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I’ve become a born-again fitness dork.  Anybody who knows me is aware that this is mainly because I started doing CrossFit earlier this year.  These people also know that I can’t — or won’t — shut the hell up about it.  Ever.  I mean, Jesus, seriously.  When I’m not doing CrossFit, I think about doing it and wonder how doing CrossFit will affect me next.  I dream about doing squats and power cleans.  I’ll talk about it at length to anybody who will bear to listen.

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I have a CrossFit bumper sticker on my car.

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I have a CrossFit rubber wristband.

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I wear CrossFit shoes (the fact they’re the same colors as all my other CrossFit gear is a coincidence).

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I wear a CrossFit T-shirt.

I may have drunk the Kool-Aid, but it’s healthy Kool-Aid and it tastes delicious.  It’s worked for me so far, and it’s been less than a year.  So I get a little defensive about what CrossFit is and what it isn’t, and what it does or doesn’t do.

 

A rebuttal

I’ve been doing CrossFit since the last week of December, and already I’ve noticed it’s one of those things that provokes strong opinions one way or the other.  People who are into it are extremely so.  Then there’s a contingent of people who seem to hate it merely because it’s popular lately, and therefore they’re suspicious.  Skepticism is good.  A lack of knowledge isn’t.  It’s fine to not like it.  Just understand why.

I’m a fan of Gawker.com’s “I Of The Tiger” fitness column by Hamilton Nolan.  He’s got funny no-bullshit advice, although frequently he’s bullshitting.  If you cut past the sarcasm and posing, his advice is based on a few simple principles:

lift real weights

don’t just be a cardio junkie

do exercise that’s functional

work out intensely

I’m down with all that.  He’s linked to CrossFit.com many times as a good fitness option that adheres to those principles.  But recently he wrote a column about his problems with CrossFit, and I thought it might be interesting to rebut it, point by point.  To be fair to him, he does say that as fitness trends go, CrossFit a great one because it actually works.  And he makes a few points that I agree with partially.  Then he repeats a few myths that bug me.  Listen: just go read the fucking thing.  I’ll wait.  Come back when you’re finished.

Done? Now let’s go through his CrossFit gripes and let’s learn all together, shall we?

 

1. He doesn’t like that CrossFit is group exercise.

If you go to a CrossFit box, classes generally have multiple people there, yes.  Sometimes (not very often, where I go) you have to partner up.  On rare occasions, you may have to sling your partner over a shoulder and run with him/her for a while, then let yourself be slung over a shoulder and run with.  Most days you have to share space with sweaty people who don’t wear very much.  There may be grime, skin cells, and/or blood on the floormats.  There’s a coach at my box who I’ve seen work out many times in his bare feet, treading on the same floormats that I’ll later press my cheek against when I’ve done too many burpees and am lying face-down in cardiac shock.

I’m one of the world’s great loners, and I’m OK with all this.  Not everybody would be.  That’s fine.  Me, I love not talking to people.  I can not talk to people all day and still find things to not talk to them about.  Yet I genuinely enjoy the group of people I work out with.  Sometimes, after classes, I’ll see people waiting to get one-on-one training with the coaches (paying quite a bit extra for that privilege).  I watch them warm up all by themselves — one lonely person pulling at the rowing machine for 500 meters while the coach watches, arms folded, and everyone else in the class cools down and wiggles on the floor with a lacrosse ball jammed against their scapula.  It looks sad, that one person working out alone.  That person is not going to get cheered on or fist-bumped like I do when I work out.  He’s not going to hear encouragement shouted at him from all directions when he’s stuck under a heavy barbell and trying to make it rise.  Nobody’s going to congratulate him and call him “new guy,” which happened to me, and nobody’s going to remark that he’s dropped some lbs. lately, and he’s not going to have anybody to chat with when he’s outside carrying 30-pound dumbbells overhead to the fire hydrant down the block and back.

I’ve made friends at CrossFit.  It’s a lot like the online running community, in that these are some of the friendliest, nicest people I’ve met — even the muscular, fit people who I would normally be intimidated by.1  The dudes who are really excellent at CrossFit are just happy I’m going and making progress.  It doesn’t matter that I can’t lift as heavy or be as gymnastically inclined.  As long as I try hard and leave sweaty, I get treated like a friend.

All that said, you can still work out alone.  I do.  It’s fine.  I like both.  If you want to work out alone, work out alone.

 

2. He doesn’t like that CrossFit is general fitness.

Yes, CrossFit is a generalist thing.  That’s how it goes.  It’s not going to magically make you awesome at a sport.

If you have sport-specific goals, you should probably practice that sport if you want to improve.  If all you want to do is run long distances really well, the best way to do this is to run long distances a lot.  If you want to be a great cyclist, you should ride a bicycle as often as you can stand it.  If you want to lift tremendous amounts of weight, learn to lift a lot of weight.  That’s what sport-specific training is for.  At no point will CrossFit somehow make you a baseball player — you have to learn how to play baseball.  It’s a simple process called practicing.  The same goes for anything.  If you want to be an awesome French horn player, find yourself a French horn and play it all the time.  Study what you’re doing vs. what good French horn players do, and use that knowledge to improve your skills.

But specific skills are specific.  They’re not 100% transferrable to other things.  If you’re a good runner, that doesn’t mean you can lift weights well.2   You may be better off than someone who’s done diddly-shit for fitness their whole life, but that’s about all you can say.  If you’re a great cyclist, that doesn’t mean you’ll be good at gymnastics.  Being an awesome French horn player means fuck-all when you sit at a piano.  You might have a good ear, but the specific skills required of a great French horn player is no help here.

CrossFit is supposed to be a general fitness thing, because it’s for people who are not sport-specific athletes.  Hamilton Nolan worries that CrossFit has made the vague term “fitness” a goal unto itself.  I don’t see why this is a problem.  Being fit, fast, strong, and healthy is the goal — what you do with this is up to you.  Most people need to be generally fit to get through their daily lives, not sport-specific, unless they’re professional athletes.  Getting sport-specific is what people do for fun.

It’s sort of like school.  You get a little bit of math, a little science, a little English, some social studies, some gym, a touch of foreign language, and become a well-rounded person.  Where you specialize, or if you specialize, is your business.

I once read a criticism of CrossFit where some powerlifter on a forum said he’d only take CrossFit seriously once pro football players started training with CrossFit and becoming successful because of it.  Why?  Shouldn’t football players generally train by, you know, playing football?  Isn’t that what they’re trying to do for a living?   And what kind of football player?  The big tough ones or fast muscley ones?  And who’s to say football players don’t do some kind of CrossFit-like metabolic conditioning anyway?  They usually do. It’s called general physical preparedness.

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A friend of mine once knocked CrossFit by saying it just makes you good at exercise, as opposed to making you good at a sport.  Well, yeah.  And?  I don’t play sports.  I’m not an athlete.3

I’m a writer and editor.  Most people aren’t athletes, and they never will be.  I’m not saying that to be a douchebag — it’s just the truth.  People have lives and families and full-time jobs.  They pick a fitness thing they enjoy doing so they can stay healthy and have fun.  Some people like to compete at their thing, but a lot don’t.  Realistically, what else do you want from people?

I am never, ever going to be an athlete.  I dressed up as an athlete for a while — a runner — and practiced that particular activity.  That was fun, but I didn’t reach my goal of becoming a fit person.  I was still a +200-pound flabby guy who ran. I stayed the same or (eventually) got moderately better at the one activity I was practicing, in proportion to the amount I practiced.  Running was fun, but being able to run a half-marathon at a long, slow speed meant nothing if I needed to pick up a 42-pound box of cat litter.  Being a back-of-the-pack plodder did not help me climb onto other objects or hold heavy things above my head.  Mastering the 10:30 pace did not give me arms that are Teh Awesome and pecs and abs that are nice to look at.  Being a slow runner did help if I needed to run somewhere, provided this place wasn’t very far and I didn’t need to be there right away.  Which is rare, frankly, and besides, I own a car.  It helped crossing busy streets, I’ll give it that.  And it was good for keeping me from getting even fatter — holding back the tide.  Anyway, at the moment, I’ve decided not to be a pretend athlete.  I’m not into training for competitions of any sort.  I have zero interest in it anymore.  None.

I drew this diagram to show how things went, if you were me a few years ago.  I call it the Treadmill:

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Over and over and over.  Some people find this fun — it’s exciting and serious, and it makes them happy.  I used to like this, but I don’t anymore.  That’s just me.  I found it difficult and the results were mediocre.  It also eventually stopped being a fun thing and became like work — time to sign up for another race, because fall’s coming up and that’s what you do: the sole purpose of the running is to test your skill in public at big official events, rather than its purpose being a fitness method I enjoy that might help make me healthier.  I got tired of it.  I already have a job.  In my off hours, I have to do things like lift garbage cans and bags of dog food.  I climb lots of stairs and move boxes of Ikea furniture out of car trunks and up to second-floor rooms.  I take long walks and run the dogs to exercise them and ride my bike for pleasure and fitness.  I might drop into a simple 5K and manage it without much training, if I feel like it.  I might decide that I’d like to play an hour of tennis with Nik and not puke after the first 15 minutes.  I might do these things but it doesn’t occur to me to become an amateur runner, cyclist, or tennis player, and I’m comfortable and happy with that.  I just want to do those things well enough to have fun and keep my body fit, and then go back to my life.  I’m aiming to be a regular guy who’s strong, can pick up whatever object he needs to, looks OK at the beach, and has a balanced life.  If I ever feel like practicing a sport for shits and giggles later, CrossFit will give me a great baseline of overall fitness for that.

This is how it goes for me now:
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Some people want to be amateur athletes and enjoy the process of testing themselves in public.  Go ahead.  Have fun.  You could also do CrossFit or some sorta CrossFitty strength exercise in between that sport you’re practicing to help drop weight, build muscle, and receive the performance benefits those things bring — if you wanted to, and if that would help achieve your goals.

 

3. He doesn’t like that CrossFit is expensive.

Yeah, that sucks.  But you either pay the fee they charge or you don’t.  That’s life.

One alternative is to do it at home.  You could follow the daily programming posted at CrossFit.com, speaking of which never, ever, ever follow the daily programming posted at CrossFit.com.  Seriously.  Never do it.  It’s tailored for super-badasses, and it’s too random.  Follow the programming at your local CrossFit box, which chances are they post to its website.  Mine is.  I love the programming at CrossFit Providence.  Follow that.  It’s got a strength bias and is apparently planned out for weeks and weeks ahead of time, and so includes progressive training, de-load weeks, won’t make you lopsided, all that shit.  You’d just need equipment, which you can buy or not — if not, modify things by lifting jugs of water, or the coffee table, or the dog.

Personally, I think the money I spend on CrossFit is worth it, and I’m a cheap bastard.  I like it and it works — it makes me healthier, stronger, and happier.  My fee comes out to about $12.50 per class.  Try getting great personal training for $12.50 an hour.  It’s not possible.

Otherwise, sorry.  It’s just expensive.  Ferraris are expensive, too.

 

4. He doesn’t like that CrossFitters do kipping pull-ups.

A kipping pull-up is different from a dead-hang pull-up, in that you swing from the bar and use momentum and hip action to pop up, rather than strictly hanging from the bar and using muscle to pull yourself up.  He says it’s not the same.  He’s right.  It isn’t.

It’s fine that it’s different, though.

They aren’t “real” pull-ups because they’re not supposed to be.  They’re a different skill used for a different purpose.  Regular dead-hang pull-ups are a strength-builder.  Kipping pull-ups are more of a cardio thing.  Sometimes CrossFitters use them to get through workouts faster, to make the workout more intense.  Anybody who calls a kipping pull-up a plain old “pull-up” is wrong — the same way you’d be wrong if you called a one-armed pushup “just a regular pushup.”  They look similar but do different things.

I’m not the biggest fan of kipping pull-ups either, and I can’t even do one.  My coaches don’t necessarily like them either, so we tend to do dead-hang pull-ups instead.  There’s a greater risk of shoulder injury if you do them without having that skill firmly in place.  Which leads me to:

 

5. He said you’ll get injured doing CrossFit.

Yes, you could — the same way you could get injured doing any fitness activity or sport.  All it takes is you being not careful or being unlucky or doing too much for your body to handle, and you’ll hurt something.  It happens all the time.  Want me to count how many runners I know who have been benched due to injury?  Because I can.  I see them every day, friends of mine who I feel terrible for — out of commission because a fresh injury or a chronic one, wearing medical devices, with broken feet or knees or backs, given dire pronouncements of no running for months, or ever again.  You can get hurt lifting weight.  You can get hurt swimming or riding a bike.  You can get hurt shooting pool.  You can get hurt playing croquet. You can get hurt walking — some Russian Olympic race-walker just collapsed from exhaustion and shit himself.

So yes, if you do CrossFit, you can get hurt.  That said, there’s no scientific basis upon which to say that CrossFitters get injured more often than people who do other activities.  There simply aren’t any such studies.  People who say it’s true (and people have said this) are talking out of their asses.  If you’re one of these people, you’ve talked out of your ass.  Congratulations: you’re a medical oddity.

Maybe it’s just my coaches and my particular box, but we all try to be as safe and injury-free as possible by paying extremely close attention to what we’re doing and scaling back when necessary.  If you can’t do a particular lift, you’re not allowed to do it with heavy weight until you get the form down first.  If the workout calls for 30 clean-and-jerks of 135 pounds, and you can’t lift that weight more than once, or not at all, you’re not supposed to struggle with it and harm yourself by straining a muscle — you’re supposed to use less goddam weight, man.  Nik wasn’t allowed to do heavy deadlifts until she proved she could do them without rounding her back.  I am not clear to do heavy overhead squats until I get to a point where I can do them safely.  That might take months or years.

Despite the 1,000% gung-ho reputation that CrossFit has, it’s actually pretty easygoing.  A good box and good coaches want you to work out well so you can rest up and come back.  A coach who wants you to go balls-out every day and injure yourself is a bad coach.  Don’t go back to him.

I’ve only ever been hurt once doing CrossFit, and it was a minor thing that went away.  I was supposed to hoist a 50-pound sandbag above my head, then behind it onto my shoulders, and back.  I tweaked my neck by bending my head around the sandbag, as opposed to keeping my head neutral and pressing the sandbag over it, the way you’re supposed to.  I did the movement wrong.  That was my problem, not the workout’s.  I lifted a sandbag that I knew was too heavy for me — I was new and should’ve taken the 25-pounder instead of the 50-pounder.  So I rested, took care of myself, iced my neck, and it was all better after about 2 days.  The next time we did sandbag work, I protected my neck and lifted the sandbag more appropriately, and I was just fine.

 

6. He doesn’t like that CrossFit is cultish.

Yep.  People who like CrossFit are really into it.  Look at all the CrossFit shit I have to wear.  That may seem cultish.  Runners are exactly the same way — zero difference.  Disagree?  You’re either kidding yourself or not paying attention.  You know how much running-specific shit I wore?  And every day my Facebook and Twitter feeds are loaded with runners posting running-related inspirational quote-images, the gist of which is always the same:

• You should be running right now
• If you don’t feel like running, the solution for that is to run more
• Running is, and will be, the only answer to any problem you may have

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Cult.

So what do I care?  These people like running and they’re trying to psych themselves up.  The fact that they post this stuff night and day 24/7/52/365 becomes white noise to me, because I think some of these statements are flawed, but that’s just my opinion.  You may have a different one.  But recognize that it’s cultish.

I pick on runners a lot, but only because I mostly know that culture.  It’s not just runners who do this.  Cyclists are their own cult.  I’ve met them.  Triathletes — Jesus, are they a cult.  They’re a cult with three times the gear of other cults.  I’ve been reading lots of blogs where powerlifters hang out.  They’re a cult of brawny dudes.

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This guy pictured, who apparently likes watching football — you better believe this cat’s in a cult.  He’s in deep.  Everyone who likes a particular activity gets caught up in it.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  People are wired to latch onto groups they like and create a common identity.  It’s normal.

It’s also normal to think other cults are weird and/or wrong because they’re not your cult.

 

7. He doesn’t like the CrossFit branding.

Sometimes I describe what CrossFit is to people, and it sounds like plain old “working out.”  Because it is.  So yeah — I work out.  I do this working out at a gym, doing certain things in a certain order.  The company who runs my gym calls the thing they do CrossFit. Some people work out at a different kind of gym or in their own home, doing certain things in a different order.  Call it what you want.

Sometimes I’ll use my garage gym just to lift weights.  I’ll pick up a weighted barbell and put it down for a while, without the stuff I often do between that makes a workout CrossFitty, like burpees or jump rope or pull-ups.  I guess in these cases I’m just lifting, not CrossFitting.  Whatever.  What do I give a shit what I call it?  Though this brings up something odd I’ve noticed: people talk about CrossFit as if it’s not a sport, because it’s not been established as one.  Fair enough.  But here’s the thing: If I go into a gym and deadlift 5-by-5, that’s training for a sport: powerlifting.  If I go into a gym and deadlift 5-by-5 but add burpees between each round, that’s somehow not a sport?  It’s something silly and pointless?  I don’t get that.

 

I don’t know if it’s for you

A friend once asked me if I was one of those guys who thinks everybody should do CrossFit.

No.

I like CrossFit, but everyone doesn’t have to be like me.  Actually, to be perfectly honest I don’t really care what anybody else does.  People are all different.  I’m principally concerned with what I do, because I’m the guy I have to live with.  There are people out there who are bobsledders.  That’s all they do, practice bobsledding, and they talk about it constantly.  I’m sure one or two of them go around telling their friends, “I’ve said this before, but if you just took up bobsledding you’d lose that extra 20 pounds you keep bitching about.”  There’s got to be at least one asshole like that.  “Srsly, bro, I’ll take you to REI and we’ll find a good pro-level bobsled — it’ll be the best 6,000 bucks you ever spent. Bobsledding is basically the best exercise out there.”  Fuck that guy.

Other friends have asked me recently if they should try it.  (CrossFit, I mean, not bobsledding.)

Yeah, sure, if overall strength and fitness is the goal.  You might like it, and you might get results.  You might not.  It depends on how seriously you take it.  If you go into it half-assed, you’ll find out it kicks your entire ass.

It’s not for everybody.  Again, professionals or semi-professionals at some sport and/or people who have really sport-specific goals that they absolutely must meet probably don’t want to spend precious time faffing around in a CrossFit gym.

If you want to be a massive powerlifter who can bench press 1.75 times your body weight and this is the body shape you want, then CrossFit is probably not for you. There’s too much weight loss and not enough lifting.  If you’re a 2:45 marathoner who wants to become a 2:30 marathoner and you take it very seriously and this is the body shape you want, then CrossFit is probably not for you. There’s too much muscle-building and not nearly enough endurance training.

If you’re an amateur athlete and you only train and compete for fun, and could stand to gain muscle and lose fat, then maybe consider it. You’d probably want to put those sport-specific “it would be nice” goals on the back burner for a while so you can get yourself in shape, so your body can achieve those goals more efficiently.

But again, I don’t really know if it’s the right thing for anybody to do.

Listen.

About 8 months ago I started doing this style of workout.  I could run several miles at a time at a back-of-the-pack pace, but I’d lose fitness after even just days away from the road.  I had no motivation, no muscle, and I was flabby and obese and weak.  I made a goal of building enough muscle to do an unassisted pull-up (dead-hang, not kipping) by mid-September.  I worked at it diligently and practiced almost every day.  I got my first unassisted dead-hang pull-up on July 27, weeks ahead of time.  Now I’m working on improving my form and making my pulls smoother.  I’ve never done a pull-up before in my life, and I changed that by losing weight and doing CrossFit.  I will get multiple pull-ups by the end of the year.

Could I have done that if I’d stuck with something else instead of CrossFit?  Maybe.

But I didn’t stick with anything else.*

  1. Considering it involves sweaty fit people wearing very little clothes and making grunting noises, CF is also probably the least sexist place I’ve ever been. I’ve never seen anybody hit on anybody else, and no meathead has ever gotten paternalistic on a woman about lifting weight. Maybe it’s different at other boxes. At mine, it’s nice.
  2. From what I’ve seen and what I’ve read, every runner who steps into a CrossFit gym figures this out the hard way the first time they touch a barbell. We all realize very quickly that we thought we had arm muscles when what we really had were dangly skin tubes full of weakness. I was told more than once by runners that running, by itself, somehow miraculously builds muscle in your arms and upper body. Like fuck it does.
  3. Despite the fact it says “athlete” on my CrossFit Providence T-shirt sleeve, which I’m not fond of.  They put it on there, I think, mainly to differentiate between coaches and people who work out — the coaches’ shirts look the same but have “coach” written there.