A beginner’s guide to CrossFit: What it’s really like

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Photo: CrossFit NYC

CrossFit owners and coaches love to assure newbies that “it’s for everyone!” and “you can scale it!” and “we have more women than men at our gym!”

While all of those things may be true, for women used to pulsing at the barre, tapping back on spin bikes, and for whom free weights feel more natural than pressing a giant Olympic-looking barbell overhead, walking into a CrossFit box for the first time can be terrifying. (It was for me, and I’m partial to High Intensity Interval Training and game for workouts that may or may not include hurling bricks.)

So, to help demystify the world of WODs and snatches, I embarked on a six-week journey at CrossFit NYC, the East Coast’s original CrossFit gym. The gym, also called “The Black Box” is currently celebrating its 10-year anniversary and has now expanded to three enormous locations, where more than 300 classes per week are routinely packed (some with wait lists).

After hours of poorly-executed push-ups and intensely sore limbs, I bring you a beginner’s guide to what it’s really like inside. Here’s what you need to know:

Getting started, or Your CrossFit pre-reqs

It may seem like CrossFit requires more of a commitment than other workouts where you can stop by for a sweatfest any old time. At first, at least, it’s true. Because lots of the movements are complex and difficult to master, almost all boxes require you to complete some sort of intro series before jumping into regular classes. At CrossFit NYC, I went through Elements, six sessions spread out over 2–3 weeks where most of each hour is spent learning, not lunging. In some sessions, a workout was also included at the end. When I was finished, I began attending Beginner WODs, which include slightly more help than in an all-level class. The length and name of these series varies by box. At EVF, you have to take three On-Ramp classes; at Greenpoint, it’s six classes, called Foundations.

CrossFit NYC
(Photo: CrossFit NYC)

Mastering the moves and weights

I loved that I could feel myself getting better at classic exercises like pull-ups and push-ups, both of which are a constant struggle for me, but the complexity of some of the movements frustrated me to no end. What I came to realize is that CrossFit is for people who really want to feel like they accomplish something when they sweat. If you just want to get in shape and get out, you’re going to be annoyed by lengthy sessions learning to move a bar and jump in just the right away in order to complete a snatch. It’s not necessary—but it feels cool when you get it.

When it comes to lifting super-scary barbells, they’ll tell you the amount of weight you’re supposed to lift—then you’ll laugh out loud because it sounds like what your Crate & Barrel sofa must weigh—and then they’ll help you figure out what you actually can do. I lifted 45 pounds over my head and then deadlifted 75, both of which are hilariously unimpressive, but it felt damn good since it was more than I ever thought I was capable of. (Note: You will absolutely get blisters, and later calluses, on your hands, if you don’t wear gloves.)

What’s a WOD like

If you’re used to non-stop hour-long boot camps or 90 minutes of no-break Bikram, surprise! In CrossFit, the actual WOD is generally five to 25 minutes of really, really hard work (i.e. five pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 squats over and over for 1o minutes straight without a break). The whole session is usually about an hour including the warm-up (CrossFitters love to say “Our warm-up is your workout,” which proves true, but is slightly annoying), instruction, and usually some practice to improve form or review difficult moves.

Quality of CrossFit trainers

At CrossFit NYC, my class experience depended hugely on my coach that day. Just like at a SoulCycle or yoga studio, every instructor has a different style, forte, and level of expertise. During one class, I got helpful feedback and encouragement throughout. In another, the coach sat unmoving through the entire WOD and barely offered a cue.

The CrossFit box and amenities

Exhale Spa-like locker rooms you will not find in the land of CrossFit. CrossFit NYC does have showers and towels at its main location, and Brick has nice ones you’d want to spend time in, but they’re the exception to the gritty, we-don’t-need-fancy-amenities-or-furnishings rule.

The CrossFit ethos

During an overhead press in my last Elements class, I grunted. Loudly. Actually, it sounded more like a groan. As soon as I heard it, I couldn’t believe it came out of my mouth. It seriously just. happened. So while no one will think less of you for showing up with freshly manicured nails, there’s a visceral quality to CrossFit that forces you to tap your inner fitness tomboy whether you’ve met her before or not. (The good news is if you like what you find, you’ll be welcomed into a tight-knit, supportive community.)

Of course you can keep eating kale salads, skip the pulled-up white tube socks worn by many female CrossFitters, and not start counting WODs as date nights, but you should know that coaches also say things like “Good job today. Now go eat a dead animal.” And maybe, just maybe, your primal self will suddenly want one. Or not. —Lisa Elaine Held

Now all you need is a box! Find a CrossFit location here or visit www.crossfit.com

Are you a CrossFit regular? Got any beginner tips? Share them in the Comments, below!

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