The Crossfit conundrum

First appeared in The Sunday Telegraph.

It’s not every day that I write about the pros and cons of a particular sport but first have to explain the rules. Yet so young is the subject of this week’s column – the self proclaimed ‘sport of fitness’ known as CrossFit – that many people have yet to truly understand how it works. Created Stateside by ex-gymnast Greg Glassman, CrossFit has since become one of the world’s fastest-growing training trends and is often accused of being cultish. Launched in 2000 there are now 10194 CrossFit affiliated training facilities worldwide including 305 in England, 42 in Scotland and 37 in Ireland. There’s even a facility in The Faroe Islands, Mauritius and Raratonga, so next time you’re passing…

But I digress. Let’s return first to the question of what exactly CrossFit is. The official definition is ‘constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensity and scalable to all levels.’ To simplify, that means you’ll be training to move and perform better at… well… life (or, in CrossFit speak you’ll be ‘fit for purpose’). It also means such training can be suited to your ability, that it can and will become competitive, either against yourself or others, and that you’ll never, ever get bored. In terms of its content, CrossFit is a complex beast with too many component claws to mention here but, at its most basic, it combines Olympic lifting with gymnastic skills and hard core cardiovascular fitness.

Sometimes I think it’s the closest to hell that exercise can get. Other times, the nearest to heaven. Honestly, I’m in two minds. I used to be intoxicated by the mixture of disciplines and the inevitable endorphin high that followed.

But having done CrossFit 4-5 times a week for a 10-month period last year, I can tell you with confidence that there are other, perhaps more authentic, ways of describing it. Sometimes I think it’s the closest to hell that exercise can get. Other times, the nearest to heaven. Honestly, I’m in two minds. I used to be intoxicated by the mixture of disciplines and the inevitable endorphin high that followed. I loved the phenomenal group energy engendered by sweat, grit, falling weights and loud rock music, not to mention my new muscles.

But then the love affair began to sully as I started an ongoing battle against injury: pre-existing biomechanics issues that were illuminated and exacerbated by the intensity and repetition of CrossFit-style training. I also discovered the most crucial side of the CrossFit coin: that if you’re not coached by the best, your experience can be all the worse. And while the coaches at my CrossFit ‘box’ (the name given to the warehouse-style training facilities where the sport is taught) certainly knew their stuff, the numbers in class were too many; it became impossible to receive the kind of care and attention required to emerge from regular CrossFit training uninjured. More importantly, I didn’t feel I was getting my money’s worth: at £175-£225 per month to attend oversubscribed classes, I couldn’t help feeling that I was being had. Someone was making serious money, but I wasn’t making serious progress. In fact, I was going backwards.

Yet nine months later, it’s October and I’m back in a CrossFit box performing a high-intensity (read: brutal) workout. Except this time I’m in a new facility called CrossFit 1864 (www.crossfit1864.com) where the ethos is very different. Here, classes involve a maximum of eight people, membership is capped at seventy and coaches Maria Turner and Phil Morton are 150% committed to teaching people to excel.

“CrossFit isn’t just about beasting yourself,” says Phil as he hands me a glass of water. “It’s about getting fit, strong and balanced so you can be awesome at life whether that means keeping up with your kids or getting out of a chair when you’re 85.”

After some mobilisation exercises, we move on to the prescribed strength exercise of the today, a one-legged squat move known as the ‘pistol’. Phil listens as I tell him about the original injury in my left lower back. Interestingly, I struggle to perform a pistol on my right side. The two are connected, he explains: my right buttock muscle isn’t firing very well so my left (stronger) side takes too much of the strain.

His knowledge is impressive. He even gives me activation exercises to do at home for that right glute. But first, there’s the final part of our session known as the WOD (workout of the day) Today it’s a task affectionately known as ’21,15, 9’. It starts with a ‘sprint’ on the rower followed by 21 thrusters (a whole body exercise that combines a weighted front squat and a push press and makes me feel like dying). After that, it’s kipping pull-ups; a more gymnastic version than its stricter better-known counterpart. Repeat the whole lot for two more sets, dropping down to 15 and 9 repetitions respectively. Maria watches solicitously, giving me cues to correct my form where necessary.

Eleven minutes later and I am on the floor, wheezing. I remember how this feels; I remember CrossFit.

“Never again,” I think. And yet…

PROGENEX RECOVERY

I’d argue that no training community takes its nutrition more seriously than the CrossFit community and Progenex Recovery is about as synonymous with CrossFit as cucumber sandwiches are to a cricketer’s tea. It’s high quality and tastes delicious. Drunk within half an hour of any intense muscle-ripping activity it might not give you wings but will certainly help the wings you had pre-workout to grow back quicker as it contains top-notch ingredients that help it to work faster and more efficiently than other low grade cheaper brands. As if you didn’t already look forward to the end of a tough session enough already…

Progenex Recovery is 59 Euro for 30 servings.

progenexeurope.com

Reader question – I really want to try CrossFit. How do I find a good facility near me?

The short answer is that you can locate training facilities affiliated with CrossFit here: map.crossfit.com. The longer answer is that you’ll need to do your research. Every box is different; the open market business model of CrossFit means that there’s little standardisation. If you wanted to set up your own training facility with Crossfit above the door, all you need to do is pay around £1800 and pass a weekend course. That said, CrossFit is in the midst of changing the rules to encourage higher standards. But still the quality of coaching can vary hugely so it’s vital that you, the trainee, take a trial session, ask questions of the coaches and other members, and when you do start CrossFit training, build up the intensity gradually.

– By Lucy Fry

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