A story about fitness and CrossFit

Skip down past the italicized part if you want to get past the more story part. I’m kind of a story teller but the story is not always interesting.

Growing up I was more of a runner, doing track and Cross-country. I played LaCrosse in high school and that was my first introduction to weight lifting, but it was pretty minimal, just your standard bench and military press and lat pulldowns and leg machines, etc. No squats, no dead lifts. I was pretty small back then, so I don’t think any coaches were worried about building me up and just let me do whatever.

It wasn’t until I first started coming to John Stone Fitness, 10 years ago that I started to get more into weight lifting. The whole first year, it was very basic, again no compound movements. After the first few years I got more into the big three: squat, dead lift and bench press. And I finally started to do some real numbers after a lot of encouragement of the people on this forum. I was also in grad school and had access to pretty good gyms for free and a lot of time to workout.

After grad school, for the last 7 years or so, I would certainly still lift at various gyms and recently built a minimal residence gym in the basement. I always continued to focus on the three big movements, but I never really got back up to the numbers that I had in grad school. I started to get really bored, trying to come up with lifting routines, and working the same types of things with little variation. Sure, it is certainly my fault that I was not motivated enough to structure brand-new routines. But you only have so much time and effort to focus on things and motivation is difficult when you are doing it alone. I have had a lifting partner here and there. It is good when it works, but as soon as someone starts to miss workouts, it falls apart pretty quickly.

In addition to the above, I have rock climbed on and off over the years and am a pretty big fan of body weight exercises such as pull-ups. I even had a pull-up bar installed in the hallway of my grad school lab, so that I could go out and do reps when work was frustrating.

So it was with the above background that I started to look into joining a gym near me in May of this year. I had not lifted since May the previous year, and just could not bring myself to do so in a dark basement as it got nicer out. In my never ending battle with body fat, I was coming off of a rough winter and had shed about 20 pounds (210 to 190), simply by walking and eating better during the Spring. I used my fitbit for motivation to track steps and even started tracking calories. It worked for several months, but after stalling for a month I knew that I just wasn’t going to progress further without incorporating some kind of resistance work. My feet started to actually hurt from racking up the steps. I realized that a step counter was definitely the wrong feedback to use. So I wanted to incorporate weights and I was also willing to do some sort of personal training. I needed motivation, instruction, feedback and was willing to pay for it.

So Google told me there was two gyms near me, one about a mile away and one 2.5 miles away and on a Sunday afternoon in May, I was like, that’s it, I’m joining a gym. I walked to the first (so I could get my step count up!) and it is your typical gym, rows and rows of machines, mostly empty, yearly memberships, crazy expensive personal training programs, where you get 6 sessions or 12 sessions. So I took the pamphlet and started walking up the road to the next gym. On my way, I walk by a repurposed old bank. The drive-through lanes were filled with cage and rack systems, there were rubber pads on the cement, a half dozen large concrete spheres with numbers spray painted on them and several giant tractor tires. A big whiteboard was mounted on the outside with random numbers written everywhere. I walked up to the door, peaked in and saw a little waiting area and then just an open room, with ropes coming from the ceiling, pull-up bars everywhere, a number of moveable squat racks and a giant stacks of bumper plates.

It was, of course, a cross-fit gym. I had only a vague awareness of CrossFit over the last few years from it coming up in internet articles and people always commenting on the crazy workouts and the crazier people who did them. I took a picture of the front door with the website and noted there was a free class on Saturday. I walked on to the next gym. It was a fancier version of the first one, more expensive with higher personal trainer rates, and even more empty. So I got residence checked the website for the CrossFit gym and signed up for the free class.

Okay, so now for what I think of it so far. It’s been pretty awesome. There is a lot of to love though with some set backs.

The positive things:

-In the last 2.5 months, I have gone to the gym more often than I ever have before. I go about 4 times a week. I can definitely see how it is addicting. The instructors are very positive and encouraging. This rubs off on the other people and everyone is very open and encouraging of each other. I actually know the names of people that I workout next to. I talk to them. After years of blank stares and people wearing head phones, this is so refreshing and so much more fun. Hitting a big weight and then high-fiving someone who is happy that you did it, is the best feeling. Not since high school, have I had this type of athletic experience. I’m able to push myself more than I believed I could.
-The gym is extremely friendly and has actually a good male/female mixture. About half the coaches are women. Some classes have more women than men, but I would certainly say it is evenly split on average. This helped convince my wife to join. She has actually been open to weightlifting in the past, but she would certainly definitely be scared off by a room full of guys throwing weight around. The fact that there is always other women for her to share a rack with, is a huge plus.
-You start off with four fundamental classes where you have a one on one with an instructor and they teach you basic movements. You have to pay for these, but I learned a lot. Even if I had decided to not stay with the gym I learned a lot just from those classes.
-The variety of movements is amazing. A typical class has actually a warmup of various bodyweight movements and dynamic stretching kind of like pilates or yoga. The movements are chosen based on what the main workouts are that day. I’m usually already sweating by the end of the warmup. Warmup is followed by one or two main workouts and then there is a similar cool down. If there are two main workouts, the first one is always a strength workout. This one is usually not timed, you just go through sets of Deadlift, or Back squat and do the max weight you can for a certain number of prescribed reps. The second main workout is called a metcon, for Metabolic Conditioning. This is an intense timed workout consisting of bodyweight and weight lifting moves or more exotic strength work (see next bullet). The idea here is to scale the workout with the right difficulty so that you can keep a higher intensity for the entire time, typically 10-20 min. I am usually a complete ball of sweat by the end.
-No seriously the variety of movements is amazing. In 2.5 months, I’ve flipped giant tires, swung a sledge hammer, pushed a sled, carried a giant boulder, rowed, jumped rope (for the first time in my life, I actually learned in the fundamental class), ring dips, medicine ball work, box jumps, sprints, handstands. Other firsts for me: Front squatting, the clean & jerk, the power snatch (still not getting the squat snatch down). I climbed a 20 foot rope.
-My back squat and deadlift are already approaching the weights that I did 7 years ago, when I was training these exercises every week for months. Except now, I’ve only squatted and deadlifted maybe 3 or 4 times each in the last 2.5 months. So I am getting stronger at these movements without actually needing to do them. This is kind of mind blowing when you think about it.
-The variety really helps with not becoming burned out. You don’t find out what you do until the day before, so there is no need to think about it.
-The app/website, Wodify, for tracking everything like signing up for classes, recording your performance and even your payment info, is really well done. I can look back at any previous exercise to see what weight I should do for the next class and get a graphed calculated 1 rep max for back squat over the last few months. It’s pretty social too, people can like each other’s performances on the day of the class.
-I’m losing fat and gaining muscle. Even though no weight change, but that’s fine with me. I’m the same weight since I started, but my waist is 2 inches smaller. Using the Navy body fat calculator that means I’ve lost 5 pounds of fat and gained 5 pounds of lean mass. This amount of lean mass is a higher water mark for me. About 150 pounds with a total weight of 188.

The negative things:

-Much of what I wrote above is going to be heavily gym dependent. I’ve only been to one and have had a really good experience. But if coaches are not friendly or less skilled at their job, it simply won’t work at all. The whole thing relies on the coaches being good.
-You don’t get to pick your workouts. Unless you go everyday, which is hard to imagine, you are going to miss certain movements with time. So if you love back squat, but that comes on your day off, it might be frustrating for some. Even though there is usually open gym at various times, where you could maybe make this stuff up if you want and have the energy.
-There is absolutely the potential for overdoing it. My first week, there was a workout involving 5 sets of 30 box jumps, with some other things in between. This absolutely killed my back and I had to rest it for a week. We have not done that lots of since then, and if it came up now, I would certainly probably be fine, but you learn pretty quickly, how to scale workouts for your ability. Another time I got a little over zealous on the weight I was using for a timed front squat workout where it ended up be 5 sets of 10. I only made it the fourth set and had to bail on the last rep. My ribs are still pretty sore on the back right side. Now I’ve adopted the philosophy that the un-timed weight lifting workouts are for experimenting with heavier weight and for the timed workouts it’s best to go easier on the weight and focus on form and having a higher intensity.
-The coach goes over the fundamentals for every movement used that class, but when you are in the moment, it can be a lot to remember. There is a learning curve and you have to deal with the fact that some times you just won’t get it the first time or at all that class. The coaches do what they can, but with 10-15 people they only have so much time. It will be frustrating for some. I still don’t have certain things worked out completely. But each time it comes up I work at it best I can.
-It’s expensive. It is more than the cost of an expensive gym, but less than the cost of a gym membership plus personal training. But you have to spend your money on something and for me it is worth it.

I’ll post more things if I think of it.

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