It’s the hottest trend at the gym right now. Is this military-style workout right for you?
It will definitely make you sweat, possibly make you collapse in exhaustion, and maybe even make you weep. Its unofficial mascot is “Pukie the Clown,” a projectile-vomiting character crawling away from a discarded barbell. And around the world, more than 7,000 affiliated gyms are packing in determined exercisers to experience the challenge, the pain, and the potential glory of CrossFit. Why is this hardcore training method gaining so many devotees, and what are they gaining from the experience? As an active outdoor athlete, should you give CrossFit a try?
What is CrossFit?
Developed by trainer Greg Glassman, CrossFit emphasizes “functional fitness”: the development of all-around strength, endurance, and cardio capacity. It’s best known for the “Workout of the Day” or “WOD,” a list of prescribed exercises to be completed as many times as possible in a given amount of time. These workouts, all named after people, range from the relatively easy but still challenging “Chelsea” (a sequence of five pull-ups, ten pushups, and fifteen squats, repeated for 30 minutes) to the truly brutal “Hero WODs” named after fallen US soldiers.
Another key component of CrossFit is its group setting. While you may be able to do these exercises on your own, an essential part of the CrossFit experience is testing yourself against others, getting encouragement from them, and encouraging them in turn. Tommy Hackenbruck, owner and self-described “overlord” of Ute CrossFit, says, “It’s like being in the college weight room again. You’re part of a team, you’re training for something; it’s a powerful motivator to work out together.”
Steph Gaudreau McCormack, CrossFit athlete and owner of Stupid Easy Paleo, agrees: “In most big gyms, people purposely try not to talk to each other, but the people at your CrossFit gym end up being your friends and in many cases, an extended family. There’s also the aspect of constant variety in the day to day workouts, so it’s really hard to get bored. And from someone who can’t stand five minutes on the treadmill, that’s big!”
For outdoor athletes, CrossFit’s whole-body fitness benefits are especially apparent. Building core strength and endurance are perfect prep for any sport. “Endurance athletes who do CrossFit typically notice that it’s much easier to climb hills,” Hackenbruck says. “They’re stronger during races, and they have fewer problems with overuse injuries.”
With more than 20 CrossFit affiliates in the Salt Lake Valley alone, choosing a starting point can be a challenge. “Find a gym that really emphasizes building strength and quality of movement before adding intensity,” McCormack advises. “If you don’t like the vibe of the gym, find another one.”
Hackenbruck warns against choosing a gym too quickly: “Don’t shop based on price. The cheapest gym may not be the best for you long-term. Try a few gyms and choose one that feels right to you; the experience is what you pay for.”
Another great resource for learning CrossFit basics is the official CrossFit website. Learn weightlifting terms and techniques with the extensive exercise library at crossfit.com/cf-info/exercise.html. Detailed videos demystify “kipping” (jerking your knees up to help you do a pull-up), the “hang power snatch,” and the infamous burpee, among many other moves.
No matter where you start your CrossFit journey, experts emphasize the importance of safety. “Make sure your trainer knows about any pre-existing injuries or conditions, even if they’re not bothering you at the time,” Hackenbruck says. “When you start using a new range of motion, old issues can flare up if you’re not prepared to deal with them.”
Playing it Safe
Like any other form of exercise, CrossFit is associated with certain risks. By far the most common related “injury” is muscle soreness, which usually passes after two or three days. But other problems can prove more serious and require special attention.
“We see people getting ankle injuries from box jump moves,” Hackenbruck says. “That step-up, step-down motion can lead to twists or even sprains.” Minimize your risk of ankle injury by wearing extra-stable shoes suited for your foot shape, and always warm up with a few minutes of light stretching or slow jogging before progressing to more intense moves.
Another associated risk is “exercise-induced nausea,” or the condition that was the genesis of Pukie the Clown. Though any prolonged, challenging exercise can sour your stomach, CrossFit’s uniquely demanding environment may lead you to push yourself past your natural stopping point, resulting in a possibly embarrassing situation. Experienced CrossFitters recommend working out on an empty stomach, or snacking no less than an hour before the start of your session.
One rare, but extremely serious, condition that’s been associated with CrossFit is rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which overstressed muscle fibers break down and release the protein myoglobin into the bloodstream. This protein damages the kidneys and can even lead to acute kidney failure, possibly requiring IV fluids and dialysis. Though this condition occurs infrequently, it’s a possibility with any intense exercise straining the muscles for a long period of time; it also occurs among marathon runners and other endurance athletes. Good CrossFit trainers are aware of the warning signs, including abnormal urine color, joint pain, and seizures, and make sure their students know to look out for them. Doctors and trainers agree that the best way to prevent rhabdomyolysis is by gradually increasing workout intensity and staying properly hydrated when working out.
CrossFit and Your Lifestyle
Though many CrossFit exercisers become dedicated to the lifestyle, others use it as an adjunct to other training programs. Its focus on building overall fitness makes it an excellent way to stay in shape during the off-season for outdoor sports like cycling and trail running.
“Many athletes find that CrossFit helps them recover from injuries or other chronic problems they’ve developed elsewhere,” Hackenbruck says. “The variety of exercises helps you develop new motor patterns that strengthen you overall, and having a higher fitness level helps you recover faster from any new injuries.”
During the long, cold months of winter, it’s often tempting to stay on the couch rather than face a snowy slog to the gym and another boring hour on the treadmill. The high-energy, challenging, supportive nature of a CrossFit class could make it just the thing to help you start this year’s racing season in better shape than ever before.
Give CrossFit a try at one of Utah’s dozens of affiliate gyms. Ute CrossFit (utecrossfit.com) has locations in downtown SLC, Sugarhouse, Holladay, and East Draper.
Learn more about the CrossFit lifestyle and pick up lots of healthy eating tips (and tasty recipes!) at Stupid Easy Paleo (stupideasypaleo.com).