Monday, July 19, 2010

CrossFit: A Field Guide (Part Deux)

So here it is!  The long-awaited (by about three of you) Part II of the CrossFit Field Guide.  Part I covered the workouts, jargon, and people.  Part II covers the all-important topics of wardrobe, diet, and controversy. 

(But really, it’s just a thinly veiled mash note to my companions and coaches at my box, CrossFit South Brooklyn.  I’ll be moving at the end of the month and will miss them dearly, but in the words of the Governator, I’LL BE BACK!  That’s a promise.)  

The Wardrobe

The CrossFit aesthetic is unusual, to say the least. As in other realms of fashion, the men are more uniform and less loud in their dress. The typical CrossFit Male is often undistinguishable from the rest of the gym-going population of men: t-shirt, shorts, and gym shoes. There are, however, subtle differences. Whereas your average gym-goer wears Nike or adidas trainers, the CrossFit male is more likely to be wearing weightlifting shoes or Converse. He is also more apt to take his shirt off mid-workout; a practice often frowned upon at most corporate gyms.

In warmer months, the CrossFit Male may often been seen barefoot. Contrary to popular belief, weightlifting and running are often better executed this way, as one can better get a "feel" for the floor. I can just imagine countless non-Paleolithic members of society cringing at the potential dangers: you could drop a weight on your foot! You could step on glass! (Not to mention the socio-economic implications; one CF friend of mine, while walking home barefoot from the box, was offered money by a stranger to "buy some shoes"; the bystander likely thought he was another recession victim). In my experience, people tend to get over their aversion to shoelessness sooner or later. I began lifting in stocking feet after a few months--though I still wear shoes while walking and running the streets of Brooklyn. Apologies to my fellow CF-ers, but I'm not crazy. I don't wish to test whether or not my tetanus shots are up-to-date.  Perhaps the impracticalities of going barefoot are what make Vibrams, those weird reptilian-looking shoes with toes, more popular among the CrossFit demographic (both male and female) than the general population.

While popular with yogis, the lululemon-brand clothing is also popular among CF-ers, both male and female. I quickly discovered why. Though it still makes me cringe to spend nearly $100 on stretchy pants, the quality is unmistakable, and necessary. While doing common CF exercises like deadlifts and squats, which require an extreme ass-out position, inferior-quality pants and shorts are stretched to their limits, often exposing the wearer to the extreme. I'll expand no further on the subject.

The CrossFit Female is often colorful and expressive in her attire.  Clothes are often short or tight, or some combination of the two.  This is less for show [though if you looked like this (fast forward to 1 minute), who wouldn’t want to show off a little?] and more for practicality’s sake.  You don’t want to be mid-workout worrying about a baggy shirt or pair of shorts riding up, or getting tangled in a jump rope.

In this way, the CF Female may seem to resemble any other woman bound for Pilates class—until you get to the all-important part of the wardrobe known as accessories.  The most distinguishing accessories of the CF Female are the tall socks.  Calf-length, knee-high, or over-the-knee, these socks also serve a purpose in CrossFitting.  They protect your shins from bar scrapes and scars while doing deadlifts, cleans, and snatches.  They protect your calves from rope burn while climbing.  And as a bonus, when paired with short shorts, they show off toned quads and hammies.

Other accessories worn by both male and female CFers include sweatbands, bandanas, and things called skins, which I believe are supposed to improve your circulation and/or make you look like a serious athlete.  There are also the all-important affiliate* t-shirts, which sport sayings ranging from the serious (“Fitness is Earned”) to the silly (“I eat burpees** for breakfast”).  CFers also love things adorned with skulls.  It’s all about looking tough.

The evolution of my workout wardrobe has been an important part of my transition from runner to CrossFitter-who-runs.  My running shorts and pants weren’t cutting it (see above) so I invested some money into lululemon gear.  I now own two pairs of striped knee socks, a skull t-shirt (from my box), and skull shorts (ditto).  After dropping so much money at lulu, I tried to save money in the shoe department, and found a pair of Converse on sale for $29.  I can’t imagine why such perennially popular shoes were on sale—probably because they are a retina-scarring shade of hot pink.

Put it all together—skull gear, short shorts, knee socks, hot pink kicks—and I look like a damn fool.  Some days, while walking home from the box, I’m terrified Stacy London of What Not to Wear is going to jump from a passing car and beat me with a stiletto.  As a CFer, hopefully I could fight back.

The Diet

CrossFitters are sometimes referred to as cavemen and women, which partly has to do with the back-to-basics idea of fitness, but mostly has to do with the recommended CF diet: Paleolithic nutrition.  (Other boxes adhere to the Zone diet, which I don’t know too much about.  And then there are those who practice “Zaleo” or Zone-Paleo, which may be an optimal diet, but which sounds like way too much work to me.)

The Paleo diet, put simply, is eating like our ancestors ate: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruits.  Sugar, dairy, grains, and other foods that have resulted from modern farming and factory processing are off the menu.  Of course, there exists scientific evidence backing this kind of diet (as there is for many other types of diets), and I could try and talk about glycolic pathways and other things that make my head hurt just thinking of them, but I’ll skip that part.  The idea of eating whole, natural foods just makes sense.  I stuck to a Paleo diet for six weeks, and after an initial withdrawal period (during which I cried, cursed and hated life for about a week), I felt really great: energetic and strong.  And ladies, if that alone doesn’t sell you, I could start to see some nice abs definition.

I’d like to say I’ve stuck to Paleo since then, but though my overall diet has improved—more protein, a greater variety of vegetables—I have definitely strayed quite a bit.  It’s tough being a cavewoman in a modern world.  Cheese and ice cream are just too damn delicious.

Controversy and Cult-like Following

While most CrossFitters regard the practice as if it were the Second Coming, CF does have its detractors.  Articles have been written about the dangers of practicing such high-intensity exercise, and the risks of injury and exhaustion.  The Paleo diet also comes under fire quite often for being heavy on meats and saturated fats.

To these arguments I say, while CF can indeed be scaled to suit anyone, it’s probably not the fitness plan for everyone.  It’s important to know your limits, and what your body can and cannot handle.  It’s tough, especially for the egomaniacs out there, to be in a group of people who are moving faster than you, or lifting heavier than you.  It makes it easier to push yourself toward injury.

As far as the diet goes, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t wary about the whole, “eat fatty meats” thing.  But the meat the Paleo diet advocates is the real deal kind, the kind that’s been raised mainly outdoors and allowed to graze.  Factory-farmed and processed meat is not real meat—sorry, Jim Perdue.  And as a former vegetarian of eight years, the idea of knowing your meat and where it comes from is one I am fully behind.

So, yeah, I guess you could say I’ve drunk the CrossFit Kool-Aid.  It’s been a year now, and I am in awe in how much I’ve changed, as much mentally as physically.  Forever the tall, long-limbed girl who barely broke the 3-digit weight mark, getting strong was often seen as laughable, something I couldn’t do.  The males in my life, and I love them dearly, always had the instinct to tease (cousins, friends) or protect (father, boyfriends) me.  It was life changing to enter a realm where I was encouraged to be strong, and in a sense become my own protector, and where that ambition wasn’t a punch line.

I refer to CrossFit as a cult with the utmost affection, trust me.  It’s a label we’ve given ourselves.  Any time my CF friends meet my non-CF family, boyfriend, or friends the first question is, “So what do you think of the cult?” usually followed up with, “So when are you going to join?”

While I will continue to be an evangelist for CrossFit, it does not matter to me if my family and friends prefer running, kickboxing, or yoga to sweating it out at CrossFit.  All that matters is that they can appreciate my borderline obsession with functional fitness, and understand why I love this “tattooed, ragtag group of shifty-looking characters” like family.

*Certified CrossFit gyms are known as “affiliates.”
**I can’t believe I did not include a definition of a “burpee” in my previous post.  This is a sadistic movement that is extremely popular in CrossFit workouts.  Basically it’s a pushup on steroids: execute a pushup, jump feet forward, jump up, clap your hands over your head.  Generally these are repeated over and over until you want to barf-ee.


  1. Another great post! We will miss you!

  2. The paleo diet thing bugs me, just because-- well, I've got an anthropology background. & speculating on what early humans ate is a fun game, but by no means one with an "answer" other than "not enough." That being said, I'm not opposed to high protein low carb diets paired with rigorous activity. So.

  3. As someone who's now entering month 10 (TEN!!) of physical therapy for an injury that, well, didn't exist 11 months ago, I'm quite glad you wisely added the caveat that extreme fitness programs (especially timed ones where your form can ultimately degrade in the quest to beat your own personal record and/or the clock) are not for everyone. That said, you look rad!