What to Expect at Your First CrossFit Workout

A few months ago, after years of hearing many rumors about CrossFit ¡ª that it changes your life, that it’s incredibly hard, that it’s caused more than a few muscles to be ripped from bone ¡ª I finally was able to try the workout for myself. At the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games, I participated in a media event that included training with some of CrossFit’s strongest at a popular box (that’s gym in CrossFit-speak) in Los Angeles. Intimidated and/or intrigued by CrossFit yourself? Here’s what I learned after my short, intense CrossFit experience.

The Gym

CrossFit seems to be the sport of ripped men and women, so I was expecting a frightening lesson in how to grunt my way through a weight-filled workout. Even though I was with a group that included other newbies, I was still a little intimidated when we first entered the box. It was sparse and utilitarian, with no soothing spa colors or mood lighting ¡ª these people were here for the business of fitness. Barbells, wooden boxes, and rowing machines were lined up neatly throughout the room, with a soundtrack of clanging weights and loud cheers added to the mix. Luckily, the owners and athletes put us at ease at once ¡ª I felt welcomed as soon as I stepped in. Even the fact that I was only one of the few in the room who had never tried CrossFit didn’t deter them. We received a quick overview about CrossFit before we started our workout; if you’ve never been to a CrossFit gym before, you’ll probably need to sign up for a fundamentals class where they teach you the philosophy of CrossFit (the textbook definition: constantly varied, functional movements, executed at high intensity) as well as the ins and outs of your new gym.

The Workout

Our workout was a modified version of a classic WOD, or workout of the day, named Fight Gone Bad. There were five exercise stations (and one rest station) that we were at for one minute at a time, then we went through the stations for a second set (normally this classic WOD is repeated three to five times). Think: throwing a 10- to 20-pound ball up a wall over and over, kettlebell rows, push presses with barbells as heavy as you can manage, rowing as fast as you can on a rowing machine, and box jumps on platforms so high they caused at least one in our group to tumble. A big digital countdown clock high on the wall reset every 60 seconds. The whole experience sounds a little chaotic, but it was actually very well-controlled. We partnered up so one person could keep score of reps while the other gave it her all, then staggered ourselves at one of the six stations. My partner was an experienced CrossFitter who helped me fix my form while also encouraging me to beat my previous round’s number of reps. She didn’t even laugh at the fact that I was only using a 35-pound naked barbell ¡ª not loaded up with hundreds of pounds of weights like many of the others. By the time my 12 minutes were over, I was drenched in sweat and shaking from muscle fatigue.

That CrossFit WODs are usually less than your shortest workout at the gym are part of their appeal: it’s hard not to be swayed by the fact that you can accomplish more in a 12-minute intense CrossFit workout than a run-of-the-mill treadmill session. The huge clock on the wall is a reminder that you only have mere seconds at each station ¡ª it helped motivate me to push through one last barbell lift or box jump, even when my muscles felt like they couldn’t go on.

The Competition

At the end of the workout, we all tallied our total reps and wrote our names on a whiteboard, ranked by our scores. It was humbling to see how my low number paled in comparison to the rest of the group. That blatant competitiveness serves a purpose, says Josh Everett, a veteran CrossFit athlete and ambassador for the sport. “Whatever your fitness goals are, if you want to be stronger, if you want to lose weight, if you want to do better at your sport, you get there more quickly by adding intensity to it,” he explains. “A [CrossFit] workout is almost like a competition against somebody. If we’re working out together and we’re competing, and you’re a little bit ahead of me, then I’m going to push myself harder to catch up to you and pass you. It really drives that intensity piece.” Even though I felt the camaraderie and inclusiveness that most CrossFitters highlight as one of the main reasons why they keep coming back, those numbers on the board didn’t lie ¡ª if you’re a competitive person, reaching the top of that list (or just beating your previous WOD record) can be more motivating than making sure you’re completing each rep correctly or stopping when you know your body has had enough.

Is It Safe?

The potential for injury in a sport where you’re sometimes lifting lots of weight as fast as you can while trying to best your neighbor’s reps can’t be denied. Incidences of an overtraining condition, called rhabdomyolysis, have popped up enough for some people to dub it “the CrossFit disease,” although physicians and CrossFitters alike are quick to point out that the condition ¡ª marked by extreme muscle soreness and tea-colored urine ¡ª happens regularly in any type of extreme sport, from marathon running to Olympic weight lifting. “The biggest misconception of CrossFit is that you get a ton of injuries, which simply isn’t true,” Josh says. “Yes, you can get injured doing CrossFit, but the incidence is rather low.”

In fact, safety is one of the main tenets of the sport. “If you follow the mantra of what CrossFit teaches at their Level 1 course, which is mechanics, consistency, and then intensity ¡ª so you have good movement, you know the exercises well, you’re consistent in your training, and then you layer on the intensity ¡ª that’s the safest route you can go,” Josh says. But a recent article in ESPN about CrossFit highlights the issue of balancing intensity with mechanics: while safety is taught as a fundamental, it’s often up to the individual athlete to adhere to its teachings. Like any sport, that can mean some people are pushing themselves too hard or not knowing when to stop. Additionally, the ESPN article notes, because of the sport’s new popularity, there’s a rise in possibly underqualified people opening CrossFit gyms, since some feel the certification process isn’t incredibly difficult. That combination of personal carelessness or determination and lack of expertise may be one of the reasons why you’ve probably heard horror stories from friends who’ve pushed themselves too far and ended up with a serious injury. I felt completely safe while I hurried through my reps, but as someone who is constantly adjusting my form and trying to remember how all my body parts should align for each exercise, I could see how, left to my own newbie devices and not under the watchful eye of some of CrossFit’s best, racing the clock to top my previous score could be a recipe for injury.

All in all, my first short but official WOD was an excellent introduction. While I wouldn’t say that the workout style is for me, everyone’s friendliness, skill, and encouragement was immediately apparent. I can see why people who do CrossFit never look back (and I only got a taste of what Josh and many others call CrossFit’s “church”-like community aspect). But if you’re new to CrossFit and want to see what it’s all about, it’s important you do your research first. Find an affiliate box with knowledgeable, experienced trainers, pay attention in your fundamentals class, and ¡ª most importantly ¡ª listen to your body, don’t only focus on the clock. Then, just take the advice of Camille LeBlanc Bazinet, winner of the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games. “There’s a lot of misconception [about CrossFit]; a lot of people think that it’s not for everyone or that you can get injured,” she recently told us. “Those people mainly don’t know what it is or don’t know that they need it. Truly the only thing that I’d tell them is find a class and just go see for yourself to see how it is. Most of the time the people who are willing to take those steps end up loving it.”

Image Source: Reebok