Workout fads are nothing new to American cultural zeitgeist. From Bikram yoga in the 70’s to dance aerobics in the 80’s; our ever-increasing waistlines has yet to thwart endless our fascination with being/ getting into shape.
In early 2000’s came Crossfit. CrossFit didn’t promise an easy fix- it promised the opposite. It was a fast-paced military-style workout designed to push you to the limits and deliver fat burning results. Each workout of the day or WOD is about 25- 35 minutes and combines strength training, HIIT (high- intensity interval training), and gymnastics movements. In the last 10 years, Crossfit has gained increasing popularity and outlived the typical lifespan of a fad work out due to its plethora of benefits and strong ability to build a community around its brand. Unfortunately, as it rose in popularity- people started to get hurt.
For this reason, it’s a bit of a polarizing workout. Whenever I tell someone, who does not do Crossfit that I incorporate CrossFit into my workout regimen- 5 out of 10 times I will get an eye roll or a “yeahhhh…that’s too intense for me.” Is it possible to practice Crossfit- without sustaining a long-term injury? Yes! While I am nowhere near certified to train or have any interest in teaching CrossFit I have been happily practicing Crossfit for the last 6 years without any injury. I love the sport, and being a part of the auxiliary community around it has had an extremely positive impact in my life. I also don’t approach WOD’s like the average CrossFitter, but more on that later.
Benefits of Crossfit
It’s unfortunate that the negative press has buried the many benefits of the Crossfit style of working out in its path. As someone who has been engaging in regular weekly exercise for over 16 years and practicing CrossFit for the last 6, I can wholeheartedly attest to its physiological benefits, knowledge, and support I have gleaned from working out there. There is no greater feeling than kicking a workout’s ass. When I start my day with CrossFit I feel as if there is nothing I can’t do.
8 Benefits of practicing Crossfit:
HIIT workouts boost cardiovascular health.
Crossfit incorporates High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) into its workout programming. HIIT alternates short bursts of anaerobic activity with short with less intense periods of recovery. (ex: Sprinting for 40 seconds, Jogging for 20 seconds- repeat until failure.) In the recent years, there has been a growing body of scientific studies that discuss the benefits of HIIT. In addition to boosting stamina and endurance, HIIT has been found to improve glucose metabolism which can result in a significant reduction in body fat while improving heart health. HIIT also stimulates the production of your human growth hormone (HGH) by up to 450 percent during the 24 hours after you finish your workout. HGH is not only responsible for the increased caloric burn but also slows down the aging process, making you younger both inside and out!
By now, the benefits of incorporating strength training into a workout plan is not widely unknown. When we build muscle we protect our bones, keep fat off easier, feel good, and perform more efficiently overall. The beauty of CrossFit is that it marries olympic style lifts with HIIT. I think this balance is important for a successful workout regimen- it’s your classic cardio + strength combo- but optimized so you don’t have to spend more than 45 minutes working out hard to see improvements.
Gymnastics movements for mobility
CrossFit also uniquely builds gymnastic movements into its workout programming. Beyond increased mobility and flexibility, Crossfit type gymnastic movements focus on building core strength, while improving coordination.
Coaching support is invaluable
I went to LA Fitness for many years before I joined CrossFit and my idea of gym trainers had been relegated to a disinterested guy in his late 20’s / early 30’s who wore a polo shirt one size too small, and was always making eyes as at me in the gym. When I joined Crossfit in 2012 I was really intimidated. But as I started going to class after class, I got to know the coaches; I saw how enthusiastic and knowledgeable they were and they became more like friends than trainers. In his book, Peak -Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Dr. Anders Ericsson, Swedish Psychiatrist and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University talks about the importance of a deliberate practice (practicing with the intent of getting better) and soliciting a qualified teacher in order to see improvements in any desired skill. People who practiced a new skill under the tutelage of a qualified instructor saw dramatic improvements versus those who did not. When it comes to body movements it’s hard for us to self-correct- because we are on the inside looking out. We need advice, we need techniques- having a coach whose job is to guide and educated is such a valuable resource.
Not only is the coaching feedback important to improvement, but so is the education. Before every workout, the coach runs the class through a break down of the movements involved in the workout. They break down is structured as step by step warm-up drills, with the aim of getting the blood flowing, loosening the muscles, and reorienting the user with the movement. I have been going for a while now, but I still pay attention to every run through- there is always something new to learn when it comes to technique. The education I have gained at CrossFit as it pertains to proper form during weightlifting movements has changed the game for me. Using that education wisely has helped me to prevent injury and allowed me to optimize other cross-training style workouts outside of Crossfit.
Premium membership keeps me consistent
The average price for a membership is around $130 in my area and when you compare it to traditional franchise gyms like LA Fitness ($35 per month) or Youfit ($10 per month) it can seem a bit much. I don’t disagree with this notion, but I always weigh cost against benefit- and there have been so many benefits for me. Working out, in general, has been a key part of who I am for a very long time- and a consistent workout routine has been fundamental in my anxiety management, plus Crossfit is a fun way to stay in shape! I am by no means wealthy, so I do make a few budgetary adjustments to allow for my monthly gym memberships. Again, cost-benefit analysis makes this a good thing for me to do. I also feel like the fact that I am sacrificing to be there make me value my time at the gym more. Its easier to skip out on a $20 a month gym membership and not feel guilty- but when you are paying a premium to be somewhere it’s harder to rationalize skipping out. At the end of the day, consistency has been something I struggle with and so I look for strategies to help me foster routines. I would rather pay $130 and go to the gym daily than pay $30 and go once a month.
The Kohler Effect
Group workouts have been shown to increase the performance of its weakest member, this phenomenon is known as the Kohler Effect. Studies show that working out with a partner makes you work out harder. The group class style workout of CrossFit promotes just this sort of healthy motivational competition. In traditional gyms there is no camaraderie or interaction – it’s easy to do a workout without ever making eye contact with the person next to you. In Crossfit everyone is synched up, doing the same workout, and pulling from each other’s energy which results in a notable overall performance gain for the entire group as observed by the Kohler Effect. I wouldn’t doubt the biological benefit of working (out) together is rooted in our ancestral hunter-gather past. It would make sense for our bodies to upregulate performance when working as part of a team because teamwork is more efficient for completing tasks.
Varied workouts fight boredom and plateau
After six years of CrossFitting, I still get a thrill out of never knowing what challenge to expect day in and day out. The variety and range of CrossFit programming mean your body and mind never get bored or hit plateaus. I love trying new workouts and keeping my regimen varied- I keep coming back to CrossFit as my base versus other group workouts because the variety of the programming is always challenging and infinitely varied.
Fear of WODS
Even with the myriad of benefits, it’s obvious to see how CrossFit style workouts pose a few mental challenges for the average person, especially one who is practicing without mindfulness. From the outside looking in, the sport can seem intimidating and aggressive- especially for the unathletic. If my only understanding of CrossFit was from seeing snippets of the monster athletes that compete on the televised CrossFit games I would probably be scared too! But that is not what the average Crossfitter looks like, and certainly no reason to be intimidated- especially with qualified coaches there to guide you every step of the way. In fact, there are people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities at CrossFit. In my experience, it has been a very inclusive space.
Another common fear is fear of injury. This is too is a valid fear- when you understand that CrossFit involves Olympic weightlifting moves being done at a cardio pace – it’s easy to feel nervous about one’s body’s ability to keep up. There are ways to prepare yourself, no matter your current fitness level, and minimize the chance of injury. One thing is important to note- CrossFit is a sport- and like any sport when you play you can get hurt. Injuries are part of life, but in this case not something to be afraid of. With proper protective measures, CrossFit injuries can be minimized so you can reap the full benefits of this uniquely limit pushing style of workout.
8 Tips for preventing injury during a CrossFit Workout
Through my years attending CrossFit I have managed to steer clear of most common injuries associated with the sport- including but not limited to shoulder and back injuries. I can’t say there is a definite prescription for injury avoidance, but I do know, through my own practice, that the framework outlined below has been an effective tool for me.
1. Use Rx as a guideline, not a standard
Every Crossfit coach will hate me for this- but I don’t do Rx. Rx- is the prescribed weight for completing the workout- so let’s say the workout called for 4 rounds of 15 deadlifts at Rx 150 lbs- the suggested weight would for completing the workout be 150 lbs. I think the prescribed weight is a great goal to aim for if you feel up to it but I definitely don’t think its law. As is common among most women, my lower body is stronger than my upper body, so I tend to go heavier on deadlifts, and squat movements than I do anything that requires me lifting the weight overhead. Even while lifting heavier on leg powered movements, I still don’t do Rx. I am not a bodybuilder so when doing Olympic style lifting at an aerobic pace there are more chances that fatigue will cause me to compromise my form and that could result in injury.To circumvent this I stick to a weight that is manageable but still challenging. It’s important to keep in mind that whatever weight you choose might feel light at first, but will feel 30% heavier when your body is fatigued. In my opinion, a lot of injuries could be prevented in CrossFit if people worked out without ego, you can’t blame the sport for that. My personal rule of thumb is to err on the side of lighter weight because I would rather go to the gym 5 days a week and do a moderate push workout than go hard, and actually, have to go home because I pulled a back muscle.
2. Listen to your body
So many of us let our ego get in the way of our noble physical pursuits. I go to Crossfit to understand how to move my body and benefit from learning to push it. Each of our bodies are uniquely different- which means what works or feels right for me, may not feel right for you and vice versa. I believe I have avoided injury in part because I don’t concern myself with how heavy or light other people are lifting. I don’t care about lifting the heaviest or running the fastest in the gym. I use the Kohler Effect to absorb energy from those working out around me but I channel that motivational force inward toward myself. By tuning into my body I am able to understand its boundaries- I know when to keep pushing and when to stop. Most injury happens when we stop listening to our bodies and act without focus.
3. Hot Yoga- Stretching Regimen
Crossfit programming is a body intensive workout. A stretching regimen is key! I go to Hot Yoga twice a week to recover and stretch. While cool down stretching is done at CrossFit, it’s not as intense as it should be to help your body recover and move better. Yoga helps my mobility and flexibility; research has shown that an increase in the range of motion brought upon by static stretching, a stretch that is held for 20 or more seconds, is an important component of injury prevention.
4. Break up the workouts
I find that when I do CrossFit every day it’s easy to feel like I got hit by a bus by Friday. I began to break up my workouts and have never felt better. I go to CrossFit three days a week, Hot Yoga twice a week, and running one day a week. The variety of my current regimen not only keeps me on my toes but has left my body feeling challenged and balanced. I think when we don’t give our bodies proper time to recover our fatigue is exacerbated and we end up doing worse off than if we had just taken a day to recover by doing something less weight intensive. By doing yoga and running in-between CrossFit sessions I can still break a sweat and get my dopamine fix without overexerting myself. I like to workout 6 days a week but when I’m too sore- I take a day off. Days off will not kill me- sometimes when I am extra resistant to take them I know its time for one. Balance is key to longevity.
5. Proper nutrition
This goes without saying- your body can only run properly on proper fuel. If you want better workouts in the gym then nutrition has to be up to par. Nutrition and exercise go hand in hand and their separate full benefits can’t be reaped without each other’s help.
Unmanaged stress can make us more injury prone. Our physiology is a delicate ecosystem and our ability to manage inevitable stressors outside of the gym will impact our body’s ability to perform in the gym. Many people are unaware of this strong, obvious mind-body connection and so they let stress go unchecked- only to suffer the consequences of a weakened immune system, and poorly regulated endocrine system. Meditation is likely the oldest known form of stress management. Studies show that long-term meditators actually rewire their brains’ ability to manage stress. Meditation is my secret sauce. Not only does it help me get rid of the mental bullshit- it helps me to stay focused.
7. Stay Focused
When I am in class I am present. Staying in the moment is key to controlling and fully listening to our body. We can’t listen to cues if we are not present and focused. Distractions cause us to make mistakes, to lose control of our breathing, and opens us up to more chance of injury. During a workout of the day, I usually pick a point on the wall to focus on. In yoga, this practice is referred to as drishti- which is Sanskrit for ‘focused gaze.’ This point of focus allows me to harness my concentration so I can perform movements to the best of my ability, listening to my body with full intention. Whenever I find myself getting out of breath, or my thoughts racing- I find my drishti and allow it to guide me back into a calm controlled focused space.
8. Make it Fun
Last but not least, I definitely try to make it fun. Perspective is key to success in the face of obstacles, so whenever I find myself pushing too hard, or mad that I didn’t achieve some workout goal- I pull back and remember that its all fun and games at the end of the day. This is just a workout- it is good for you and should be fun! By making it for fun, I increase the likelihood that I will stick to it. By making it fun I give myself permission to go slow, make mistakes, try new things that will allow me to build up my performance without hard expectations.
CrossFit can be intimidating at first glance but with a proper understanding of what approach works best for you and a willingness to challenge yourself, it can provide a host of physical and emotional benefits in under 30 minutes a day. My exercise knowledge and performance have increased tenfold since joining CrossFit and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for an intense workout and a great place to meet friendly, like-minded fitness enthusiasts.
Sweat more. Stress less.