CrossFit: A Gentle Introduction

By Deane Barker

If you already know all about CrossFit, then this article isn’t for you. Well, not directly for you – it’ll actually be really handy for you to send to people who ask you, “what’s that CrossFit all about?”

This is meant to be a lightweight introduction to CrossFit. I have a follow-up article coming in a couple weeks which a more detailed introduction into CrossFit Sioux Falls in particular and how a specific class looks, but in this article we’re going to talk about the idea of CrossFit in general, why it works, and what makes it different.

I’m not an employee of CrossFit or of CrossFit Sioux Falls. I’m just a near 43-year-old father of three who has been CrossFitting for two years. (Consequently, there are some opinions in here. Sue me.)

Here we go –

The Basics

“CrossFit” is really three things:

  • CrossFit is a workout philosophy and methodology that emphasizes high-intensity, combinatorial, functional exercise.
  • CrossFit Inc. (sometimes called “HQ”) is a company founded in Southern California back in the 90s. It promotes CrossFit the philosophy, trains and licenses CrossFit gyms, and organizes the CrossFit Games every year.
  • CrossFit Sioux Falls (CFSF) is a specific CrossFit gym in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (my gym, in fact)

That explanation may sound pedantic, but it’s important. Henceforth, when I say “CrossFit,” I mean the philosophy. When I say “CFSF,” I mean my gym. Or your gym. Or any gym, really. The point I’m trying to make is that CrossFit the Philosophy is a separate thing than CrossFit the Company and A CrossFit Gym In Your City.

CrossFit Inc. has a loose relationship with its affiliate gyms. They all pay a licensing fee to use “CrossFit” in their name, and the coaches are all certified by CrossFit Inc. However, each gym is free to implement and interpret CrossFit as they see fit.

So, if CrossFit exists apart from a gym, can you do CrossFit without a gym? Sure, to some extent. CrossFit is a set of common movements and methodologies, and you could conceivably do this in your basement or garage with great result. There are places where you can find equipment to build your home gym such as slam balls / TRX Training along with other places could be a good place to start. What you would lose is the programming, coaching, and social aspects of belonging to a gym (more on that below).

The philosophy/gym dichotomy means that praise and criticism of CrossFit can be categorized two ways:

  1. Of CrossFit, the philosophy and methodology
  2. Of a specific gym

Like anything, some gyms are mediocre, some are terrible, and some are fantastic. So it goes.

I find that most criticisms of CrossFit fall into the latter group – people get frustrated with something dumb that a particular gym or coach did, and they unfairly extrapolate that to CrossFit in general and even project it onto other gyms. This sucks because some bad apples make everyone look bad, but such is life.

CrossFit works on a class model – CFSF offers scheduled CrossFit classes, multiple times a day. You workout as a group, under the guidance of at least one coach, and often two of them. You don’t just come and randomly workout on your own at CFSF. There are a few designated “open gym” times during the week where you can do just that, but most everyone attends scheduled classes.

Most CrossFit gyms are fairly purpose-built. CFSF, for example, is not a “health club,” it’s a gym. There are no showers, no lockers, and no mirrors outside the bathroom. It’s small, it’s hot, there’s chalk everywhere, and the paint is chipping off the walls in places. It’s less Beverly Hills and more…Rocky. If it’s important to you that your gym is pretty, then CFSF probably isn’t for you. Perhaps CrossFit isn’t either because CrossFit gyms are generally not designed for comfort.

(I once had a fantastic workout at CrossFit Warehouse outside Chicago. Near as I could tell, the entire gym was built into a rental storage unit. CrossFit Portland was a bit more elaborate, but was essentially an old truck loading facility in an industrial park.)

CrossFit gyms exist on an informal scale of “purity.” Some teach CrossFit classes as just one of a bunch of different types of exercise – they may be a full-blown health club that teaches CrossFit in among Zumba and Pilates. Other gyms are very pure, meaning they do nothing but CrossFit. CFSF is that type of gym – it exists for CrossFit and nothing else.

It’s also worth noting that there’s an element of competition to CrossFit. The CrossFit Games is the annual, global competition of CrossFit athletes. It’s preceded by The Open and Regionals – about four months of the year is spent working through the various brackets until the actual Games in late July. In addition, there are other, independent competitions all over world.

CrossFit gyms will vary in how much they care about competition. CFSF is very competitive. CFSF has sent athletes – individuals and teams – to the Regionals in Chicago every year I’ve been a member (Zak Carchedi placed 8th of 44 in 2014; Mary Theobald placed 14th in 2013).

While most people are at CFSF (and CrossFit itself) to simply stay in shape, there are a handful of extremely competitive athletes that train there, specifically to compete in The Games and other events.

Why is CrossFit Different?

CrossFit can be weirdly hard to explain because it’s nothing new. There is no secret to CrossFit – no magic voodoo that makes it different. In fact, I don’t think any single movement in CrossFit is out of the ordinary. We’re essentially doing Olympic weightlifting, calisthenics, and some gymnastic-ish movements. All of these things have been around for decades.

So, why does it work so well? A lot of reasons –

CrossFit is basic

There’s no special equipment or methodology. CrossFit is about pushing yourself hard – lifting heavy weight, doing hard cardio. CrossFit doesn’t get lost in esoteric theory and the fad of the day. CrossFit is pure, basic, physical fitness.

There’s minimal equipment at CrossFit. There’s an elaborate pull-up rig, but little else besides bars, jump ropes, and weights. Notably, there are no machines. In fact, when I have to work out in a “regular” gym when I travel, I almost get confused by all the equipment (you’ll find me on the floor next to the bench press, doing push ups).

The current exercise industry chases fads around, or creates new ones to sell you things. While some people have labeled CrossFit as just such a fad, I couldn’t disagree more. CrossFit is the anti-fad – it’s a return to basic physical fitness, without frills or complication.

CrossFit is balanced

As a kid, my favorite event in the Olympics was the decathlon – this is where athletes competed in 10 events over two days (remember Bruce Jenner, before he was a Kardashian?). The runners had endurance, and the weightlifters had strength, but the decathletes had it all.

CrossFit is the same way. They have 10 principles of fitness (PDF), and they’re trying to improve you across the board. They don’t want you to be the strongest, or have the most endurance or even the best balance – they want you to have a good mix of all of them.

I grew up in the 80s, and I remember the “cross-training” craze. Remember Bo Jackson? Bo knows cross-training. Bo knew a little of everything. CrossFit is the same idea. Life is physically demanding in so many dimensions, and CrossFit wants you to better at all of them.

The athletes at The Games are amazing in this respect. You’ll find guys who can swim 1,000 yards and run a 5K in the 95th percentile, then turn around and walk 100 yards on their hands right before they squat 500 pounds. The breadth of skill and capability they possess is just breathtaking. There is no specialization. (Watch this highlight reel from the 2014 Games to get an idea of all the different things they have to be good at.)

CrossFit is popular with the military, police, and fire/rescue for precisely this reason. In those occupations, you have no control over the situations you’re going to be thrust into, so you have to be ready for anything. CrossFit aims to prepare you for the unknown.

(The picture below is a great example. I took this at the Fittest of the Falls competition. The guy in the foreground is walking on his hands. In the background, you can see a couple people hanging from the bar and swinging up their legs to touch their toes to it, and a woman on the far left (in orange) is squatting while holding a bar overhead. That’s an enormous amount of exercise diversity in a single photo, and this was just one event in a broader competition.)

CrossFit is intense

There’s a good chance that CrossFit will push you harder than you’ve ever been pushed. You have mental blocks that CrossFit will effectively tear down.

I maintain that a human being will only get to about 85% of their maximum capacity by themselves – your self-preservational instinct to avoid pain just won’t let you over that threshold. The group and coaching dynamics of CrossFit can get you across it. You’ll find yourself doing things that you never thought you could do.

I’ve written at length before about how the class pushes you to go further. You’ll get closer to your personal limits than you might ever have gotten before. You just might amaze yourself.

Intensity is one of the things I think you’d lose if you did CrossFit on your own. The group dynamics of a workout are critical to pushing your limits, and the larger social aspect of the gym community pushes you to stay consistent over time.

CrossFit is programmed

The workouts aren’t random. They’re programmed by a head coach at CFSF.

You go through cycles – you might see the same types of exercises showing up on the whiteboard for six weeks or so. This is a programming cycle. Then you’ll do something else for a week (a “deload week”), then launch into a new cycle.

There’s a method behind the madness, and, in this sense, CrossFit is less like just randomly working out, and more like having a fractional personal trainer watching over what you’re doing.

This programming means you can’t hide from things you don’t like. Hate squats? Tough. Don’t like burpees? Suck it up, princess. The whiteboard at the front of the class doesn’t play favorites, and it doesn’t care what types of exercise you secretly try to avoid.

CrossFit is coached

Each class has a professional coach – often two of them. They give you significant instruction, no matter what you’re doing or how many times you’ve done it. Yes, remedial snatch training might seem a little tedious sometimes, but it’s good to know what you’re doing when you’re getting a barbell up over your head.

You’re never just out on your own. If you have a question, ask. If you want to really work on something, come in sometime during open gym. Each open gym session is staffed with a coach who can work with you.

This is one of the things that varies considerably from gym to gym. CFSF has a fantastic group of coaches that care deeply for their members. They’ll take extra time to teach you things, and they’ll stop you if you’re doing something stupid. Not every gym is like this – just like everything, there are some stupid people out there (and, thanks for YouTube, it’s easy for these stupid people to make everyone look bad).

CrossFit is functional

In CrossFit, the muscle is not the point. The movement is the point. You don’t work on muscles in CrossFit, you work on movements.

For example, at a traditional gym, they might show you an exercise that isolates your shoulders and tell you “this will make it easier for you to lift things over your head.” At CrossFit, you just lift things over your head.

It took a while for me to notice, but we never work out our biceps directly at CrossFit. In a traditional gym, standing in front of a mirror doing bicep curls is almost a requirement. At CrossFit, the only way our biceps get worked is by doing pull ups (strict, kipping, and ring rows). Like everything else, biceps are worked as a byproduct of a movement. (In fact, here’s an article about exactly that: The Arms Race and Olympic Lifting (PDF); PDF.)

That’s why most every movement at CrossFit is combinatorial. You don’t workout muscles in isolation, rather you work out combinations of muscles as part of a functional movement. Why? Because this is how you move around in the real world.

You’d never get into a leg machine and move it around in some bizarre, unnatural way to work some single muscle to make you better at squatting. You just squat. Life isn’t lived in a machine – life is lived on your own two feet, so you should learn to perform that way.

CrossFit is varied

You never fall into a rut. Every workout is different, and part of the fun is just showing up and seeing what crazy thing they have for you today.

Your body can’t plateau because it constantly has to adapt to new things. You might do a certain movement or workout consistently for weeks, then not see it again for months. (It’s worse for competitors at The Games. They find out about a lot of the workouts just minutes before they have to do them, so they can’t specialize their training.)

Not only does CrossFit vary exercises, but (at CFSF at least), they’ll vary the movements themselves by breaking them down. One day we might do snatches just from position one, which completely changes the dynamics of it (you have very little time to drop under the bar). Or they might break off just the jerk, without the clean, which lets you concentrate on part of the movement.

Since you never know what’s coming, you can’t hide from workouts or movements you don’t like, and you can’t use things you find easy as a crutch. You have to be ready for anything.

CrossFit is competitive

As I mentioned earlier, there is a competitive aspect to CrossFit. The CrossFit Games are the Olympics of the sport.

There’s an Open competition leading up to it that anyone can enter. One workout is released per week for five weeks. CFSF usually has several dozen people enter the Open, and the workout heats are held on Saturdays in the early spring. It’s a total gas to come watch.

(If you want a taste of it, here’s Zak doing “14.4” – so-named because it’s the fourth workout of the 2014 Open. Athletes competing for a spot at regionals have to turn in videos of their workouts, like this one. Zak would go on to place 8th in Chicago.)

There are smaller, regional events, like The Granite Games up in St. Cloud, and CFSF even runs The Fittest of the Falls here in Sioux Falls which brings in athletes from all over the region. Plus, there are a couple “throwdowns” every year in the gym itself, just for members.

Even if you never compete, it’s fun to watch. The Games are streamed on the Internet in late July.

CrossFit is scalable

Each workout has a prescribed weight, movement, or reps (called “Rx”). If you can’t do it, just do something else.

There’s generally accepted “swappable” movements, and you’re welcome to move around less weight if what they’ve prescribed is too heavy. No one wants to see you get hurt, and if you can get a solid workout doing something else, that’s just fine.

My right knee has been unstable since high school. If the class is ever doing something involving weighted lunges or lunging to the side, you’ll find me doing squats holding a 45-pound weight. I don’t check with anyone, I just do it. So long as you’re doing something to keep working, no one cares.

It’s inspiring to see the range of athletes co-existing at CFSF. You have 20-something competitors right alongside (literally) 50-somethings just trying to stay in shape. Respect is measured on effort and consistency. All that’s asked of you is that you show up for the workout and leave everything you have on the floor, whatever that might be for your age, skill, and fitness level.

CrossFit has objective standards

Clearly, this is not specific to CrossFit – almost every sport has objective standards. Runners have distances (5K, 10K), weightlifters have weights (a 300 lb. bench press), even baseball players have achievements (a no hitter).

But at CrossFit, you’re constantly working in relation to these standards. They provide a larger context to what you come into the gym to do.

CrossFit has named workouts – they’re either named for women (“the girls”), or for actual U.S. soldiers killed in action (“the heroes”). Some of these workouts approach legendary status – ask any veteran CrossFitter what their “Fran time” is, and they’ll probably be able to tell you (mine sucks, thanks for asking).

At CrossFit, you keep track of your capabilities across dozens of standards, and achieving a new PR (personal record) is cause for celebration. I have a file in Evernote with my PRs for about 20 different movements and standards – anything from named workouts, to the number of unbroken burpees I can do, to my max single-rep weight for a front squat. Likewise, after a workout, you’ll see lots of people pull out their notebooks.

CrossFit is about making continuous progress against these standards. Keeping track of them keeps you accountable to them. You’ll push yourself harder with these standards in the back of your head – wanting to chip away at my Nancy time keeps me going, both going to the gym regularly, and going as hard as I can during a tough workout.

CrossFit is social

This one may seem odd after all the talk about intensity and competitiveness, but it’s not something to overlook. It’s important in both the small and big pictures.

For a specific workout, you won’t sit around a talk the entire hour, but a fair amount of catching up happens during warmups. If you’re consistent about a particular class, you start to know the regulars. There’s about a dozen of us that always work out at 5:30 in the morning, and there’s a comforting routine to seeing us all trickle in while it’s still dark out.

In a larger sense, you’ll learn people’s names, you’ll learn about their lives, and you’ll see them outside the workouts – a couple BBQs a year, the Christmas party, maybe a Superbowl party, etc. In addition to being a gym, CFSF is a community.

I spent two years working out at a big health club right before I joined CFSF. I never knew anyone’s name. But the first time I missed a week of CrossFit because of a cold, I got messages on Facebook asking me where I was and if I was okay. I’ve made some great friendships at CFSF that go way, way past just working out together.

You might think, “I’m not joining a gym to make friends.” That’s fine, but you’d be surprised at how far it goes when you’re having a crappy week and you don’t feel like working out. Staying in shape can be hard, and it’s easier when you’re not walking that road alone.

This short video is a great example. This is from a competition at CrossFit 781 just outside Boston. Just watch it to understand the level of respect and support that exists at most CrossFit gyms. Here’s another angle on the same moment, which includes the massive group hug at the end. You just don’t get this everywhere.

Not enough? Here’s a touching article about how a CrossFit gym embraced the special needs sister of one of their members.

I never realized how much traditional gyms lack a sense of togetherness until I started CrossFit. The personal interaction at my CrossFit gym has made a huge difference in my life. […] One of the coaches that was there doing some construction on the new wing that night took it upon himself to look out for her. He made sure she had water if she was thirsty, and when her iPod died he brought over an extension cord and a charger so she could keep playing her game.

I’m not saying that no other gym on Earth is like this. But I’ve worked out for extended periods at probably 10 different gyms in my life, and I’ve never felt community like at CFSF.

(And, yes, some people have called CrossFit “a cult.” Whatever. If being in the greatest shape of my life at 42 while being surrounded by friends means that I joined a cult, then more people should join cults. Bite me.)

A Final Word

I often joke that I love CrossFit like a fourth child. However, the truth is maybe even more dramatic: I believe in CrossFit – I believe in the change that it has delivered in the lives of a lot of people.

But I’m also a realist: there are many ways to fitness, and CrossFit is just one of them. It may not work for you, which is fine. If this isn’t for you, find something that is. Define what you believe fitness to be, and then pursue that.

CrossFit has defined “fitness” as:

Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains.

(If you want 10 pages of documentation around that definition, here you go: What is Fitness? (PDF))

This overlaps quite nicely with my personal definition of fitness. I want to be capable of increased physical effort in unpredictable circumstances and timeframes (refer back to my admiration of decathletes). Essentially, I want to survive the impending zombie apocalypse, and Lord only knows what that’s gonna take.

This definition might not work for you. For you, fitness might mean just running long distances. If so, then I suggest you skip CrossFit, buy a good pair of shoes, and run until the soles come off.

But if you’re looking for fitness that’s applicable to a wide range of situations, and you want to do something fun, challenging, and with a great sense of community, then CrossFit might be exactly what you’re looking for.