So, you've discovered CrossFit, eh?
Does this ring a bell?
CrossFit is amazing.
It's hard to imagine anything that can motivate people to get as healthy and fit as CrossFit. The unique combination of intense exercise, a supportive community, and a competitive environment create an immersive, nearly addictive experience. Some of the transformation stories that come out of CrossFit are truly jaw dropping.
I've been around the block with CrossFit, and even had my home gym on the CF mainpage and YouTube feed. And while that doesn't make me an expert and I'm certainly not "elite," my experience has brought me some perspective that you might find useful. In fact, these are a few things that I wish somebody would have told me years ago when I was newly obsessed with CrossFit.
You're probably going to get injured
Mark Rippetoe said, "Accumulating injuries is the price we pay for not having sat around on our asses." I couldn't agree more. Still, we know for a fact that certain activities have a higher risk of injury than others, although the perception of that risk can be biased. For example, the average joe believes that weightlifting is dangerous and soccer is safe, when in fact soccer is practically the most injury-prone sport (exceeded only by football) and weightlifting one of the safest!
Whether participation in CrossFit is more likely to cause injury than other fitness activities is a matter of hot debate. Anecdotally, I can tell you that every single person I know that has participated in CrossFit, myself included, has been injured sometime during that participation. Some injuries were very minor, and some injuries were major and required surgery. This shouldn't be all that surprising: if you take a bunch of people who may be deconditioned or out of shape, and throw them into unfamiliar ballistic movements under heavy load (e.g. a barbell) done at high intensity under fatigue... well, shit is occasionally going to go wrong.
How do you protect yourself against this? Don't be a dumb ass, for starters. Test your limits carefully, and don't hesitate to back off. Be careful and scale, substitute or avoid dangerous movements. If it hurts: stop. This sounds obvious, but in the heat of the moment and under peer pressure at the box, it can be very tough. CF fosters a "don't quit, never give up" attitude that can really backfire on your safety.
I believe that most of the movements performed in CrossFit can be executed safely, even under significant intensity, provided they are done with proper form and enough preparation. And that's the rub - Rich Froning might be able to perform 30 heavy snatches for time with perfect form on every rep, but the average CrossFitter will fatigue and their form will break down...and that's when injuries happen.
Do your best to maintain form on all movements, and when form breaks down, back off or stop.
Some movements can be particularly gnarly under fatigue, including overhead kettle bell swings, rebounding box jumps, sumo deadlift highpulls, butterfly kipping pullups, muscleups, and high rep weightlifting (snatch and clean & jerk). With proper conditioning and training, all of them could be fine, but approach them with caution early in your CF career.
Finally, having the mobility to get into the positions needed to execute CrossFit movements is essential. If you haven't already, check out Kelly Starrett's Mobility Wod - it changed my life and will yours too.
Rhabdo is a very real possibility
Rhabdomyolysis is a nasty thing. For reasons that still are not clear, extreme exertion will occasionally result in excessive muscle damage. A protein from your muscles, myoglobin, will then escape into your blood stream. The myoglobin will get caught up in your kidneys, clogging up the works, and eventually your kidneys can shut down. You can die. Symptoms include extreme muscle soreness, inflammation (puffy or swollen muscles), and peeing brown (that's some of the myoglobin coming out). If you are extremely sore, swollen, and your pee is brown, go to the hospital immediately - you need medical attention.
As you probably have already experienced, CrossFit makes you sore. Really sore. That's called DOMS: delayed-onset muscle soreness. How is DOMS different than rhabdo? I have heard it described as a spectrum, with mild DOMS on one end, severe DOMS in the middle, and rhabdo on the other end. Really severe DOMS has symptoms similar to rhabdo, but without the dark urine. If your pee isn't the color of cola, you're probably ok. Emphasis on probably.
CrossFit purveyors like to make it sound like rhabdo is rare (although HQ did write about it in 2005, 2010 and 2011, and Glassman famously said that "CrossFit can kill you"), but in fact I've known several people that have experienced it. Rhabdo is a very real risk of high-intensity conditioning activity. Take it seriously.
Also, you may be tempted to take over the counter pain-relievers for DOMS. Don't. They don't work and will not be good for your gut or liver. Multiple clinical studies have shown no effects in DOMS by oral analgesics, and in one study ibuprofen actually increased an indicator of muscle damage, so they might actually make DOMS worse. You're better off staying lightly active on days you are sore, and if the DOMS is severe, consider an ice bath or at the very least a hot/cold contrast shower to get the blood moving through the sore muscles to promote healing.
Try not to get brainwashed
The machine that is CrossFit HQ spews out a LOT of propaganda, and apparently attempts to suppress dissent against their practices. It's an unfortunate hypocrisy: CF aims to improve people's health and fitness, but attempts to squash any criticisms of their methods of doing so. Over the years they have thrown out or driven out many people with a wealth of useful knowledge, such as Mark Twight, Dan John, Robb Wolf, Greg Everett, James FitzGerald and the aforementioned Mark Rippetoe. There are many others, and probably many more on the edge.
Try not to take everything out of CFHQ as gospel. In fact, maintain strong skepticism about everything you read and hear about health and fitness (including this very article). Seek out alternative voices, particularly ones that are constructively critical of CrossFit (not just bashing it), and judge for yourself whether you agree or disagree.
Bruce Lee said it best: "Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own."
Avoid preaching to others
An atheist, a vegan, and a CrossFitter walk into a bar. I only know because they told everyone within two minutes.— Matthew Tuthill (@MCTuthill) November 12, 2014
When somebody is absolutely, positively convinced that they have found THE way to eat, and THE way to work out, and THE way to live (as CrossFitters are wont to believe), it can be irresistible to tell the people you love about it, and try to convince them to join your community.
The problem is, nobody likes being preached to.
And believe me, nobody, and I mean nobody, likes to be told they are living "wrong," whether that be nutrition or exercise (or religion).
CrossFit inspires a fervent belief in its lifestyle and methods. Layer on top of that the self-reinforcing community, and you have the recipe for something that resembles a cult.
And that's fine (some like to say "Yeah, but its a good cult!"), but you could seriously damage your relationships with those you love and care about if you're not careful. It's better to simply lead by example. As your life changes, so will your appearance and attitude, and eventually somebody will ask you about it. When they do, then you have their permission to (tactfully) tell them what you are up to, and invite them to the box to try something called Fran.
You can't out-work a bad diet, but a "clean" diet can be bad too
There's this funny thing that happens in society and it's particularly prevalent in CrossFit - we attribute fantastic physiques to the workout, not to the nutrition. Do you know what's under morbidly obese people's fat? A totally jacked body waiting to get out. If you carried around 400 pounds all day long, you'd be jacked too. The key is to lose the fat to reveal the muscle, like a sculptor chipping away at a block of stone to reveal the form beneath.
This is not to say that the workout doesn't matter--of course it does. It's absolutely instrumental to maintain muscle mass during the process of fat loss. But the workout has relatively minimal impact on your fat mass. I like how Brad Pilon frames it: exercise to grow your muscles; eat to reduce your fat. Don't fall into the trap of trying to "work off" a cookie - that's madness. And if you eat too many cookies, how hard you work out isn’t going to matter.
So if nutrition is important, how should you eat? CrossFit's guide on this is excellent. Glassman wrote "Fitness in 100 words" including the simple diet prescription:
Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.
Hard to be more on point than that. Other good nutrition advice?
Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. And Bacon. -- > > Michael Pollan
(ok, I added the bacon part)
Flesh builds flesh...When it comes to proteins, the only ones I consume and recommend are those with faces, souls and mothers. -- > > John Welbourn
Don't get bogged down in the details, keep it simple. My mantra is "Meats, fruits & vegetables--everything else in moderation."
And don't try and eat so "perfect" that you freak out and binge in an epic cheat meal. Have treats regularly to control cravings, just make sure they stay within reasonable limits.
If you want to try paleo, keto, Atkins, low carb, slow carb, Mediterranean, Zone, DASH, FODMAP, vegetarian, or (god forbid) vegan, go for it. But you should know up front that there is no such thing as "clean eating" and no foods are fundamentally "bad." This of course doesn't apply if you have a real allergy or true celiac disease. But if you are a normal person, you should look at food through the context of your day, your week, and your goals, and not completely eliminate a food or nutrient just because your friends think it’s “unhealthy."
For example: having a donut once in a while won't kill you, and will probably make you happy. Having donuts every day will likely not be helpful for your fitness. Forbidding yourself from having donuts will cause you to obsess about donuts and then eat a dozen in one sitting followed by gastrointestinal distress and existential angst.
The dose makes the poison. Heck, if you drink too much water you can die. Moderation is key.
Learn to recognize bad programming
Given that programming workouts is more art than science, one could argue that judging programming is a mater of taste, not quality. Simply put, that would be wrong.
Describing all ways that programming can go foul is way beyond the scope of this article. Not only because there is so much shitty programming out there, but because programming should be specific to a person's goals (more on that below). As you become more indoctrinated and experienced at CrossFit, you'll begin to recognize bad programming and hopefully be able to avoid it.
That being said, here are a few things to watch out for:
- Too risky. Some movements shouldn't be put together in certain combinations, and some WODs are downright dangerous. If you look at a WOD and its clear that somebody could get hurt doing it, that's bad programming. You can find a lot of cringe-worthy examples on YouTube.
- Too long. Glassman's own initial Rx from "Fitness in 100 words" was to "Keep workouts short and intense." If you dig back in the archives of WODs from the early 2000s, you'll note that indeed the workouts were just that. Around the time the Games started catching on, the programming evolved on Mainsite and at most affiliates as well: WODs became longer and more of a beatdown. You don't need much beyond an 8-10 minute gasser to elicit metabolic adaptation. Regular 40-60 minute grinders only serve to add risk of injury if you're simply trying to get fit.
- Too biased. Everybody is biased, and that can show up in programming. Good programming nicely balances skill, strength, conditioning, and variety. It's not uncommon to find highly biased programming among the gazillions of affiliates. Of course, that may be part of the goal, as programs such as CrossFit Football and CrossFit Endurance are intentionally biased, but I'm specifically referring to unintentional bias.
Once you start to recognize bad programming, hopefully you can avoid it. If it happens at your box regularly, seriously consider switching CF gyms. Its likely that there are multiple CF options in your town. And if not, and you have a garage or a basement or a patio or a nearby park, you can outfit a nice CF homegym for less than the cost of one year of membership dues.
Your goals are not the same as their goals
Group fitness classes are great: they foster team spirit and the supportive community environment, and allow the CF gym to maximize use of its time and space. However, because the programming is for everyone, it cannot be ideal for anyone. And everyone should have their own individual goals.
It's sacrilegious in CrossFit to suggest that you want to improve your appearance, or to "cherry-pick" workouts, or don't want to push yourself to puking. But all of those are ok.
Furthermore, you may want to go super hard and try to go to Regionals or even the big show itself. And that's ok too!
Be your own person, have your own goals, and don't let the peer pressure of the box sway you away from your path. Your needs, idiosyncrasies and goals are absolutely different and independent of that the person next to you even if they are the same size, age, and gender.
Don't be so serious
CrossFit grew fast within the military, police, and firefighter crowds, and for good reason -- its excellent at preparing for the unknown and unknowable that exists in those fields. However, the seriousness of those professions bled into the CF culture, and still exists to a great extent today.
You could go that route of seriousness, "Forging Elite Fitness," screaming and yelling and tearing heads of tigers and being EXTREME doing your WOD in a gasmask...
I know which one I chose.
Now go get fit and have some fun!