CrossFit Training: Impressions From A Rookie

CrossFit TrainingJust a few weeks ago, my wife and I started working out at a local CrossFit training center. So far it has been quite an experience. My body aches in places that I didn’t know could ache. Not having worked out with such intensity since high school football, the day after every workout feels as if I had been hit by a truck towing a bus full of Biggest Loser contestants.

I actually don’t mind the post-training muscle soreness. When I used to complain about muscle aches as a child, my dad’s sympathetic response was always, “Good. Come strong.” And that kinda stuck with me. One of the CrossFit coaches Zen-ly stated that muscle soreness simply indicates that we’re reawakening dormant muscles.

For the uninitiated, CrossFit is a high intensity exercise program that provides personal training in a group setting. CF bills itself as “elite fitness” where the focus is on broad, functional movement and optimal physical performance. CrossFit makes a distinction between being “healthy” and being “fit”, with the goal to put members squarely in the latter category. It welcomes people of all ages and fitness levels, males and females alike.

Every CrossFit session is designed to be completed in an hour or less. It starts off with some stretching, a warm-up and some mobility work. This is usually followed by strength and/or aerobic exercises with instruction on proper form for the exercises in question. The class always ends with a timed met-con (metabolic conditioning drill) which emphasizes a fast pace and high intensity.

Here is my take on CrossFit, based on my limited experience and a bit of research…

Benefits of CrossFit Training

Always fresh. What I like most about training CrossFit is it’s never boring. It’s nothing like my former 24-Hour Fitness workouts where I always started with 15 minutes on the “dreadmill” followed by a series of isolation exercises targeting one or two muscles.

With CF, on the other hand, we’re doing something radically different every day. One day we might be doing alternating 400-meter runs and 21 deadlifts. And the next day, muscle-ups, double-unders, and handstand-pushups. Then there’s the anticipation and excitement factor: you don’t know what you’re going to do until you arrive at the “box”. Variety + anticipation + challenge = fun.

You’re never on your own. If you ever have any questions about form, proper technique, or ways to scale the exercise to your fitness level, you have a coach there to answer them. It’s like having a personal trainer there to eliminate confusion and keep you on track.

Built-in motivation to maintain training intensity. CrossFit provides some powerful psychological tools to help motivate competitive people. First, the WOD (workout of the day) always includes a timed circuit where either you do a preset number of reps in as little time as possible, or AMRAP (as many reps as possible) in a preset time-frame.

Then there’s the WOD Board where your personal results are recorded and posted publicly for all to see. Being as competitive as I am, you can bet that I strive to at least beat the 60+ year-old members!

Built-in motivation to maintain the program. The lack of motivation to continue an exercise regimen is one of the biggest reasons why people quit. In fact, over 60% of people who start a regular exercise program drop out within 6 months. CrossFit helps to overcome that with a group exercise approach.

It’s psychologically comforting to see like-minded people going through the exact same rigors as you. But perhaps even more importantly, everyone is friendly and helpful — encouraging me to push my limits and power through the workout. It makes me want to return just to be around such awesome people.

Don’t underestimate the power of these simple motivational techniques.

Develops mental toughness. After just a few weeks of intense training, completing workouts that you never thought you were capable of, you, too, would start to feel like you can accomplish anything.

Nutrition education. I like that CrossFit advocates a Paleo diet and actively educates members of the benefits of such a nutrition plan. In fact, I found CrossFit through my research of the Paleo lifestyle, of which I’m a big fan. (More about the Paleo diet in a future post.)

CrossFit Criticisms

Pricey. It can be quite a bit more expensive than a traditional gym membership. At the worlds largest fitness center chain, 24-Hour Fitness, membership currently costs between $20-$90 per month depending on location and membership level. Whereas membership at a CrossFit gym may start at $100 per month.

Easy to get injured. Proper form and technique throughout each exercise is critical for reducing the chance of injury. Beginning CF’ers that lack a background in lifting technique are naturally more likely to get hurt. But even experienced CF’ers can easily put themselves out of commission. This article makes a good point:

A coach should not attempt to correct poor technique under conditions of high fatigue and load as this only promotes injury. […] As fatigue builds [during the course of high-intensity exercise], technique will suffer, so at what point do we draw the line in the sand and acknowledge that the risks outweigh the benefits? Asking individuals to know their own limits seldom works in a competitive environment.

The same article also implies that a CrossFit Level 2 Trainer certification should be the minimum training required of a CrossFit coach — one who typically oversees the Olympic lifts so common in the sport. The author states:

The reality is that many of these trainers do not possess the appropriate levels of knowledge commensurate with the complexity of many of the exercises performed.

If you ever decide to pursue CF, make sure you find a good coach, preferably one with a Level 2 Trainer certificate. And by all means, attend the CrossFit Elements classes which are designed to teach novice CrossFitters proper form for every exercise.

Easy to overtrain/burnout. One reason is the workouts are inherently competitive. But also because the sport tends to attract competitive athletes. Add intense workouts to the mix and you can find yourself in burnout city. Even the official CrossFit beginners guide states:

Countless people have after three spectacular CrossFit workouts stated a preference for a fiery death over coming back for a fourth workout. They went too hard — too intense.

CrossFit rookies need to be aware of the overtraining risk and perhaps even resist their coach’s recommendation to increase load/intensity.

No periodization. CF is all about going full-tilt 100% of the time. Athletics guru Greg Everett wrote a fantastic article that touched on why this model is flawed:

There is a very real limit to how much the human body can handle simultaneously, and attempting to perform at 100% across the board at all times is a guaranteed recipe for stagnation if not utter disaster.

To me, periodization is more of an advanced technique for squeezing out the last few drops of athletic potential. Just something to be aware of when you attain that level.

Weird lingo. This is more a barrier to entry than a criticism of CrossFit. Having to learn the language is part of the intimidation of starting such a program. (The upside is that you get to throw around quasi-sexual terms like “snatch”, “wall-balls”, and “clean-and-jerk”. Follow those up with a string of ominous repeating numbers like “3-3-3-3-3-3” and you have yourself a “WOD”.)

The Bottom Line

My three main fitness-related goals are to increase energy, strength, and flexibility. I feel CrossFit training will allow me to attain every one of them. All things considered, the benefits of CF far outweigh the drawbacks for me as I’m a sucker for competition. Motivation is not my strong suit so the motivational benefits are also huge draws.

Personal health investments pay some of the best dividends. If you’re exercise-deficient, and if CrossFit sounds intriguing, check out your nearest training center without risk — your first session is typically free. And if CF doesn’t sound like your thing, I encourage you to get active doing something you enjoy.

Do you CrossFit or have friends that do? What are you’re impressions?

References:
http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/273/5/402.full.pdf+html

(Photo by Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson)

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