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A Beginner’s Guide to CrossFit

Starting any new exercise practice can be daunting, but entering a CrossFit box can be particularly nerve-wracking. It’s a community rife with demonstrations of hardcore feats of strength and endurance — and, worse, its members speak their own language. To better integrate you, here’s everything you need to know to begin your CrossFit life.

Are you ready to pull the trigger on a CrossFit gym membership, but the only thing you know about the program comes from 2012 Reebok CrossFit Games highlights or your CrossFit-obsessed officemate? There’s a lot more to consider, from how to avoid injuries to finding the perfect box for you, so to ease your transition, we’ve assembled this everything-you-need-to-know guide.

CrossFit’s Quirks

When attempting to integrate into any new community, it helps to understand a bit about its members and unspoken rules. Here’s a quick overview to some of CrossFit’s more unique aspects.

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WOD Words
CrossFit is full of its own lingo, and none is more important than or as simple as the “WOD” (Workout of the Day). Scribbled on whiteboards in CrossFit boxes across the country every morning, the WOD is likely the first thing you’ll look for when you walk into your new gym, and it’s what your body will remember on your way out. That workout will involve “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement” — the theory underpinning CrossFit that makes athletes better, faster and stronger  — and will be the focus of your training that day.

Other CrossFit words to live by:

The Girls: a series of iconic WODs, each given a girl’s name. When asked the reason, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman reportedly said: “Any workout that leaves you flat on your back, staring up at the sky, wondering what the hell happened deserves a girl’s name.”

Paleo: the favored diet of CrossFitters.; entails eating the way our cave-man ancestors did, so lots of meat and vegetables; no dairy, legumes or grains

Kipping: a small but powerful full-body movement originating in the hips; used to create momentum particularly as part of a pull-up

AMRAP: acronym for as many rounds (or reps) as possible; a common directive in WODs

Rx’d: prescribed; means that a workout was completed exactly as written

Mobility: distinct from flexibility; training to improve motor control and movement of the joints, enabling the body to reach full range of motion on all exercises

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Up the Intensity
Athletes new to CrossFit might be initially alarmed at the intensity level box members bring to workouts. As many WODs are a race against the clock and other members — it is the “sport of fitness,” after all — you’ll be asked to perform them at a high rate of speed and a high heart rate. Fostering this friendly competition between gym members will have you performing at a higher level than you thought possible.

Keep in mind, however, CrossFit is almost infinitely scalable, so that WOD designed for some of the top performers in your gym can and should be altered to fit your needs and current abilities.

Learning Curves
In the 2009 CrossFit Games, the men’s snatch event topped out at 240 pounds. This year, athletes reached 295 pounds in a Regional event. The lesson? Even CrossFit’s elite continue to learn and improve. Complex Olympic lifts and gymnastics moves aren’t mastered quickly, and many of the elite athletes are learning alongside or coaching the newest CrossFit members in local boxes all over the world.

CrossFit’s approach fosters a unique sense of community, so don’t be intimidated by the bulk, speed or beauty at your new box. They were all beginners at one time.

Pain Threshold
Because of the intensity and volume associated with CrossFit WODs, one big adjustment for new members is dealing with muscle soreness. Even those with an athletic or training background can take several weeks to acclimate to the new workload. Basic maintenance like ice packs, ibuprofen, fish oil and foam rollers (the latter two found in every CrossFit gym) will help get you through the early days.

Still hurting? Tweet your latest issue to @CrossFitProblms, an entertaining Twitter feed featuring the best and worst of, well, problems related to CrossFit, like “It’s easier to walk down the stairs backward because my quads are so sore.”

Choosing Your Box

“No CrossFit box is created equal,” says Zach Forrest, co-owner of CrossFit Max Effort, located just off the Strip in Las Vegas. “No CrossFit affiliate is alike.”

That can make choosing your box a difficult decision. Forrest, a former Navy SEAL operator, believes his coaching staff is the best in Las Vegas, but he still insists those interested in joining his gym try out as many of the six other CrossFit gyms in the area first. “If a coach has a good technical background but you don’t respond to his style, it doesn’t matter how knowledgeable that coach is,” says Forest. Put simply, you’ll get the best results from the coach you like the best.

You should also schedule time to talk with the coaches or owners about your own fitness goals and find out whether that gym is able to help you meet those goals. Some coaches, like Forrest, encourage members to focus on performing CrossFit WODs well and improving every day. “All the markers for health follow that improved performance,” Forrest says. “My goal is to get you as fit as possible, and how you look and feel will follow that.” If you’re looking for a classic CrossFit experience, with competition, speed and intensity, these are the types of programs you’ll enjoy.

There are other approaches, as well. Robb Wolf, co-owner of NorCal Strength & Conditioning in Chico, Calif., and author of The Paleo Solution, believes the most successful gyms offer a range of CrossFit-inspired classes, Olympic or powerlifting, and even personal training, to meet specific client needs.

“Box owners get so focused on the group model, they forget there is a way to get people through a program so that they build aptitude, improve and then move along to the next class level,” Wolf says. He compares this approach to a martial arts dojo, in which members work their way through skills and class levels, and believes it also keeps members from burning out on a single, if variable, program like CrossFit. “If they have a class to go to besides the intense beatdown CrossFit often provides, they stay around awhile,” he says.

Regardless of your own athletic background or ability, be sure your gym offers a dedicated introductory class so you’re not immediately thrown into that intense CrossFit fire.

Finally, let’s face it, the old real estate adage “location, location, location” applies to CrossFit, as well, and can have a lot to do with how effective a CrossFit program is for you. You’ll get the best results hitting the gym three to five times a week, and one nearby can help you get to your WODs more regularly. “If it’s right down the block and you get a good feeling when you go in, I say go for it,” Wolf says.

Rule #1: Be Nice

One of CrossFit’s most enticing selling points is the sense of community and camaraderie inherent in the type of work being done in your local box. By fostering competition, cooperation and a network of support within a gym, CrossFit adherents believe they’ve found a recipe for improving athletes beyond typical means. They’ve also created an incredibly fun place to work out.

Of course, no gym — CrossFit or otherwise — is completely free of idiots, muscleheads or giant egos, but by following a simple set of rules we’ve culled from affiliates across the country, you’ll ensure you won’t be one of them:

Keep it clean: CrossFit gyms are often big, open, Spartan areas, but they’re also very clean. Help keep them that way. Sweat, blood, gear, chalk and vomit may fly around the gym during a given WOD. If it’s coming from you, be sure to clean up after yourself and return equipment you were using to the racks. Bumper plates (rubber weights put on barbells) are admittedly fun to drop, but don’t make a habit of it because they won’t last forever and drops can still damage the expensive barbell.

Check your ego at the door: No matter what kind of shape you’re in, with its high intensity, complex movements and heavy loads, CrossFit will be difficult. Don’t get angry if the soccer mom or 16-year-old in your class posts a better time or heavier weight because the competition is also against yourself. Remember what you did and then smile while congratulating others on their spectacular performance. You might “win” next time.

Push yourself: You can only get stronger, faster and healthier if you continually add weight to your lifts and speed to your movements. Don’t compromise safety, but if you can perform a lift correctly, you can make that lift heavier. This can inspire others to push themselves, as well. Listen to your coaches, who will watch the form on your lifts and make corrections where necessary. If you’ve missed a rep because of bad form, repeat it.

Show support: Group classes create competition, but they shouldn’t create rivalries. Those in your class are struggling against the same weights and movements you are, so they’ll need as much help as you to get through the WOD. If you finish before someone, cheer him or her on or run a final leg with that person. Gather around if someone is going for a heavy personal record because the extra cheer can be the difference between making a lift or dropping the weight.

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CrossFit 101

Rather than throwing you right into CrossFit classes the very day you sign up at your box, your coaches will likely get you started in introductory classes to make sure you know how to safely execute the many CrossFit movements regularly seen in WODs. These include the more basic, yet critical, exercises like the squat, deadlift and press, as well as more complex Olympic weightlifting movements, including the clean and jerk and the snatch.

Most of these introductory offerings prepare you to perform these lifts through standard “On Ramp” classes lasting anywhere from four to 12 sessions. The movements get more complex as the sessions roll on, and they are typically incorporated into a short WOD at the end of each day. These WODs also increase in intensity and requirements as the introductory classes progress in an attempt to prepare you for standard CrossFit classes.

However, gyms can take different approaches to these introductions. For example, CrossFit Excel in Manteca, Calif., and CrossFit Threshold in Miami require just four classes across two weeks. After completing those classes, members can join in regular CrossFit sessions.

Other classes for new members, such as Functional Fitness offered at CrossFit New Albany in Ohio, are more comprehensive. Gym owner Ralph Hicks recently introduced these sessions, making them and Olympic lifting classes a requirement for all new members. New members must learn to perform the basic movements and complete WODs effectively and safely. If you struggle, you won’t advance into the main CrossFit classes. (Functional Fitness fees are also lower than regular CrossFit classes.)

Hicks developed the Functional Fitness concept in response to the number of new members who would come into the box trying to do too much to keep up and compete in the daily WOD. They’d either burn out or get injured performing movements incorrectly. “I don’t care if they’re in Functional Fitness for six months or a year,” Hicks says. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so in 18 months, they’ll ultimately be in much better shape than they would be without the classes.”

Meanwhile, the classes fulfilled a second purpose: introducing soccer moms, those less interested in daily competition and anyone otherwise intimidated by the intense nature of CrossFit to the CrossFit world. They can participate in the community, get the flavor of CrossFit but not be overwhelmed by the sweat and intensity. “We’ll help prepare you for our main CrossFit class, but there are those who don’t ever want to go there. I’m fine with that,” Hicks says.


Do No Harm

Performing any intense activity three to six times each week will certainly increase the odds of injury — 90 percent of marathon runners, for example, are sidelined at some point. But if you’re smart about your CrossFit training and the preparation you and your coaches put in before and after workouts, you’ll dodge a dreaded injury that could set training back for weeks.

First, be smart about scaling your daily workout to your abilities. Coaches will initially help you decide what weights and movements to alter, but after several months, you should be able to determine what you need to achieve in a particular WOD and how proficient you are at different movements. Most gyms offer warm-ups that work on movements found in the WOD, so use that time to hone your skills and begin thinking about what weight you will use rather than blindly following the weight posted for the day.

A second, more amorphous suggestion is to listen to your body. In other words, if something doesn’t feel right or normal, it could be an injury waiting to happen. Though it can be incredibly difficult to slow down or stop in the middle of a competitive WOD, it’s often best for your long-term health to take a moment to evaluate your movement and your pain, determining whether it’s a serious threat or simply part of the everyday pain of a WOD.

Finally, and most important, you should perform mobility drills and exercises to help in recovery, range of motion and preparation for WODs. By now, most CrossFit gyms have time set aside for MobilityWODs, but if yours doesn’t, be sure to check out mobilitywod.com. The brainchild of Kelly Starrett, the frenetic physical therapist to the CrossFit world, “Kstar” has built a YouTube empire dedicated to stretching, movement, self-help and self-repair. His mission, he has said, is to make stretching sexy again. Each day, Starrett treats his “Mwodies” to a brief, descriptive, often entertaining video hammering one of the many problem areas CrossFitters and other athletes deal with on a daily basis. Knees, hips and shoulders get a lot of attention, but ideas like core stability, thoracic positioning and ankle flexibility can help turn a dangerously inefficient movement into a major source of power.

In the introduction to his site, Starrett says it’s a “jump-off point for athletes to systematically begin to address their nasty tissues and grody joint mobility,” thereby putting the power to avoid and treat injury directly in the hands of athletes. And this seems to be the core theory driving the popularity of his mobility project: “You should be responsible for your own business,” Starrett writes. Spend about 10 minutes each day working on mobility drills to take care of yourself, and CrossFit will take care of you.

Categories: Crossfit Box 101.

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2 Responses

  1. I have tried to order the annual subscription to “The Box Magazine”, however it continues to error out. How do I get that ordered.

    Kris Gaw11/10/2012 @ 4:30 pm

Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] founder Greg Glassman reportedly said: “Any workout that leaves you flat on your back, staring up at the sky, wondering what the hell [...]

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