Tomorrow marks my CrossFitiversary. I want to discuss whether or not it’s been worth the time, energy, and money.
Last year at this time, I was 34 years old, 5-foot-6 and 210+ pounds, obese from years of eating like crap and not exercising, then obese from five years of eating like crap and running like crap. I wandered into CrossFit Providence on Dec. 31 for a free intro class wearing an AC/DC T-shirt, size XL. I’d decided not long before that I was sick of trying to force myself to go run for hours every week in every kind of weather and then trying to convince myself that I’d enjoy it even though I had seen little to no results. I knew very little about what CrossFit was, despite the fact that for a year Nik had been talking my ear off about how fantastic it was. I knew there was some weightlifting, and that it was difficult, that it made people fit fast, and that people sometimes vomited.1
We arrived as the previous class was finishing up. I noticed the screaming right away. People were yelling in what sounded like pain.2 They were shouting over loud music — sometimes vocalized strain-grunts, sometimes stuff like “COME ON” and “GET UP THERE” and “KEEP IT GOING KEEP IT GOING,” and so on. After that I remember noticing the sweaty people — lots of them, some quite muscular, everywhere, arranged no particular organized fashion,3 in a big room mostly without equipment, unlike every other gym I’d ever seen, many of these people half-naked in late December. They were either doing fast tricky-looking things with heavy-looking barbells or they were thrashing around on rings hanging from a pull-up cage. Doing this, doing that. Running back and forth. Standing arms akimbo and grimacing with bared teeth and breathing from the base of their abdomens, like “Hehhhgh. Hehhhgh.” I can’t say I remember this specifically, but let’s just say for the sake of narrative color that I saw flecks of spit flying while people tried in vain to regulate their breathing. Sometimes people would do a bunch of the barbell stuff, grunt and shriek while doing it, then they’d drop the bar with a tremendous thump, run over to the rings, thrash around for a while, run back to where they’d dropped the barbell, pick it up with a shriek, and lather rinse repeat until they dropped onto the floormats one by one and lay there for a bit. Later, I’d learn they were doing something called “Elizabeth”: 21 reps, then 15, then 9, of barbell cleans and ring dips. Nik told me it was a fun one and that I shouldn’t be intimidated.
“You’ll be doing that someday.”
“I’m just going to do CrossFit for a few months until spring comes around,” I said. “Then when the weather’s better I’ll quit and probably just try running again.”
“Sure you will.”
I didn’t do Elizabeth on the first free intro class. Myself and about three or four other guys went into a quieter back room and mostly stretched and talked, got briefed on what CrossFit is, learned some basic body-weight moves, and then did a very quick workout that took 11 minutes: 2 rounds, 1 minute each of burpees, sit-ups, wall-balls, box jumps, and lunges, and then a minute’s rest. You can read my DailyMile log about it.
What my DailyMile log doesn’t say is that I was sore for a week solid after this. And it was mostly talking. Started the new year hobbling around with my legs on fire. Couldn’t raise my arms above my head. I was crippled by piddly body-weight exercises. Brought low by the rinky-dink shit they show the newbies to give them a free taste. I’d say I was out of shape, but I was never in shape to begin with.
I went back for more. Which is how anything like this starts.
I don’t remember when exactly I abandoned the idea of making CrossFit only a temporary thing to tide me over until warmer weather arrived. A few weeks? Four or five classes? Not long. It happened like Nik told me so. Any motivation I had left to keep trying to haul my fat ass along the road for miles and miles of slow, pointless cardio for the prize of an L-size tech tee evaporated around the time I saw people at my CrossFit gym doing handstand walks around the room for the hell of it. Not even as part of a workout — just because they can. Like Jackie Chan in “Rumble in the Bronx.”
I don’t care what you say. That shit’s cool.
Muscular, fit, healthy people like that used to leave me feeling small. I was intimidated by them. Not anymore. The people I’ve met at CrossFit, from the coaches to the other CrossFitters, have all made me feel 100% welcome even when I was overweight and klutzy and bumbling around more than I do now. They’re some of the nicest people I know, and they do extraordinary things.
I’ve been CrossFitting for almost 100 classes now. Every time I go, the shit people get up to still amazes the crap out of me. The other day I saw a guy back-squat more than 400 pounds. That’s two Overweight Dans, he squatted. Another guy climbed a 15-foot rope a bunch of times because he felt like it — after the workout. I’ve seen people pull 6-minute-mile paces without breaking a sweat. Once I saw people in training for the Garage Games hosted at my box. After the workout, a guy loaded up a barbell with 135 pounds, he cleaned it, jerked it over his head, and held it there — then he started walking out the door and down the street. Just a regular day in Providence, walking down the block with 135 pounds over your head, no big deal. I’ve seen human beings jump onto boxes 51 inches high. I’ve seen friends of mine — regular ol’ people — do shit that would most people scare away from exercise forever. I see people begin classes frequently. I think that’s pretty great in and of itself. Me, I’m not good at CrossFit, yet I’ve become capable of doing things I never thought I’d ever do. I picked up 265 pounds off the floor the other day. That’s not an earth-shattering amount of weight, but I never thought I’d ever do anything like that in my life. I spent most of my life thinking I was weak, and it turns out I was wrong. I don’t see me giving that up any time soon.
Gains I’ve made
It’s fair to ask if I’ve improved at all since I’ve been doing CrossFit, or if I’ve been faffing around chucking money away. Let’s go over the list:
- I lost about 50 pounds of flab. Not all of that is thanks to CrossFit — a lot is due to dietary changes. But CrossFit-type weightlifting and interval workouts helped me burn fat and keep and build muscle while I was/am restricting my nutrition. I couldn’t have done that without some regular strength training program.
- Pull-ups: When I first started, I was unable to do a pull-up at all. I could barely hang from the bar more than a few seconds. I got my first unassisted pull-up in August. I can do multiple now (but still maybe only 3 or so).
- Jumping rope: In December, I literally did not know how to jump rope. Nik had to teach me what to do. I’m OK at it now, and have gotten to where I can string together 2 or 3 double-unders
- Petranek baseline: This a pretty basic CF workout of body-weight exercises. It was also my first official CrossFit class in early January. The workout is multiple rounds of a 500-meter row, then 40 air squats, 30 sit-ups, 20 push-ups, & 10 pullups.
(a) In January, two rounds took me 7:37 and 7:49, and I was wiped out. I had to drop to my knees to finish the push-ups and I did ring rows instead of pull-ups.
(b) In December, three rounds took me 6:07, 6:40, and 7:30ish, and I felt OK. I cut my time, did full push-ups, and did pull-ups with a medium assistance band.
- Fran time: Fran is another typical CrossFit benchmark. It’s a 21-15-9 rep scheme of thrusters and pull-ups.
(a) In April, my first Fran took 8:56. I lifted 65# thrusters and used the heaviest resistance band for two rounds of the pull-ups, then did ring rows for the third round.
(b) In December, Fran took 9:22. This time I lifted 75# thrusters and used a medium resistance band. So I took 30 seconds longer, but lifted more weight and used less help for pull-ups.
- Grace time: This is CrossFit-ese for 30 clean and jerks done for time. The prescribed weight is 135. I lifted 65 pounds each time. In April, 5:02. In June, 4:14. So a bit of improvement there. It’s probably time to try that one again. I can clean and jerk a bit more than that now.
- Deadlifts: In April, I maxed out at a 220-pound deadlift. I weighed in the high 190s then, so that lift was 1.1 times my own body weight. In December, I deadlifted 265 pounds. That’s 1.66 times my body weight. The pull was a lot smoother too.
- Back squats: In April, my back squat max was 215 pounds. But I didn’t squat very low. It was a crappy little quarter-squat kind of thing. I should’ve been no-repped for that, thinking back on it. Again, that was 1.1 times my body weight. In December, my back squat max was 190 pounds — about 1.2 times my body weight, though this time I used a medicine ball on the ground as a target and squatted low, all the way past parallel, and then back up. So a slightly better factor of my body weight and much better quality.
- Squatting in general: My squats are still pretty crap, but a coach the other day said they’re much improved from when I started, when they were appalling.4
- Running: Right before I joined CrossFit Providence, my typical running pace was around 11 to 11:30 min/mi. Now, on the rare occasion I actually go for a run, I average somewhere around 8:30 to 9:30 min/mi in training and I don’t struggle with it. In a 5K I ran in October, I PR’d by more than 2 minutes easily with a 9:11 pace overall. Some of that is a result of me weighing a lot less, and some is because I’ve got more muscle to help propel me along.
Stuff I’m still shit at
It’s only been a year, and I’m naturally kind of a schlemiel, so there are things at which I suck quite profoundly. These are things I should work at in the coming year.
- Burpees: I started out awful at burpees and I’m still only slightly less awful at burpees. I used to get tired after about 4 in a row. Now I get tired after about 9 in a row.
- Overhead squats: I have made zero progress in my ability to do overhead squats, which is itself zero. As in I can’t do them with weight, and even without weight — like with just my arms stretched over my head — I tend to fall over like a toddler in feety PJs. I think my body’s stupid somehow. They don’t work.
- Snatches: I cannot seem to get the snatch movement right. This is related to the above OHS problem.
- Jumping rope: Yeah, I know I listed it above too. Just because I’m better at it doesn’t mean I’m any good.
- Pull-ups: Same as above.
- Handstand push-ups: Holy shit I’m bad at these. It’ s not even funny. I’m doing them with my knees on a box and it’s still an embarrassment to the human race. I genuinely feel bad for the coaches every time they have to see me do them.
- Most gymnastic stuff: I’m a short and stumpy little fucker. I can’t seem to stand on my head or do L-sits or do any kind of graceful movement.
- Rowing: I started out rowing at about 2:20/500m pace. I now row at about 2:05/500m pace. I have no idea if that’s good or not, but I think it’s still pretty slow since I’m usually the last guy to finish.5
- Press: In April, I maxed out my strict press at 85 pounds. In December, I maxed out at 85 pounds again. I know I actually lifted a larger factor of my body weight, and I hear it’s typical for your press to take forever to develop, but holy crap. Only 85 pounds? That seems lousy.
Has it been worth it?
It’s been well worth my time. In general I probably spend about the same amount of time, or less, exercising per week as I did before. It doesn’t take long. In my garage, I can get in and out of there in half an hour and be wiped out. CrossFit has introduced me to weightlifting, which I found out I really enjoy, and strength training in general. I always had a problem keeping interested in that before. Remember Shovelglove? Swinging a sledgehammer around the room for 14 minutes? How humiliating. No wonder I couldn’t stick with it and thought it was pointless — it was. Lifting weights for realsies has given me a lot of confidence. So I got that going for me.
Because I’m a big data nerd, and also appreciate good value for money, I calculated how much I spent on CrossFit Providence membership fees in 2012: $1,316.
$99 × 9 months (Jan. to Sept. when I had a couple’s rate)
- +$110 × 3 months (Oct. to Dec. after Nik dropped out for Malley’s birth)
- +$75 for the four-session on-ramp class
- +$20 for an extra drop-in class I bought because I was out of classes for the month and found out they were flipping tires in a WOD, and rule #1 of CrossFit is if they’re flipping tires in a WOD you get your ass to the box and flip those tires.
That is not cheap, especially compared to other gyms one could go to, specifically thinking of that one that’s about 20 bucks a month and further entices you with free bagels and pizza on a regular basis (at left). The high cost of CrossFit is the main reason why I considered only trying it for a few months and switching back to running. Running’s free, right?
Except thinking about it now, I realized it isn’t. At least it wasn’t. It can be free. But realistically it’s almost never free.
You spend money on shoes, let’s say two pairs a year conservatively. If you’re a frequent shoe-changer who runs high mileage and follows the “every 300 miles” rule of thumb it’s more like three or four pairs. At $70 to $100 a pair, that’s what. Help me out here. Hold on, I’m bad at math … $280 to $400. And then you have your special shoes. You know the ones:
“Holy shit, lookit this pair of fucked-up [insert trendy shoe design here] I read about in Runner’s World! They’ll cure my [sloppy gait/plantar fasciitis/IT band issues] forever guaranteed! I’m gonna buy a pair of those and only run in them for [short distances/long distances/Tuesdays/even-numbered calendar days/however else you justify their use].”
And you buy tech shirts and tech shorts and tech jackets for rain and snow and tech hats for summer glare and tech underwear for wicking away crotch rot and special wicking-away tech socks so your tootsies don’t get blistered and special tech finger-socks for your stank-ass finger-shoes.
And you buy running vests and bottles and fuel belts and 60-oz. backpacks to carry your own personal supply of fluids on long runs and hold your pouches/nuggets of chemical nutrition, which you also buy.
And you buy electronic gadgetry to aid in your running: Garmins of every stripe, Nike+ devices, Nike FuelBands, Fitbits, iPods, iPod apps, specially shaped earbuds that don’t fall out of your sweaty ear-porches when you’re toddling around the neighborhood.
And you buy entries to races — fill your weekend schedule with 5Ks here and there, some 10Ks, half-marathons, and marathons, the latter of which can run from $70 to $100 or more each depending on the race’s notoriety. And you buy entries to “event” races some of which are priced at outrageous levels, like the Hot Chocolate 5Ks, which costs a staggering $48 for a three-mile run — three miles. Or those Color Runs, which I see can cost you $50 for a 5K. Or you decide to go balls-deep and register for Disney’s Goofy Challenge and pay handsomely for that privilege: up to $380. Go this far and you may branch out to other event races, like Ragnar relays ($1,620, or $135 per runner) and obstacle-course races like the Warrior Dash and Spartan Race and Tough Mudder, none of which are cheap. Not at all. And they all lead to the purchase of additional gear, possibly special shoes, and souvenirs.
And you travel to races. You stay in places that aren’t cheap, like New York and Boston and San Francisco and Hawaii and Orlando. You fly across the country and rent cars and book hotel rooms, which ain’t free.
And you need to train in all sorts of weather to make all this stuff worthwhile, so you buy a treadmill, which you hate.
It’s hard to total up, but I can see all this stuff costing $1,316 or more a year. A treadmill alone can get close to that — more if you want the primo model. You can pay less, surely, and you can even just run for free in your neighborhood, never enter races, and not go bananas with gear. But when you’re into a thing you tend to indulge.
I say “you,” but what I mean is “I.” I did all that.[6 Except for the treadmill. Nik & I came very, very close to getting one once or twice, and what a bullet we dodged. Holy shit. They’re not fun. They break. Decent ones are expensive. And we don’t want to run that much. Every time we pass by treadmills at a store, one of us says to the other, “Thank christ we never bought a treadmill.”] Me. Dan. Dan did that. Here I am in 2010, chubby all over and geared up like you wouldn’t believe: Running hat, running sweatband under the hat, running tech shirt, running fuel belt, running shorts, running underwear under the shorts, running socks, running hat. My running habit cost quite a lot of money. I got a lot out of it: friends, memories, a podcast series that went pretty well, drawers full of technical-fabric shirts — almost none of which I wear anymore because they’re all too big.
Not a lot of fitness, though, sad to say.
So $1,316, shit yes has been a good investment. Holy shit.
I’m very grateful for Nik, most of all, who with her relentless CrossFit talk for about a year and amazing example of awesomeness and fitness improvement drove my curiosity to try it, and who therefore provided the single greatest inspiration for me fixing my decades-old fatness problem. I also have to give a massive thank-you to all the coaches & friends I’ve made & acquaintances I’ve met & faces I’ve seen at my local box, all of whom without exception have been helpful and nice.
What to do in Year Two
- Get my ass in the gym or over/under a barbell at least three times a week, preferably four: two days at CFP, plus lifting sessions at home. Between my baby needing me and me needing her, and then the holidays, and then me getting a cold, the last few weeks have been light on exercise. I do better mentally and physically when I get about three workouts a week.
- Drop more body fat, gain more muscle. Be less concerned about “weight.”
- I should run the dogs more — for quality of miles, not quantity. They need exercise too, and they’re no good at lifting weights.
- I’d like to figure out this overhead squat business.
- It’d be nice if I could press 95 pounds by next year. Not asking for the friggin moon here.
- I should test all my lifts with one-rep maxes at some point. I have no idea what my bench press max is, for example, or front squat, or jerk. They come up in class and I end up missing those days, and then we have to train with percentages of our one-rep max and I’m like, “Uh … a hundred?” I don’t know. I should take a week or two and test those, or make a list and test one every week or something. Something along those lines.
- I don’t reasonably expect a muscle-up next year. But I’d like to accomplish just one (1) of some scaled version of a muscle-up that doesn’t look foolish.
- Figure out how to “kip.” It’s a staple of the CrossFitting diet for a speedy pull-up variation, and I currently have no idea how to do it.
- I still haven’t done an Elizabeth yet, either.*
- They don’t. ↩
- It was probably only half pain, half lifting strain. ↩
- (that I could tell at the time, but of course they were organized) ↩
- “Appalling” is my description, not his. He’s too polite to say so. ↩
- Update: Since I wrote that, I Googled what an average rowing pace would be. A forum thread on Letsrun.com suggests that for non-rowers a 2:00/500m pace is good. I don’t know how accurate that is, seeing as how Letsrun.com is a forum for slightly crazy elitist skin-and-bones runner weirdos. Yeah, I said it. ↩