By Kevin Boon
Have you ever you strayed momentarily from a six-hour Walking Dead binge and accidentally caught the CrossFit games? You were mesmerized at first, but you looked away because everybody was so fit and beautiful and the endorphins radiating from their eyes scared you more than a zombie horde. Or maybe you know somebody who goes to CrossFit, but your friendship has been on the wane, since even hearing her talk about doing handstand pushups—as in more than one—makes you want to reach deeper into the bag of whatever greasy food you’re munching on.
CrossFit. Why is it so extreme? Why are people flipping giant transport truck tires? How on earth does a person even consider a handstand pushup? Do you have to be in crazy shape to start?
Fear not! Those beautiful people on your screen are competitive athletes in a competitive sport, and not representative of most people who take part in CrossFit. Although it may seem like an exclusive club for the superfit, really CrossFit is an accessible exercise regimen for everybody. In fact, the gym that this writer visited over the last four weeks prides itself on its inclusiveness.
At the first orientation session, Jon, my trainer, explained how a CrossFit gym differs from a traditional gym. CrossFit is all about functional fitness. Part of functional fitness is variety, and thus the workouts are varied. In fact, Jon explained that you have to be at it for quite a while before you will find a workout of the day (WOD) is repeated—if ever.
And you don’t need to want to compete in the games to take part. Far from it. For a beginner, the goal is to be able to lift furniture during a move, lift groceries from the car to the apartment without feeling like an old decrepit, or to beat the line-up of lazies riding the escalator during rush hour and not be wheezing at the top of the stairs. That’s why it’s called functional fitness. CrossFit sees itself as a “physical exercise philosophy.” Instead of, say, working on your triceps at the gym just because they are your triceps, you are building strength to improve your everyday experience.
The gym that I attend, CrossFit Coliseum in Toronto, is an inviting space and a refreshing change from the sterile shine of a traditional weight room. The high ceilings of this converted factory feel less confining. Exposed brick, a beer keg and the owner’s dogs make it feel relaxed.
Which way to the beginner class?
What can be intimidating at a CrossFit gym, however, is that although it’s an exercise philosophy, it’s also a competitive sport. After some introductory lessons on Olympic weight lifting and how to swing a kettle bell, on your first day you will see some of those sculpted athletes like you saw on TV. As one trainer explained: “You’ll have soccer moms trying to lose a little pregnancy weight beside out-of-shape guys beside people training for the CrossFit games.” I found that many of the competitors both train and work there, and haven’t forgotten their own first day.
Your own pace
There is a learning curve in CrossFit, and having reasonable goals is critical. On your second day you’ll start to notice that not everyone is as advanced as you thought. Assistive devices help people complete the skills and workouts as they build strength. Nobody expects you to do those handstand pushups in three days or even three months. You advance as you are ready to advance. I know my limits, adjust accordingly, and still have plenty of pride. Besides, even at 25% the workouts are really satisfying. And, since the WODs change every day, if you are uncomfortable with a particular aspect such as Olympic lifting (as I am) you don’t need to worry. Chances are you won’t encounter it all that often.
On your third day you’ll notice that everyone is in it together, regardless of level or ability. The class is a shared communal routine. The support and motivation of a personal trainer comes from everyone in the group. High fives, “Come on” and “Nice job” are all common, and all results and names are posted to a white board to encourage everyone to improve on their last effort. So if the workout was to see how far you can row in seven minutes (rowing is an integral part of CrossFit and a fantastic workout if you’ve never tried it) and you row 2,000 meters, the next time you’ll try to go further than 2,000 meters. Many people carry a fitness notebook to keep track.
After the orientation, I braved my first class without a trainer. A warm-up (skipping and then stretches) and then the WOD, which was to run 400m and then do 10 pull-ups, 10 box jumps and 10 burpees, three times in a row as fast as possible or in under 14 minutes. It was hard to do, especially the pull-ups, but it was as invigorating as hell and I left class awash with endorphins and wanting more.
CrossFit yields quick results for anyone looking to lose weight and gain strength. And that’s why you see those fantastic bodies at the CrossFit games. If you stick with it, you’ll find yourself bombing your groceries up your condo stairwell and loving every second of it.