Telling friends and family that I CrossFit elicits one of several possible responses. Some of you have probably heard these two:
1) “Whoa, seriously? That’s SO INTENSE!”
2) “You? But you’re such a small girl… isn’t that dangerous?”
I find this concerning. Despite how it’s described in the media, CrossFit is not some inaccessible heavy lifting program that ripped 20-somethings do to get Conan thighs.* It’s high intensity, sure, but the most important components, UNIVERSAL SCALABILITY and PERSONAL COACHING, receive surprisingly little attention in the public sphere.
For those of you who might not be explicitly familiar with these concepts, scalability is the idea that we can make a movement easier or more difficult by changing certain things about it. Decreasing or increasing load is an intuitive form of scaling: if it’s too hard, make it lighter, if it’s too easy, make it heavier. Although no one has ever explained it to me quite so succinctly, I think of “universal scalability” as the philosophy that we can scale anything with a little creativity.
Let’s talk about pull-ups. When I started CrossFit I couldn’t do one, and I didn’t have the slightest idea how to get there. It seemed like there were two options: hang on the bar and pull—day in and day out—until I magically lifted my chin over the top, or aimlessly lift weights until I was among the ranks of those strong enough to accomplish the feat. Of course, both of these options are slow, boring, and ineffective. How are you ever going to stay motivated when you can’t see results? How do you know you’re working the right muscle groups? It’s no wonder so many people let themselves believe that they simply “can’t do a pull-up” and spend the rest of their lives on the elliptical.
As it turns out, there are these ingenious, almost magical devices called giant rubber bands. Just hook one over the bar and put your foot in it and VOILA! You can do a pull-up. And depending on how much assistance you need, you can get bigger or smaller rubber bands, more or fewer rubber bands, rubber bands of different lengths and colors. You can watch yourself progress from thicker bands to thinner ones and measure your progress, even if you still can’t “do a pull-up” (by which you probably meant “dead hang pull-up.”) You can even mix up your training by including reverse pull-ups, jumping pull-ups, or ring rows. And heck, once you’re Superman and you’re pounding out those unassisted, dead hang and kipping pull-ups like there’s no tomorrow, you can try it with a 20 pound weight vest and feel like a beginner all over again.
Scaling is one reason that personal coaching is so important. If you just walk into a conventional gym, there’s no one there to tell you this stuff. A good CrossFit trainer will not only teach you how to do a particular exercise, they’ll also be able to assess your current fitness level and demonstrate ways to scale accordingly. A trainer can intelligently adjust routines to account for any current injuries, prevent new ones, and make sure that you can handle whatever challenges come your way. (They can also explain terms like “AMRAP” and dissuade you of the popular but misguided notion that all CrossFitters are Rx-ing everything all the time. Plus they’ll teach you to NEVER EVER say “girl push-up.”)
It’s worth noting that every CrossFit box is different. Since each gym is individually owned and operated, programs and coaching can vary greatly. I have been to gyms where scaling options for a particular WOD were not necessarily explained and coaches just provided pointers here and there. This is appropriate in a box with a stable and highly experienced membership (and many such boxes feature separate beginner classes that give athletes extra time with trainers) but it’s not ideal for one that consistently welcomes newbies into classes and caters to members with a variety of needs. Nonetheless, scaling and personalized attention happen in each and every affiliate. They are integral aspects of the CrossFit experience.
So let’s address the comments above.
1) Yes, CrossFit is a high intensity fitness program. But it’s not as if everyone in the room is performing Herculean feats at all times. Instead, everyone is challenged to work hard and go beyond their individual comfort zone. This is why CrossFit culture places such an emphasis on the PR (personal record); it’s more impressive to surpass one’s prior achievements than to beat someone else’s weight or time.
2) CrossFit is no more dangerous than any other physical endeavor. In fact, it’s probably safer than most, since good coaches tailor workouts with each athlete’s safety and well-being specifically in mind. It’s their job to make sure that everyone can participate, no matter what their body type, sex, age, or fitness level may be. You can CrossFit if you’re a “small girl.” You can CrossFit if you’re 55, 85, a mom, a professional athlete, and even if you “can’t do a pull-up.”
Though there is something else I should mention…
It is SO INTENSE.