What a Beginner Should Know About CrossFit

The basics of a booming fitness trend

By Christopher Travers, MS

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Your friends have been talking about it on Facebook. You saw a commercial or a competition on TV. One of your coworkers swears by it. So now you’re curious about CrossFit™.

At its core, CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program with an emphasis on varied exercises, functional movements and a high level of intensity. It is also a business with a growing number of gyms (called affiliates) around the country — and an enthusiastic community of participants.

I do not endorse any particular exercise program. I do, however, encourage people to seek a fitness fit that works for them and try new things when they are interested.

“Weight lifting is indeed a part of the mix. The goal is not to build bulk, but to build functional strength for the long-term.”

Christopher Travers, MS

Cleveland Clinic Sports Health and Cleveland Clinic Executive Health

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In that spirit, below are some CrossFit basics for beginners. For help, I turned to Julie Foucher, a medical student at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine who also happens to be a highly ranked CrossFit Games athlete and seminar staff member.

Movements focus on function

One of the core ideas behind CrossFit is “functional” movement. Many exercises you’ll do in a workout mimic everyday actions.

“Think: picking something up off the ground (deadlift), standing from a seated position (squat), or placing something on a shelf above your head (press),” is how Foucher describes it. “They use the body in the way it was designed to move, distributing forces across multiple muscle groups and joints.”

The theory is that because these movements come naturally, you can do them more effectively and efficiently than other forms of exercise. That’s partly where the intensity of a workout comes into play.

Lifting plays a part

You’ll note words such as “deadlift” and “press” above. Weight lifting is indeed a part of the mix. The goal is not to build bulk, but to build strength for the long term.

“If you develop the ability to perform a squat with great mechanics and can squat with a significant load into your 50s or 60s, chances of you losing the ability to perform tasks such as sit and stand on your own, go to the bathroom, etc., as you age are low,” Foucher says.

Mechanics are a critical part of that statement. If you have no experience lifting weights, don’t let the idea scare you away. But definitely work with a professional on proper form so you can avoid injuries.

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What a beginner can expect

Most affiliates offer a free intro session that includes an overview and sample workout. Some sessions will be one-on-one with a trainer, while others will be group-based. Those styles appeal to different types of exercisers.

If you do join, some affiliates offer a per-class rate, while others require a longer-term membership. A typical class runs about an hour, and the commitment level varies by person.

“Some will attend as many as five or six classes per week, but in my personal experience athletes will see benefits from attending as few as two classes per week on a regular basis,” Foucher says. The workouts vary from day to day, too. One day might include sprints, kettlebell exercises and pull-ups, while another might mix squats, rowing and push-ups.

If you feel intimidated by the athletes competing on TV, don’t be, Foucher says. Classes come in all levels. The goal of functional movement stays the same; the loads you carry and intensity of the workout changes with your goals and abilities.

“Even in regular classes, the range of abilities is often wide, and the trainers help to appropriately scale athletes for each workout,” she says.

Joining any exercise program is a commitment, so you want to know if it’s right for you. Foucher points out that intro sessions and general philosophies and styles differ from affiliate to affiliate. So if you really want to see if you like CrossFit, and if there are multiple locations near you, you should sample as many of the free sessions as you can.

CrossFit is a registered trademark of CrossFit, Inc.

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