Just mentioning the word CrossFit can cause excitement, serious Jimmy rustling, and even straight-up anger. Despite the peripheral hate, the growing popularity of the sport and the number of people trying it for the first time mean that CrossFit must be doing something right.

Much of CrossFit's growing fan base are motivated to continue the sport because of athletes like Heather Welsh and Marcus Hendren. Not only do these high-ranking athletes squat, press, and clean heavy weight, they look damn good doing it. It's easy to be inspired by their commitment to greatness and their super-hot physiques.

Whether you're eager to try your first class or just slightly Cross-curious, more information will help your first foray into the CrossFit world. As it turns out, there's a lot more to it than putting on long socks and doing weird pull-ups. If you're thinking about heading to your local box (CrossFit gym) and kipping for the first time, here are answers to some questions you might have.

What is CrossFit?

Created by Coach Greg Glassman, CrossFit is a fitness system meant to help people develop an "increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains." This means that CrossFit isn't necessarily designed to get you better at one skill or fitness attribute; instead, it's engineered to help you develop multiple skills and strengths at varying levels of intensity and time. You probably won't become the strongest person on the planet with CrossFit, but you will become stronger, faster, and able to do more work across various disciplines.

If you try a class, you'll do a workout of the day (WOD), which will more than likely include a met-con (metabolic conditioning session). In a met-con, you'll try to get as many rounds or reps as you can in a given amount of time. The movements, rounds, reps, and other details always vary, so you never know what to expect. One day you could run 400s and do pull-ups, and the next day you could be doing kettlebell swings, burpees, and box jumps.

But CrossFit goes beyond that. Good boxes will invest time to coach you how to do technical compound lifts and Olympic lifts, skills like double-unders and kipping pull-ups, and even running and rowing techniques.

Another great thing about CrossFit workouts is that they don't require a special gym or coach. Marcus Hendren, for example, started his CrossFit journey with the ultra-tough workout "Lumberjack 20." "I was looking for another outlet to compete," says the ex-collegiate football player. "I'd always loved working out and heard about CrossFit, so I decided to give it a try."

starting crossfit exercises

"In a CrossFit box, you don't have to worry about dropping your heavy deadlift, getting yelled at for grunting, or being kicked out for being too awesome."

What does a CrossFit box offer that a commercial gym doesn't?

Instead of a maze of exercise machines and dumbbell racks, you'll find a smaller array of barbells, bumper plates, lifting platforms, climbing ropes, rings, medicine balls, kettlebells, and a whole lot of pull-up bars at your local box. You'll also get more personal training and a freedom to lift how you want. In a CrossFit box, you don't have to worry about dropping your heavy deadlift, getting yelled at for grunting, or being kicked out for being too awesome.

Will CrossFit help me achieve my fitness goals?

That depends upon your goals. If you would like to be fitter, stronger, more athletic, and more mobile, then CrossFit can help. However, the whole point of doing CrossFit is to become a "Jack of all trades," so if you want to specialize in something, then CrossFit programming may not be what you need.

This is particularly true if you're a bodybuilder or a strength athlete. CrossFit isn't going to make you huge, unless you dedicate extra time to improving your strength or size. I will say, though, that athletes like Heather Welsh, Rich Froning, Dan Bailey, Marcus Hendren, and Annie Thorisdottir definitely prove that you can get strong and jacked doing CrossFit.

Will I be able to actually do the workouts?

One of the best things about CrossFit is that it's almost infinitely scalable. If you can't do the workout as prescribed, then you do what you can. So, if you can't do bodyweight pull-ups, you can do ring rows, or use bands, or you can do jump pull-ups. The same goes for almost every movement. If you're uncomfortable deadlifting 135 pounds, deadlift less. If you don't want to do box jumps on a 36-inch box, use 20 inches. Moreover, nobody is going to force you to do something you're completely unprepared to do. You'll go over how to do movements and lifts before you're ever asked to.

However, CrossFit is also good at challenging you to do more than you think you can. The line between wussing out and honestly failing because you're so fatigued you can't even lift your finger might seem pretty thin. A tough CrossFit WOD can teach you the difference.

CrossFit is also a really great tool to determine your weaknesses. Heather Welsh, 2012 CrossFit Games competitor, said in a recent Barbell Shrugged interview that her college volleyball experiences didn't prepare her for the challenging endurance workouts. "I hired a coach and he built my engine so I could handle the workouts. I ran, and I ran, and I ran, and then I ran some more," she says.

What should I expect during my first few weeks?

You can expect to be challenged. Many people go into CrossFit with expectations that turn out to be untrue. You'll do movements you've never heard of and new variations of challenging lifts. You'll exert more energy than you're accustomed to and you may feel a little lost. That's OK: there's a learning curve. Don't fear starting at the beginning. Learn the mechanics and try new things. You'll improve quicker than you think.

Also, there's no rule that says you have to love CrossFit. If you go to a class, don't like the box, don't like the trainer, and don't like the workout, don't go back. It's that simple.

Are the coaches good?

As in all fitness facilities, some coaches are good, and others aren't. The problem with hiring a coach or a personal trainer is that you can only rely on their "certification." If you're unsure about what that certification even entails, then you're just making a judgment based on the trust you have in that establishment. I suggest you try classes with different coaches and see which ones you like best. Don't hesitate to ask about their backgrounds and specializations.

Will I hurt myself?

You could, but you could also hurt yourself mountain biking, doing karate, or base jumping. All physical activity comes with some risk. If you follow directions, practice movement patterns, and scale down when necessary, you should be fine.

starting crossfit rings

Is it worth all the investment?

CrossFit gyms are often more expensive than commercial gym because while commercial gyms sell hundreds of memberships and hope only a third of their members show up, CrossFit boxes sign up fewer people and hope everyone shows up. If you really enjoy CrossFit, go to class most days of the week. Get the most out of your money.

I encourage everyone to try a CrossFit class and then try doing a similar workout in a commercial gym. If you don't see or feel a difference, then there's your answer.

Do I have to eat paleo?

No! There aren't any rules about what you can and cannot eat if you train CrossFit. In general, CrossFit coaches and box owners suggest a paleo model because it's healthier than the high-carb, salty, processed Standard American Diet. You may notice, however, that what you eat affects your performance during class. If you're running on Cheetos and Diet Coke, your workout won't feel too good.

Marcus Hendren was raised on a farm and got into the habit of eating whatever he wanted. Since he's started CrossFit, he's cleaned up his nutrition plan to be more competitive. "It wasn't until I left the farm that my diet really changed. Before I left I had a typical farmers diet: lots of meat, potatoes, breads, and desserts," he said in an interview. "Now I'm much more conscious about what I eat."

starting crossfit foods

What's with the long socks and special shoes?

Just like in any other sport, CrossFit equipment is specialized. Long socks help if you're doing multiple rope ascents, lots of box jumps, or deadlifts, but they're not a necessity. Some people like to wear Olympic lifting shoes, Reebok Nanos, or sport their box's T-shirt, but technically you don't need anything but sneakers and a pair of shorts to do CrossFit. If you really like CrossFit and plan to make it a habit, then it may not be a bad idea to grab some equipment.

Is it a cult?

Yoga, strongman, bodybuilding, and most other sports create diehard fans and followers bound by admiration of a particular ideal. CrossFit is no different. It has participants and spectators at various levels.

CrossFit is also very inclusive, or at least it should be. If you don't immediately feel welcome at your CrossFit box, you're in the wrong place. Furthermore, there's no rule that says you have to train to become the next Rich Froning—go to just challenge yourself, or be challenged, or to try something new. You shouldn't feel pressure about becoming a card-carrying "WODkilla."

Why does CrossFit generate so much controversy?

I'm not sure why the dislike can become vitriolic. Don't get me wrong, CrossFit definitely has flaws: Some CrossFitters tend to take themselves way too seriously, some of the programming is silly, and the business model seems to be more concerned with the quantity of coaches than the quality. But really, who cares what another person does for his or her fitness? Get fit and do what you love!

About the Author

Cassie Smith

Cassie Smith

Cassie Smith is a freelance writer living in Boise, Idaho.

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