By now, you would have an idea of what CrossFit is about: high-intensity movements that include jumping on boxes to flipping tyres and climbing ropes.
Meet a few CrossFitters and you’ll see that they’re all buff and sculpted in the right places. They are also stronger than the average person, and that means being able to do handstands, lift barbells as heavy as themselves, and leap over the wall if need be. In advertisements and on Instagram, they are portrayed as rugged, gritty people with six-pack abs who are out to torture themselves. Or outdo everyone else.
But what is it, really? We find out.
What is CrossFit, really?
CrossFit is a branded fitness programme founded by former gymnast Greg Glassman in 2000. Seeing the importance of cross training, which hones different aspects of fitness, Greg created CrossFit to optimise physical competence in 10 disciplines: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy.
As such, CrossFit workouts are super varied and unpredictable. You could be doing burpees one moment, and deadlifts the next. The following day, you get a completely different workout that targets other areas of fitness.
Beyond physical activities, CrossFit promotes a lifestyle of regular exercise, a high-protein and low-carb diet, and as little sugar as possible.
In Greg’s words: “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.
“Practise and train major lifts: deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean and jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits and holds. Bike, run, swim, row etc., hard and fast.
“Five or six days per week, mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”
How is CrossFit good for me?
CrossFit trains you in all disciplines of fitness, which means you can be as strong as a weightlifter, as agile as a runner, as flexible as a dancer and so on. The idea is to do exercises you’re not used to, or are weak at, to become a more well-rounded athlete.
Yes, athlete. Because in CrossFit, you will be doing the same exercises that elite athletes do, but at a different intensity and weight.
If workout boredom is killing you, CrossFit might be right up your alley.
“It is unpredictable,” says Andreas Gloor, sports marketing manager for Reebok who does CrossFit five or six times a week. “No two workouts are alike. You never know what exercises you’re going to have to do.”
That aside, CrossFit is probably going to be the most effective and efficient workout you can do. Effective, because it recruits many more muscles - in your upper and lower body - than what you can by training on your own. Take the common bicep curl, for example. “In CrossFit, you’ll gain more strength and agility from doing rope climbs or sled pushes while working the biceps too,” says Andreas.
As CrossFit is a type of high-intensity interval training, you can be sure of reaping the benefits which include a fired-up metabolism that blasts calories for hours after.
What’s a CrossFit session like?
Typically, you start with warm-ups, followed by a lifting session and metabolic conditioning to get your heart rate up. That could be anything like skipping, body weights or light weights. Your coach will be sure to pick exercises you’re not so good at!
At my introductory CrossFit session by Reebok, Australian instructors Rob Forte (CrossFit competitor and trainer) and Tia-Claire Toomey (Olympian and weightlifter) had us doing three sets of four basic moves, circuit style: medicine ball squats, box jumps, rowing and burpees. These moves were not alien to me, as I've done them in HIIT classes. Moving from station to station every minute, the workout was over before I knew it.
Will I get bulky from doing CrossFit?
Scientifically speaking, women simply do not have enough testosterone to gain big muscles from doing heavy lifting.
Don’t worry if heaving barbells is not your thing. “The beauty of CrossFit is its versatility. You can scale everything to your activity and interest. If you don’t like lifting heavy weights, you can do gymnastics and bodyweight movements,” says Andreas.
Am I expected to do handstands, climb ropes and flip tyres?
Those moves are a component of CrossFit, but they are not going to feature in your workout until you get stronger. “Undeniably, these moves look cool and are considered milestones in a CrossFit career,” says Andreas.
The short of it: Don’t attempt anything you’re not ready for.
Here’s a nice reminder from Andreas: “In this Instagram age, people want to achieve certain fitness goals and look a certain way. And it’s sad. It should be about how you feel about yourself and doing what makes you happy.”
Is there a high injury rate?
With explosive plyometric moves like box jumps and squat jumps, CrossFit may seem like a risky sport. Common injuries reported are in the heels (from jumps) and shoulders (from weightlifting). A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found the CrossFit injury rate to be comparable to that of gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting.
Put simply, CrossFit is not the safest workout, but it’s not the most dangerous either. To play safe, don’t attempt to do something beyond what your coach recommends.
If I haven’t exercised in a long time, can I do CrossFit?
CrossFit exercises are extremely customisable to your abilities and injuries, says Andreas. “The movements may be set for the class, but the weights will be different. If you don’t feel good using a weight, go without. If you can’t do box jumps because of knee problems, you can do step-ups.”
Though CrossFit is frequently practised by people in physically-demanding roles like policemen, military professionals and athletes, it’s attracting an increasing number of exercise beginners over the years.
Andreas says: “I see people from all walks of life: sedentary office workers, people looking to lose weight and get fitter, mothers who want to shed post-pregnancy fat. There are as many women as men doing CrossFit.”
What are the vibes like?
CrossFit is big on community, so don’t expect to operate in a silo. It’s not uncommon to see CrossFitters become close friends and hang out outside their box, the CrossFit term for a gym.
“For most of us, we want to feel better about ourselves and move in a friendly, supportive environment. And CrossFit provides that,” says Andreas.
If you haven’t already noticed, CrossFitters have a culture of high-fiving one another after a workout, something I couldn’t relate to until today, when I found myself grinning while irresistibly slapping palms with fellow beginners. I guess that’s what you call bonding through shared pain.
This story was originally published in Shape.