CrossFit:​ A beginner's guide to training and competing

Getting involved with the sport that claims to breed ‘the fittest on earth’
​A beginner's guide to CrossFit

Although its rise in popularity over the last two decades has seen over 13,000 affiliated gyms open up across the world, CrossFit is a complex beast.

For people sat on the other side of the wall it can seem like a strange, obsessed group of people performing confusing and extremely difficult workouts – and often spending a lot of money to do it. Unlike most sports, CrossFit is a brand, and one that has a very smart business plan at its core. For people watching from a distance, it’s difficult not to have a level of skepticism, whether that’s calling it elitist or claiming that the intense level of training increases the risk of injury.

Step over that wall and what you'll find is a close-knit community of like-minded people that aren’t just members of a gym, they’re part of a fitness movement. It’s a world of whiteboards with names and numbers on, people high-fiving at the end of a workout, Netflix documentaries and sport-specific products and clothing ranges that people don with the same pride that someone might wear a football jersey.

And ignoring the opinions and the outward impressions of the sport, there’s no denying that CrossFit is a highly effective way to get fit. You only have to look at the athletes that take part in the CrossFit Games – CrossFit’s very own world championship tournament – to see the level of training that goes into it. Here we break down that regulation 10-foot wall (the height used for wall balls) and demystify the CrossFit world.

What is CrossFit?

A beginners guide to CrossFit
Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc

The birth of Crossfit came around the year 2000, developed from the training styles of founder Gregg Glassman, a teenage gymnast who supplemented his gymnastics with a range of additional workouts – specifically strength training using dumbbells and barbells. Through mixing his training, Gregg found that he was far better across the board than his friends who focused on one method, but he could never be the top at any individual sport.

From that concept grew the early iterations of a sport that combines high-intensity interval training, Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics, powerlifting, gymnastics, girevoy sport (kettlebells), calisthenics and strongman training into a highly varied and challenging workout.

Those concepts and workouts have been developed and honed over the past two decades into a structured yet constantly modified series of daily routines, the overall ethos aiming to be scalable for any level of fitness.

How does it work?

A beginners guide to CrossFit
Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc

CrossFit, unlike most fitness classes you can head down to during your lunch break, is based on an affiliate model. The workouts, concepts and places you can actually do a class are all part and parcel of the CrossFit brand, and any place that runs CrossFit sessions needs to be part of the CrossFit ecosystem. The downside of that is that you'll need to find and pay to join a CrossFit box, but the upside is the whole thing is stringently and carefully monitored for quality, safety and class formats, both with the facility itself and with the trainers that work there.

Workouts generally take on the form of a constantly changing series of WODs (workouts of the day) which feature a varied series of exercises, muscle groups and class formats. The idea is that the body is consistently challenged with varied exercises, weights and movements. It also generally means that the trainers have to work hard to build engaging class formats instead of sticking to a standard formula.

Due to the complex exercises carried out across the CrossFit workouts, anyone wanting to start training needs to carry out an initial phase of induction workouts. Although that’s probably a barrier to entry for some people, performing Olympic lifting techniques and heavy kettlebell swings is not something you want to do without understanding the movements first. This induction phase is what CrossFit calls ‘fundamentals’.

Fundamentals

CrossFit: A beginner's guide to training and competing
Credit: Victor Freitas/ Unsplash

If you’re new to CrossFit, watching people do it, especially on TV, can seem incredibly daunting. Not only due to the fact that most people look like they’re about to keel over, but because they appear to be lifting ridiculously heavy weights in unbelievable difficult ways. Just looking through the window of any CrossFit box can turn off even the most plucky newbie.

Most CrossFitters didn’t start by lifting heavy weights though, and many who have been going for years still only train to the level they’re happy with. But whether you’re aiming to be the next Matt Fraser or you want to improve your 5k time, you need to learn the basics first.

The beginning stage of that is CrossFit fundamentals, a series of workouts covering the core movements carried out in any CrossFit workout. Although the majority of WODs will have an element of development within the class format, these beginner sessions are heavily focused on form and safety over any competitive or strenuous training. You should do as many of these initial sessions as needed to feel confident with the movements, or until your trainer feels that you’re ready to progress to the more full-on WOD sessions.

The main movements

A beginners guide to CrossFit
Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc

CrossFit workouts primarily focus on a series of movements, from air squats and wall balls to the significantly more complex jerks, squats and pull-ups, although the full list of exercises is enormous. The WODs themselves can vary massively, from doing just pull-ups and push-ups to combining or modifying some of the more difficult fundamental movements into an intense series of exercises (for one of the more extreme movements, have a look at the Bear Complex).

Although the movements are core elements of CrossFit workouts, they’re designed to be scalable. Even if you see someone doing an impossible looking series of butterfly pull ups, it’s not a necessity. If you can’t do those, the movement can be developed to the point of doing a jumping pull-up, where the movement is literally jumping off the floor whilst holding the bar. Can’t jump high enough? Then that can always be scaled down as well by adding a raised platform underneath the bar.

A list, along with explanatory videos for the foundation movements, can be found on the CrossFit website.

The benefits of CrossFit?

A beginners guide to CrossFit
Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc

Ultimately, anybody that joins, or is thinking about joining, a CrossFit box has their own goals and interests in the sport. Some may want to lose weight, others may want to compete in competitive tournaments. Regardless of the final aim, most people who take on CrossFit do it to improve their health and fitness in some way.

With it’s a varied mix of exercises, movements and training styles, CrossFit means the body is working in a vast variety of functional ways, and by taking on the various WODs you can expect to get stronger, more mobile and increase your cardiovascular fitness as well as improving things like balance and flexibility.

What to wear

Clothing

CrossFit, as with many specialised sports, has its own style of clothing. While some is largely aesthetic, the specific nature of the movements and workouts in the sport means that certain clothing and footwear is far better designed to handle it. High, loose running shorts may be perfect for a marathon, but you’re probably going to become fairly unpopular if you’re spending most of the session deep squatting in a group.

You also don’t want anything that’s too restrictive, especially considering some of exercises can take you from a low squat with a heavy weight to a burpee within a couple of seconds. Do that a few times with a pair of restrictive jogging pants or a thick t-shirt and you’ll know about it.

Ideally, you want kit that allows freedom of moment, is made from breathable fabrics and doesn't ride up or down as you’re banging out the sets. Brands like Reebok and Nike develop items specifically for that kind of functional movement and they’ve been doing it for years, with a lot of the most successful athletes opting to use their kit.

Shoes

When buying shoes for CrossFit you need to pick up a pair that work well across the varied movements that might appear in any workout – sorry, those running trainers you’ve got probably aren’t going to cut it. The most popular style of shoe for general usage are those designed for varied functional training. The Nike Metcon, Reebok Nano and Nobull ranges of shoe are specifically designed to work well carrying out heavy static lifts as well multi directional functional movements. That doesn’t mean that you can replace your running or weightlifting shoes, but they’re the Jack of all trades you need for CrossFit workouts.

CrossFit workouts

A beginners guide to CrossFit
Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc

Most CrossFit workouts are a combination of movements carried out in some form of time constraint. Some may be a list of exercises that need to be completed as quickly as possible, other may be exercises that need to be repeated until the time limit is up. The main formats used are AMRAPs (as many rounds as possible), RFTs (rounds for time) and EMOMs (every minute on the minute).

This time-based element to each workout is what makes CrossFit so competitive as a sport and means that people training alone in their garage can compete on a level field with athletes in boxes. For a list of our favourite CrossFit workouts, see our full article here.

The CrossFit language

CrossFit people like acronyms, a ridiculous amount. Quite often you can see people staring up at a massive whiteboard covered in numbers and letters desperately trying to make sense of it. Whether there’s a deep underlying love of word and number puzzles in the sport or everyone doing it is so desperate to work out they don’t want to waste time writing full words, there’s no getting away from it. By the time you’ve done CrossFit for two months, you’ll have scoring down to a fine art.

Of the dozens of CrossFit phrases and acronyms, there are a few that you’ll hear more than others:

AMRAP: As Many Repetitions (or Rounds) As Possible – typically in a specified timeframe

As Rx’d: As Prescribed – the suggested parameters for a given exercise (weight for example)

PB: Personal Best

PR: Personal Record

WOD: Workout of the Day

BS: Back Squat

BW: Body weight

CU: Chin Up – Bar is held with palms facing you)

DB: Dumbbell

DL: Dead lift

DU’s: Double Unders – two turns of the jump rope per jump

EMOM: Every Minute on the Minute

FS: Front Squat

HSPU: Hand Stand Push-Up

KB: Kettle Bell

MU: Muscle Up – A combination of a pull-up and a ring dip

OHS: Overhead squat

SP: Shoulder Press

TtB: Toes to Bar

RFT: Rounds for Time

How to get involved

Because it all stems from one headquarters in Washington DC, finding a box to start training doesn’t require a great deal in terms of research. Aside from just going to the one near where you live, you can also search the handy CrossFit affiliate map to see what’s in your area.

Many CrossFit gyms will have some sort of trial offer so you can see what it’s like before spending a load of money. You won’t be able to do a real CrossFit class but you should be able to sample the fundamentals class format that the box uses. Not only will it give you a taster for what to expect, but you can also see what the box is like, the kind of people that go and if they have things like showers, towels or water bottles.

How tough is it?

CrossFit: A beginner's guide to training and competing
Credit: Victor Freitas/ Unsplash

CrossFit can get really tough – just have a look at some of the Open final videos on YouTube. But that’s the equivalent of watching a sport at the Olympics. The people that everyone sees are the top athletes, but most boxes are an enormous mix of abilities. Yes, some may be harder than others, but that’s purely down to the people that go to that box and not the sport in general – exactly the reason why you need to try the venue out before you sign up.

For the most part, CrossFit is a sport for everyone, with most boxes catering for a wide spectrum of people ranging from top athletes to people that are completely new to fitness. All of the exercises are designed to be modified so that everyone can get involved. Whatever your level, CrossFit is designed to push you to improve. So although everyone can do it, sessions are always created to be challenging.

Can you do CrossFit without joining a box?

The only barrier to doing the CrossFit workouts is the kit that’s used for the exercises. As long as you have the right kit, you can replicate the workouts wherever you want.

But CrossFit isn’t just about doing workouts. A large part of joining a box is having trained coaches keeping an eye on you all the time. Not only will they make sure you’re carrying out the exercises safely, but they’ll also ensure you’re optimising your training to improve.

The CrossFit Games

A beginners guide to CrossFit
Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc

Like most sports, CrossFit has its own international tournament where people can compete to be the best in the world. The first Crossfit Games took place in 2007 at the family ranch of CrossFit Games Director Dave Castro, in Aromas, California. Approximately 70 athletes took part in the event, as well as a legendary barbecue afterward.

Now, 12 years later, the CrossFit Games is a significantly bigger affair. Athletes from all over the world compete in a worldwide tournament called the CrossFit Open. Over the course of five weeks, people all over the world take on a series of five workouts, with their scores submitted to the CrossFit Games to see where they rank against everyone else. The top athletes from the Open, along with a selection of other athletes that meet specific entry criteria, head to the Games in August.

Much like the workouts, the CrossFit games aim to test an enormous range of athletic disciplines. As well as the popularised WOD workouts, previous tournaments have seen participants open water swimming, carrying sandbags up and down the stairs of a stadium, cycling, trail running and even hammering a stake into the ground with a sledgehammer.

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