Why CrossFit Works for Me

By Deane Barker

I’ve waited a long time to write this.

I’ve been CrossFitting for almost two years now, and it’s been the most consistently successful exercise program I’ve ever been a part of. During that time, I’ve constructed and dismantled a dozen different theories to explain why, but I think I’ve only recently come to completely understand it.

Whether and why CrossFit works is different for everyone, but I’ve managed to boil it down to this:

  1. Less Control
  2. Greater Intensity

That’s it. CrossFit has removed control of my workout regimen from me, and it’s driven me to greater intensity than I ever could have by myself.

Less Control

I’ve spent the better part of my adult life in the gym in one form or another. I’ve run the gamut from being in generally good shape to being wildly out of shape. Up until CrossFit, I managed my own workout program – I decided when to workout, how to workout, and what to workout.

Part of my resistance to starting CrossFit was not wanting to give up this control. I had a palpable disdain for the idea of someone else telling me how to workout. Personal trainers seemed odd to me – why do you need someone else telling you what to do? Micro-managing my workout was a point of pride. I knew what was right for me, and I didn’t need any help like those silly peasants in exercise classes.

What I didn’t realize was that this was holding me back. Left to my own plans, my workouts stayed pretty much the same. I would fall into the same ruts over and over. I would hit the same plateaus and never break through them.

I was doing the same general routine for years: chest/shoulders/triceps one day, then back/biceps the next day, then legs. Even within the workouts: my basic chest/shoulders/triceps workout hadn’t changed in almost a decade.

The sad fact is that if we’re left to our own devices, we’re going to gravitate to the familiar and stay there. We’re going to work on what we feel comfortable working on, and we’re going to stay away from exercises that don’t make us happy at some level.

For the average gym rat, legs are not glamorous. When you’re looking at yourself in a mirror (which gym rats are prone to do), you tend to concentrate on what’s above the waist, so there’s a running joke in the weight lifting community about how empty the gym is on “Leg Day.” Working on legs feels awkward to a lot of people, and there’s little psychological reward to it, so it doesn’t get done.

But awkwardness moves you forward. Those exercises you hate? It’s probably because you need to get better at them. They work some aspect of your fitness that you’re subconsciously avoiding, so they’re the exact thing you should be doing in the gym. (Two eyes looking right at you, Thrusters. You too, Wall Walks.)

If you program your own workouts, you’re going to avoid this stuff. You’re going to stick with what you know, and what makes you feel good. Your comfort zone is a damn cozy place, and it’s a box that you’re not too quick to jump out of.

Sometimes, you gotta get pushed.

The human body is an amazingly adaptable instrument. Subject it to the same thing over and over again, and it adapts. Never change, and it adapts too well – it stops growing.

Muscle confusion is how you break that cycle. You have to keep your body guessing, and work it in ways that it’s not anticipating. Your workouts need to keep…mutating, over time, to stay one step ahead of how your body is trying to adapt.

This is what I was lacking. My body always knew what was coming. I was plateauing frequently. I hit walls that I was never going to get through.

CrossFit has forced me into such a broad, varied base of exercise that my body simply can’t adapt. The sadistic creativity of CrossFit never lets me get to a point where my body goes on cruise control. Almost every workout is different, so my body is learning to simply improve as much as possible because God only knows what’s coming next.

I tried to introduce a friend to CrossFit once, and he had a bunch of detailed questions about the workouts. Do they do Exercise X with this kind of focus? Do they allow Y days between this and that? And I don’t like doing Z after I do X, so can I avoid that? He was desperately trying to maintain control over his workout and center himself among a labyrinth of rules he had built up over two decades in the gym.

OMG – a CrossFit workout breaks some arbitrary rule that some guy once told you while resting 10 minutes between sets of bench press? How devastating for you. I’d spend more time mourning the crushing failure of it all, but I’m too busy being awesome. I know, let’s both sit on the couch and eat Cheetos while we talk about all these rules you have and how we can delicately thread ourselves in between them all like some perverted game of Workout Twister.

Sorry – that’s snarky. But it all seems so ridiculous now. It’s a lot of mental effort which ultimately produces no physical advantage.

The way you get strong is pretty simple: you pick up heavy stuff, put it down, and then do that over and over. Lather, rinse, repeat. The way you get stamina is also simple: you push yourself as hard as you can, then do that over and over. Lather, rinse, repeat. And you do all this in such a varied way that your body can’t get used to it.

All the advice, tutorials and blog posts in the world aren’t gonna change that. Left to your own devices, you’re probably over-thinking things and trying to avoid what your body really needs.

Greater Intensity

My first CrossFit workout was on my 41st birthday. It was “The Labor Day Chipper,” which I’m told was some variation on The Dirty Thirty. I remember standing in front of the white-board and thinking, “This is insane. What the hell is wrong with these people?”

But I did it.

Actually, I didn’t finish. I think I was on the last exercise when time ran out (Tyler forced me to scale both weight and reps, though, so it wasn’t even close to Rx). I was up at the front of the box when it ended. I remember I was doing overhead press. Time was called, and I dropped the weight (which was kind of fun – I had never used bumper plates before).

I turned around, and I’ll never forget what I saw – it was as if a massive wind had blown through the room and knocked everyone over. Shirts were off, puddles of sweat were everywhere, and people were spread eagle on the floor, chests heaving up and down. I think someone was dry-heaving.

(Then I saw Amy, my wife’s cousin and the woman who talked me into this mess. I flipped her off.)

In a traditional gym, people try to maintain a veneer of control. They sweat, sure, but they never completely lose control because it’s going to make the people around them uncomfortable. Try to get to that level at a traditional health club and someone is likely to stop you “for your own safety.” Grunting makes people skittish, to the point where Planet Fitness even has a “Lunk Alarm” which you can ring if someone is making too much noise while they workout. And just try taking your shirt off sometime…

(Remember, there are stickers on the machines that tell you to contact your doctor if you “experience discomfort.” How adorable is that?)

People go to a traditional gym for such a wide variety of reasons. Some are there because it’s fun, some because their friends are there, some to waste time, some because their doctor told them to, a lot because they want to look better in a bathing suit, and certainly some because they’re serious about getting better.

CrossFit is comprised almost totally of the latter. The emphasis at CrossFit is exclusively on improving performance. The only mirror at CrossFit Sioux Falls is the one in the bathroom. No one cares what you look like, only how you perform, or – more specifically – how serious you are at getting better.

Respect at the box is measured by consistency and effort. You’re simply expected to show up as often as you can, check your social grace at the door, and leave everything on the floor when the workout is done. If you’re not utterly wiped out when it’s over, then you didn’t work hard enough. Composure is the enemy that holds us all back.

And I’ve become convinced that it’s shared pain that gets us there. The whiteboard doesn’t play favorites – we all go through the same thing. The coaches are pleasant enough during warmups, but we know they’re gonna try to kill us all during the last 20 minutes of class.

That last 20 minutes of all CrossFit workouts (the “WOD”) is competitive. At some level, everyone wants to be the best.

But there’s something so much larger at work that it’s taken me almost two years to fully understand – what we all really want is to be part of the group. More specifically, we want to feel like we’re worthy of the group. Even more specifically, we want to live up to the unspoken standard of effort set by the group.

If I can see that Angie is giving everything she has out of the corner of my eye, I feel like I owe it to her to do the same. If I back off, then how is that fair to her? She gave everything she could, and how can I look her in the eye and fist bump when it’s over unless I do that too? I’d feel like a fraud.

Remember when I turned around at the end of my first workout and saw 30 people completely wiped out? Within a few minutes, they picked themselves up off the floor. There were knowing glances, smiles, high fives, and conversation. The group had undeniably bonded. They were in the same place, physically and mentally and – dare I say it – spiritually. They shared something, both from this workout and from all the workouts that came before it.

It was almost…tribal.

And this has continued for almost two solid years. If I let myself down, then I let the group down. I know that I’m not part of the group unless I go all the way to edge of my own personal abyss and look over. The tribal sense of community when the workout is over is earned only if you give everything you have while the clock is running.

We band together and feed off each other to get to this place. It’s never said out loud, but the group simply expects me to push myself as hard as I can. I want to live up to their expectations because I want to be part of the group. The group pushes me, and I, in turn, push the group. We drive each other forward in a positive feedback loop.

And this where the ratcheting up of intensity and the release of control come full circle and meet each other: by abandoning the big picture and letting myself be programmed by the coaches, I’m free to concentrate on the small picture – the individual workout. I’m no longer spending my workouts questioning about how it fits into some larger framework. Am I doing the right thing? Should I change my routine? What is that guy doing differently than me?

It. Doesn’t. Matter.

All that matters is how I perform in the workout I’m doing. I’ve learned to trust the coaches. If I concentrate on the current moment, and on doing the best I can in that moment, then the big picture will take care of itself.

I heard a quote recently from Will Smith (of all people) that beautifully illustrates the point:

You don’t set out to build a wall. You don’t say “I’m going to build the biggest, baddest, greatest wall that’s ever been built.” You don’t start there. You say, “I’m going to lay this brick as perfectly as a brick can be laid.” You do that every single day. And soon you have a wall.

Trying to exercise control over the entire wall prevents you from conjuring up the intensity needed to lay a single brick as well as it can be laid.

Less control, greater intensity.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

This is why CrossFit works for me