If CrossFit were a social network, it would probably have its initial public offering sometime this year. The former fitness subculture broke wide open in 2011 when it became the star of a national ad campaign by Reebok, the secret weapon of The Biggest Loser trainer Bob Harper, and a recurring presence on ESPN 2. But perhaps no better yardstick for the sport’s colossal growth exists than the cash awards given over the years at the annual meeting of the best CrossFit athletes in the world, the CrossFit Games. In 2007, the games’ inaugural year, winners were awarded a check for $500. Last year, after Reebok signed a 10-year contract to be the games’ banner sponsor, the 2011 men’s and women’s champions took home $250,000 each.
It has been a long journey for CrossFit, which had been branded a “cult” and deemed unsafe by pundits in the mainstream fitness world, who were boggled by its eclectic mix of gymnastics, Olympic weightlifting and high-intensity cardio, what creator Greg Glassman describes as “constantly varied, high-intensity functional movement.” Glassman is the Bruce Lee of fitness, taking what is useful from the broad spectrum of physical culture and throwing out the rest. Kettlebells? In. EZ-curl bars? Out. Deadlifts? In. Leg Extensions? Out.
Glassman’s philosophy eschews specialization in favor of what physiologists call general physical preparedness. He wanted his athletes to be ready for anything. This means mixing and matching exercises of every type across all durations. The level of intensity and the reliance on compound multi-joint moves quickly strips away body fat and builds functional muscle, leaving CrossFit practitioners looking more like Olympic sprinters than bodybuilders. But it’s not the physical transformation that has created thousands of CrossFit enthusiasts, it’s the self-discovery.
A typical CrossFit class will begin with a warm-up, usually a series of bodyweight exercises and some short cardio intervals. After that comes skill training, in which Olympic lifts, gymnastics or even Parkour is practiced slowly and deliberately. This can be the most difficult and humbling but also the most rewarding part for beginners. When a formerly overweight 40-year old desk jockey nails the first cartwheel or back handspring of his life, he believes he can accomplish anything.
What comes next is the heart of CrossFit: the Workout of the Day, or WOD. The only consistency in a WOD is the presence of the unexpected. You might run, flip tires, squat, row or be asked to walk on your hands. The workout might be over in eight minutes or it may take an hour. It is a crucible of exertion and uncertainty that creates a rare alchemy.
“The way we expose our spirit by working at the relative threshold of our physical and mental capacities, it is a very bonding, almost spiritual thing,” says Dave Lipson, a member of the CrossFit headquarters training staff who conducts CrossFit Level One Trainer certification seminars. “You look at the person next to you, and you know are suffering through something together.”
For all the well-worn criticisms of CrossFit — it’s dangerous for beginners, it encourages sloppy form, the programming is too random — the naysayers missed the thing that separates it from other fitness fads and all but guaranteed its success: the community. That communal spirit is pervasive. For years, it germinated online at CrossFit.com, and from there, it spread like wildflowers on a prairie. It’s the community that makes CrossFit so attractive to its adherents, but more important, it’s also the basis of accountability, the thing that makes CrossFit so effective.
Every CrossFit workout contains a measurable metric of performance, such as the time it takes to finish or the number of reps completed. Before a WOD begins, the name of every person in the class is written on a white board and everyone receives a score and a rank at the end. By recording the scores and loads in a journal, especially the classic workouts that get repeated, progress can be judged.
“Guys in commercial gyms think that intensity means grunting or dropping the weights or veins popping out, but real intensity is how much work you are able to perform in a certain amount of time,” Lipson says. “And how do we know if you are intense? If you performed more work today than you did yesterday, then you are working intensely. That is really all we are concerned about.”
If CrossFit seems tribal, that’s partly because it practically has its own language. Here is a quick user’s guide.
AMRAP: An acronym for “as many rounds as possible.” This is a common metric in CrossFit workouts. Athletes perform as many sets and reps in a predetermined time period, usually 20 minutes.
Box: CrossFit athletes call their gyms a “box,” a name that encapsulates their low-tech ethos and belief that a great workout can be had with minimal gear and four walls. See Globo Gym.
Burpee: Good-naturedly feared and reviled by the CrossFit community, the burpee is a grueling bodyweight exercise that combines a nonstop cycle of squat-thrusts, push-ups and explosive jumps.
Double-Under: A form of intensive cardio using a jump-rope, a double-under is when the rope passes under the jumper’s feet twice for every one jump.
Globo Gym: The disparaging name by which CrossFit athletes commonly refer to commercial gyms.
HSPU: An acronym for “Handstand Push-Up.”
The Journal or CFJ:The CrossFit Journal is an online resource of articles, profiles and instructional videos. The cost is $25 a year.
Muscle-Up: An advanced bodyweight exercise performed on a set of gymnastic rings. It is an explosive total-body motion that combines a pull-up and a dip.
OHS: An acronym for “Overhead Squat.”
RX’d: Literally meaning “as prescribed,” it is shorthand to explain that an athlete performed the workout exactly as dictated. See scaling.
Scaling: The universally accepted practice of making workouts easier for beginner or injured athletes. Scaling involves decreasing the weight, reps or duration of a workout.
SDHP: An acronym for “Sumo Deadlift High-Pull.”
Tabata: An intense interval training program that consists of eight 20-second periods of work interspersed with 10 seconds of rest.
WOD: Workout of the Day. This usually refers to the specific regimen posted each day on CrossFit.com, but it also can refer to a workout performed at a CrossFit location.
Start: Place a barbell on the floor and rack the appropriate amount of weight on each side. With your feet about 15 inches apart and the bar about an inch away from your shins, grasp the bar with your hands outside of your knees, using an alternating grip. Drop your hips down and raise your chest so that your back forms a straight line.
Action: Push through your heels and stand up, extending your knees until the rising bar reaches your kneecaps, then extending from your hips. Lift your chest and pull your shoulders back at the very top of the movement. Perform that exact series of motions in reverse to return the bar to the floor.
Start: Hang from a pull-up bar with your arms extended, palms facing away from you, and your shoulders engaged and retracted. Slowly rock forward and back by opening and closing your shoulders using the momentum of your whole body, not just your legs. Your chest should be moving ahead and then behind the vertical plane of your arms.
Action: As you rock backward forcefully, “pull” the bar down while keeping your arms straight. When your body begins to rise, quickly bring both knees upward toward your chest and contract your midsection, pulling your chin over the bar. As you descend, forcefully push away from the bar, which will set up the motion for the next pull-up.
Start: Place a kettlebell on the floor and stand over it with your feet shoulder-width apart. Squat down just far enough to grasp the handle with both hands.
Action: Keeping your arms straight, explosively extend your knees and snap your hips forward, sending the kettlebell in an arc that ends at a point somewhere around sternum height. Allow the kettlebell to return between your legs until you’re in a quarter-squat position. At that point, immediately explode back up into another rep.
Toes to Bar
Start: Hang from a pull-up bar with your arms and legs extended and your toes pointed. Maintain a “hollow body” position, meaning that your torso is slightly concave.
Action: Keeping only a slight bend in your legs, activate your core and touch your toes to the bar. Slowly bring them back down. At the very bottom of the movement, open your shoulders and then forcefully close them, helping drive your legs back up for the next rep.
Start: Begin standing, holding a loaded barbell in the “rack position” with your elbows bent, the bar resting across your front delts and lying across the fleshy part of your hand at the base of your fingers.
Action: Slowly lower into a full squat, keeping your chest up and your elbows high. From the bottom, explode upward, pushing through your heels, extending your knees and snapping your hips forward. As the momentum travels up your body, roll the bar very slightly forward so you’re fully gripping it in the palms of your hands and the weight is supported by your wrists, which are in line with your forearms. Press the bar completely overhead before returning to the rack position.
Start: Stand in front of a broad, stable surface like a plyometric box or low wall that is about 2 feet high. CrossFit workouts typically call for a 24-inch height for men and 20-inches for women.
Action: Load your legs by bending your knees slightly and shifting your hips back. Jump with both feet to the top of the box, making sure to land with your whole foot on the box. Fully open your hips and stand erect on top of the box before jumping or stepping back down.
Start: Stand in a basic athletic position, with your knees slightly bent and feet shoulder-width apart. Make sure you have plenty of room behind you.
Action: Drop into a deep squat and place both hands on the floor outside of your feet. Thrust both feet back so you are in a plank position. Lower yourself into a push-up, allowing your chest to touch the floor before coming back up. Jump your feet between your hands and stand up. Jump in place and clap your hands over your head. That’s one rep.
Start: Load a barbell and stand holding it in a “rack position” with your elbows bent, the bar resting across your front delts and lying across the fleshy part of your hands at the base of your fingers.
Action: Bend your knees just slightly and drop your hips straight down without letting your upper body tilt forward. Drive upward, fluidly rolling the bar very slightly off your fingers and into the palm of your hands so the weight is supported by your wrists. Finally, press the bar overhead so that you end with your elbows extended and your biceps next to your ears. Return to the start position.
Start: Use a piece of duct tape or chalk to make a mark on a wall at a height of 10 feet. Stand with your toes four to six inches away from the wall. Hold a medicine ball at chest level with your elbows pointing down. Place another ball slightly behind you. It’s recommended that men use a 20-pound ball and women use a 14-pound ball.
Action: Drop into a squat, letting your glutes lightly touch the ball on the floor behind you. This will make sure you drop low enough. Forcefully extend your legs and snap your hips forward, throwing the ball straight up and slightly forward so that it hits the mark and rebounds off the wall. Catch the ball and use its momentum to drop back into the squat for your next rep.
Start: Place both hands on the ground eight to 12 inches in front of an empty wall. Get into a lunge position with your left foot close to the wall and your right leg extended behind you. Flex your elbows and shoulders and kick up with your left leg, sending your straightened right leg to the wall, followed closely by your left.
Action: Keep your heels in contact with the wall and your eyes on your hands. Slowly bend your elbows to lower your body down to the ground. Touch your forehead to the floor so it makes a triangle with your hands, forming a tripod. Extend through your elbows and push yourself back up to the starting position.
Beginners’ Version: Place your feet on a bench or plyo box and create a right angle at your hips so your hands are on the ground and your body forms an L. Slowly lower yourself down to the ground. Touch your forehead to the floor so it makes a triangle with your hands, forming a tripod. Extend through your elbows and push yourself back up to the starting position.
Girls and Heroes
The beauty of CrossFit is the infinite number of workouts that can be created by mixing various exercises, loads and durations. Several Workouts of the Day (called “WODs”) are considered classics of the CrossFit canon and are used as benchmarks to gauge progress. The originals were given female names and date back to the early days of CrossFit. New namesake WODs are dubbed “hero workouts” and are given the monikers of servicemen, law enforcement and firefighters who have lost their lives.
Below is a sample of classic WODs that demonstrate exercise selection and programming common to CrossFit. The duration of each workout can vary dramatically. For instance, “Fran” may take less than 10 minutes to complete, while “Murph” might take closer to 40. That doesn’t mean one is easier than the other.
“Fran is our most classic workout,” CrossFit instructor Dave Lipson says. “People look at it and think it doesn’t look so hard, but the blend of squatting and pushing combined with gymnastics and the overall aerobic effect creates a perfect storm in your body.”
Alternate these exercises in a 21-15-9 rep scheme, for time:
- thruster, 95 pounds
Perform as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes:
- 5 pull-ups
- 10 push-ups
- 15 squats
Perform five rounds, for time:
- run 400 meters
- 30 box jumps
- 30 wall-ball shots
Named in honor of a Navy SEAL who was killed in action in Afghanistan, this workout is to be performed for time. The pull-ups, push-ups and squats can be broken up into any order but must be started and finished with a mile run:
- 1-mile run
- 100 pull-ups
- 200 push-ups
- 300 squats
- 1-mile run