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What Is CrossFit (and Is It Right for Me)?

Jesper Aggergaard

CrossFit is a big power in the fitness industry. If you haven’t personally tried it, you probably know someone who has. Let’s look at what it is, and how it is (and isn’t) different from other kinds of exercise.

While some fans will try to tell you otherwise, CrossFit is, first and foremost, a brand started in California in 2000. Every CrossFit branded gym—or “box”—pays a $3000/year affiliate fee to use the name and logo. There are many other gyms that do CrossFit-style workouts without paying the fee or using the name, and no two CrossFit branded gyms are identical.

This doesn’t mean CrossFit is just a brand, however. CrossFit is also a philosophy of exercise. It calls for regular, varied, high-intensity workouts that combine techniques and exercises from weightlifting, gymnastics, and other sports. When most people think about CrossFit, these intense workouts are what they’re thinking about. Let’s explore them.

An Introduction to CrossFit Workouts

CrossFit workouts are pretty different from the group fitness classes run in most traditional gyms. The workouts tend to be more intense with heavier weights and bigger movements. A lot of workouts call for exercises to be done as an “EMOM” (Every Minute on the Minute) or “AMRAP” (As Many Rounds As Possible) for a set time period. For example:

  • Ten pushups done as a ten-minute EMOM means you do ten pushups as soon as the clock starts, another ten at the first minute, another ten at the second, and so on for ten minutes (and a total of 100 press ups).
  • A ten-minute AMRAP of five pushups and five air squats requires you to do five pushups, then five air squats, then five pushups, then five air squats, repeating as many times as possible in the ten-minute window.

In CrossFit, you’re not just working with small 5 lbs weights. Lifts where you pick up a barbell and raise it from the floor to over your head (the “Clean and Jerk” and the “Snatch” from Olympic Weightlifting) are common, as are heavy powerlifting techniques like the deadlift and back squat. Gymnastic, bodyweight exercises like muscle ups and pull-ups are also a big part of CrossFit workouts.

This isn’t to say CrossFit workouts are only accessible to the very fit or young. One of CrossFit’s core tenants is that workouts should be scalable. If the prescribed workout—“Rx” in CrossFit speak—calls for a 100 lbs barbell and you can only lift 50 lbs, then you scale it back. Likewise, if you can’t do pull-ups, you start with a simpler variation. In general, in a CrossFit class, everyone from professional athletes to pensioners will be performing the same basic exercises, scaled in weight and difficulty to their ability.

The final big part of CrossFit workouts is that they’re incredibly varied. There’s no set program where you do lower body exercises one day and upper body exercises on another. Instead, almost every workout will include movements that target your whole body, and they change from day to day and week to week. On one Monday you might be doing heavy weightlifting and the next it could be long fast runs.

Most CrossFit gyms pick a “WOD” (Workout of the Day) and use it for all that day’s CrossFit classes—so the 9 am and 6 pm groups do the same workout.

The Benefits of CrossFit

Okay, now that you understand what goes on in a CrossFit workout or WOD, we can start to look at the benefits.

The main benefit is that CrossFit is simply good exercise. While it’s a little unusual in how it mixes cardio and weightlifting, there are plenty of other sports and programs that get your heart rate up and leave you really sweaty. Almost any exercise is good for your mental and physical health, and CrossFit is no exception.

But by the same token, it’s not a magic bullet: a hard run, cycling, rugby, Olympic weightlifting, or any other sport you’re interested in will give you much the same benefits.

Victor Freitas

CrossFit classes, compared to traditional gym classes, tend to have experienced, hands-on coaches who can give you individual attention. Rather than sitting at the head of the class demoing every exercise, the coaches walk around supervising. The assumption is that once you’ve been going for a while you’ll know how to do the basic movements and they can help the beginners or give you tips on more advanced things.

CrossFit is also very social. The same people go month after month, so you get to know your training partners. A good gym is a friendly, fun environment.

What to Watch Out for With CrossFit

CrossFit, of course, isn’t perfect. There are some things you need to be careful of if you’re considering trying it out.

CrossFit involves doing difficult movements with heavy weights at high intensity. Injuries happen.

While this has given CrossFit some bad press, most good studies suggest the injury rates are comparable to other intense sports like soccer, ice hockey, football, rugby, distance running, or gymnastics. Train CrossFit for long enough, and you will almost certainly pick up some kind of bang, bump, or sprain.

CrossFit is expensive. A big gym might set you back $20 a month. CrossFit boxes often cost more than $100 a month. The extra money gets you hands-on coaching, more varied equipment, and a fun environment with members who actually go, but CrossFit is an expensive hobby.

Not all CrossFit boxes are equal. Like all sports, there are great coaches and terrible coaches. A good coach will push you safely, making sure you’re working hard while never crossing the point where you’re going to get injured. A bad coach will put you at risk. Just because someone paid $3000 a year to use the CrossFit name and went on a weekend course doesn’t mean they’re the right coach for you.

Is CrossFit Right For You?

CrossFit isn’t for everyone. If you’re on a budget, prefer sports, or use working out as a way to get some time alone, it’s a pretty terrible option. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a tough, fun, social workout, that will constantly challenge you and teach you new things, then it’s probably a pretty good fit. Contact your local CrossFit gym and take a trial class.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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