More Than Just A Workout – Learning The Crossfit Lifestyle

It was the most grueling quarter hour of my life, but perhaps the most rewarding too, and it gave me a glimpse into why crossfit has become an obsession for so many.

Photo by Victor Freitas

By Ross Lawrence

Breathing heavily, sweat pouring down my face and thoroughly exhausted, I stumbled through the last few steps of my lap around the parking lot, thus completing my very first crossfit workout.

It was a hot fall Friday in the North State, and I was scheduled to meet with the owner of Crossfit Redding, Bryan Schenone, for an interview. As a publication covering local activities, we have a philosophy at Active NorCal to “practice what we preach.” So, of course I’d accepted Bryan’s invitation to try what I’d been assured would be a “light workout.” I quickly learned there’s no such thing within the crossfit sphere. In between the pull-ups, lunges, burpees, kettlebell snatches, jumping jacks and laps, my weeks away from the gym began to show. Rounding out the routine, I looked at the clock, and couldn’t believe that only about 15 minutes had ticked off. It was the most grueling quarter hour of my life, but perhaps the most rewarding too, and it gave me a glimpse into why crossfit has become an obsession for so many.

A Sport for Everyone

Crossfit Redding

Looking around the gym at the start of my first crossfit workout, I noticed the diversity of the group. The crossfit vets could be identified by their “Greek godlike” physiques, but there were also people that seemed about at my fitness level, some below my level and others just above it. The class was split about 50/50 male to female, and had an age range of about 18 to 50. One of the great things about crossfit is that it’s an activity for all shapes, sizes, sexes, ages and abilities. In fact, Schenone’s first recruit at Crossfit Redding was his mother who was in her sixties – she still trains daily. Those with only a passing knowledge of the sport may assume that you have to already be in shape to do crossfit, but the instructors go out of their way to accommodate anyone that wants to give it a try.

“There’s a woman with a double hip replacement that comes in to our gym. We’ve had some people who have been very immobile,” said Jud Austin, co-owner of Crossfit Chico. “We have kids as young as seven and adults as old as 64. On the other side of the spectrum, the Chico State girl’s rugby team comes in here twice a week.”

Another thing that opens crossfit to the masses is that it is universally scalable. Essentially, this means that a crossfitter can cater workouts to his or her own physical capabilities by choosing the size of the weights used and doing less taxing versions of certain exercises. For instance, during my group session, I could not do the amount of regular pull-ups that others could, so I did an easier, simplified version using gymnastic rings. And for the kettlebell exercises, I was able to choose a bell of an appropriate weight for my strength.

“If you can’t do a certain movement, we’ll have you do something that you can do so you can move up to that range of motion,” stated Austin. “That’s why the coaches have training and work hard to continue to learn so they can find the exercises that are suitable for each individual.”

Whether you’ve played sports your whole life, are a gym rat or rarely leave the couch, you can likely find a home at the right crossfit affiliate. Some think crossfit enthusiasts are meatheads who spend all day doing 500 lb. deadlifts, but the truth is it’s an activity for people with a wide range of fitness goals and previous experiences with athletics.

“I was a triathlete, and my first experience with crossfit was watching someone deadlift a huge barbell, so I wasn’t really all that into it right away. But I learned more about it, and realized that it’s so much more,” recalled Schenone. “We have military people, firefighters and cops, but we also get stay-at-home moms, kids and people who are really just getting off the couch for the first time.”

Crossfit Redding as well as other crossfit affiliates start beginners off with fundamentals classes before they are thrown into the regular classes. These lessons for novice crossfitters serve two purposes. First, the coaches seek to train students how to properly and safely perform common crossfit movements such as squats, deadlifts and cleans. Second, the crossfit instructors get beginners to a certain physical level so they don’t feel out of place when participating in the standard group classes. While I only had enough time to get a crash course in crossfit, both the coaches and others with more experience helped keep me on track and ensured that I was performing all of the movements properly. I can only imagine that after a four to eight-week fundamentals class I would have felt like a fish in water at the session.

“You have to start somewhere, so we have an eight-week class where we make sure you perfect all nine of the fundamental crossfit movements,” said Austin. “The coach’s most important job in each class is to make sure that everyone is moving safe and effectively.”

Globo-Gym vs. Crossfit

Photo by Wesley Quinn

Formerly a frequent visitor of a traditional gym, I have many times experienced roaming around a gym trying to find an alternative to my usual, monotonous routine, only to gravitate back to the same exercises. Just motivating myself to go to the gym on a consistent basis was difficult, but when I got bored with the same old gym habits, working out became a real chore. What’s more, I reached a point where I didn’t seem to be getting any stronger despite how much time and effort I put into my workouts. Many gym goers have this common experience of plateauing. For such people, crossfit offers an excellent alternative.

As a means to stave of exercise boredom, crossfit instructors vary group workouts every single day. Rarely if ever will you find yourself doing the same routine you’ve done before. Constantly mixing up programming ensures that athletes are utilizing and strengthening different muscles every time out. Using all the muscles in your body, and working them out in varying ways makes it impossible to plateau. Within one group lesson, you might use row machines, pull-up bars, elastic bands, ropes, barbells, kettlebells, PVC pipes and medicine balls. Attendees at group classes benefit from the great amount of skill and education that coaches possess when it comes to the design of the workouts. Interestingly, for the purpose of keeping each and every muscle in their bodies fit, coaches won’t even design their own routines for fear that they’ll exclude movements they subconsciously don’t like to do.

“One of the things that people see when they get stuck or stall out at traditional gyms, is that if you’re your own coach, you’re the worst coach,” contended Schenone. “Watching ‘The View’ while you’re on the treadmill is one thing, but going to 98 percent of your lactic threshold is something completely different.”

“Well, I’m tired, and I don’t feel like doing those last few reps,” is a thought that’s crossed my mind more times than I can remember, especially as I’m nearing the end of my workout. Standing idle between exercises and reps; and added to that, low intensity workouts result in a great deal of downtime, shortened gym visits and unsatisfying outcomes. On the other hand, I noticed while doing crossfit that you never really stop moving. In 15 minutes, I accomplished more and was more tired than I was after an hour doing my normal routine. I even commented to my crossfit workout partner Emily, “I can’t believe you do that every day.” She replied (not trying to impress), “Our workouts are usually twice as long as that…and harder.” Never a fan of wading through the masses at a gym, I could definitely get on board with a 20- minute workout, especially one that exercises the whole body. While you can scale back workouts to your individual comfort level, the intensity of crossfit sessions challenge even former marines.

“Personally, I think crossfit W.O.D. are more difficult than marine boot camp,” expressed Austin, a former marine. “I started crossfit to help with my PTSD. Any exercise is good for rehab, and I did the whole globo-gym 24-hour fitness thing. But it got to the point where I just got bored. Going in there, and trying to figure out what I was going to do – I just ended up doing the same things over and over. I found myself in a rut.”

The Culture

Photo by Victor Freitas

After speaking with an avid crossfitter for more than five minutes, you begin to understand that it’s much more than a passing hobby or a trend. Crossfit enthusiasts are fanatical about the sport. From an outsider’s perspective, it can be difficult to see why people are so excited about what may be viewed as simply a “workout program.” The truth is that crossfit is not akin in any way to exercise fads such as Taebo, spinning or P90X. Not only is crossfit a sport with large-scale competitive events, but also, it’s a lifestyle that pervades nearly ever aspect of a crossfitter’s being. Those that get into the sport become close friends with others from their gyms, attend social functions centered around crossfit and even adjust their diets and sleeping habits based on their dedication to the sport.

“We’re not trying to control people’s diets, or tell people, ‘Don’t eat this or eat that, and don’t do this or that.’ We don’t try to deprive people of anything like ice cream, which is delicious, or even drinks,” said Schenone of Crossfit Redding’s approach. “What we notice though is that people at our gym realize that if they eat or drink to excess, the next day’s workout is going to be really difficult. So instead of having several drinks they only have one. The shift in overall health happens organically.”

One of the best ways to build a bond with others is by suffering through a workout side-by-side. This is the principal philosophy behind hazing, and an idea that has been a catalyst for some of the greatest teams in sports history (we do not condone hazing). Struggling through crossfit “Workouts of the Day” (W.O.D.) with the same group day in and day out fosters relationships that extend beyond the gym.

“There’s an element of camaraderie with crossfit because everyone knows how crappy it feels to be suffering through the workouts. No one wants to be last. But first or last, everyone is cheering for you the whole time,” observed Schenone. “Crossfit Redding is a really tight-knit group. We have barbeques and go to the movies together. We go out a lot, and it has become our social network.”

On the same subject, Austin added, “I think you make friends. Misery loves company, and that whole mentality. You make a friend and you’re doing those same grueling workouts, and you find somebody of similar strength and capacity, and you kind of more or less team up and try to push each other to the next level.”

Competition is another big reason why people fall for the sport. Every time you go to a group session, you’re competing with yourself by attempting to improve your time, increase your reps and lift more weight. Additionally, crossfit gyms (AKA affiliates) have small, in-house contests as well as ones with nearby branches creating friendly rivalries between area gyms. These local clashes make it necessary for affiliates to interact and build positive relationships with each other. But in addition, they raise the level for all the crossfit athletes in the region by increasing the pool of those competing. Beyond these local bouts, crossfit members can enter into the Crossfit Games, which is an international contest that begins with several hundred thousand entrants, and culminates in a final showdown that determines the “fittest in the world” (see “Crossfit Games” for more information).

“There’s a segment of people that come in who have played sports, or do play sports, and have kind of stalled,” noted Schenone. “This group is looking to mix it up. We help them mix it up, put them into the crossfit groove of things and it creates a competitive spirit, which is really helpful for them.”

Primary among the reasons crossfit devotees are so committed is that they see results. Whatever your fitness goals may be, crossfit classes virtually guarantee that you will reach them. Though I certainly didn’t breeze through my first workout, the fact that I had a partner, guidance from the coaches and constant support from classmates ensured that I never felt disheartened. With methodical programming, the encouragement of fellow crossfitters and dedicated coaches, you can be rest assured that you’ll achieve things you once thought impossible in a short amount of time. When new recruits to the fitness movement realize lofty health objectives, it builds self-belief, which extends to other areas of their lives and ultimately solidifies their passion for and commitment to the sport.

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