Sunday, May 23, 2010

CrossFit: A Field Guide (Part I)

Is the person who shows up at the office every weekday, buttoned into business casual, who you really are?  What about the people you work with?  Your seemingly mild-mannered receptionist could be a spike-heeled dominatrix by night; the soft-spoken guy from IT could be a firebreathing rugby player who crushes skulls on the weekends. 

What we choose to do in our free time is highly indicative of who we are.  Perhaps that’s why, even though our friends and loved ones may not share our passions, we hope they can at least understand them.

Of course, certain pastimes are more easily relatable than others. If I tell people I run, they will largely assume I'm conscious about my health (true), and when I say I run races, they'll assume I'm fast (untrue) and/or that I like a challenge (true). When I share the fact that some of my running partners are blind—well, that tidbit needs a little more explanation.

CrossFit is another pastime of mine that requires some explanation. Most people have never heard of it, or, in one case, assume it's a workout exclusively for transgendered people.  Or, if they’ve seen some of the videos online, think I’m absolutely insane.

And so, in an effort to explain why I spend so much time and energy on this endeavor, why I come home broken and bruised, yet still come back for more—I’ve decided, for the benefit of the uninitiated, to create a CrossFit Field Guide. 

This Guide is by no means all-encompassing, or even that informative. As a CrossFitter of barely 11 months, I am certainly no expert, but believe I have sufficient knowledge to provide an introduction to the layperson.

And so, if you are a current CrossFitter who wants a way to get through to a family member who is concerned for your safety and sanity, or if you are the partner of a CFer who is wondering why your significant other has been spending so much time with a tattooed, ragtag group of shifty-looking characters, read on...


This introduction is really about my introduction to CrossFit, since it's the story I know best, and I think it's representative of how and why the average person would get involved with such a punishing workout program.

As I said, I am the kind of person who enjoys a challenge.  After becoming an adult and starting my career, I had a feeling of, "What next?"  The answer came in the form of running.  In 2008, as my dream job turned into a nightmare and I tried to figure out what it was I truly wanted, I ran.  I completed my first half marathon in May 2008 and my first marathon that October.  Having goals I could attack miles at a time was so straightforward and satisfying--I only wished solving the rest of my problems could have been so formulaic.

But by the spring of 2009, I was wondering "What next?" all over again.  Thanks to nagging injuries, running, my onetime refuge, had also become complicated and frustrating.  An orthopedist finally figured out the cause of much of my knee pain (crooked kneecaps) and said the problem could be resolved through surgery, or by getting my quads as strong as possible.  The theory was, the stronger my leg muscles were, the better they could hold my wonky patella in place. 

Enter CrossFit.  I heard about it in passing from someone who described it as, "an insane workout where people do handstand pushups and stuff," then read about it in a magazine; the journalist who attempted the workout ended up flat on his back, making a "sweat angel" on the floor.  This sounded like exactly the challenge I was looking for: something that would push me, and make me stronger in the process.  Also, it didn't hurt that the nearest CrossFit affiliate was three blocks from my house.  I signed up.

The Workouts

According to, the program, “…delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.”

So how do we train in a broad and inclusive way?  We lift a lot of heavy stuff, including barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, the Liberty bell...okay, we haven't done that last one. We run and use rowing machines. We do all the fitness basics you remember from gym class: pushups, pull-ups, situps, jump rope, climbing rope. (Did you know there's actually a technique for climbing rope?) And we also stretch, foam roll, and perform acrobatics, such as my personal favorite: handstands.

As an example, here’s a workout we did April 25:
5 rounds of:
250m Row
15 Dumbbell Push Presses, 45/25
15 Box Jumps, 24"/20"

  • “250m Row” means, “row 250 meters”
  • Push presses involve holding the dumbbells on your shoulders, then pressing them up.  “Push” means you can squat a bit and get power from your legs.  45/25 means 45 lbs is the recommended or “prescribed” weight for men, 25 lbs for women.
  • Box jumps = jumping on a box. Duh.

The Jargon

As might be expected from an organization filled with a bunch of fit, muscle-y people all hopped up on adrenaline and endorphins, many of the CrossFit terms are double entendres.

WOD -- The workout is called a WOD, which stands for “Workout Of the Day.”  Why abbreviate?  I assume it’s so that people can walk around saying, “Oh I just blew that WOD,” “I overshot that WOD,” and so on.

Box -- Then there's the place you workout. It's not called a gym, but rather, a box. Why? I'm not sure. I suspect it's so dudes can walk around saying, "I visited that box's a pretty small box...heh heh heh."

Snatch and Jerk -- Then there are the names of some of the lifts, like jerk and snatch. I can't blame CrossFit for these though; they're Olympic lifts that have been called that for ages.

“The Girls” -- Many of the WODs have girl names, like Annie, Barbara, and Fran. I asked why this was done, and was told it was a way to make the workouts, "more personal."  But I have to wonder if that’s really the reason, with people walking around talking about how they "Did Helen," and "Tore up Cindy."

(On a serious note, there are “hero workouts,” named after men and women who have died serving their country, or were killed in the line of duty. You can’t find fault with a tribute like that.)

The Cues -- There are also the cues, as in, what the coaches yell at you while you're doing the WODs. The one I hear all the time is "Big chest!" which means, “Pull your shoulders back and open your chest.”  “Big chest” is just easier to say, I understand. But sometimes, when I'm mid-workout and struggling, I get the urge to yell, "They ain't getting any bigger!"

The People

If I could sum up the average CrossFitter in one word, it would be: devoted. I think it's the right term to sum up the almost-religious zeal for the activity that all CFers share.  

As far as physical attributes, CrossFitters come in all shapes and sizes. Though, of course, the accomplished CFers do hew to certain characteristics: muscular and strong, but also quick and agile.  Most of them are inked, and vegans need not apply.  True CFers share a frenzied love of meat, blood, and sweat.

At least at my box, we're a pretty diverse group. Ex-Marines work out next to kindergarten teachers and experienced triathletes. Men and women, young and old, the one thing we have in common is a desire to be badasses.  Because at CrossFit, your worth is not measured by how ripped you are or how fast you can run, but by how hard you work and how much pain you’re willing to push through.  

Which is a good enough reason, I think, to love it.

To Be Continued…


  1. Ugh, considering I slacked on the gym all weekend, this sounds pretty good to me.

  2. And I didn't even include Nino's favorite part about CF, which is you get to put your balls everywhere. I'm not really sure about that one firsthand; you'll have to ask him.

    Join us!

  3. I never even realized all that double-meaning stuff, like chest out, tore up cindy. I'm so dense. Don't forget the worst one... BJs.

  4. I did end up going to the gym Sunday night but I didn't put my balls anywhere. I...I don't...wanna dip my balls in it, though?