Hate it or love it, people have strong opinions about CrossFit.
Devotees tout it as the best way to transform your body, while critics say there’s no surer way to end up injured. Either way, there’s no denying that CrossFit has become a major fitness movement: there are more than 13,000 CrossFit gyms, known as boxes, around the world.
With all the claims about CrossFit, it can be hard for curious newbies to know what to expect for their first visit to a box. We spoke to a few experts to determine exactly what you should know before starting CrossFit to separate the bluster (from both sides) and the real truth.
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit borrows movements from a variety of sports including, gymnastics, weightlifting, powerlifting, and rowing. It was created by former gymnast Greg Glassman to maximize the amount of work performed in the shortest amount of time, according to the official CrossFit website, which serves as the activity’s governing and branding entity.
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The goal of CrossFit is to boost your fitness and help you move better, whether it’s during a hockey game or hoisting heavy bags at the grocery store. This is achieved by performing a bunch of functional movements at high intensity, says Ian Creighton, General Manager and Coach at BRICK New York.
What Do You Do in a CrossFit Class?
Typically, each class is broken up into three parts: the warmup, skill or strength component, then the workout of the day, or WOD.
The warmup is tailored to the skill or strength component, so you’re prepped for what comes next. Skilled workouts are designed improve your ability to do certain exercises, like the jumprope double-under, while Strength workouts aim to make you well, stronger.
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The final part of the class is the WOD, which asks you to perform a specific set of exercises in a given amount of time or rep scheme. WODs are usually total body workouts that range from 8 to 16 minutes, but can be as short as three, Creighton explains.
“A three-minute workout sounds silly, but when you put the intensity at 95 percent, you’re going to be recovering for an hour after that,” he says.
Many gyms create their own WODs, but CrossFit does have a slew of benchmark workouts named after women; Fran is one popular one, which consists of thrusters and pullups. There are also Hero WODs named after fallen service men and women.
What You Should Keep in Mind Before Starting CrossFit
When you start going to a well-established box, it might not be uncommon to see others performing feats like cleaning 300 pounds. You might be tempted to attempt to do the same. Don’t.
“People come in and they’re competitive,” says Creighton. “They want to do what everyone else is doing. That’s the wrong way to approach CrossFit.”
Mathew Forzaglia, a personal trainer and CrossFit coach in New York City, agrees with Creighton, saying you should start by lifting with an empty barbell until you understand the movements.
“You can’t jump to the final result without doing the first step,” he explains.
Managing your expectations of what you will and won’t get out of CrossFit is especially important. Since the workout isn’t specialized, don’t expect to become a master Olympic lifter. Instead, you’ll likely improve your overall fitness level, says Forzaglia.
“To be good at CrossFit, you must be good at a bunch of things,” he says.
Is CrossFit Actually Dangerous?
As with any form of exercise, this cult favorite comes with risk. However, reports about the dangers of CrossFit may be overhyped, according to a December 2018 study.
Published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers at Kennesaw State University concluded that CrossFit is fairly safe compared to other types of training. After analyzing 3,000 survey responses of CrossFit participants, they found that people who are new to CrossFit or train less than three days a week are more likely to get injured. This is likely because these groups are unfamiliar with the movements.
“This study indicates that injuries among CrossFit participants may not be as high as previously suggested in some media reports,” study co-author Yuri Feito said in a statement. “CrossFit training has been scrutinized because of a supposed high incidence of injuries, but our data does not seem to support that it might be any more ‘extreme’ or dangerous than other exercise training programs.”
A 2014 study published in Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine Research found that people with hands-on coaches who help them through the movements have fewer injuries, which is why Creighton stresses finding a gym that priorities safety.
“You need coaching where the coaches are focused first and foremost on safety and movement quality,” he says. “That’s the most important thing.”
Rhabdomyolysis, a condition that causes muscle tissue to break down and release kidney-damaging waste into the bloodstream, has been linked to CrossFit. However, pushing yourself too hard in any workout can cause the problem.
How Do You Find a Good CrossFit Gym?
Gyms usually offer free introductory classes, which you should hit up to feel the place out. Then, ask other members about their experiences and whether they’ve been injured, advises Creighton. You should also pay particular attention to the coach’s leadership skills.
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“If there’s no structure to the class and it’s disorderly, then that’s a safety problem,” he says. “That’s a red flag.”
Don’t be afraid to ask questions, either. “If someone makes you do something, ask them why,” Forzaglia recommends. You want to be sure your coach has a solid understanding of the movements and isn’t just arbitrarily doling out tips. Another warning sign: if coaches pay more attention to their phones than their class. Thruster videos might be cool to watch on Instagram, but getting hurt because of an instructor’s negligence is definitely not.
What Do You Need for CrossFit?
Boxes will have almost all the heavy duty equipment you need, like plyometric boxes, weights, and barbells, but Creighton recommends investing in one key item: a quality jump rope.
Although gyms typically have jump ropes available, Creighton says they’re often not durable or meant to be shared by many people. People often shorten long ropes by tying them, which can hinder the integrity of the equipment. RPM is a high-quality jump rope that many of Creighton’s clients prefer, and is a good choice if you want to nail those double-unders.
Creighton also recommends that you wear a flat cross-training shoe that’s suited for the variety of movements you’ll encounter. Just keep your road shoes out of the box. You might run short distances for your WOD, but the cushioned, high-drop design of most runners is terrible for the explosive lifts you’ll be performing.
Is CrossFit Right For You?
So, how do you know whether it’s worth adding CrossFit to your routine? That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
“CrossFit is a great generalized workout for the masses,” says Forzaglia. “When it comes to a specific, focused goal, I think CrossFit isn’t the answer.”
If want bigger biceps or to lose 10 pounds for your wedding, Forzaglia says it’s best to work with a personal trainer who can help figure out a plan to do just that.
Although strength training newbies are often drawn to the small, communal atmosphere at CrossFit gyms, Men’s Health Fitness Director Ebeneezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., says the activity is probably best for those who are already comfortable with lifting.
“They’ll ask you to clean and squat and snatch in CrossFit, so if you can’t adequately do those things, how much can you get out of it?,” Samuel says. He recommends going to introductory classes until you’re more familiar with the movements.
But the only way to know if you’ll enjoy CrossFit is to try it out for yourself. “Go in there and have an open mind,” says Forzaglia. “It’s just another workout.”
Ready to get started? Here are four beginner-friendly benchmark WODs to give you an idea of a typical workout.
Complete as many rounds as you can in 20 minutes:
Five rounds for time:
Three rounds of 21-15- and 9 reps, for time:
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