CrossFit: keeping it real

Put the all-over body demand of a CrossFit workout together with the extreme passion of its participants, and the fact that nothing is done in half measures, and what you get is the simple yet complex, crazy-brave world that is CrossFit.

16kg kettlebell

Since its inception in 2000, CrossFit has emerged as quite a different beast in the field of fitness. First and foremost, it is based on the remarkably simple concept of functional movements – the way the body moves naturally to achieve its everyday tasks like lifting, squatting, pulling, running and jumping. It incorporates elements of gymnastics, high intensity training, Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting in ever-changing workouts that are challenging to the body.

For Deon Laubscher, a passionate CrossFit coach who moved away from mainstream gyms in favour of CrossFit, it is all about the functional movements, ‘letting your body move how it is supposed to,’ as he says. The beauty of functional movements is that participants are not always confined to a gym setting. In addition to working out in a CrossFit box (‘box’ is the term for a CrossFit gym), the functional fitness phenomenon is taking place in backyards, spare rooms, sheds, warehouses and streets around the world. Travel workouts are designed for people to do when they go on holiday. They are body weight exercises generally that do not require a lot of space that can be conveniently done in a hotel room.

Box or gym?

A noticeable difference between a CrossFit box and a mainstream gym is its lean and sparse set-up. Mainstream gyms have rows of machines like treadmills, elliptical trainers and pin-loaded weights machines. This is not the case in CrossFit. ‘The only machines in a CrossFit box are its clientele,’ says Laubscher.

One of the main features of a box is its spaciousness. Generally, a box is an open-plan space – the dominant feature being a large rig comprising pull-up bars, gym rings, backing boards and adjustable supports­ – with an expansive multifunctional floor area. Other pieces of equipment are stacked around the perimeter – barbells, weight plates, plywood boxes, kettlebells, medicine balls, for example. The larger pieces of equipment include prowlers, rowers, glute-ham developers and chunky floor-to-ceiling ropes, and then there are the real world objects CrossFit training uses like beer kegs, tractor tyres and atlas stones.

All these pieces of equipment have something in common. They require input from a person to be useful in training. They have no motorised parts and they do not have to be plugged in. It takes the exerciser’s own body weight and application of a functional movement to make the equipment valuable to the workout.

Laubscher says, ‘With the gyms and all those pin-loaded machines, they are making you move in ways your body isn’t designed to and doesn’t want to move. With CrossFit, because it has none of those machines and it is all barbell, on the rig or lifting a big-ass stone, it is all functional. Things like the deadlift, you use that in everyday life.’ Perform that deadlift and other functional movements in constantly varied ways at high intensity across broad time and modal domains, and it pretty much makes real the idea behind CrossFit.

Defining fitness

In CrossFit, fitness is defined as work capacity across broad time and modal domains. This is where the high intensity component is important. The more work a CrossFit athlete can do over a period of time equals intensity and that increased capacity equals fitness.

CrossFit is known for the 10 modalities of cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy so that all aspects of fitness are covered. The aim is for athletes to do well at all of them, and it is this aim for consistency across these 10 standards that separates CrossFit from other disciplines. ‘Punish the specialist’ is a phrase often used in CrossFit circles and it relates to this same goal of consistency, to be good at all the movements at varying levels of intensity in whatever combination they appear in the Workout of the Day (WOD). CrossFit is known as ‘the true test of fitness’ because of these comprehensive and demanding competencies.

Addicted to CrossFit

It is the dedication to mastering these movements and the goal of improved fitness that keeps box members coming back week after week. A well-known CrossFit term for this enthusiasm is ‘addiction’. People happily profess to be ‘addicted’ to CrossFit.

‘CrossFit has so many movements and so many things that you need to be good at, or competent at, that you are always having to practise. You will never be perfect at anything in CrossFit. So, the addiction for me is always being challenged with having to keep improving,’ says Laubscher of his ‘addiction’.

All about the WOD

CrossFit workouts are notoriously hard. Each WOD encompasses all 10 modalities to some degree. Each CrossFit participant is catered for – regardless of fitness, age or ability – but the programming remains the same. Participants do the WOD either Rx (as prescribed) or have it scaled by a coach to suit their needs. However, the expectation is always the same – work at a high capacity to get maximum benefit from the workout.

Greg Glassman is the man who established the regime known as CrossFit. He was a gymnast who, while competing, understood the value of being consistent, not necessarily winning every event but being consistently good over all the events. This is the foundation on which CrossFit is built.

Glassman went on to train police officers in functional fitness which he then developed into CrossFit as it is today. He gained a reputation for hard, unorthodox training that was getting undeniable results, so much so that firefighters and soldiers became interested in his style of training. He started a website, posted the Workout of the Day (‘WOD’ in his internet shorthand), added a comments section where people could post their times, ask questions of each other and share comments, and thus the CrossFit community was born. It is now global.

As to this unorthodox method, Laubscher says of participants, ‘It makes them fitter than they’ve ever been. It makes them stronger than they’ve ever been. The type of training that it does is incomparable.’

As to the unrelenting nature of CrossFit workouts, benchmark and hero WODs tend to be the hardest. Benchmark workouts are a way to test fitness, strength and a person’s progress. The titles of many benchmark workouts are girls’ names – for example, Fran, Diane, Angie. Hero workouts are named after police officers, firefighters and soldiers who have died in the line of duty – for example, Murph, McCluskey, Wood.

They are periodically put into the Workout of the Day as a measuring tool for participants to see how much they have improved. They are all timed. They are also a good way of athletes to rank themselves among each other. In fact, the most asked ‘ranking’ question in a CrossFit box is ‘What’s your Fran time?’ whereas in a mainstream gym, it is ‘What’s your bench press?’ It is the perfect example of the empirical nature of CrossFit – working to time, at intensity, improving strength and fitness.

CrossFit workouts regularly use heavy weights, high volume rep schemes and time caps and, given their demanding nature, it is essential to have qualified coaches to ensure correct technique is applied to avoid injury. CrossFit runs the only recognised training for coaches with Level 1 and Level 2 courses, and CrossFit boxes (known as affiliates) are only allowed to use the CrossFit name if they have fully trained CrossFit coaches on staff.

This is also where the famed CrossFit community is key. Participants never attempt heavy lifts or high intensity WODs alone or without the supervision of a qualified coach and the support of the box members.

Box life

The community aspect is a striking part of box life. Nobody has their own iPod and earphones in for the workout, so there is no ‘tuning out’. Instead, there is music for everyone through the speakers, they tune in to each other – therefore, nobody works in isolation – encouraging each other during the workout, competing with each other, and always fully taking part in the group goal of finishing the workout.

It has always been part of the attraction of CrossFit for Coach Laubscher who says, ‘It’s one thing to do a workout on your own, and be completely buggered afterwards, and then that’s it – no-one to talk to, no-one to say ‘well done’ or anything like that. Whereas training in a box, there’s 15-20 other people going through the same pain you’re in and you push yourself that little bit harder, especially if you’ve got a good mate there who you want to beat. It’s not only that fact, but at the end you can have a laugh with everyone, congratulate everyone, discuss where you went wrong, discuss what you did right and improve next time.’

The addiction to CrossFit gets under some people’s skin to the point where they become CrossFit coaches, as in Laubscher’s case, or they compete in the various CrossFit competitions that are available. Some do both, and some go further again to open up their own CrossFit box, becoming affiliates to their beloved CrossFit.

Competing

Individuals and teams compete in local and Australia-wide competitions. Athletes represent their box in much the same way sportspeople represent their sporting club in competition. The pinnacle of CrossFit competitions is the annual CrossFit Games held in Carson, California, where the best from around the world compete for the title ‘Fittest Woman on Earth’ and US$275,000 prizemoney in the women’s competition, and ‘Fittest Man on Earth’ and US$275,000 prizemoney in the men’s competition.

It is open to athletes worldwide and is part of a three-step process to get to the CrossFit Games. It begins with The Open where any person interested and capable of competing can register, do the assigned workouts and post their times on the website. Of those, the best make the cut to compete at The Regionals.

As they stood in 2014, the 17 regions were Canada East, Canada West, North East, North West, South East, South West, Northern California, Southern California, North Central, South Central, Central East, Mid Atlantic, Latin America, Europe (including the UK), Africa, Asia, and Australia. The CrossFit competition system will undergo changes in 2015, involving amalgamations of the 17 regions into the following eight: Pacific Regional (Asia and Australia), Meridian Regional (Europe and Africa), Atlantic Regional (Mid Atlantic and South East), West Regional (Canada West and North West), East Regional (Canada East and North East), California Regional (Northern California and Southern California), Central Regional (North Central and Central East), and South Regional (South West, South Central, Latin America).

The Games are held annually and hold constant surprises for athletes because they are tested for how they cope with the unknown. Their fitness is always tested in ways they could not have specifically trained for, and the test is how they apply their functional movements at high intensity across the broad time and modal domains CrossFit is all about.

For example, the 2013 CrossFit Games introduced a new piece of equipment called ‘The Pig’. It was the second stage of a four-stage event called the Burden Run. It consisted of a 3.3km road run, 91m ‘Pig’ flip (140kg for women, 222kg for men), 548.5m log carry (29kg for women, 45kg for men), and a 60m iditarod pull (99kg for women, 140kg for men). (NB Weights and distances converted from the original imperial.)

To flip ‘The Pig’, it required a movement similar to the one required for flipping a tractor tyre, similar to a deadlift, but it was different enough to be the unknown factor. ‘The Pig’ is long and rectangular in shape, it is metal and, at its greatest height before tipping over, it is 1.6 metres tall – taller than some athletes.

Imagine now the individual techniques each competitor had to employ to deal with this unfamiliar object. They each had to fall back on their training using functional movements and their experience of working at a high capacity, all the while with the clock ticking, all the while under competition conditions, and all the while knowing there were two more components to the event.

Most athletes had trouble working out where to put their hands underneath it to lift it off the ground, many tried having their body leaning into the apparatus and periodically adjusting the angle until they found the right one, many used their legs and back differently to flip it. The difficulties they had with ‘The Pig’ affected each individual’s game plan for the remainder of the event.

It was very heavy for such a long event. It involved odd objects (‘odd’ meaning the weight feels heavier than if it were spaced evenly across a barbell, when the object is an odd shape to lift) and it expected cardiovascular and muscular endurance from the athletes in competition conditions.

All aspects of fitness

This also speaks to the mental aspect of CrossFit – the need for mental strength as much as for physical strength. Athletes often find with demanding workouts and weightlifting ladders, for example, that their focus can desert them and their mind can play tricks on them. They can start focusing on all the wrong things – how heavy the weight is, their high heart rate, how they might have to reconsider their competition tactics, the fact they might be trying for a personal record. As a result, their focus shifts, they might miss their timing and not perform well in the workout, their position on the leaderboard might suffer, and all because of what has intruded on their mind. Mental composure is a factor which is tested as much as physical capability.

Physical fitness also improves concentration which not only has applications for workouts and competitions but also for office workers who need strategies to deal with the sedentary nature of their work – sitting at a desk and looking at a computer screen for many hours a day, for instance. ‘It is a huge challenge for everyone just to be able to mentally stay focused, to stare at a computer screen all the time,’ says Laubscher of the modern work setting. There is something to be said for being fit for the demands of a sedentary lifestyle, to find a way to counteract it with improved physical fitness.

Fit for life

This is where the creative nature of CrossFit is pertinent – making the workouts interesting and challenging enough for people to reap the benefits of a workout, improve their fitness and sustain it as a regime they can follow for the rest of their life. In coping with the repetitive nature of working out, CrossFit is clever in that no workout is ever the same. Repeating the same thing over and over again can condition a person to cope with that same workout with the same movement, whereas CrossFit is designed to mix up all the competencies and movements in ever-changing rep schemes and time caps so that the athlete is ready for anything and never conditioned to specialise in one aspect of fitness.

CrossFit coaches are well-respected in boxes and they play a major role in creating the workouts, keeping them interesting, ensuring that no workout is ever the same, and fostering an environment where participants are encouraged to set and achieve their goals. Laubscher agrees that coaching is a skilled and creative pursuit in devising beneficial programs and workouts, and also in getting the best out of people. ‘You’ve got to know what you’re doing to start with. You’ve got to know how the body moves and how to fix imperfections, muscle imbalances, all that kind of thing,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to be friendly as well. It’s no fun to have a coach who just stands there and yells at you. You have to be encouraging as well to people in their last two minutes of a WOD and all they want to do is die. You’ve got to find a way to get them through and to keep them coming back as well.’ He says of coaches, ‘Personally, I think you’ve got to be fit as well. You want someone who practises what they preach. You can’t have a 200 kilo guy standing up there who just finished off a pizza telling you what to do.’

Nutrition plays an important role in the CrossFit lifestyle, finding innovative ways to fuel a CrossFit body for CrossFit workouts. Most CrossFit participants – and certainly the coaches – eat ‘clean’, which means they avoid processed foods in favour of fresh, whole foods with a focus on each meal being nutrient dense. Many CrossFit participants make alternative versions of traditional dishes, ensuring the ingredients are healthy and nutritious.

Some involved in CrossFit follow more prescriptive diets like the paleolithic (paleo) diet, eating fresh vegetables, meat, fish, nuts, seeds, some fruit, some starch, no refined sugar, no dairy and no grain. The Zone Diet is also popular which involves eating a percentage of carbohydrates, protein and fats at each meal which has the flexibility to be applied to meat-eating, vegetarian, vegan or paleo diets.

The holistic approach to CrossFit is evident in the altruistic nature of the community. Boxes regularly raise money for charity, sometimes donating the proceeds from selected classes to charity, sometimes hosting fund-raising events. Often box members take part in demonstration WODs at these events to promote the healthy mind, body and spirit philosophy that is part of box life and make themselves available to answer the questions of those interested in trying out the sport.

CrossFit’s focus is on health, wellbeing, strength, fitness and community and, in real ways, presents itself as an unorthodox yet effective antidote to the poison of our modern, inactive lifestyle.

Leanne Barrie
By
8 January 2015