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Intro To CrossFit – What is Fitness?

by Adam Farrah » on Oct 24, 2011 11

Editors Note:  We’ve invited Adam Farrah, an expert in the CrossFit community, to share some basics and information on the Crossfit phenomenon.  You may have seen Adam’s work here on MyFiveFingers.com before as he authored the really popular Paleo Diet Basics series and was also featured with his Paleo adult beverage.

Enter Adam.

CrossFit is something I’ve been passionate about for a number of years now. I personally believe that the CrossFit methodology – and the community that grew around it – has done more to change the fitness landscape than anything else that’s come along in a long time – maybe ever.

There are also many arguments both inside and outside the training and health communities about virtually all things CrossFit. As I did with my writing on The Paleo Diet for MyFiveFingers.com, my goal in this article series is to present you with the facts and as many sides of the story as I can so you can make sense of the methodology as a whole, make your own decisions and decide if CrossFit is right for you.

CrossFit – The View from 50,000 Feet…

CrossFit has become massively popular in the past year or so. This has been both good and bad for the methodology or – as some would consider it – the sport. Because there are a lot of misconceptions propagating throughout the internet, I’m going to back up and lay a bit of foundation for you. That foundation will help you understand CrossFit from a perspective that will allow you to make good decisions about trying it, training in it and finding a quality gym if it’s something you want to get into.

Greg Glassman – CrossFit’s inventor and founder – did two fantastically intelligent things:

  1. He developed a working definition of “fitness”
  2. He drew upon virtually every effective training methodology and discipline to create an arguably “complete” training system

On point one above, the definition of fitness is incredibly important. Why? Because it lays a foundation and goal set out for training in CrossFit and progressing in a program.

Here’s more on the CrossFit definition of fitness from Glassman’s genius article “What is Fitness?:

There are ten recognized general physical skills. They are cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, speed, balance, and accuracy. You are as fit as you are competent in each of these ten skills. A regimen develops fitness to the extent that it improves each of these ten skills.

Here’s a short and handy set of bullet points from “What is Fitness?:”

There are two things I think are worth noting in the above sidebar from Glassman’s article. First, do you see any relation between the first point and the Paleo diet? CrossFit culture has had a MAJOR impact on the spreading of Paleo. Second, I’d caution that 5-6 days a week of CrossFit can be A LOT for many people and can be too much for some. Training frequency and periodization is a massive field that I can’t really expand on here, but just know that too much CrossFit (or ANY training) can really send you into an over-trained state that will make gains in fitness and training progress very difficult to make.

If improving your training in a general sense – as outlined in the above points – is of interest to you, you can check out a very popular blog post I wrote a while back called: “Ten Things That Will Make Your Training Better.”

CrossFit and Training Intensity

One thing CrossFit does exceptionally well is add an intensity component to workouts. The high intensity “Met Con” (metabolic conditioning) work wasn’t invented by CrossFit, but I think they’ve perfected it and elevated it to someplace it’s never been before. All serious CrossFitters pretty much demand crazy intensity in any workout you give them. It becomes addicting.

I believe the CrossFit methodology is exceptional because, among other things, it recognizes – and provides a framework for using – the fact that “Anaerobic training can match endurance training for aerobic benefit” (Greg Glassman, Metabolic Conditioning [CrossFit Journal, June 2003]). This is an absolutely profound statement in its simplicity and elegance. What it means is that you can increase your cardiovascular capacity without doing traditional cardio training.

There’s a joke among CrossFitters. People always look at CrossFit and ask: “Where’s the cardio?” It’s a joke because 1) CrossFitters don’t use the traditional modes of cardio training like treadmills and steppers for the most part and, 2) if you’ve ever done a CrossFit workout you’d never, EVER ask that question. CrossFit workouts are extremely challenging cardiovascularly. You won’t really appreciate this fully until you’re in the middle of your first one.

Specializing in NOT Specializing

There are some really funny arguments made by different training communities about the “ineffectiveness” of CrossFit training. For example, many bodybuilders will look at CrossFit athletes and say they look “small” or “not muscular enough.” Or, marathoners will say “CrossFit doesn’t do enough endurance work.” The arguments go on and on and can be made by any specialized training community or methodology.

Specializing isn’t what CrossFit is about. In Glassman’s words, again from “What is Fitness?:”

Our fitness being ‘CrossFit’ comes through molding men and women that are equal parts gymnast, Olympic weightlifter, and multi-modal sprinter or “sprint-athlete.”  Develop the capacity of a novice 800-meter track athlete, gymnast, and weightlifter and you’ll be fitter than any world-class runner, gymnast, or weightlifter.

In other words, CrossFitters train to be VERY GOOD at “everything” as opposed to training to be “the best” at one or two specialized forms of training.

This training is ideal for those who want a high degree of general fitness or GPP (General Physical Preparedness) as opposed to a high level of skill in one area – say marathon running, for example – and a low or non-existent degree of fitness everywhere else – poor strength and weight lifting performance, low coordination, low flexibility, etc.

This is one big reason why CrossFit is so popular with Military and Law Enforcement. It prepares those who train it seriously for “the unknown and the unknowable,” in Glassman’s words.

CrossFit also appeals to what I affectionately call “Training ADD.” There are a lot of physical things I really like to do – running, weight lifting, kettlebells, martial arts, etc. Understanding and implementing a CrossFit philosophy in training allows me to train in all the disciplines I want and it gives me a context within which to understand my progress – specializing in not specializing.

A Quick Rant…

As a side note – and this is something I’m really passionate about – the whole “specializing in not specializing” thing is absolutely NOT an excuse to not be good at anything. If you read Glassman’s short post from a while back called simply “Virtuosity,” you’ll see that he was very much a stickler for learning and perfecting the fundamentals and considered mastery of fundamental movements a key development area for those he trained.

It makes me absolutely NUTS when I see beginning – or even “established” – people training advanced CrossFit exercises with a complete lack of fundamentals mastery.

Besides making damn sure you find a good CrossFit to train at – which I’ll do my best to help you do – in the end it’s really up to YOU to make sure you’re getting the fundamentals taught to you, taught well, reinforced and there’s encouragement and opportunity for you to work toward mastery of them.

The CrossFit Community – Where the Magic Happens…

If you’re training in a good CrossFit gym, the level of community and support you’ll experience is likely going to be the most fun, positive and unexpected aspect of the training and your involvement with CrossFit. CrossFitters are usually highly dedicated, accepting, helpful and just all around cool people. They also tend to be very well connected and active on Facebook and other forms of social media. This is a huge reason that CrossFit has spread the way it has and also has a lot to do with the massive amount of CrossFit workout pics all over the internet. Cameras, Facebook and CrossFit tend to all go together…

BTW, if you’re currently getting started in CrossFit or looking around and trying out CrossFit Affiliates before you decide if it’s right for you, and you CAN’T describe the atmosphere as encouraging, accepting, and dedicated to excellence, you need to find another CrossFit to train in. If there are cliques, an unwelcoming or accepting attitudes or a constant pressure to train much harder than you safely can (This is NOT the same as being encouraged to push and redefine your physical limits and limitations in a positive and safe way.), you need to look elsewhere for your CrossFit training.

The Short Story on Finding a GREAT CrossFit Gym…

Every CrossFit will have a different culture, training philosophy and “bias” toward certain types of training or skill development. For example, my friends Merle and Glenn here in Connecticut have what they call a “strength bias” at their gyms. That means that, while they still train and program within the CrossFit model, there is an emphasis on the big barbell movements from the Powerlifting and Olympic Lifting worlds as well as a lot of Strongman implements distributed within the workouts.

Something else to keep in mind is that the experience level of the coaches at various CrossFits can vary as widely as the culture and the collective attitudes of the members. Like choosing a personal trainer or any other type of professional you’re choosing to trust, you should do as much homework as you can before you make a long term commitment to a particular CrossFit gym. Be sure and ask a lot of questions, watch some classes, talk to the members and do whatever else you need to to feel comfortable and confident in training at an individual gym. You might need to drive past one or two CrossFits that are closer to you to get to one that will allow you to thrive on what is a really awesome training methodology.

CrossFits are different enough individually that you can’t judge CrossFit as a whole based on your experience at one or even two boxes.

The bottom line is that you need to understand the motivation and philosophy of the owners and coaches at the gym you’re looking at as well as the culture and attitude of the members before you sign on the dotted line…

ttys

Adam

Special Thanks…

Big thanks to Glenn Perra and Merle McKenzie from CrossFit Relentless and CrossFit 033 in Connecticut for all the great CrossFit pics from their recent Beast of the East Fitness Festival! If you’re in Central Connecticut these are two gyms that ABSOLUTELY offer outstanding training and coaching.

Submitted Comments

  1. Sean Philips says:

    I am just one month into crossfit. Prior to that I had just completed the C25K running program. Prior to that I sat on my ass, ate crap and drank heavily for 15 years. Getting over the pride aspects of ‘scaling down” the workouts and getting crushed by all the fit men and women in my class is the hardest part for me. All in all I can’t recommend it highly enough. Most affiliates offer a free trial class if you want to be truly fit, you owe it to yourself t at least give it a try.

  2. Adam Farrah says:

    “Prior to that I sat on my ass, ate crap and drank heavily for 15 years.” LMFAO!

    Great job on getting out and getting some training done, Sean!

    CrossFit really can be magical when you get into it and start training in a great box!

    Sean, wouldn’t you say that it doesn’t take that long to start getting up to speed when you work hard at it? I mean, you’re probably not ready for the CrossFit Games yet, but you’re probably making progress really fast, right?

    Adam

  3. Adam Farrah says:

    Speaking of progress and the CrossFit Games, here’s a post I wrote from a while back that will give you an idea of the freakin’ MAGIC CrossFit can work…

    http://practicalpaleolithic.com/paleolithic-diet-blog/it-probably-doesnt-mean-what-you-think-it-does

  4. MaryAnn says:

    –> trying out CrossFit Affiliates before you decide if it’s right for you, and you CAN’T describe the atmosphere as encouraging, accepting, and dedicated to excellence, you need to find another CrossFit to train in <– THIS!!! I have never seen a more diverse group (in EVERY way possible (fitness levels, careers, lifestyles, name it! ….) encourage and SINCERELY support each other!! I can NOT underestimate the importance of that! :D It's like a second family :D Walking into my gym was THE BEST thing I ever did for myself :D

  5. Great introduction to a fascinating subject which I’d heard lots about but really didn’t understand much about. I’ve been Paleo for a couple years now and look forward to beginning a CrossFit regimen.

  6. Adam Farrah says:

    Awesome, Chris! Glad it helped!

    Adam

  7. Ryan says:

    Cross fit gyms and equipment are expensive. Are there cross fit work outs i can do on my own with minimal equipment.

  8. Dan says:

    Ryan – you definitely can start out Crossfit with minimal to no weights – in other word, using your Body Weight (BW).

    Check these out:
    http://crossfitbolling.wordpress.com/bw-wods-for-hometravel/

  9. Adam Farrah says:

    I agree with Dan. You can implement CrossFit methods without a lot of equipment. The main site (crossfit.com) also has enough free info to keep you busy for a few lifetimes.

    On the topic of “expensive” you definitely pay for the coaching at a good gym. Check this post out where I address those issues: http://myfivefingers.com/crossfit3/

    Adam

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  11. ChrisJ says:

    Completely agree on the support/acceptance point; I was in a gym that had CF (not a dedicated box) and it was fine for a whil . The problem was they had too many members and not enough equipment or space to train. Since there were so many people, the new or not-so-skilled people (myself included) didn’t receive the attention needed (esp. with complex lifts). I have to mention the elite/non-elite division but don’t need to go into much detail other than they received the lions share of attention from the coaches. Scalability wasnt practiced; I knew I couldn’t perform certain lifts at WOD-posted weights so I scaled back and occasionally caught some flak from the coach (uh, hello…don’t want to do an OHP and have it FALL on me). Having to sign/post your name/time (or DNF if I couldn’t finish) made no sense, other than to show that I either finished last or didn’t finish at all. I never received any encouragement mentioned from other posters (having the coach yell to go harder or faster doesn’t count).

    It all came to a head when one of the WODs called for kipping pull ups and the coach said “if you’ve been here for six months and can’t do those, you got a problem”. The coach knew I could manage a few dead hang pulls or several with a band but couldn’t master the kipping movement. Completed what I could of the WOD, didn’t sign out and that was the last time I did CF.

    Sure, theres probably great boxes out there but I haven’t found one that works with my security guard schedule or budget. I do like that most I’ve seen have a sign in / logon to limit class sizes, but I’d just rather pay $20/class than $200/month. I’ll keep checking out other boxes (Living Social specials are nice) but I haven’t found one that offers a.free class (a couple cited liability issues).

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