Maybe you’ve seen the Reebok commercials featuring ultra-fit 20-somethings sprinting and throwing weight around, jumping and sweating. Or perhaps you’ve driven by the local CrossFit gym where the muscled, shirtless specimens lie writhing on the ground after a particularly grueling circuit. It all looks very intimidating, but there’s something missing from this hardcore fitness vision: CrossFit is trying very hard to be — and can be — for everyone.
Those with even a bit of athletic experience have a real shot to excel in the CrossFit world, in which conditioning, bodyweight exercises and weightlifting are often combined into a single Workout of the Day (aka WOD). More important, these WODs are designed to be infinitely scalable, so you don’t need to be built like Hulk or run like the Flash to complete the day’s programming. A good CrossFit trainer knows his or her members and will easily scale down (or up) a workout based on abilities, placing everyone in the group on a competitive level.
Whether you’re an experienced weightlifter, runner, gymnast, yoga enthusiast or simply a weekend warrior, CrossFit boxes across the country have seen athletes like you do quite well. And even if you’re not willing to completely abandon your current fitness regimen, spending a day or two a week training in a CrossFit box can only enhance your skills and conditioning, making you that much more proficient in your chosen fitness field. So are you ready to take the leap into a brand-new type of training? Here’s what you’ll need to know.
Those coming from a weightlifting background, whether it’s powerlifting, Olympic lifting or even a standard gym-based circuit, have two big advantages walking into a CrossFit affiliate. First, you’ll have a built-in strength base from which to draw when hitting the WOD. Whether it’s strength-only or a conditioning day, CrossFit workouts typically incorporate weight training into a session. Second, you’ll bring a valuable set of skills to the CrossFit box. “If you understand how to properly do things like bench, squat, deadlift and military-press, you’ll pick up the CrossFit skills much, much faster,” says Zach Even-Esh, owner of the Underground Strength Gym in Edison, N.J., and a CrossFit-certified instructor. “Teaching someone to squat or power clean is tough, so if you have that as your foundation, you’ll also make the transition into the [conditioning] stuff more easily.”
That conditioning is likely the biggest hurdle for lifters, especially coming from a strength-based program with little or no focus on high-intensity training. Moving heavy weight at a high heart rate can be shocking initially, but if you and your CrossFit coaches are patient in developing that new area, you’ll enjoy a more balanced and developed athleticism than you get from weight training alone.
And don’t worry, you won’t be bored. There are still be plenty of CrossFit-centric skills to learn, like kipping pull-ups, rope climbs, rowing and box jumping. “You’ll love learning these new skills, too,” Even-Esh says.
Because many CrossFit WODs include running — typically of distances between 400 and 5,000 meters — runners also bring a unique set of talents to the CrossFit box, most of which will help in taking on the new program. A good runner will have the capacity to maintain solid running form and speed even as he or she tires rather than shuffling through the running portion of a workout. And you’ll live for the days your coaches program a running-only workout.
There is also a familiar link between endurance training and many of CrossFit’s most brutal workouts. “Mentally, runners understand endurance, suffering and perseverance,” says Brian MacKenzie, founder of the CrossFit Endurance program. “All things that will be needed for CrossFit.”
Running is also a solitary sport in which your competing mainly against your own times but also against other race participants. CrossFit workouts are similarly designed, inducing competition between and among gym members. If you’ve ever attempted to set a personal record in a race, you’ll bring a degree of intensity to a CrossFit program that many athletes don’t initially understand they’ll need.
Unfortunately, many runners do lack experience in weightlifting. And because running is often your only focus, you may not have the core stability or overall motor skills required to complete a lift efficiently. That means you can expect to spend a lot of time challenging your body to learn an entirely new muscular skill set.
Fortunately, the traits you’ll be picking up are key not only to CrossFit but also to most athletic pursuits. Yes, even running. Especially running. By attacking your weaknesses, you’ll get stronger, your mechanics will improve with those motor skills, and you’ll likely become a faster runner as a result.
“The learning curve for a gymnast is much shorter than for other athletes coming in,” says Carl Paoli, founder of GymnasticsWOD.com and Naka Athletics, and a CrossFit strength-and-conditioning coach.
What further evidence, admittedly anecdotal, do you need than that embodied by 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games champion Annie Thorisdottir? A former elite gymnast, Thorisdottir qualified for the Icelandic national team when she was 15 years old, and she was named “fittest on earth” last year, taking home $50,000 from the Reebok CrossFit Games.
Gymnasts typically have a successful transition because they understand body movement, Paoli says. Former gymnasts seem to have an innate ability to know the position the body must be in to apply the maximum force to lift weights, complete a box jump or myriad other CrossFit-centric exercises. “You’ve already experienced these movements in some way before, so you see how they translate to CrossFit,” Paoli says.
While gymnasts typically walk in with proficiency in three of the four major CrossFit fitness domains (flexibility, endurance and stamina), most are sorely lacking in strength, having rarely if ever trained beyond bodyweight exercises. However, because of their abilities, gymnasts can quickly learn how to lift with flawless form and often end up getting stronger more quickly than most athletes.
And because gymnastic movements like handstand push-ups, pull-ups, ring dips and other bodyweight exercises are a big part of many CrossFit WODs, you’ll likely enjoy more than a few moments of dominance at your local box.
The Yoga Enthusiast
“Flexibility” and “mobility” are two of the most often-used words in the CrossFit lexicon. And they should be. An athlete’s ability to efficiently perform even the most basic movements involved in a WOD often hinges on his or her capacity to stretch and bend correctly. In a more complicated lift like the thruster, for example, a barbell loaded with weight begins resting on the front of the shoulders. The athlete then squats until the hips go below the knees and then rapidly rises out of the squat to push the weight overhead. To be done safely and well, said athlete must have amazing flexibility in the wrists, shoulders, knees and especially hips. Those of you proficient in yoga already have that capability.
“Lots of people think CrossFit is about strength, and while this may be true, it is more about strength expressed through efficient movement,” says Lisa Meers-Lewis, co-owner of The Space Above yoga center and a CrossFit instructor at CrossFit 757 in Norfolk, Va. “Correct positioning makes the difference between a failed lift and a PR, and finding efficient positioning is what yogis spend their time doing.”
What may trip you up instead is the speed at which athletes are asked to complete the typical WOD. Many of the techniques used in yoga emphasize slowing down, which is not conducive to finishing a WOD for time, Meers-Lewis says. You might have a tough time learning how to move so quickly.
Once that is mastered, however, you’ll likely enjoy the certain symmetry of mental focus and philosophical bliss you can find in the pyramid pose and in the throes of a high-effort, high-capacity CrossFit WOD. Both can put you in this so-called “zone” for different reasons, but the effects on the mind and body are quite similar.
The Weekend Warrior
Maybe you’re more the type who enjoys your once- or twice-weekly basketball games with the buddies raining threes, or running up and down the soccer pitch for a couple of hours. You too can mine some of that experience for your first foray into a CrossFit gym. Notably, those with a sporting background tend to have a competitive streak, and for a workout program that expressly pits workouts against a clock, this can be a valuable trait.
“It helps to have those competitive people in a class,” says Ralph Hicks, owner of CrossFit New Albany in Ohio. “It ups the intensity of the entire group, to really overload the system so we can keep improving.”
That competitive mindset can’t overcome the heavy workload of a typical CrossFit WOD, however. Most weekend warriors aren’t accustomed to combining such a wide range of physical demands into a single workout, and you won’t have the initial work capacity. It’s likely that in your first several gym visits, you’ll find that you are starting fast but are quickly sputtering to keep pace.
In that regard, Hicks is also careful to explain that competitiveness requires a limit. “You have to be able to handle not winning every WOD,��� he says. “Part of the competition at CrossFit is against yourself, not others, so a time is also a snapshot of your fitness that day and a time to beat in the future.”
And that time will quickly drop as work capacity quickly improves. From there, you’ll see improvements in skill, strength and flexibility. More important, you’ll start improving outside the box because the overall fitness gains you’re achieving in CrossFit workouts will yield boundless progress in your specialized sport.
Still not convinced you can hack it? Visit one of your local CrossFit affiliates, many of which offer free sample classes on weekends, and give that class a try. Moreover, most boxes have “On Ramp” or other beginner programs that slowly introduce new members to the program and teach newcomers how to perform core CrossFit movements like the squat, deadlift, pull-up, push-up and many others safely. Finally, talk to the owners and trainers about your goals and what you can gain from a CrossFit membership. Fitness awaits.