Founded in 2000, the fitness phenomenon CrossFit® has got people all over the world climbing ropes and pulling off all sorts of acrobatic workout moves. Even if you haven’t hit the gym in a decade, you’ve probably heard of it.
The trend has attracted both a loyal cult following and some criticism throughout the years—but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Here’s what you should know if you’re interested in giving CrossFit® a go.
What IS CrossFit®, Anyway?
CrossFit® is all about high-intensity functional movement, explains Kenny Santucci, Reebok One Master Trainer and Solace New York coach. “You take everyday human movements, like bending down and picking something up, and develop them,” he says.
Once you’ve established the strength, balance, and mobility to do that, you’ll progress to deadlifts (which add weight to the basic motion), and eventually progress toward snatches or cleans (which expand the motion by bringing the weight to shoulder-level or overhead).
In any given CrossFit® workout, called a WOD or ‘workout of the day,’ you’ll incorporate a variety of the following: conditioning exercises like running, jump roping, or rowing; strength-training exercises using bodyweight or added weight from barbells or kettlebells; and gymnastic movements like muscle-ups or handstands. Expect a full-body workout and plenty of sweat.
“You’re never going to do the exact same workout twice,” says Peter McCall, M.S., C.S.C.S., spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Unless, of course, you’re measuring how fast you can complete that workout, or how many reps you can get through. (You’ll see some CrossFit® WODs labeled ‘AMRAP’ or ‘as many reps as possible.’)
Your Body On CrossFit®
With consistent training, a lot of CrossFitters report impressive health and fitness gains. Many of the explosive weight-lifting moves in CrossFit® workouts recruit type-two muscle fibers, explains McCall. These large muscle fibers use mostly carbs for fuel and are key for muscle growth and definition. No wonder so many longtime CrossFit® enthusiasts sport such athletic physiques.
Check this out: One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that healthy participants both significantly improved their max aerobic capacity (how efficiently their body uses oxygen during intense exercise) and body composition (body fat percentage) following 10 weeks of a CrossFit®-style high-intensity power training program.
So not only did the exercisers better their cardiovascular fitness, but they also shed fat and built muscle—all major health plusses. FYI: The participants all started out with varied levels of fitness and body composition.
In addition to the physical perks, though, CrossFit®’s intense nature and tight-knit community may also provide potential mental and social benefits. “It allows you to surround yourself with a like-minded community,” says Santucci. “I’ve seen so many people accomplish things they never thought they’d be able to physically do, and that translates to mental and emotional strength.” CrossFit®’s group setting offers a two-for-one deal: a killer workout and social support system.
That community vibe might just also help exercisers stay on the bandwagon, too. “The level of camaraderie has been one of CrossFit®’s most positive aspects,” says McCall. “The supportive environment is critical for developing long-term adherence.”
Want To Try It Out?
Developing all-over strength and fitness and finding a crew of workout buddies sounds pretty darn great. Just keep a few rules for the road in mind before canceling your current gym membership or deciding it’s time to get off the couch.
CrossFit® critics have blasted the intense training style for being particularly injury-inducing. A study published in The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, for example, identified 19 percent injury rate among surveyed CrossFit® participants. The most common injuries reported were shoulder, knee, or low back-related, and men were injured more frequently than women. (It’s worth noting that according to other studies, this injury rate is no higher than that for other physical activities, like running.)
Newbies should plan on starting out slow: “You have to look at CrossFit® as something long-term, and pace yourself,” says Santucci. “Don’t expect to be throwing weight around on day one.” Expect to work on your basic range of motion before loading up any movements with weight. “When you jump too far too fast, you put yourself at risk,” he says.
With this slow and steady approach, Santucci believes anyone can benefit from CrossFit®. “My mom started out at age 63 with little prior fitness,” he says. “First, she just worked on squatting down onto a chair and standing back up, and after three years of progress she can now do a clean and snatch.”
CrossFit® probably isn’t a good idea for those with recent injuries or health conditions like coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, though, advises McCall. Check in with your physician before starting CrossFit® or any new fitness protocol.
If you’ve got the green light, the next order of business is to find the right CrossFit® gym (often called a ‘box’) and coaches. “A good coach will first assess your mobility and stability and put you through introductory sessions,” says McCall. Look for a box that provides different level WODs for different skill levels, and a coach who has other fitness certifications (and thus broader knowledge) in addition to the CrossFit® L1 certification required to coach.
When your sneakers are laced up and you’re ready to sweat, just make sure to be mindful of your comfort level and limitations. “Don’t try to do something you’re not comfortable doing, or force a move that hurts,” says McCall. Listen to your body and don’t be afraid to ask for help or to modify exercises. A good coach will monitor for proper form, help you modify as you go, and encourage you within your limits, says Santucci.