Cross-Training

Cross-Training and CrossFit Facts and Basics

An Overview of CrossFit

CrossFitters. You can probably pick devotees to this fitness trend out of a lineup. They have a certain look about them, what with their strong thighs, tapered waists, and muscular shoulders. They also throw around funny words like, "WOD" and "metcon," and they like to talk about people named "Murph" and "Fran." From an outsider's perspective, it all seems a little mysterious and seductive—a bit like watching the interactions of the "cool kids" during middle school lunch.

The good news is, if you want to take part in CrossFit, there's no reason not to go for it (even if you don't know what the above lingo means). CrossFit, on the whole, is incredibly inclusive, and enthusiasts are usually very willing and ready to welcome new members into the fold. 

It is helpful, though, to learn more about it and keep a few considerations in mind before signing up.

What Is CrossFit? 

CrossFit is the self-proclaimed "sport of fitness," and if you read the CrossFit website, they'd have you believe Greg Glassman, the organization's founder and CEO, "was the first person in history to define fitness in a meaningful, measurable way."

While it's true that Glassman may have come up with a more concise definition of "fit," specifically, "increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains," he didn't, actually, define fitness. Exercise scientists have long known that fitness is a balanced and measurable state of health that combines the five health-related components of fitness (muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and body composition) and the six skill-related components of fitness (agility, speed, balance, coordination, reaction time, and power.) 

CrossFit, as a workout and a sport, is designed to enhance all areas of fitness by focusing on functional movements, including gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing, and plyometrics.

CrossFit workouts are constantly varied, and exercises are performed at high intensities. The combination of these constantly varied, functional exercises performed at high intensities is what helps lead to the dramatic improvements in fitness associated with CrossFit.

However, there are two key words you must not lose sight of: Highly intense. 

CrossFit makes a big deal about how all of its workouts are scalable and appropriate for individuals of all fitness levels. While this may be true to a degree, it doesn't account for the fact that high-intensity training isn't everyone's cup of tea and may actually be detrimental for individuals with injuries or chronic illnesses. 

10 Things to Know About CrossFit

There are a lot of good things to say about CrossFit. Frankly, it wouldn't be as successful as it is, with more than 13,000 affiliated facilities worldwide, if it didn't resonate positively with a vast community of participants. But as with anything, some aspects about it may be a fit for you, while others may not be.

1. CrossFit Is More Than a Workout, It's a Culture

There's a reason CrossFit is commonly referred to as a "cult." CrossFit leadership has done an excellent job of developing culture and community within each gym and the wider organization, ultimately creating a force of dedicated disciples, all working together to defend the workout and bring more people into the fold.

While each facility has its own individuality, filled with different coaches, members, and, in some cases, equipment, there are features of all CrossFit gyms that can be considered defining elements of the organization's culture. For instance:

  • There's a certain pride around the rugged garage-style gyms, the tough workouts, and the "gut it out" effort required to complete each workout.
  • There's a shared vocabulary that only "those in the know," understand (see below).
  • There's the foundational belief that people of all abilities can benefit from CrossFit, further emphasized by the social interaction prevalent between members in and out of the gym.
  • There's the deeply-held belief that all members are there to improve their fitness. 

When you add all of that to the understanding that the community reaches deeper and farther than a single gym—that members can connect online and through local, regional, and national competitions, all through the shared medium of CrossFit—you've got a cultural force to be reckoned with. You don't just join a CrossFit gym, you join the CrossFit community

2. CrossFit Has Its Own Lingo

Gyms aren't actually called gyms, they're known as "boxes." Workouts aren't workouts, they're "WODs." If you don't want to feel overwhelmed before your first workout, you may want to brush up on some of the common CrossFit vocabulary: 

  • Box: A CrossFit gym
  • WOD: "Workout of the day"
  • AMRAP: "As many rounds as possible"
  • ATG: "Ass to grass," or a full-depth squat
  • For time: Seeing how fast you can complete a particular WOD
  • Metcon: Metabolic conditioning; typically a high-intensity interval workout designed to enhance endurance 

But that's just the start of it.

Workouts themselves have funny names, typically featuring girls' names, like "Fran," "Grace," "Angie," "Barbara," and "Diane." Other workouts are labeled "hero WODs" and are named for brave servicemen who lost their lives in the line of duty. 

You can brush up on your vocabulary before hitting a box by checking out the CrossFit website's FAQ page, or you can just hit the ground running, understanding it may take some time to learn and understand all the lingo. 

3. You're Paying for Group, Trainer-Led Workouts, Not Just Gym Access

True CrossFit boxes offer trainer-led CrossFit classes facilitated by CrossFit-certified instructors. While some boxes do offer open gym time, where members can access the facility and equipment on their own, the organization's culture is based on group classes where participants complete workouts together with the training and assistance of a coach. This leads to a team-like camaraderie among members, as well as the increased confidence of participants who have a coach there to correct form and provide encouragement.

Because you're paying for trainer-led classes, you can expect to pay more per month than you would for a traditional gym. Furthermore, that cost will not include the amenities of a traditional gym. Pricing for membership varies depending on location, but often ranges from $150 to $200 per month. This covers access to a bare-bones garage gym and your classes.

4. You'll Need to Master Traditional Lifts

CrossFit workouts are built around functional movements that rely on more traditional strength-training lifts. You won't find selectorized weight equipment at a CrossFit box. What you will find are a slew of pull-up bars, squat racks, bench presses, free weights, plyometric boxes, jump ropes, and rowing machines. Unless you're a free weight fanatic who is no stranger to Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting, you'll probably learn a few new exercises, like the clean and snatch. Some of the most common CrossFit exercises include:

5. CrossFit Workouts Are Intense

Just in case you missed this point earlier, CrossFit workouts are specifically designed for intensity. They often call for all-out effort based on time or repetitions.

While intense workouts can lead to positive physical adaptations, including improved fitness and body composition, when done too frequently or without a focus on form, they have the potential to lead to negative health outcomes including overtraining and injuries.

What you can expect from practically any intense workout is a serious case of post-workout delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMs. This type of soreness typically sets in a day or two after a tough workout and can remain for several days. While uncomfortable, the pain will pass without any long-term detrimental effects.

It's important to note, however, that extremely intense workouts can, in rare situations, lead to a serious syndrome called rhabdomyolysis, or "rhabdo." This is a condition in which muscle tissue breaks down, releasing its contents into the bloodstream. Left unchecked, rhabdo can lead to kidney failure, compartment syndrome, or permanent nerve damage.

Luckily,  rhabdo is a rare syndrome, and any overly intense workout has the potential to cause it, so CrossFit isn't alone in its potential for such a dramatic event. The takeaway is that you should approach intense workouts with self-awareness and listen to your body. 

6. You Can Expect Results

One thing's for sure: Individuals who consistently stick with CrossFit workouts do, in fact, see significant improvements in measures of fitness. 

Take, for instance, a 2013 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. It found that men and women spanning a broad range of fitness levels all saw improvements in VO2 max (a measure of cardiovascular endurance) and body composition after a 10-week, high intensity power training protocol modeled after CrossFit.

There's also a 2016 study from the International Journal of Exercise Science that indicates a single, CrossFit-style workout could lead to greater energy expenditure (calorie burn) than a single, traditional workout. A 2014 study from the same journal points to CrossFit's ability to enhance maximal strength to a greater degree than a more traditional workout program (although the researchers found that both programs yielded significant and similar improvements across all other markers of fitness). 

These are just a few of the studies pointing to CrossFit's measurable ability to improve overall fitness. 

Does this mean CrossFit's the best workout on the block? No, of course not. The best workout is the one you'll stick with consistently without succumbing to injury. For some people, this might be CrossFit, for others it might be cyclingbarre classrunning, or something else altogether That decision is ultimately up to you. 

7. You Might Not Lose Weight

If you're planning to join CrossFit for weight loss purposes, it's important to understand how CrossFit affects change in the body.  

While CrossFit absolutely can lead to weight loss (especially when paired with a healthy eating plan), due to the structure of the workout and its heavy focus on strength training, you may be more likely to experience body composition changes rather than changes on the scale. This is particularly true during the first few months of your program. 

To be clear, this is not a bad thing. 

Instead of losing pounds on the scale, CrossFit might help you lean out as you gain muscle and lose fat. If this happens, even though your weight doesn't change (or even if it increases), your body shape and size will change. Muscle is more dense than fat. That means that a pound of muscle gained will take up less space than a pound of fat lost. Without making one iota of a difference to your weight, your body is now more compact.

When it comes to health, it's more important to achieve a healthy body composition than a healthy weight. If one of your primary exercise goals for joining CrossFit is weight loss, you may be better served tracking body changes using a tape measure, rather than relying on a scale.

8. Injuries Can Happen

Buzz about CrossFit and CrossFit-related injuries practically go hand-in-hand—and for good reason. According to a 2014 study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, the overall estimated injury rate for CrossFit participants is roughly 20 percent. The study also found men were more likely to sustain injuries than women, and that when coaches were heavily involved in correcting poor form, injuries were less likely to occur. Importantly, most injuries were short-lived and relatively minor; injuries to the low back, shoulder, and knee were the most common.

The truth is, all physical activities run some risk of injury, and any high-intensity or high-impact activity increases the risk. You're certainly more likely to sustain an injury playing basketball than swimming laps. That said, it's possible to participate in CrossFit without getting hurt. If you focus on form, pay attention to your coaches, and listen to your body—scaling back exercises that don't feel quite right, or taking a break when you're especially tired—you're less likely to find yourself sidelined with a bum knee or shoulder. 

9. You Can Try the Workouts at Home

The CrossFit website features daily WODs that you can try at home or at your own gym, rather than a CrossFit box. You can even record your results online and compare them to the worldwide CrossFit community. 

This is a great option if you don't have a CrossFit box near you, or if coughing up the membership dues to a local box is outside your budget. Just remember—properly executing each move is the key to remaining injury free. Make sure you know how to do each move correctly before trying them with added weight or greater intensity. The CrossFit website also provides video tutorials for most common exercises.

10. You Can Become a CrossFit Competitor

Yes, just like there are the Olympic Games and the X Games, there are also the CrossFit Games. This serious competition starts with a local CrossFit Open held at affiliated boxes worldwide. Individuals who score well during the Open qualify for regionals. Ultimately, the top athletes from the regional events are invited to attend the Reebok CrossFit Games, a televised competition featuring the fittest men, women, teens, teams, and masters in the world, all battling it out for the title of "Fittest on Earth." 

Even if you don't think you can make it to the big show, anyone with a competitive spirit can get in on the action by participating in the Open events. 

Questions to Ask Your CrossFit Box Before You Sign Up

If you're ready to give CrossFit a try, consider asking these questions first:

  • Can I Observe or Try a Class First?
    It's always a good idea to watch a class before you make a long-term commitment. Or better yet, ask if the box has a "first class free" option so you can test-drive the workout yourself. When observing or participating, pay close attention to how often the coach corrects form and provides feedback to members. Because proper form is critical to an injury-free experience, you'll want to sign up at a box with trainers who are deeply committed to teaching proper form. 
     
  • Are There Intro Classes for Newbies?
    Given that form is critically important to the functional exercises featured in CrossFit, and proper form is only mastered through practice, it's a great idea to participate in an intro class if there's one available. Many CrossFit boxes offer these introductory classes for new members, and some boxes require new members to attend a series of classes before joining the standard workout. 
     
  • What Training Background and Certifications Do the Coaches Have?
    Whenever possible, look for CrossFit boxes that have coaches with a strong background in training and exercise science. The CrossFit Level 1 coaching certification requires nothing more than a weekend class before newly-minted trainers are cleared to teach classes of their own. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's certainly better if your coach has a higher-level CrossFit certification, additional, non-CrossFit certifications, or an education in exercise science or a related field. 
     
  • What Guidelines Are in Place for Scaling Workouts?
    CrossFit, as a whole, has guidelines for scaling workouts to make them accessible for all fitness levels, but that doesn't mean all trainers are inclined to help members scale routines. Ask how trainers are taught to help members choose the right modifications, weights, and exercises appropriate to their fitness level. 
     
  • What's the Social Atmosphere Outside of the Box?
    If socialization is a big reason you're looking to join CrossFit, it's important to ask about the clientele of the box and whether there's an established social culture. For instance, some boxes may cater more to young men, while others may cater to working parents. Because not all boxes are the same, you'll want to find one that has a member base and social atmosphere that aligns with your needs. 

A Word From Verywell

CrossFit is a well-established workout program that can absolutely improve your fitness and health, but be wary of indoctrinating yourself into the culture too quickly. If you're inclined to give the program a try, start slowly and focus first on mastering form, rather than amping up intensity. The intensity of your workout can be scaled over time, but only if you do what's necessary to stay injury-free. 

Sources:

Bailey B, Bruner M. "Investigating the Organizational Culture of CrossFit." Journal of Exercise, Movement, and Sport. http://www.scapps.org/jems/index.php/1/article/view/1157. Vol 47 No 1. 2015. 

Brisebois M, Biggerstaff K, Nichols D. "Aerobic Energy Expenditure Comparisons Between One Traditional and CrossFit-Based Exercise Session." International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings.. http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijesab/vol2/iss8/37/ . Vol 2 Iss 8 Article 37. 2016. 

Gerhart DH, Pasternostro Bayles M. "A Comparison of CrossFit Training to Traditional Anaerobic Resistance Training in Terms of Selected Fitness Domains Representative of Overall Athletic Performance." International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings. http://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijesab/vol9/iss2/26/. Vol 9 Iss 2 Article 26. 2014. 

Smith M, Sommer A, Starkoff B, Devor S. "CrossFit-Based High-Intensity Power Training Improves Maximal Aerobic Fitness and Body Composition." Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2013/11000/Crossfit_Based_High_Intensity_Power_Training.30.aspx . Vol 27 Iss 11 p 3159-3172. November 2013. 

Weisenthall B, Beck C, Maloney M, DeHaven K, Giordano B. "Injury Rate and Patterns Among CrossFit Athletes. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. http://ojs.sagepub.com/content/2/4/2325967114531177.short . Vol 2 No 4. April 2014. 

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