I’ve never been an athlete. I was an obese, inactive teenager, and I lost a lot of weight later. Now I’m wanting to finish the journey and become the best I can be.
A friend of mine has been a CrossFitter for 12+ years and he offered me a free month of membership at the beginning of 2020. By the end of the first month I decided to stay, and I showed up 3 times per week until COVID kicked me out of the gym.
CrossFit is controversial, intimidating, and sometimes downright confusing from the outside, so it’s worth an honest review.
What to expect at CrossFit.
At the regular gym, the person at the front desk is usually the only person you speak to, and even that is sometimes just a nod. After that, you’re on your own.
At CrossFit I walked in and immediately circled up with 10-20 other people. I assume this is similar to a class at a standard gym, but I don’t know since I’ve never done one.
The class began with a warm up that took about 10 minutes, then we would review the WOD as a group. After that comes a strength portion of the workout where you focus only on lifting weights, and then the conditioning portion which usually involves weights too, but in a more cardio-intensive way.
There’s always a moment when they turn up the music and the big clock on the wall starts counting down. Once it goes off, it’s go time. No turning back. It’s a pretty great feeling.
When you finish the workout you clean up whatever equipment you used and do some cool down stretching if you have time.
There’s a lot of CrossFit-specific vernacular. In the workouts you often see the words WOD, AMRAP, EMOM, there’s sometimes a name on the workout title like Fran, Diane, or Barbara, and there’s a prescription that has a number to the side of it like this: 135#. It feels like stepping into another language at the beginning, but you start to understand it quickly.
WOD = Workout of the Day
AMRAP = As Many Reps/Rounds As Possible
EMOM = Every Minute on the Minute
Fran, Diane, Barbara = Certain CrossFit workouts they keep on rotation
135# = A way of abbreviating “pounds” that uses less letters. Not sure why they do this.
Box = What CrossFit gyms are sometimes called.
What I like about CrossFit.
- It’s expensive. – I won’t pay for it and not show up. Standard economical gyms charge so little because they depend on people’s tendency to forget about their memberships. You can let $12 draft out of your bank account automatically for years and it won’t bother you enough to show up or cancel. CrossFit is expensive enough for me to get my tail out of bed and at the class.
- It’s a challenge. – CrossFit is without a doubt the hardest I’ve worked out in my life. It hurt in a good way every time, and after a while this starts to be something you crave. In the beginning I feared people would watch me and think I was weak. Then I realized they were too busy sweating to even look around.
- Accountability. – When you’re by yourself and decide to sleep in, or if you quit a hard workout early, no one will know. At CrossFit you work out with a group of people who are all suffering the same way. You begin to feel, even though no one says it, that if they aren’t quitting you shouldn’t quit. The gym I was a part of had a great mix of people—moms in their 40s, retirees in their 60s, total beginners, and serious competitors. There were people ahead of me and people behind me in terms of fitness. If none of them were quitting early, it would be a shame for me to.
- Community. – You may not meet a new BFF at CrossFit, but going to the same classes at the same time throughout the week puts you around the same people, and this is a massive advantage. At the CrossFit box I attended, if you missed a few sessions, when you came back in they would say they were starting to worry about your fitness. This lighthearted camaraderie is surprisingly motivating. No one was unkind if I missed, but I didn’t want to miss because I wanted to prove that I had what it takes.
- The workouts are chosen for you. – There’s no time spent researching and picking workouts that sound feasible to you at the time. There’s little room to cut yourself slack. This means I would get exposure to exercises I would typically never try on my own, like rope climbs, box jumps, or the all-time classic, running. I don’t like running and wouldn’t pick it out for myself, but if it’s a part of the WOD, I do it.
- The methodology. – My friend who gave me the free month used to be the co-owner of the gym. He has often told me, “The goal of CrossFit is to condition you to (a) carry a heavy load (b) over a long distance (c) quickly.” In other words, it tries to fit all the best of fitness into one place. It’s not just endurance training, though you sometimes run and spend a long time on the rower. It’s not just strength training, though you lift a barbell pretty much every time you’re there. It’s not just about speed, though with the timers and the people around you working hard, you push yourself to move quickly. It’s about all of it working together to get you seriously fit. You won’t get big and frothy like a body builder, nor skinny and sinewy like a marathon runner. Instead, you’ll end up more like a well-rounded athlete.
- Efficiency. – Both the time spent and the type of workouts you do. The classes were strictly 1 hour, which included everything I described above. On top this, the workouts work your whole system. You never really know if you’re strength training or cardio training, but you know with certainty that you are burning calories.
- Coaches watch your form. – CrossFit is not known for its emphasis on proper form, and I’m going to speak to that below, but you do at least have more guidance at CrossFit than you do at the gym on your own. If you’re used to doing everything by yourself at PlanetFitness, it’s a game-changer to have someone step in and tell you to straighten your back or widen your feet when doing a lift. If I’m willing to trust what I learn on YouTube about proper lifting technique it can’t be much worse to trust a CrossFit coach who has been at it for several years. (More on this below.)
What I don’t like about CrossFit.
- The stigma. – CrossFitters grunt loudly. They drop their barbells and it sounds like an explosion. They like to talk about CrossFit all the time. They take pride in their intensity. They tend to emphasize racing the clock over proper form. Even if I understand all of that more having been on the inside, it’s still true. The CrossFit I went to deconstructed some of that stigma for me; they did a lot of things really well. This point about stigma isn’t important. If it works, who cares about the stigma?
- Form isn’t always important. – I was lucky enough to be in a CrossFit where they took form seriously. They had a fundamentals course where they walked you through the basic barbell movements. They also spent a few minutes at every class reviewing the proper form while the CrossFitters held PVC pipes and followed along. Additionally, the coaches would correct you during workouts.
However, I’m not sure it’s enough. Barbell movements like the snatch or the clean and jerk are complex. It’s not to say the average person can’t learn to do them well, but they involve a lot of time and focus to master and the average person wandering into a CrossFit is probably not going to spend time doing the research and perfecting their form. They may not even know to care about it, and this is alarming to me.
You can’t adequately teach proper form in 2 fundamentals classes—form which has been explained in book length elsewhere. And learning as you go might not be smart either. What if the coach accidentally overlooks something you’re doing wrong and you injure yourself needlessly?
- Racing the clock. – Many of the workouts emphasize getting through the movements quickly to keep the intensity up. Intensity is good. Rushing through complicated movements just to beat the clock is not. This is a recipe for harm at some point. I think you should always set a clock when working out and I do so even when I’m alone. But CrossFit can be a little extreme with it. For example, it makes no sense to me to do 300 kipping pull-ups as fast as possible instead of 100 strict pull-ups as correctly as possible.
- It’s expensive. – Yes, this is also a con. I read a YouTube comment that said, “Fitness is free! Go get some.” This was posted under video from the beastly Iron Wolf, an active soldier who has earned that epic name by routinely posting videos of doing insane bodyweight workouts, such as this one where he did 500 burpees for time in the silence of his army barrack. You don’t really have to pay $100+ a month to get in shape. Your body is a gym.
There are more pros than cons in my review. I miss CrossFit and if COVID hadn’t come I would still be doing it 3-4 times a week. I’m just never going to have the same access to equipment and intensity in the workouts on my own.
CrossFit taught me what my best effort truly is. It showed me how much slack I cut myself.
As soon as I stopped going, I started meeting up with 2-3 guys socially-distanced at a public football field. We brought our kettlebells and had a miniature CrossFit WOD in the open air. We found all sorts of workouts online and kept the intensity up, showed up consistently 3 times per week, and the result was that I got into the best shape of my life so far.
I’m now getting 70% of the benefits of CrossFit at 0% of the cost. Even so, when COVID is managed, I’ll probably be back.