What is CrossFit? And can you do it? Here’s what you need to know

It’s almost inevitable that you’ve scrolled past a sweaty selfie of a friend, co-worker or high school classmate bragging about their WOD and professing their love for CrossFit.

CrossFit became a super popular workout a few years ago when box gyms began popping up not only across the country, but the world. CrossFit is practiced by members of over 13,000 affiliated gyms in 120 countries. In the U.S. alone, there are over 7,000 gyms offering the program. It’s estimated that there are roughly 4 million CrossFitters, and its members are so devoted to the competitive approach to fitness that the community has even been described as cult-like.

With all this publicity, you may have wondered if this program could work for you. Before you jump into the “box” (ahem, that’s CrossFit speak for gym), here’s what you need to know about the workout craze — and how to determine if it’s right for you.

What is CrossFit?

A form of high intensity interval training, CrossFit is a strength and conditioning workout that is made up of functional movement performed at a high intensity level.

These movements are actions that you perform in your day-to-day life, like squatting, pulling, pushing etc. Many workouts feature variations of squats, push-ups, and weight lifting that last for predetermined amounts of time to help build muscles. This varies from a traditional workout that may tell you how many reps to do over any period of time.

CrossFit Journal notes that the workouts are so effective because of their emphasis on the elements of load, distance and speed, which help participants develop high levels of power. The workout may utilize different equipment to accomplish this, including kettle bells, rowers and bikes, medicine balls, speed ropes, rings and plyo boxes.

CrossFit is similar to Orange Theory in that there is a standard “workout of the day” (WOD) that all members complete on the same day. The daily workout can be found on their website (which is always free), along with a guide to all the specialized lingo that is used. There is also a substitutions section on their FAQ page that suggests places to find level appropriate workouts. “CrossFit is universally scalable and modifiable for all fitness levels, so it can be tailored to meet your goals and current fitness level,” says Tracey Magee, owner and head coach of CrossFit Clan Performance Center.

Devotees say CrossFit is for everyone

You may have a preconceived notion of the type of person who belongs in a CrossFit gym (relatively young, jacked, etc.), but Tony Caravajal, certified L-2 CrossFit trainer with RSP Nutrition, strongly believes that CrossFit is hugely beneficial for the full spectrum of ages and athletic capabilities, starting with adolescents. “CrossFit Kids classes are a fantastic way to help a child develop balance, coordination, as well as proper motor skills.” He says that these skills are a fantastic way to put a child ahead of the game as well as instill a love for a healthily lifestyle.

Patrick Zeiher, owner of CrossFit Indian Trail, notes that one reason CrossFit is so beneficial for all ages is that the physical needs of a person vary by degree — not by kind. “We can literally have a 60-year-old athlete doing a similar variation of a workout as a 25-year-old competitive athlete,” he says. “Their needs don’t vary by kind; in other words, they both need to be able to squat to a toilet, pick something up off the floor, or get themselves off the floor. The 25-year-old should just be able to do it all faster,” says Zeiher.

Another essential element of CrossFit is the spirit of sports and competition. Many CrossFit gyms use strategic actions, like keeping a score board and posting winners to social media, as motivation rather than a reward system. So if you’re someone who is motivated by competition to push yourself physically, CrossFit may prove a great exercise for you that drives fast results.

But there are some risks involved with doing a CrossFit workout

As with any high intensity workout, there is some risk involved. One study found that 20 percent of the CrossFit participants surveyed injured themselves while doing CrossFit endorsed workouts.

“The injury rate of CrossFit is about 20 percent, meaning 20 percent of people who perform CrossFit branded workouts regularly will be injured at some point, which is high for a recreational activity,” says Cuyler Hudson, a physical therapist at Finish Line. “I personally see CrossFitters regularly in my physical therapy practice. Injuries will usually occur as an athlete fatigues, which causes their form to also fatigue, causing the load to be shifted from the areas it is supposed to be to areas that cannot handle the stress as well.”

How to reduce your risk of injury

  • Check your form. When it comes to avoiding injury, Hudson says that proper form is key. “The biggest things you want to watch out for is rounding at the lumbar spine (low back), and an increased forward translation of the knees during exercises like squats and deadlifts. Rounding in the low back causes a huge load on the muscles and ligaments in the low back, which it’s not designed to handle. The same is true for the knees, if they are moving forward over the toes as you squat, the load on the knee becomes huge, and many knees just can’t handle it. Both of these most commonly occur as compensation for a lack of mobility and stability in the hips or ankles.”
  • Choose the right gym/coach. “I don’t want to sound like I’m trashing the CrossFit exercises. They are all great exercises when performed properly. The problem more lies in inexperienced coaches who increase the volume of exercise too quickly, and push athletes through form fatigue to complete the maximum amount of repetitions for an exercise. It’s crucial that CrossFitters (new CrossFitters in particular) learn correct form, and only complete exercises to form fatigue, not until they can no longer complete a rep. My advice would be to find an experienced and well-regarded gym to join and commit to learning correct form before you start to increase the load.”

What to know before you go

Learn the lingo

You may hear several acronyms and words thrown around during a class, either verbally or written on a board with the workout for the day. Here are some of the most common:

WOD: Workout of the Day

EMOM: Every Minute on the Minute

AMRAP: As Many Reps as Possible

Box: A CrossFit gym with the bare necessities to perform all the WODs.

Ladder: A series of exercises where you increase the number of reps by 1 each time they are performed. (i.e. 5 squats, then 6 squats, then 7 squats …)

Zone Diet: The diet that CrossFit endorses. This diet is based on macronutrients.

SQ: Squat

PR: Personal Record. This refers to when you reach your personal best in a given exercise. For example, completing a certain number of push-ups in a minute.

Hero WOD: These workouts are named after first responders who have died in the line of duty. These workouts are especially difficult to remind CrossFitters of the sacrifices that these men and women made for their country.

Start with a beginner’s class and make modifications

Magee suggests that you communicate with your coach any limitations or restrictions you have, especially if you’re just getting back into a workout routine or are a beginner. “Once a person has been through their initial assessment, a qualified coach will help them determine the any modifications, such as particular movements or the volume of training for a particular workout,” she says.

If you are a beginner, you’re in luck. CrossFit accounts for this sector of the population. “Some sort of beginner or foundations class is highly recommended for newcomers. In these classes, they’ll learn the basics and improve fitness at their own pace. Once they learn the basic foundational skills and build their confidence, they can move into regular classes,” explains Magee. “A less experienced or very de-conditioned individual would be advised to start with fewer classes per week (usually 2-3), until their bodies have adapted to the new movements and the volume of training.”

What you can steal from CrossFit and apply to your own workouts

Even if you aren’t quite ready to jump full force into CrossFit, there are effective elements of the workout that you can incorporate into your current exercise routine.

  • Functional movements: These movements are ones that you do in your everyday life without even knowing it. For example, bending over to tie your shoes. If you can’t touch your toes, this movement is difficult for you. With a little flexibility training, lacing your shoes is a breeze. Another benefit of functional movements in exercise is that they can help prevent injury in your day-to-day life. If you’re used to doing a basic movement in a workout (like squatting down or lifting something heavy off the floor), your muscles will be able to move this way when you need to perform the movement.
  • Race against the clock: It’s common during a CrossFit workout to perform as many reps of an exercise as possible during a specific time frame. If you want to try this for yourself, start small. It’s always better to work up to longer time periods. Start with your timer set for one minute. Do 5 push-ups, 5 squats, then 5 jumping jacks. Do this set of moves as many times as possible during the 1 minute. If you don’t feel spent after the minute is up, increase your timer to 3 or 5 minutes, and so on.
  • EMOMS: Another approach to this is doing the workouts ‘EMOM’ style or every minute on the minute. To do this, set a timer for one minute then do as many push-ups as you can, then do the same for squats, the same for jumping jacks, and so on. This type of workout is beneficial because it can help drastically improve your recovery time, and helps raise your heart rate in a short time frame, giving you more bang for your buck.

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