11 Jan 2016 – Gareth's Absolute Beginner's Guide to CrossFit

First on the left in the very front row is our buddy Gareth in his first weeks of CrossFit (c. June 2015).

The Absolute Beginner's Guide to CrossFit

A guest blog by Gareth Maddock

Google CrossFit and you’ll find a plethora of information; from vast swathes of images of unfathomably fit men and women lifting more than you could ever hope to, to critiques (and aggressive defences from CrossFitters) alleging a high risk of injury owing to its intense and competitive nature.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, misinformation makes up a considerable subset of the online guidance available to the prospective CrossFitter. As with any training method, there are arguments for and against; and, unfortunately, many easily accessible articles tend to focus on one or the other rather than presenting a balanced view of CrossFit’s relative merits and deficiencies.

To be frank, when I started CrossFit in May 2015, I was blissfully unaware of much of the debate between its proponents and detractors. After hearing positive feedback from friends, my girlfriend decided to join CrossFit 1864, and I came along in tow. At the time, after throwing myself into running for around 2 years culminating in a half marathon, I’d started to grow a little bored. I slowly replaced runs with spin classes, and eventually swapped those for Netflix and Chill back when it literally meant binge-watching Breaking Bad and being immobile. I couldn’t easily run more than half a mile, was eating pretty much whatever I wanted, and had never lifted a weight in my life. The only thing I knew about CrossFit was that it was probably going to hurt.

6 months later, I’ve lost more than 20kg in weight; I’m doing push-ups, pull-ups, handstands, and toes to bar; my fight to the death with burpees is going rather well; my snatch is looking fantastic; and my innuendo has never been better. To top it off, I was voted ‘Most Improved Male Athlete’ of the year by my fellow athletes. I’ve achieved more in the last 6 months than I thought possible with the help of some incredibly supportive coaches and athletes, and can say that taking up CrossFit has been one of the most overwhelmingly positive experiences of my life to date.

But, as with any hobby or lifestyle choice, each person’s experience is going to be different. Turning, again, to Google, you’ll find as many people claiming CrossFit changed their lives as fluffy columns from relatively inert journalists feigning surprise at how much it hurts to stand up after their first session, stark warnings about how ‘dangerous’ it is, or comparisons with religious cults. As I’ve said, the risk of being misinformed when researching CrossFit is significant.

You can’t learn everything there is to know about CrossFit from Google, so the hope is that this post will help the rookie CrossFitter by shining a light on some of my own experiences on the journey from dangerously inactive lump to barely competent athlete, giving an indication of what to expect if 2016 is the year you start.

You Are Probably Going to Suck

OK, not really... you may suffer from a lack of experience and conditioning. But you’ll tell yourself that you suck. You’re asking your body to do more work than it’s used to, and it’s going to argue back. You’ll be sore after your first few sessions - be prepared to need help getting off the toilet (speaking from experience) - but it won’t last. Pretty soon you’ll be easily capable of doing a few sessions a week without any bother, then you can push on and focus on what you want to achieve longer term.

On the subject of aspiration, without doubt you’ll start to look around at what people younger/older/shorter/taller/bigger/smaller than you are lifting and compare yourself to them, when, in fact, this is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

All the workouts can and are scaled to varying degrees, depending on experience. Every athlete is doing a slightly tailored version of the same workout, so everyone can work out together, but still get the degree of training that is best for their fitness level. You shouldn't get hung up on what you can’t do, since we’re talking about movements you can’t just think or will your way to achieving.

People who have been CrossFitting longer than you have had time to learn and adapt. They should be ahead of someone who hasn’t had the benefit of that experience. Looking around at what others are achieving shouldn’t dishearten you; every observation is an opportunity to set a goal. Upset that the new guy can deadlift more than you? Aim to get handstand push-ups before him, run a mile quicker than he can, or to close the gap between your heaviest deadlift and his.

C is for Community

Prepare yourself for enough woo hoos, high fives and cheers of support from other athletes to make socially awkward people feel socially awkward. A friend of mine actually expressed half-joking concern that I had joined a cult, and it’s certainly true that CrossFit shares the community aspect of a cult but little else (like a cult, you also have to pay, but you get more in return than empty promises of eternal life). Trying not to be the guy who talks about how much he enjoys CrossFit to people who have no interest whatsoever is difficult, and (as I was) you may need to be prepared to be called out on it!

I digress: but, in all seriousness, having a supportive network of coaches and training partners is one of the most rewarding aspects of CrossFit and is what sets it apart from a traditional gym. When anyone asks me to explain what CrossFit is, I say it’s like someone took lifting weights and made it a team sport. Everyone who has ever held a gym membership has, at one time or another, convinced themselves that it’s OK to skip a session (or that last mile, even if your jam comes on at the perfect moment) - and that’s mostly fine because you’re on a team of 1. You wouldn’t regularly do the same if you were starting left back for your local football team. At CrossFit, you feel like an important contributor to every session, and that provides a pretty good incentive not to skip a workout.

And once you’re at the session, your ‘teammates’ and coaches continue to provide the support a gym just can’t. Whilst it’s true that everyone has their eye on other members’ achievements in a semi-competitive way, at the same time everyone genuinely gets behind one another and shares in individual successes. You might frequently ignore supportive shouts of your name mid-workout whilst you focus on getting the job done; but it’s hard not to be affected when, being last to finish a workout, you find everyone else spontaneously encircling you, cheering you on or doing burpees until you finish.

You Are What You Eat

CrossFit is intense. Doing any intense activity a few times a week without fuelling up properly is going to have consequences inside and outside of training. I’ll leave you to decide what’s worse: falling asleep at your desk, or consistently missing out on a Personal Best (PB) because your body can only work with what it has been given. OK, in truth it’s probably the one that affects your career, but hitting a ceiling in your training can be extremely demoralising.

Before you go and buy 20kg of whey powder to prepare for your first session, you need to understand that it’s more than that. As I said, before I joined CrossFit I was eating whatever I wanted. Luckily for me, most of the foods I liked were healthy foods; a lot of the meals I ate consisted of lean meat (protein) and plenty of boiled or steamed vegetables. But, crucially, I was snacking profusely, and I wasn’t keeping an eye on how much added sugar I was eating; if I wanted cake, ice cream, or a chocolate bar, I had it.

For the ins and outs of nutrition, you should read one of Coach Maria’s blog posts on the subject. However, as a general rule, if you’re eating lean protein (e.g. chicken, turkey, or fish) and vegetables (carbohydrates) for every meal, some healthy fats (e.g. nuts and seeds) and steering clear of added sugar, you’re doing OK. Changing eating habits is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of taking your goals seriously. It takes a lot of dedication because your brain is good at tricking you into acquiescing to cravings. The important thing is to focus on finding things you enjoy eating, and allowing yourself the occasional treat. And, it’s a good idea to tap up your coaches and fellow athletes for their nutritional knowledge, since (having seen them workout) they clearly know what they’re doing.

Gains and Pains

One of the great things about being new is that ALL your PBs are up for grabs. More experienced athletes might have insanely good PBs, but they won’t get to smash them week after week like you will. Progression is an essential component in maintaining the incentive to participate, and there is no more explicit an indication of progression as beating your own previous record. Unfortunately, as you become a more experienced athlete, you’ll join them in their pursuit of ever more elusive PBs. I found that they came in waves; that I’d hit multiple within a week, then none for weeks before the pattern repeated itself. In the meantime, rather than become dispirited at the lack of PBs, I focus on less explicit indicators of progress like improving handstand technique or increasing the weight I was lifting to something closer to the maximum recommended weight for each workout. Be patient, the PBs will be back.

In summary, if you plan to take up CrossFit this year: it’s hard, other people will be better than you, it might hurt a little to begin with, and you’ll need to be careful what you eat. Even better than that, with a lot of support from your coaches and athletes, if you’re prepared to work hard, you’ll almost certainly achieve your goal; whether it is to lose weight, gain weight, or improve your overall fitness.

WORKOUT OF THE DAY

A) Conditioning
3 Rounds for time:
75 Double unders
50 Air squats
25 Burpees

*Time cap: 10 minutes

B) Weightlifting: Snatch
B1) Snatch deadlift: 6 x 3
B2) Choose option based on present proficiency level

Op1) Hang muscle snatch + overhead squat: 7 x 1
Op2) Snatch balance + hang power snatch: 7 x 1
Op3) Snatch balance + hang snatch: 7 x 1