Author note: Members of Learning to Breathe Fire‘s Facebook community contributed to this article.
1) You don’t have to already be in great shape to start doing it. “I want to try CrossFit but I have to get in shape first” is a common refrain among the CrossFit-curious. Six months go by, and then they realize that the “getting in shape first” thing isn’t happening. They screw up their courage and dive in, only to find that they’re not allowed to use heavy weight until they’ve mastered the movements. A year later, they slap themselves for giving up half a year of progress, waiting to start.
2) Age is not a barrier. Fifty- and sixty-somethings, generally wiser and more cautious than their twenty-something counterparts, can make dramatic gains in fitness. For them, the benefits of stronger bones, more muscle mass and less fat around the middle are about health, quality of life and functional independence. As one trainer says of his senior citizen athletes, “Everyone needs to squat – that’s how you get up and down from the toilet.”
3) Function trumps aesthetics. Most CrossFit gyms don’t have mirrors. The focus is on what your body can do, vs. how you look in spandex. Fitness goals map to the physical demands of real life: lifting a suitcase into the overhead luggage compartment (the same movement as an Olympic clean-and-jerk), moving boxes of books or chasing a toddler. It’s a relief for most women to get away from body-image-is-everything.
4) There’s an emphasis on technique. With beginners, CrossFit coaches are more like ballet masters than drill sergeants. Their goal is to train movement patterns that safely translate energy into physical capability. Newcomers used to hearing “Feel the burn!” over music are surprised at continual cues to flare out their knees, shift weight from their toes to their heels, and alter their grip. Subtle changes in form can make a huge difference. This spills over into posture and movement outside the gym.
5) It’s not just physical training. It’s also mental. The ritual of CrossFit’s Workouts of the Day (WODs) is about groups of people just getting through it. Pushing yourself is physically uncomfortable. Doing this repeatedly, week-in-week-out, is like allergy shots for stress. You learn that physical discomfort won’t kill you – that there’s a difference between a true physical limit and aaah-this-just-sucks. If you practice, you can learn to ignore the voice in your head that says aaah-this-just-sucks. Knowing you’re tough enough to do that – especially when none of your friends or co-workers suspects your secret streak of Die Hard badass – is gratifying.
6) It’s dog heaven for former athletes. Some of the most passionate CrossFitters played high school or college sports: wrestling, gymnastics, track, and all kinds of ball. Part of what drew them to CrossFit was missing the feeling of being on a team, going to practice and having a coach. Former athletes (especially middle-aged ones) love CrossFit, because it gives them back their varsity letter.
7) It’s OK to shop around. CrossFit gyms are popping up like mushrooms after a rain. They share a training methodology, but culture varies widely. A small CrossFit box in the suburbs will have a different vibe than a cavernous warehouse box in an industrial park, or a retail storefront in the city. Some gyms are more geared to athletes training for CrossFit competitions. Some are more laid-back and social. If there are five CrossFit gyms near your home and work, pick the closest one and take the introductory course or class. But don’t sign up for a monthly membership right away. Sample what different gyms have to offer. Consider repeating the on-ramp class somewhere else. Find the vibe that resonates with you. Because ultimately, you’ll probably end up becoming friends with people there. Of course, if your friends are the reason you’re trying CrossFit in the first place, X probably marks the spot.
8) Kid-friendly gyms are grown-up friendly gyms. When there are a lot of CrossFit options in the area, look for gyms that have a CrossFit Kids program. CrossFit Kids classes mean coaches have been certified to teach kids how to deadlift dowels. They are therefore likely to be patient with grownups who don’t immediately Get It. Also, CrossFit Kids classes mean the gym is multi-generational: there are grade-schoolers, moms and dads and probably a few grandparents mixed in with the twenty-somethings. Surprisingly, a lot of those moms can smoke their young single counterparts. It’s pretty impressive to see shirtless forty-something dads with six-pack abs (but then, I’m a forty-something mom, so that appeals to me).
9) Veteran and charity events signal a box is run by Good People. When a CrossFit gym participates in TeamRWB’s WOD With Warriors, Memorial Day Murph, or fund-raisers for local non-profits, it’s a sign that the owners care about their local community. Boxes that organize community events (especially ones that include non-CrossFitters) tend to be more friendly and inclusive. (Full disclosure: I’m a fan of TeamRWB and am donating a portion of the proceeds from Learning to Breathe Fire to this nonprofit organization).
10) The gym’s refrigerator is filled with member subscriptions to pre-prepared Paleo meals. Culinary start-ups around the country have figured out that CrossFitters a) love the Paleo Diet and b) are willing to spend a lot of money on healthy food. So these companies have installed glass-front fridges in CrossFit boxes and use these fridges as drop-off points for boxed Paleo cuisine, available by subscription. This is one of the reasons CrossFitters find it so easy to cut carbs – their lunches have already been packed.
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