What is CrossFit?

Apr 17, 2009

Distilled down to the simplest terms, CrossFit workouts are about intensity, variability, and functionality.

The values of CrossFit’s World Class Fitness, are often summarized in 100 words:

Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc. hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.
If all that is too simplified, let me elaborate. CrossFit is a workout regiment that embodies the above mentioned values. Unlike so many “gym rats” who think in disparate terms of cardiovascular and strength training, CrossFit does away with these distinctions for a methodology that is driven by results. Personal trainers at Globo Gym encourage long cardio stints of an hour or more “balanced” with similarly long sessions of strength training using Nautilus machines. In contrast, CrossFit workouts are mixed modal functional movements, performed at high intensity.

What is the difference and what make CrossFit better?

First, the focus on functional movements rather than isolated muscles. CrossFit not only trains your entire body to actually be used, but trains you in how to use your body to it’s fullest extent. Instead of a leg press machine, shoulder press machine, and lat pull-down, CrossFit workouts involve similar exercises, the squat, push press, and pull-up, either with bodyweight or barbells. Performing those latter exercises, which are done outside of the support of weight machines, means that technique, not just raw strength, is an important factor. Your body has to employ numerous minor muscles in concert to complete the moves safely and effectively. Ask yourself: do you have a machine guiding you to lift that dresser when helping a friend move?

Variety is a key part of CrossFit.  The Workout Of the Day repeats on the scale of months and years - you can do CrossFit for quite some time before you repeat any single workout, and at the rate we’re going it’ll be a long time before any 3 days have the same prescription.  This unique aspect of CrossFit is vitally important not only because keeps you from getting bored with exercise but it also keeps your body in limbo - there’s know way to prepare for the next move when it’s always different.  This variety increases your ability to function optimally in the face of any task that is thrown at you, be it a new sport or a true emergency.  Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit describes the importance of variability thusly:

We don’t have the agility of gymnasts, the power of a weightlifter, or the endurance of a marathoner but we have more agility, power, and endurance than any gymnast, weightlifter or marathoner. We do your stuff almost as good as you, you can’t do our stuff at all and we do stuff neither of us does way better than you can.
What he’s saying that CrossFit athletes may not have the same ultimate performance in a single domain that specialists athletes have, we have a much broader portfolio of abilities. While the average marathon runner may be able to keep that sustained effort for hours, but they can’t jump more than 18 inches or lift their body weight off the ground. The weightlifter may be able to toss twice his weight overhead, but would suffer if asked to run a mile or do 20 pull-ups.

The intensity of CrossFit is, to me, the central factor that differentiates it from the way most people exercise. At the Globo Gym, you’ll see folks do their cardio workout, perhaps running on the treadmill, spinning on a stationary bike, or pedaling on a elliptical machine for 30 to 45 minutes. Then, they’ll amble around the weight machines for an hour or more, doing 3 sets of 10 with a minute of rest in between; guys who are trying to “get big” will split the weight session between “lats & back” on day, “chest & biceps” another, and “legs” the third. It all seems very organized, takes a lot of dedication and time.

In contrast, CrossFit workouts are usually 20-30 minutes and the longest ones take 45 to complete. That’s it. What do we do in that time? A whole lot more work than most people do in their entire 2-3 hour gym sessions, thanks to the ever present intensity. Even in CrossFit strength workouts like DT (3 rounds for time of 155lbs. deadlift x 12, clean x 12, jerk x 6), there’s a note that the workout is “for time” — no ambling around between sets in this workout. The reason this intensity is important is because is teaches you how to use the maximum extent of your body; to actually employ your muscles to their fullest. Intensity also plays into another big question that people have about CrossFit:

What about cardio?

Ahh, yes, what about cardio? Surely because we never do any long sessions of running, CrossFitters can’t have any endurance or stamina. Wrong. The widely touted measure of aerobic stamina and endurance is VO2 max, the amount of oxygen that your body can consume during sustained aerobic exercise — medium intensity stuff like distance running or biking. There’s a misconception that long bouts of aerobic exercise are what is required to build stamina and endurance, but this simply isn’t true. In the same way muscles must be taken beyond their limits and torn to stimulate growth, your ability to process oxygen must be pushed out of equilibrium in order to increase your capacity to process it (see CrossFit Journal issue 22; ask me if you’re really interested). Running at some level below your aerobic threshold (i.e. less than 100% VO2 max) will do little if anything to increase this ability. To push it out of equilibrium and induce growth you have to workout at 200% or more of your aerobic ability. In metabolic terms, you need to work the high-intensity phosphagenic and glycolytic pathways in order to improve the medium-low intensity aerobic pathway.

The Bottom Line

To really get CrossFi, you must understand what fitness really is (PDF) in the CrossFit view. First, CrossFit sees fitness as including ten metrics: cardiovascular endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy. Second is the ability to not just perform well at certain measures of fitness, but to perform admirably at any task that is thrown at you. The CrossFit games, which determines who is the fittest CrossFitter each year, embraces this — the competitors don’t know what the competition will entail until the day of the competition. Rounding out CrossFit’s standard for being “fit” is competency in each of the three metabolic pathways: phosphagenic, glycolytic, and oxidative. Fulfilling CrossFit’s standard means that one has total fitness, fitness across the broadest range of measures and challenges.

If you’re trying to “get big”, then by all means, stick to a rotating schedule of isolating muscles, hit the protein powder hard, skip the cardio, and enjoy the ditzy chicks you can pick up at the bar.

If you dig that ematiated Ethiopian look, like to run marathons, and want to pick up the vegan chick from Whole Foods to have some very boney sex, then keep at those super cardio sessions!

If you’re truly interested in challenging yourself, being in the best shape possible, and improving your abilities across numerous domains, then find a local CrossFit gym, and get in their boot camp.  You’ll thank me later.

Edit 2008-04-24: CrossFit Radio talked about starting CrossFit last weekend. Also, CrossFit Brand X does scaled versions of the main site WODs on their forum.