Doing CrossFit

By Deane Barker

There’s a scientific property called “emergence.” It says that some things only exist when a sufficient number of smaller things individually combine to create them.

Wetness, for example. Wetness isn’t an actual thing. It’s hard to put boundaries around when we can say something is “wet.” No single water molecule is wet. Neither are two molecules, or three, or four. But get a bunch of them together, and eventually, something becomes wet. Wetness is a property that “emerges” from smaller things acting together.

Some things just don’t make sense in isolation, but when you take a longer view, they become something larger. Put your nose all the way up to a painting, and the individual brush strokes seem random. Step back and it becomes clear that they were all made in service of a larger image.

What does that have to do with CrossFit?

Like wetness, CrossFit isn’t really a thing. If you look closely at the individual things people do in a CrossFit gym, there’s nothing that “is” CrossFit. Is a push-up “CrossFit”? It feels dumb even writing that. How about a squat? Or jumping rope?

No. Rather, CrossFit is something that emerges from an aggregation of these smaller things, and this makes it interesting.

Consequently, I always find exchanges like this odd:

“So, what do you do for exercise?”

“I do Crossfit.”

What does that even mean – “do CrossFit”? How does someone do CrossFit?

The fact is, Crossfit is everything…and nothing. So much so, that it can be hard to put your finger on it. The boundaries around it get blurry. It’s really a philosophy, a methodology, an attitude, and a community.

What Crossfit isn’t is a “system.” It’s not a set of exercises or some patented method of working out. It doesn’t require any special equipment, and a CrossFit gym is called a “box” because it’s just a big open space with some simple equipment. Calling it a “box” is less hipster trendy, and more blatantly descriptive.

CrossFit doesn’t really lay claim to anything. Rather, it borrows dozens of things from other fitness domains and combines them. The thing that emerges is what we call CrossFit, more for convenience than anything else.

To say “I do CrossFit” is really to say “I do a lot of stuff combined in all sorts of weird ways.”

I browsed back through the last couple of weeks of workouts at CrossFit Sioux Falls. Here’s what we did, in no particular order.

  • Running
  • Pull-ups
  • Wall balls
  • Power cleans and snatches
  • Burpees
  • Rowing
  • Sit-ups
  • Barbell squats
  • Box jumps

Question: what in that list is “CrossFit”? Barbell squats are perhaps the most basic lifting movement. Cleans and snatches are from Olympic weightlifting. Running, rowing, and burpees are simple cardio. Pull-ups and sit-ups are classic bodyweight movements. Wall balls are plyometrics.

Look at any one of these in isolation, and it could fit into dozens of different workout styles and methodologies. There’s no one single thing that we do that someone can step back and say, “Yeah, they’re totally doing CrossFit right now.”

I actually got to wondering the other day, what is a movement that is quintessentially “CrossFit”? What is something I never saw before I started CrossFit?

This was a harder question than I expected.

  • I had never done a thruster before I came to CrossFit, but it’s really just a combination of a front squat and a push press (it seems to annoy people when I say thrusters are “just a really deep push press,” but that’s what they are)
  • CrossFit burpees are different than most, in that we go flat on the ground, but I did something very similar in the Marine Corps
  • I had never done a muscle up, but gymnasts have been doing these for years, and I swear girls used to do bar muscle-ups on the high bar at the playground in grade school (I should have appreciated it more back then)
  • I had never done an overhead squat, but this is really just the tail-end of a snatch
  • I had never done a kipping handstand push-up
  • I had never done a pistol (a one-legged squat; and, given my proportions, I still haven’t done one…)

That’s about it. I had done most all the pieces before. I had just never put them all together.

There are just three basic categories of things we do in CrossFit:

  • Strength
  • Endurance
  • Skill

Everything fits into one of those boxes, usually more than one. A muscle-up takes both strength and skill. A heavy back squat clearly takes strength, but you’d be amazed how hard these get when you run out of oxygen. Combining multiple kipping pull-ups together is tricky from a coordination and timing standpoint, and higher-rep pull-ups turns into cardio in a hurry.

So, other than the handful of new movements, what’s different about CrossFit than anywhere else?

  • CrossFit is at a higher intensity than anything else I’ve ever done. The hardest workout of my life before CrossFit was maybe 80-85% of what I did the first day I set foot in CrossFit Sioux Falls. The workouts are shorter, but far more intense. (I maintain that this keeps CrossFitters humble. It’s hard to be arrogant when every workout absolutely destroys you.)
  • The community at most CrossFit gyms is far stronger than other gyms, in my experience. Dragging myself out of bed every morning is easier because I get to hang out with people I like. You never suffer alone, and there’s always a fist bump waiting at the end.
  • CrossFit is competitive, both with others and with yourself. There’s a sport to it, but even for people who never compete, CrossFit is about getting better against yourself. It’s about constantly moving forward when measured against objective standards like time, weight, and rep count.

So, is that it? If we’ve established that the actual movements and activities are nothing original, are the three points above how we “do CrossFit”? More intensity, more community, and a different attitude?

I don’t have any clear answers, but here’s the larger point –

CrossFit is nothing new. Given the hype and the branding, it’s tempting to think that CrossFit is some magic system, but it’s not at all. It’s the exact opposite of this. If you come in looking for some secret sauce, you’re going to be disappointed.

CrossFit is just a collection of things that people have been have been doing for decades, with the intensity turned way up. On some days, you may as well have walked into a PE class from the 1950s.

In the end, CrossFit is just…well, fitness. CrossFit is a thing that emerges from the combination of dozens of other things. It’s not a fad that will pass, it’s not a trend that will die out, it’s just basic physical fitness that’s been given a brand and an identity. It’s almost boring.

Maybe someday, it won’t be called “CrossFit.” But it will still exist. What we call it is just a detail.

And this is important because when it comes to the business of fitness, someone is always trying to sell you something. There’s always a system, a method, or some combination of chemicals that will “change everything.” And these things always come with a price tag and ridiculous promises.

Call me a cynic, but this is what I believe – there are no more revolutions; there are no more breakthroughs. The principles of fitness and nutrition are pretty well-known. But given the average person’s tendency toward lethargy, we’ll continue to try and find some magic angle around the laws of physics and physiology that will allow to have our cake and eat it too (often, quite literally).

I’m going on my ninth year at CrossFit Sioux Falls. I doubt I will workout anywhere else. But if I do, I’m quite sure I’ll still be doing the same things I do today.

If you’ve never “done” CrossFit before, you’ll find that it’s not complicated – you kick your own ass doing things that humans have been doing for years. Then you come back and do it again the next day. You keep doing that until it gets easier, then you make it a little harder, and you climb that mountain again.

And you keep doing that. Forever.

That’s the only way you “do” CrossFit.


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