CrossFit 101

Catch the craze of a killer workout.
Published November 14, 2016


Maybe you've caught a glimpse of the CrossFit games on television. Maybe you stopped flipping channels long enough to watch ripped-up dudes with washboard abs hoisting gigantic barbells above their heads and flipping over truck tires.

Or maybe there's a guy in your office who won't shut up about the "WOD," CrossFit speak for "workout of the day," he just mastered. Or maybe your brother-in-law keeps posting photos of himself doing handstand pushups on Facebook and talking about "muscle-ups" at family dinners.

No matter how you’ve heard about CrossFit, your impression is probably the same: It’s for super-athletes with 10-percent body fat who can do endless rounds of pullups and box jumps.

But CrossFit coaches say that while that side of CrossFit exists, it's also a great workout for a regular guy trying to get back in shape, since the workouts can be scaled to meet athletes of all ability levels. And between the strong sense of community among participants and an intensity that's sure to deliver results, trainers and exercise physiologists say that the wildly popular fitness program could be a good fit for anyone.

CrossFit’s beginnings

When former gymnast and personal trainer Greg Glassman founded CrossFit in a Santa Cruz, California, gym in 1995, he aimed to train a variety of clients for anything from military operations to Saturday bike rides with the family. He built a workout around exercises that engage every muscle in the body rather than isolating one body part per exercise. That meant basic calisthenics such as pullups and pushups, Olympic lifts, gymnastics moves such as “ring rows,” which are basically reverse pushups using gymnastics rings, plyometric exercises such as box jumps, and other strength and agility movements.

In the beginning, the program appealed mostly to military and law enforcement. But slowly, it caught on with the general population. Today, CrossFitters at more than 5,000 affiliates worldwide say the program offers an efficient, fun way to get in awesome shape.

The 20-minute workout

Part of CrossFit’s appeal lies in its diminutive length — workouts rarely last longer than 20 minutes.

“The intensity is the magic in the potion, so to speak,” says Trish Davis, a coach with CrossFit 2120 in Del Mar, California, who competed in the 2008 CrossFit Games. “It elevates the heart rate enough to really stimulate physiological effects way later in the day. So your 10-minute CrossFit workout in the morning is still having an impact at 8 p.m., physiologically.”

CrossFit also provides a sense of community. During a typical class, participants work out side-by-side, high-fiving as they pass each other on runs and offering words of encouragement as participants finish their sets of pullups, pushups or burpees. Fabio Comana, MA, MS, an exercise physiologist who serves as director of continuing education for the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), says that’s a vital part of keeping people committed to a fitness program.

Getting started

CrossFit is offered at a wide variety of locations, including public parks and traditional fitness clubs. But Davis says you’ll get the most genuine CrossFit experience at a “box” — CrossFit-speak for a gym — which is likely to be in an old warehouse or garage with some basic equipment such as barbells, squat racks, rowing machines and jump ropes.

Indoors or outdoors, at a box or in a traditional gym, a good CrossFit affiliate will offer a fundamentals class to ensure you’re practicing good form during complex lifting movements. It will also measure your baseline fitness with a test composed of basic exercises such as pushups, squats and rowing. Based on how you fare on that test, a coach might modify the regular “WOD,” short for “workout of the day,” by adding elastic bands to help with pullups, subbing PVC pipe for a barbell on lifts or doing pushups on your knees.

Be careful

In addition to checking with your doctor to make sure it’s safe for you to start CrossFit, Comana recommends seeking a highly qualified coach with the skills to get your fitness level up to par before you perform complicated lifts with heavy weights. He suggests looking for a coach with a CrossFit Level 2 certification, the most rigorous training offered by CrossFit, or one who has additional training in the science of exercise and movement, such as certifications from organizations like the National Association of Sports Medicine, the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine.

Above all, Comana says, “Listen to your body. If your body feels ‘wrecked,’ as CrossFitters like to say, take a break.”

Sample workout

The toughest CrossFit workouts are referred to as “the girls,” as they’re all nicknamed with female monikers.

The “Barbara,” for example, is composed solely of bodyweight exercises. But after a round or two, you’ll be feeling CrossFit’s trademark intensity.

  • 20 pullups
  • 30 pushups
  • 40 situps
  • 50 squats
  • Repeat for a total of five rounds