Monday, February 13, 2012

Your Fears Will Not Stop My Dreams

CrossFit may be coming out from the underground, but we aren’t leaving our garage gyms! Articles are popping up in main stream magazines trying to offer unbiased views and reviews of the craze. Articles always remark that our sense of community is astounding, with whole gyms banding together and forming families (of sorts) but then they always launch into the dangers associated with our workouts (WODs).

The trouble with these articles trying to show you what it’s like “inside the cult” are that they are always written by a reporter, a reporter that tries CrossFit for a week. A workout or two is not sufficient time to understand us or our community. I, however, have been CrossFitting since early 2008. We started “dating” and I got my coaching certificate later that same year. In other words, I’m passed the honeymoon phase where everything’s shiny and new and perfect. This is my response to the many versions of the “Inside the Cult of CrossFit” articles that is realistic but still admittedly slightly biased (I’m still in love after all).

You are welcome here, all of you are welcome to come try a workout with us. Go ahead and try one workout with each of the CrossFits that are near you or your work place. Around 3,000 affiliates opened this last year, so it’s a good bet that you have at least two in your town.  You’ll know a true CrossFitter by how excitable we get when asked about what we do and why. I got to talking about CrossFit with a stranger in my local Starbucks one day (he saw a sticker on my laptop and asked me what it was) and after a few minutes he said, “Wow, I can see you love it. Your face just lit up discussing this.”                                                                                                                                                                                                     Yup, we love our workouts and a little like religious zealots, we believe that our way is the only way to get to be the fittest and healthiest you’ve ever been. It’s true for me, I’m the fittest and healthiest I’ve ever been, and it’s true for every other CrossFitter I know. So of course we’re excited that, by walking into a Box (term for CrossFit gym) you’ve decided to take responsibility for your health! We’re excited for you, your future, and for your family and friends that will benefit from your increased health and vitality. And we’re excited to have a new friend!                                                       
This CrossFit thing though is NOT for everyone, and that is the exact reason that we CrossFitters are a tight knit family. To someone outside the group, getting an entirely effective butt-whooping workout in (sometimes) less than 10 minutes is just unthinkable. “That doesn’t make sense, how can that possibly be true,” is a question I often hear from outsiders but it is that question exactly which made me walk into my first CrossFit. I just couldn’t imagine what could possibly make a workout that hard. For example, here’s a sample of a common conversation between a CrossFitter and their non-CrossFitting friend:
CF: “Ohmygod I’ve got to tell you what I did today at the gym.”
Non: “Oh yeah, did you talk to that hot chick?”
CF: “No, my workout was crazy. I had to do one power clean, 5 pull-ups, 10 pushups, 15 squats. Then 2 power cleans, the pull-ups, pushups, squats. Then three power cleans etc for twenty minutes. I can’t do real pull-ups yet, so I used a band on the pull-ups but I did ‘em! And my pushups are still pretty slow because they make you go all the way down to the floor, oh my gosh are my arms are gonna be so sore tomorrow hahahaha. I almost did 7 rounds though. It was awesome!”
Non: “Um, I have no idea what any of that meant.  Wanna go get some pizza?"
To a CrossFitter, these types of conversations are all too common and can get very frustrating. For example, a friend of mine made it the Games in 2011 (aka “the Olympics of CrossFit” ie “a BIG deal”) and could barely get his family to care. He may as well told them that he went to the library: they simply couldn’t comprehend that making it to the Games meant that he is one of the fittest people IN THE WORLD! People outside of CrossFit have a hard time understanding the astounding difficulty of our workouts and the high skill level required to execute certain movements (let alone execute them well and efficiently).  They simply aren’t used to the idea that an exercise program can include the common person, after all, aren’t true athletes famous and stuff?

It does break my heart a little whenever someone mentions that they need to get in shape before coming into our Box. That’s the biggest misnomer and I believe that along with the right coach on your side, CrossFit is the best place for a beginner to go. CrossFit aims to create highly functional athletes by evenly distributing it’s programming attention to ten physical skills; cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.  
We believe that you are only as fit as you are competent in each of these ten skills. What does this mean for the beginner?  It means it’ll be really easy to impress me, all you have to do is really try. It means that I’m not impressed by the guy with muscles on top of muscles…I’m fairly certain his endurance will be non-existent.  It means I’m not impressed by the beginner with a 450lb deadlift…I simply think they have a big deadlift. It means that I’m not impressed by your 4-minute mile…I simply think that we have a lot of flexibility, strength and skill work to do. It means that I’m not impressed if you have the fanciest clothes and the cutest hair cut…I simply think you’re going to sweat in them just the same as in anything else. I’m also not impressed if you throw up during the workout…I simply think you ate too recently and aren't yet accustomed to this kind of workout. What DOES impress me is if you come back! It does impress me if you keep working to the best of your ability, if you keep track of your workouts and strive to improve every time you walk through these doors. Genuine effort impresses me. Peeling yourself off the mat after a WOD to cheer on and support the others who haven’t finished yet impresses me. You don’t need muscles or a 4-minute mile to do these things. You need respect; respect for yourself and for others.
Everyone that is a CrossFitter or is considering it should familiarize themselves with Teddy Roosevelt’s speech (portion of a speech anyway) known as “The Man in the Arena.” This describes the CrossFitter's view of their training and the importance of every opportunity:  
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat…”

So it’s inaccurate to have a veritable outsider do one or two WODs and then declare they know what it’s like to be a CrossFitter. They simply cannot know what it’s like to be in the arena, over months and years, striving valiantly and taking failure along with triumphs and knowing they’ll never be among those who stayed “safe” on the middle road never realizing their potential.
When I read an article written by Grant Stoddard, “Inside the Cult of CrossFit (I read it on Yahoo health, but apparently was originally printed in Men’s Health Magazine) I knew I needed to comment. Read again Teddy Roosevelt’s speech above and then read this excerpt from Grant’s article about his experience during a workout.

“It wasn't just the intensity or the inappropriate competitive zeal that put me off CrossFit. The endless affirmations—all the clapping and grating exclamation points after "You're doing a great job!"—brought out my inner misanthrope. The last straw came when I found myself in a class of 12, mostly women. They'd all finished, but I still had 3 sets to go. There's something uniquely humiliating about trying to squeeze out a fifth round of 10 pullups, completely red-faced and fatigued, with a group of women yelling encouragement. I finished 2 minutes after my nearest rival, stumbled through a forest of high-fives, and then went out the door and never came back.”

It saddens me that what he found horrifying was that women not only beat him, but that they then SUPPORTED him. The NERVE of those ladies! What he didn’t realize was that they weren’t “women” condescending to encourage a “less-fit man” but that they were more veteran athletes supporting and encouraging a beginner. Where is the shame or horror in this scenario? Essentially, he did not respect himself to take this as an experience and say, “wow, I have room for improvement. These folks are pretty well conditioned to have done that so fast.” I can only hope that he respected those women that high-fived him before he quit to say thanks for the support. 
What I’d like you take away from this though is that if you think you would have acted similarly, then we don’t want you. That’s right, WE DON’T WANT YOU here if you’re going to whine about the workout and not take action to improve. [While this may sound harsh, I mean it in more of a parental way rather than hateful.] WE DON'T WANT YOU if you're going to cheat on the workout and do 8reps instead of the prescribed 10reps. No one is perfect, we’ve all come in last before, we’ve all scaled a workout before (and will again most likely) and if you’re going to quit when the going gets tough then I don’t really want you on my team and part of our family. To whine incessantly, to cheat on the workout, to not really try, to disregard coaching advice; these are all ways in which you are showing disrespect to the others in your class, to your coaches, and most importantly to yourself. Don't you want to be BETTER than that?!

CrossFit isn’t for everyone and for some people it just may not be the right time to start. Afterall, Zumba isn’t for everyone either and I’m not a bad person simply because the dance-exercise class doesn’t give me a thrill. It is true though that workouts as difficult as ours can sometimes highlight insecurities. Another reason why having a supportive family dynamic here is so helpful: we’ve all had our experiences with this and can help you get through it, but you have to be ready to allow it to happen. For instance, I once was overcome by sadness and insecurities from a recent break-up during a WOD entitled “Air Force” causing me to burst out in tears and leave the room. No one ever quits a WOD (we’re all too motivated to finish and workouts are usually too brief to find a reasonable excuse to stop) let alone leave the room. Not being able to finish that day was a blow to the ego on top of everything I was going through. So yeah, sure, I could have been so embarrassed by that so as to not go back the next day, but you know what? There were zero repercussions, because it happens and we all get it. Today is today, tomorrow is tomorrow.  Just give it the best you can. Grant (above) never went back to his Box because it seems he was too embarrassed and I can’t hate on him for being the person that he is at whatever point in his life that he’s at. But maybe one day he’ll decide that he’s ready to walk back into a Box, to be part of a community and to give back to his teammates, at which time he’ll be warmly welcomed home.

Is CrossFit Dangerous?

While relevant, this is rarely covered in a realistic manner. Addressed correctly it can be informational, but when the commentary gets sensationalist I just ignore it. Bottom line is that everything can be viewed as dangerous, so don’t try to scare me with an outsiders view of some of our inside jokes (like Pukie the Clown). Recently  there was an article in the New York Times about the dangers of doing Yoga…if you do it wrong.  I also just read a blog post about the dangerous nutritional deficiencies that can result from eating lettuce….if you eat nothing but lettuce! Articles about the dangers of long-term long-distance running pop up from time to time but are quickly brushed under the carpet, so to speak. I could twist an ankle in Zumba or sustain a meniscus tear, but where are the sensationalist articles about the dangers of Zumba?
                The less-than-glamourous aspects of CrossFit that are usually highlighted are a condition known as rhabdomyolysis and the pseudo-mascot-if-you-will Pukie the Clown.

Regarding Rhabdo
                Rhabdomyolysis (aka Rhabdo) is a condition in which skeletal muscle is fantastically damaged, leaching the cell contents into the bloodstream. Certain contents such as myoglobin are toxic and overwhelm the kidneys which can lead to  kidney failure and, in extreme instances, death. This is bad, very bad and it is not worn as badge of CrossFit honor no matter what silly magazine article you are reading. An outsider may here someone joke about it, but I assure you it is not something anyone strives to “get”.
One of my favorite parts of Grant Stoddard’s article (I have nothing against good ol’ Grant, but his article just highlighted all the things I dislike about mainstream CrossFit articles) was that he included the following as part of his argument trying to illustrate that CrossFit causes rhabdo.
"In January 2011, a local paper reported that 13 football players at the University of Iowa were hospitalized with rhabdo after a workout that included 100 squats with 50 percent of their 1-rep max. It wasn't a CrossFit workout, but it was in the same ballpark..."
If you look at what I highlighted for you, “it wasn’t a CrossFit workout.”  While there may be some instances of rhabdo occurring as a result of a CrossFit WOD, other things can cause this condition as well (see the link below). However, it is a serious condition and if you are thinking about starting CrossFit I recommend that you take the foundations course that each location should offer. If you are coming from a competitive sports or military background, swallow your pride and take the foundations course also (in which each beginner is introduced to the basic movements). Don’t try to skip it “because you know how to do this stuff.”  You may feel like you’re ready to do the WOD as prescribed but scaling appropriately for the first few months or more enables your body to get accustomed to the high demand these workouts place on your system. A good coach will know how to do this. (Read this fantastic article posted in the CrossFit Journal for more real information regarding this condition.)     

Regarding Pukie the Clown
I’m not a fan of throwing up, I really hate it a lot. I myself have never thrown up from doing a CrossFit workout and I’m sure there are some people out there that take that as a sign that I’m not hardcore enough. Whatever to them. The cases in which I have gotten nauseous are as follows:
·         First time I did a series of 250m sprints on the Concept2 Rower
·         Drank too much water before the workout
·         Ate too much right before the workout
·         Didn’t drink enough water and was dehydrated during the workout
·         Was coming down with the flu anyway
·         After the 1st WOD in the 2011 CrossFit Open
That’s it, in just about four years of CrossFitting I can count my run-ins with nausea on less than two hands and 3 out of 6 times it was due to improper fueling. As my body has adjusted to the intense workloads I rarely now get nauseous. Now it’s only during extreme heat or humidity during the summer that I can sometimes get woozy but that’s more of a sign to me to pay better attention to proper hydration than anything else.  

My Social Club
                We often joke that we could have just joined the local Portuguese Club in order to make friends. But no, this CrossFit is my social club. I get out of work, head over to the Box to hang out with my friends, and I just so happen to get a workout in also. I like it because of the variety; I don’t know what the workout will be so every day holds a surprise. I like it because I appreciate the challenge; some movements are complicated and require constant practice. I like feeling successful; even if I scale a workout I have the success of having completed it to the best of my ability. I really believe that CrossFit brings out the best in people and gives us opportunities that our regular life at the office does not.  CrossFit is the great equalizer, enabling someone strong yet slow to match someone weaker but fast in a workout. (I've come in behind a woman that was 8months pregnant in a sprint workout before. I've come in second to a 60 year old before. That's beautiful!)
                It also is unifying people around the world. You see someone in the airport with a CrossFit affiliate sweatshirt on and you can strike up a conversation, speak the same language “WOD, Fran, AMRAP”, and understand each other. Regional competitions are even a little like family reunions except that everyone ends up bruised, sweaty and gasping for breath at some point.
Yup, we’re a little out there I suppose but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. So if you’re curious as to how this CrossFit thing works, go to and view all the locations in your area. View each website, speak with each one and try out a workout at the one that makes you feel the best. And if you don’t like it? Oh well, no hard feelings J
Good luck!!
*****I was recently corrected that there are now 3,400 (ish) CrossFit affiliates worldwide. So 3,000 have NOT opened this year alone, sorry for the confusion! Thanks to Lisbeth for the status update :-) *******