit is absolutely up your alley. You’ll be doing functional, compound movements at extremely high intensity levels. It’s a fun, varied way to improve your physical readiness and conditioning.
Crossfit’s competitive aspect did a lot to improve my involvement, too. Every day, you’ve got the chance to compare yourself against others in the daily workout. If you find a group online that’s just starting out or posting results as you, trying to improve your performance and post lower times than them is a simple but compelling way to keep your focus. Like any other regimen, working in a group eases the load. The Crossfit community online and in-person is almost universally helpful, encouraging, and motivated by a desire to help their partners succeed.
Take The Plunge
Crossfit isn’t the perfect workout system : there is no perfect workout system. But Crossfit’s been scientifically targeted to build a physically prepared body, and it’s just as demanding as it is effective, both from a logistical and physical standpoint. It’s not just great for controlling weight, increasing power and keeping you on your toes, it’s also evolving organically as instructors adapt the Crossfit system to the specialized needs of their clients, whether it’s training for football in the offseason, or getting athletes ready for activities ranging from gymnastics to the triathlon.
Have a talk with your doctor if you haven’t had any strenuous physical activity in a while, but by all means, if you’ve got the willpower to try something new, give Crossfit a spin. Speaking from personal experience, it’s a workout program that’s made me want to work out more, and that’s something that speaks well of any regimen.