Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve heard of the exercise movement called CrossFit. Beijing has several of its own CrossFit "boxes," such as CrossfitSlash (formerly known as Middle Kingdom Fitness), Crossfit86, and CrossFit Long.
In early March, I decided to join a CrossFit box on a colleague’s recommendation. I exercised regularly but – barring a misguided gym membership – had never attempted any serious weight training. I started attending the regular group classes following a four-session foundation course to learn the movements.
The verdict? Just like any other kind of exercise, CrossFit has its pros and cons. Whether it’s right for you depends on personal preference, previous injuries, motivation level, individual goals, and – let’s be honest – finances.
There are many articles about CrossFit written from a doctor or a trainer’s perspective (see here, here, and here for starters), so I won’t go into the medical nitty-gritty or pros and cons for different kinds of athletes.
Rather, the following observations are based on four months of once- or twice-weekly training. I’m fairly fit, but certainly not a hardcore athlete. My diet is pretty clean; I don’t eat meat, I gets lots of fruits and veggies, and I generally avoid sweets and fried foods. That said, I’ll always say yes to apple crumble with ice cream on top.
What Is CrossFit?
If you’re used to conventional gyms, CrossFit boxes will seem like bare-bones affairs. You’ll see kettle bells, barbells, free weights, jump ropes, huge truck tires, boxes, and the like, but there’s much more empty space than at a gym.
That’s because in CrossFit, the human is the machine. The aim is all-around fitness in cardiorespiratory fitness, stamina, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.
This is achieved through a combination of strength training, plyometrics (aka "jump training"), speed drills, weight lifting, kettle bells, body weight exercises, gymnastics, and endurance exercise.
One hallmark is the intensity of the workouts. Classes last 45 minutes to an hour. Participants put maximum effort into an extremely varied and challenging circuit-style "workout of the day" (WOD). A WOD is posted to the official CrossFit website daily, but not all boxes prescribe the same routine to their students.
In addition, many CrossFitters follow a nutrition plan closely resembling the Paleo diet: around 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat.
- Variety. CrossFit boxes switch up their workouts every day, so you never know what you’re in for. This is great for people like me who get bored easily.
- Community. For the most part, CrossFit enthusiasts aren’t hulking macho types; they’re genuinely nice, supportive, and push you to do better.
- Measurable results. Those plates don’t lie; you can tell you’re getting stronger when you can put more weight on the barbell or use heavier dumbbells for that shoulder press.
- Ability to work on individual goals in a group setting. This is ideal for me, since I like group classes but dislike feeling like I’m dragging my partner down (or vice versa). WOD movements are scalable; for instance, a student who can’t do a pull-up can use ring rows instead.
- Real-life applications. The kinds of movements emphasized in CrossFit (jumping, pulling, pushing, lifting, crawling) translate well to everyday life. Think about picking up your kids, lifting a water barrel into a dispenser, etc. I recently helped a friend move heavy boxes up to his fifth-floor walk-up; we were both surprised by how much I could carry.
- Toning up. Many women fear that heavy weightlifting will make them bulky, but that just isn’t true. Not only do we not have the hormones for a Hulk-like physique, but weight training can actually combat bone density issues down the line, which women are more prone to than men.
- Motivational. How can you not be inspired to hear about a 45kg fellow CrossFitter who can lift over twice her weight (true story)? In addition, performing so many new exercises has increased my interest in learning about fitness in general. I’m more invested in my own health after gaining first-hand experience of the benefits of weightlifting.
- Feeling like a badass. When you achieve a personal best for weightlifting or manage to complete seven rounds of crab walks, 2 pull-ups, 4 power cleans, and 8 slam balls, you’re gonna feel pretty good about yourself.
- Potential for injury. Though all participants are required to take a foundation course, the emphasis on completing WODs at high intensity, in as little time as possible naturally raises concerns about injury. As energy levels go down, form tends to suffer towards the end of the workout. In particular, those with pre-existing injuries should consult with their doctor and a certified CrossFit trainer before starting the course.
- Lack of individual attention. You get plenty of one-on-one attention during the foundation course, but beginners might feel uncertain when they first start out in the group classes, e.g. they’re not sure how much weight to put on the barbell or they need a refresher on how to perform a specific movement. In crowded sessions there can be only one instructor for 15 students (though 5-10 is more typical in my experience), so they might not get around to correcting your form.
- Peer pressure. Some people can get caught up in the group dynamic and push themselves too far, increasing the risks of injury. Which leads me to…
- "Culty" atmosphere. I’ve come across a couple of fanatics who treat CrossFit like the be all, end all of fitness. That said, they’re definitely in the minority. Most people are really nice.
- Time commitment. Many trainers recommend doing CrossFit 3 to 5 times a week, but that probably isn’t realistic for a busy working parent. I only go 1-2 times a week myself because I need variety. I cycle, do combat sports, and run, so I view CrossFit as complementary to those exercises.
- Limited usefulness for specialists. According to a bunch of articles on the Internet, athletes like cyclists and power lifters should stick to training for their specific sport.
- Cost. CrossFit boxes in Beijing aren’t cheap. A monthly membership costs RMB 1,600 at CrossFit Slash; RMB 1,500 at both CrossFit 86 and CrossFit Long. That’s after the mandatory four- or six-session foundation course, which costs RMB 1,000 or RMB 1,500 depending on the box.
In a nutshell, CrossFit is a fun, varied, and challenging fitness movement with measurable results and a great sense of community. However, it’s relatively expensive, has a higher potential for injury, and can be a bit too intense for some.
If you’re considering CrossFit, seek out a box with certified trainers, take a tour of the facilities, and ask lots of questions. Do not attempt the WOD without supervision, especially if you’re inexperienced or just getting back into exercise.
Photo: CrossFit Fever (Flickr)