The Beginner's Guide to CrossFit
Learn how to get started with CrossFit.
CrossFit has been around a long time. In fact, it was founded way back in 2000. However, only in the last five years or so has it started to get really popular. You can watch it live on ESPN, where you’ll see elite athletes battle to be crowned the fittest man or woman on earth. Maybe you’ve seen a video on YouTube of athletes doing some funny looking pull-ups or walking on their hands, and you’ve wondered what on earth is going on? Well, wonder no more, with the WodBase guide to CrossFit for beginners.
What is CrossFit?
What better way to start than by asking what is CrossFit? There is no better place than CrossFit itself for the answer — the following is taken from the official CrossFit website, and provides a highly detailed explanation.
CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more.
These are the core movements of life. They move the largest loads the longest distances, so they are ideal for maximizing the amount of work done in the shortest time.
Intensity is essential for results and is measurable as work divided by time—or power. The more work you do in less time, or the higher the power output, the more intense the effort. By employing a constantly varied approach to training, functional movements and intensity lead to dramatic gains in fitness.
If that’s a little too long to remember, CrossFit can be defined just by focusing on the opening line from above: CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. This could be basic body weight movements such as push-ups, pull-ups and squats, all the way up to complex Olympic lifts such as cleans and snatches. But don’t worry about the complex parts right now — CrossFit is designed to be completely scalable so you can work your way up from your current level of ability.
You will genuinely have a hugely varied workout every single day, with a training program designed to test a different part of your functional strength and conditioning. If you’re looking for a treadmill or weight machines you definitely won’t find that at a CrossFit gym.
Who is CrossFit for?
You’re probably wondering at this stage, “Is CrossFit right for me?”. Due to the high intensity it can seem incredibly daunting, and most of the videos you’ll see on YouTube won’t help — watching supremely fit and athletic men and women lifting heavy weights at speed may leave you with the impression that CrossFit isn’t right for you, but that isn’t the case. Remember, every workout is completely scalable, ensuring beginners can participate at a level they feel comfortable with.
To reference the official CrossFit website again, the following section from their ‘What is CrossFit?’ page helps explain who CrossFit is for:
While CrossFit challenges the world’s fittest, the program is designed for universal scalability, making it the perfect application for any committed individual, regardless of experience. We scale load and intensity; we don’t change the program. The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind.
To simplify the above, CrossFit is for anybody looking to improve their fitness and strength with a training program. Naturally CrossFit will appeal (or not appeal) to certain types of people, which we cover below.
CrossFit is great for these type of people:
- People who want support — CrossFit isn’t like a normal gym where you’re left to workout on your own. Your coach will support and assist you however you require, while fellow members will also offer advice based on your experience. They were once in your shoes, after all.
- People who enjoy community — The community aspect to CrossFit is one of its biggest strengths. Once you attend classes regularly you’ll start to establish friendships. Many workouts require working in groups, which is a great opportunity to get to know likeminded people.
- Competitive personalities — Whether you’re a former athlete or you simply want to be the best at everything you do, CrossFit is the perfect place to satisfy that competitive edge. Most workouts are based on finishing in the quickest time or lifting the heaviest weight, which continually pushes you to get better every time you go to a class.
- People who like to work out regularly — If you like to work out 4-5 times a week CrossFit is ideal with its constantly varied program. Combined with the community and competitive environment, chances are you’ll find yourself wanting to do more classes than you initially thought. Don’t overdo yourself though — use a 3 days on, 1 days off approach, and make sure your body has a chance to recover and strengthen over time.
- People new to weight training — If movements such as deadlifts and back squats are completely new to you, CrossFit is an ideal place to learn. Coaches will help you master the technique and help you avoid injuring yourself.
It really goes without saying that CrossFit might not be for you if none of the above points are appealing. There are a few other reasons why it might not be a good match:
- You want to specialize in something — The whole point of CrossFit is to improve your overall strength and conditioning. If you’re looking to focus on something in particular, for example powerlifting or a certain sport, you will need to focus your training on that for the best results.
- You prefer working out alone — While you may not be completely opposed to the community aspect of CrossFit, you will typically workout in groups or with a partner at certain times. If you prefer your own space and freedom when exercising this may be too much of a hindrance.
- You have postural issues — While CrossFit is completely scalable, there’s no getting away from the fact it is designed to be intense. If you have issues with mobility or muscle soreness the workouts could add further strain. While you can mitigate this by listening to your body and consulting with your coach, you may want to rectify these issues in a different environment before trying CrossFit.
- Your local CrossFit box isn’t solid — Sometimes the coaches aren’t great, or there’s too many people in the class that you can’t get as much attention and support as you’d like. If this is the case, and there isn’t a local alternative, you may be better off doing something else.
Even if you have doubts about whether CrossFit is right for you, find your local box and give it a try. Most places should offer an introduction class, giving you the opportunity to see what you think before making a commitment.
What are CrossFit classes like?
So you’ve decided that you want to try CrossFit, and you’re now wondering, “What is a CrossFit class like?”. Fortunately most CrossFit boxes will give you the opportunity to try out an introduction class for free, with a beginner-friendly format. You will then likely be required to complete on ramp/elements classes, which will teach you the key foundations of CrossFit before you jump into the regular classes. The structure will vary, put typically it will look something like this:
- Introduction class — This is designed for complete newcomers. You can expect an overview of CrossFit and then a basic body weight workout, where you’ll do movements such as pull-ups, push-ups and sit-ups. The coach will then explain the joining process and detail the next steps, such as the on ramp/elements classes.
- On ramp/elements classes — The goal with these classes is to teach you the foundational movements of CrossFit. This is where you’ll be doing movements such as squats and deadlifts, and it’s incredibly important to understand the correct way to do these with good form. Not only will this help you avoid injury or hurting yourself, good form is essential to your long-term progression. Don’t underestimate how important it is to attend these classes.
- Regular classes — This is where you get into the full regular classes, which typically last an hour. Everybody works together here, under the supervision of the coach. You can expect a wide range of experience from people attending the classes, ranging from newcomers to athletes that have been doing CrossFit for several years. Depending on the size of the box, there may be regular classes for highly experienced athletes.
Regular classes will typically consist of two key components:
- Skill/strength work — Here you’ll focus on a particular movement. If it’s strength related, this could be something like back squats, for example 5×5 (five sets of five reps), increasing the weight for each set. If it’s skill related, this will typically be something that’s more challenging to perform, such as snatches. Here you’ll focus on a lighter weight to work on the technique.
- Metcon — Short for metabolic conditioning, the metcon is usually a few exercises repeated AMRAP-style (as many rounds/reps as possible), or a set number of rounds that has to be completed in the quickest time possible. A good example of this is the Cindy WOD, where athletes have to complete as many rounds as possible of: 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats.
There will be a dynamic warm-up before each workout, designed to work on the foundational CrossFit movements, as well as stretches and mobility exercises. The warm-up will typically include movements to compliment the rest of the workout, such as activating your glutes before squatting.
Note that CrossFit boxes can have a different structure and naming convention for their classes and workouts.
How do I find a CrossFit gym?
So you’ve decided that you like the sound of the classes and you want to give CrossFit a go, now you’re thinking, “How do I find a CrossFit gym?”. The good news is you’re likely to have several options if you live in a city, due to the emergence and continued popularity of CrossFit. You can easily find local boxes by using the official CrossFit affiliate map.
The two most important things you need to look for with a CrossFit box are the coaches and the programing. Having great facilities and state-of-the-art equipment won’t mean anything if you’re not getting a well structured program from experienced coaches.Below is what you can expect to see when looking at how experienced/qualified the coaches are:
- CrossFit Level 1 — This is an introduction to CrossFit’s methodology and foundational movements. Participants will learn how to define the core concepts of CrossFit, identify the primary points of performance to correctly perform foundational movements, identify unsound movements and how to correct them, and how to apply the CrossFit program safely.
- CrossFit Level 2 — This is an intermediate course that builds on what participants learn from level 1. CrossFit recommends that participants have at least six months of experience training individuals/groups before taking the level 2 course. The objectives are a significant step up from level 1, so you can expect coaches to be able to provide very detailed feedback, identifying and correcting small faults and showing a clear ability to evaluate individual’s athletic capacity.
If the coaches are experienced the programing should be sound, however, CrossFit is very random by nature, so it’s still important to make sure it’s right for you. Here’s some things to look for with a good program:
- Muscle groups are targeted effectively — Your body needs time to recover after an intense workout. Make sure the program allows sufficient rest time for muscle groups, and you’re not doing back-to-back classes where you work the same muscle groups in the same ways.
- Workouts are based on progression — A good program will provide a platform for you to progress. Some boxes will have defined cycles, where you can expect to work on the same movement, for example it could be a five-week cycle where every Monday you focus on back squats. Other boxes may not use such a clearly defined cycle, but will still program the exercises and workouts in a way that helps you progress over time.
As always, there’s a lot of variation in how CrossFit boxes and coaches will approach their workouts and programing. Once you start to attend classes regularly you’ll begin to learn what works best for you.
Can I do CrossFit at home?
One of the great things about CrossFit is that you can do it anywhere, whether it’s at a CrossFit box, a regular gym or just at home. Every workout can be scaled or modified to individual needs and set-ups, however, there are limitations when doing CrossFit outside of the regular classes.
- Reviewing technique and form — Many of the CrossFit movements can be technically challenging. Whether it’s perfecting the clean-and-jerk or working on a handstand push-up, having a coach to assist you is hugely valuable.
- Having other people to push you on — Not only will other people in your class help you with your technique and form, they’ll also be cheering you on. This is also a great environment for anybody with a competitive streak, as you’ll find yourself wanting to finish ahead of everybody else.
- Having the right equipment — Any good CrossFit program will be highly varied, which requires a lot of equipment. Your ability to do certain workouts will be completely dependant on the equipment you have available.
If you’re new to CrossFit then it’s strongly recommended to join a box and learn from the coaches. If getting to a box simply isn’t possible then you can do CrossFit at home, but just make sure you have the right equipment and you’re smart with how you work out.
What are some typical CrossFit Workouts?
There’s already a huge number of named CrossFit workouts. When you add in the potential variations of each workout, and then the unique workouts from every CrossFit box, the number really is limitless.
You might have heard of workouts such as ‘Angie’ and ‘Grace’. These are the popular benchmark girl workouts, which are used to benchmark an athlete’s performance over time. These workouts vary from all-out sprints to endurance tests, as can be seen below with the details of Angie and Grace:
Angie — For time: 100 pull-ups, 100 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, 100 squats. (View the Angie WOD)
Grace — For time: 30 clean-and-jerks (135/95lb). (View the Grace WOD)
Then you have the hero workouts, such as the hugely popular, traditional Memorial Day workout Murph:
Murph — For time: 1-mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 air squats, 1-mile run. (View the Murph WOD)
Apart from the benchmarks and traditional workouts, it really is a case of each class being significantly different. While the exercises and movements will change, every class is designed to be an intense workout, so don’t expect anything less than getting your butt kicked.
What are the CrossFit Games?
The CrossFit Games is a yearly event where the best CrossFit athletes in the world compete for the crown of fittest man/woman on earth. With a fairly low key beginning in 2007, the Games has now evolved into a hugely popular event, being streamed on TV and offering over $2 million in prize money for the elite athletes that compete.
Many of the athletes that compete in the Games have dedicated themselves to CrossFit full-time, as the demands continue to get tougher each year. While only a small number of people have the athletic capacity for competing at this level, it’s still great to watch, and can provide motivation no matter what level you are at.
What are the pros and cons of CrossFit?
So, you’ve got a really good idea of what CrossFit is about, whether it’s right for you, how to find a gym and what to expect from the classes. Let’s wrap this all up with a final list of the pros and cons of CrossFit.Pros:
- Coaching and support — You won’t have a personal trainer, but typically coaches will be able to give you a lot of support and assistance, on top of explaining the workout in detail at the start of the class. No more wondering if you’re doing the movement correctly.
- Community vibe — Everybody at CrossFit wants to push themselves and be the best they can be. This naturally creates a great community aspect, with everybody supporting each other. Think you’re working out as hard as you can? Put yourself head-to-head with 10 other people in a CrossFit class and think again.
- Track your progress — You are encouraged to track your progress, making it easy to see how you are improving over time. If you’re new to CrossFit you can expect to make pretty significant jumps on movements such as squats and deadlifts, and it’s always satisfying when you hit a new PR.
- It’s hard to skip class — Many of the popular CrossFit boxes have such a high demand that you have to book your class, and if you don’t show up without canceling you’ll get a strike against your name. Unlike a regular gym where you can easily skip your workout, this makes sure you’re attending and getting the most out of your membership.
- You get in great shape — A good CrossFit program will focus on making you a well-rounded athlete, meaning you’re working on strength and endurance. This helps create a well defined body that your friends will be envious of.
- Hard to specialize — As mentioned earlier, CrossFit is great for improving all-round performance. However, if you’re looking to specialize in something, such as powerlifting, you’ll need a more focused training program.
- Diversified programing — You’ll rarely do the same workout more than once. While this is typically seen as a benefit, it can be an issue for people who like more consistency and a clearly defined way to progress on movements.
- Price — It’s no secret that CrossFit is expensive. You can expect to pay more than $200/month at certain places, and this won’t give you access to anything other than the classes.
- You are always pushing yourself to the limit — While coaches support you and help you with options for scaling, there’s no getting away from the fact that you’re always looking to push yourself. Whether that’s finishing in the quickest time or doing the highest number of reps, it’s easy to forget about your form if you’re not careful.
- People will think you’re part of the cult — At some point somebody will probably roll their eyes at you when you mention that you do CrossFit. If you’re competitive it can be easy to get addicted to CrossFit and you’ll probably end up talking about it a lot. There’s nothing wrong with this, but people who don’t do CrossFit may judge you for it.
There’s nothing really left to say other than give it a go. CrossFit isn’t for everybody, but despite how intimidating it may look at times, it truly is a great way for people of all levels to workout. Give it a try and see what you think.