Where I live, in rainy Seattle, it’s cold and wet and blah outside from November to May. My favorite way to warm up and shake off impending hibernation is to exercise. Last fall, I tried something new and joined a CrossFit gym. This workout has it all — cardio, weightlifting, rowing, kettlebells, and more — and you can do it indoors. It’s the perfect activity to get you through the winter weather and beyond!
Intro to CrossFit
CrossFit, according to the program’s official website, is “constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity … reflect[ing] the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more.” Because workouts are intense, they are also quick, with athletes attempting to finish a prescribed set of exercises within a time window or in the fastest time possible. Televised events like The CrossFit Games showcase the strongest competitors (and give the sport a heavily muscled, high-school-sports aura). CrossFit has its critics, who claim the combination of heavy weights, complex lifts and an emphasis on speed set participants up for injury. Throw in a focus on food (some CrossFit gyms push the Paleo diet), and the sport can seem overly intense at best and fanatical at worst. And I must admit: I used to be one of the haters. Especially coming from a powerlifting background, it just didn’t seem safe to combine big, challenging movements like deadlifts or squats with a ticking clock.
So why is CrossFit the topic of this Gym Class? Well, I finally tried it for myself and realized it’s really, really fun.
I came to CrossFit with 15+ years of athletic experience, primarily in basketball, rowing, and powerlifting. I love trying new sports, but CrossFit classes were my first experience with combining several of my favorite activities into one well-planned workout. Despite my sports background, I still have so much to learn that’s particular to CrossFit, so my curiosity is engaged each class. Each workout of the day, or WOD, can be scaled in difficulty, so I leave every class feeling like I gave 100 percent. Add in the community aspect of the sport — my gym is big on friendliness and supporting each other during workouts — and I was hooked after my first week. If you’re looking for a physical challenge, a supportive team environment, and variety in your workouts, I think you’ll enjoy CrossFit, too.
Things You’ll Need
- At a CrossFit gym, all equipment is provided, but you can get a head start with:
a jump rope
- good cross-training shoes (I like Nike Metcon 3s)
- a timer
Typical CrossFit workouts are short (12 – 20 minutes) and intense. Workouts usually feature strength-building exercises in combination with bursts of cardio (jumping, sprinting, rowing, and so on) to keep your heart rate up. When you join a gym, you’ll follow that gym’s WOD plan. This is something I love about CrossFit, in comparison to weightlifting or general training on my own: I don’t have to do any planning in advance to prepare for workouts. I just show up, gather my equipment for the WOD, and get ready to work when the coach starts the clock.
To do a WOD “Rx” is to do it with the prescribed weights, activities and reps; there are different Rx standards for men and women for each workout. For example, a WOD might be 4 sets of 20 pullups, 20 box jumps (Rx box heights are 24″ for men and 20″ for women), and 20 pushups, for time (meaning, as fast as you can complete the exercises). But any WOD can be modified, or “scaled,” to make it doable: I might tackle the example workout by doing my pullups with an assistance band, a 16″ box, and pushups with knees down when my strict pushups fail. Think of the WOD as your workout template, always adjustable to your fitness level; your coaches will outline how to safely scale each exercise before the WOD begins.
At the end of each WOD, you record your time (or how close you got to finishing). This way, you can track your progress as you get faster, stronger, and closer to doing full-Rx workouts.
Training & Sample Workouts
For this sport, it’s best to work out at a CrossFit gym, where you’ll benefit from direct coaching, good-quality equipment, and a team mentality that makes even the toughest exercises fun. I won’t provide sample WODs here; they vary by gym, and many activities should be done with a coach, for safety. Instead, I’ll focus on how you can best prepare if you want to walk into your new CrossFit gym with some basic skills in place.
A good gym will welcome athletes of any level, from total beginner to experienced CrossFit pro; don’t feel like you can’t do CrossFit if you can’t do a pushup! But also know you will be doing lots of pushups (scaled, as needed), so if you start working on them now you may feel more comfortable when you see them as part of a WOD.
Ah, the dreaded pullup and pushup. I’ve hated these since failing the junior-high Presidential Fitness Test (the one with that weird sit-and-reach flexibility board). Pullups and pushups — which rely heavily on upper-body strength — can be especially challenging for women, but they are staples of CrossFit programming. So I’m working on them, and so can you!
If you’re just starting with these, try working up in weight on the lat-pulldown machine. Another good way to progress is with banded pullups: loop a resistance band over the pullup bar, hook your feet into the band, and practice good form in that supported position. Work your way towards using a band with less support.
To progress with these, think about your body in a vertical position (easiest) descending to a horizontal position (hardest). A beginner can start with wall pushups: standing arms’ length from a wall (vertical body), put your hands on the wall, lean forward until your chest touches, and push back to extended arms. When that’s too easy, descend: get your body into a 45-degree position (maybe with your hands on the edge of a desk) and do pushups; descend further (maybe with your hands on the bottom step of a staircase) as you progress, until you can do a pushup on the ground. Or, another modification: on the ground in pushup position, keep your knees down during the movement.
Jumping is a key part of many WODs, and often what provides the heart-rate-boosting cardio portions of workouts. To prepare for CrossFit workouts, get comfortable with a jump rope: try intervals (1 minute jumping rope, 30 seconds rest, and repeat without breaks), and see if you can attempt some double-unders, which show up frequently in WODs. Another common exercise is the box jump, where you jump up onto a 20”-tall box. You can practice the movement with smaller platforms (as long as they’re safely stable) like stairs or benches. Start with 10″ jumps and see if you can work your way up. (Note: My gym has 16″ boxes for beginners, and I’m still working my way up to the 20″ box! There’s no shame in scaling exercises — the point is to push yourself to your own personal-best workout.)
Most WODs (if they feature running) only include short sprints. But improving your overall cardio fitness is beneficial to most any exercise program. A steady-state 30- to 45-minute jog once or twice a week will be good cross-training for fast-and-intense CrossFit workouts. Throw in some sprints (30-second, 1-minute, and 3-minute sprints are a good place to start) to work on your speed and recovery. (Often, a run is the “break” in the middle of a tough WOD, so the more comfortable you are with running, the better you can use mid-WOD runs as recovery time.)
One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my CrossFit gym is learning to practice Olympic lifts — the snatch and the clean-and-jerk — and the various building blocks that make up those movements. Barbells are core parts of many WODs, and most gyms give the option of using a women’s bar, which is thinner to allow for proper grip if you have smaller hands.. If you’re looking to build some barbell skills, check out the Gym Class on powerlifting for a basic introduction. The squat and deadlift transfer particularly well to CrossFit (and are even featured in some WODs), and being comfortable with the barbell will help you as you learn the more explosive lifts like the clean, snatch, and push-jerk.
Rowing is included in WODs as a heart-rate booster: at my gym, we usually row for calories, which means a strong, controlled pace to reach a calories-burned goal as fast as possible. The Gym Class on rowing has lots of tips for how to use the erg machine safely and understand the machine’s display of pace/calories/time/etc. The most important thing to remember on the erg is: use your legs. That’s where your power comes from (not your back or arms). Ask a coach for help any time you think your rowing form could use adjustment; the coaches are there to keep you safe.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a big part of what makes CrossFit WODs so tough and so effective. You push to max effort but it’s only for a short time, and some WODs include rest intervals. You can prepare for HIIT-style workouts with running sprints, rowing sprints (see the rowing Gym Class for a sample HIIT workout), or intervals of a bodyweight exercise like burpees. Yep, get used to burpees — they are a popular component of WODs.
With this sport, choosing your gym (or CrossFit “box”) will be very important. Your gym will be the center of your workout community, so you’ll want to choose a place with a clientele that makes you feel comfortable and coaches that help you feel safe and competent in your workouts. Here are some things to look for in a gym:
- Schedule: What times are classes offered? Can you make at least 3 per week, reliably, to get in the habit of attending?
- Equipment: A good gym will have well-kept barbells and plates, kettlebells, dumbbells, rigs for pullups, a weight room with racks for squats, erg machines, and boxes for jumps. The equipment is constantly used, so it doesn’t have to be spotless, but it should be sturdy and serviceably clean.
- Coaching Style: When learning so many new movements (especially those that involve heavy weights), it’s critical that you trust your coaches to guide you through the learning process and provide a safe environment during workouts. There’s pushing you to work hard and pushing you to work too hard, and if you feel that a coach is being reckless, aggressive, or rushing you into performing certain exercises, pay attention to that feeling! I chose my gym because the coaches are well-trained (with several certified weightlifting folks on staff) and I liked the friendly vibe of the place.
- Onramp Training: My gym has a mandatory 2-week onramp course for all members who are new to CrossFit; in onramp, you work with a group of fellow beginners to learn safe technique for all the basic exercises in WODs. I think this is a great policy and one you should look for in a gym. Another perk my gym offers that I recommend: every week, there are classes labeled “beginner friendly” on the schedule, so those who are new to the gym can feel more comfortable as they continue to learn beyond the onramp course.
- Groupon Is Your Friend: This is a standard Gym Class suggestion for trying a new activity — get a Groupon deal and try it for a limited time (and for less money!), so you can see if you like the exercise, the people, and the location before paying full membership dues.
- The Paleo Question: Some gyms push Paleo-style eating. My gym is not run that way — the focus is on workouts and building community. However, my gym does offer optional Nutrition Challenges a few times each year, so athletes who want to track their progress (either cutting weight or adding muscle) while also tracking their eating can do so in a competition-style event. It’s fun if you want to try it and not an issue if you don’t. Make sure your gym has a philosophy that matches your own in terms of nutrition-tracking.
Five months into my membership, my CrossFit gym has become a place I look forward to going each week. I’m making progress on my Oly lifts and getting better at pullups, and I love hitting new benchmarks that show I’m getting stronger. If you’re looking for a challenge and a great workout, give some of the skills in this Gym Class a try and then check out your local box!