I Did CrossFit for Two Years, Here’s What I Learned

Thanks for clicking. You were likely drawn in by the baiting headline most publications use nowadays. They end with something like “And you’ll never guess what happened next!” I hate them mainly because I know they work and, to be honest, I fall for them every time. You see them all over the internet, and now it’s worked on you. Thanks for reading, but be smarter next time…

I’ve talked about my reluctancy to do CrossFit before. For one, there’s the stygma associated with it. I don’t think that stygma is as bad now as it was in say, 2011, but for a long time saying you did CrossFit was an invitaiton to being called a meathead or a try-hard. Or people assumed you were the type of person who uploads videos of yourself doing Hang Cleans on Facebook. For a while I tried to hide the fact that I was doing it. I started in October 2018. Someone would ask me what gym I go to and I’d say, “Oh, it’s just like a HIIT-class-type-of-thing.” Then they’d ask “Oh Orange Theory, or something?” And I’d say no, but kind of. And then after they pressed me for a bit, I’d finally give in and say “Ok, it’s actually a CrossFit gym.” I know, they call it a Box.

There are a few things I learned in the last two years of doing Crossfit, both good and bad. Because I baited you in with a catchy title, I’m also going to write this article in bolded headline bullets, because that’s usually how I like to skim through these types of articles:

It took me a while to really figure out what I was doing, like a couple of months actually. I’ve lifted my whole life. I did powerlifts in high school for football. I figured my form was better than average and that my muscle memory or athletic background would catch me up with the more experienced members quicker than most. But I was surprised by how much CrossFit levels up from the average weight-lifting session. I had to re-learn the proper form which took a while.

The soreness is unlike anything you’ve ever felt. There were days I thought I may never lift again, or even go up a flight of stairs with ease. But once you build up a tolerance for the aches (because you never just stop getting sore), you feel accomplished and uplifted from the aches and pains – and that feeling energizes you throughout the day.

CrossFitters are really nice and the community aspect is something I’ll miss. Just about everyone I met at the different boxes was super friendly. When you go through hell together, it makes it very easy to share that sense of relief when it’s over. Everyone was also eager to recommend different techniques, share reviews on their favorite recovery products, or talk about new shows, books, and podcasts that they liked.

No two CrossFit boxes are alike. I’ve been to four different CrossFit boxes and they each have their own unique timing, instruction techniques and rules. CrossFit is an affiliate program so coaches can modify how they wish as long as the bones of their workouts adhere to the CrossFit principles. There was one box I went to that mandated everyone show up 10 minutes early. Another one usually started 5 minutes late and let people stroll in at their leisure. Veteran Crossfitters are very particular about how they like their classes, and some will drive long distances to a different gym if they don’t like the one closer to their home. Some are focused on power-lifting like Hang Cleans, Snatches, heavy-weight Squats or Deadlifts. Some are more HIIT-focused and open to newbies on ClassPass. There are also gyms that have a strong emphasis on the tough, gymnastic style workouts like handstand push-ups, rope climbs, muscle-ups, L-sits, and triple-unders.

The classes are very structured. Each day has a unique WOD, or Workout of the Day. You can find these online on your local Crossfit’s website. When you register for and 8am class, for example, you start on time, do some dynamic warmups and stretching (some of which are pretty unique), get a briefing from the coach on how the WOD works, including a recap of how each exercise is performed, then the class grabs light weights to show competency in each exercise before the coach gives the green light. You can ask questions, grab a drink, use the restroom, tape up your fingers, whatever. This whole process takes 15-20 minutes. Once everyone is ready, the coach will start the clock and the WOD begins – depending on the WOD it can be 25-40 minutes of excrutiating work. It attracts lots of high school and college athletes because they are structured similar to a short practice. Here’s and example of a brutal one I did recently. If you’re uncomfortable with the weights prescribed, you can always scale back and choose a lighter weight:

Pyramid Double Helen (52 lbs or 35 lbs on the kettlebell)

For time:
Run 1,200 meters
63 kettlebell swing
36 pull-ups
Run 800 meters
42 kettlebell swings
24 pull-ups
Run 400 meters
21 kettlebell swings
12 pull-ups

The coaches are great, friendly and more than willing to help out newcomers or those who may be less able to complete a certain exercise. I found the coaches to be incredible resources of knowledge for things like injuries, stretch recommendations, workout advice, and diet tips. Most were also extremely patient and good provide good humor to the hellish workouts.

The workouts can DEFINITELY be too extreme. This was my biggest issue with Crossfit and why I’m most likely finished with it. As I near my 30’s and work through two knee operations, I’m much more focused on on my long-term health and being smart with how and when I push my body hard. I’m not a complaining in any way whatsoever, but I’d say 80% of the time the WODs were laughable in how hard they were. And not in the this-will-make-you-a-warrior type of way a military training exercise might be laughed at. They were legitamately stupid in my opinion. I consider myself very in-shape and I have a pretty high threshold for pain, but man I can’t tell you the about of times I felt it was either stupid, unnecessary or flat-out unsafe for me to continue the WOD. There were WODs that called for 100 Deadlifts, or 150 burpees – and that would be like the 15th component of a WOD that also has you doing box jumps, kettlebell swings, push-ups, rope climbs and squats with a barbell. Many times I would have to sneakily cut down the reps because I thought I was either going to pull a muscle, drop a weight on myself, or face plant on the edge of a wooden box. There were times I was lying flat on the floor in a pool of my own sweat, looking up at the clock to see that I had like seven more minutes of straight burpess. Fuck that. Many of the reps were just arbitrary numbers to make it sound more extreme. Doing 105 squats with weight on your back is just not smart, no matter who is doing it.

Speaking of which… the WODS will humble you. Don’t be embarrassed to check your ego and reduce the weight despite seeing other people grab the heavy ones.

Getting better feels awesome. I didn’t think I would give a shit about increasing my single rep squat or my 10-rep max deadlift, but to be honest, it felt great when I made a significant jump. Almost wanted posted it on Facebook…

My pants got tighter as my legs and butt got bigger. My friends and family made fun of me for my “skinny jeans.” But they were actually just regular jeans a couple of months prior.

My appetite spiked. Unlike in marathon training where I craved shit like soda and chips – Crossfit made me crave healthy foods like smoothies, eggs, meat, avocado, and dark chocolate.

Never say never. Every time I thought I couldn’t do another rep, I still had plenty of unreserved energy left in the tank. I was able to complete some workouts I never thought I’d be able to, just because of the peer pressure, adrenaline, and encouragement of the coaches and other people in the class. Sometimes you get paired up with a partner, which I love because it holds you accountable for every rep. I couldn’t walk the next day, but hey, I finished the WOD.

All of this is not to say I disliked CrossFit, or that I wouldn’t recommend it to you. I had fun and I’d maybe even go back at some point because I enjoyed more aspects than not. But when I think about my long-term health, I find it more important to do light, consistent work like swimming, biking, yoga, bodyweight exercises, kettlebell work and occassionally some heavy lifts like Squats or Deadlifts. I’ll never quite grasp how some of the members can do Crossfit WODs 5-7 times per week without getting seriously injured or just chronically sore, but more power to them. Either they’re genetically gifted or just crazy. It’s important to mix up your workouts. Anyone who only does yoga should try weightlifthing, and anyone who only lifts weights should try yoga.

In the midst of the pandemic, gyms being on lockdown, and political unrest throughout the country, there was a bit of controversy at CrossFit HQ. Owner and founder Greg Glassman, made some offensive tweets regarding the George Floyd murder. Those comments made many of the affiliate CrossFit box owners around the country re-think their business and whether or not they wanted their gym to be associated with this man and his viewpoints. I know of several CrossFit gyms that have since removed “CrossFit” from their name/website and have replaced it with something like “Athletics.” This means that they will no longer pay affiliate fees to CrossFit HQ to use their name and marketing to draw customers. I think it’s a smart move for many of these gyms as they probably don’t need to rely on the term “CrossFit” as much as they did five years ago.

Just about every boutique fitness class has it’s own spin on CrossFit-style HIIT exercises – kettlebell swings, burpees, squats, mountain climbers, jump roping, row machines and box jumps. It’s actually why I became less embarrassed to say I was doing CrossFit in the first place. Orange Theory, F45, or Barry’s Bootcamp are really just spinoffs of the CrossFit model in some way, shape, or form.

So, what did I gain from CrossFit? For one, I pushed myself harder than I ever have. The strength and resiliance to get through those WODs certainly helped me to grit through enduring marathon training. I realized my potential and capacity for pain. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and learned more movements to repertoire that I never thought I could do. Handstand push-ups? Who would have thought. I also gained friendships and an appreciation for what people are capable of. For now, as I recover from my second knee surgery at the ripe age of 27, I think I’ll just hit the golf course…

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