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21 May 2015

Crossfit is a topic that seems to polarise people. Well, after doing it for a year but opting not to continue, I feel I can put my own views forward.

I was relatively fit before moving to going travelling for nine months and moving to Cayman – I used to cycle to work, did a half ironman in Switzerland (dear God the hills!) and the Paris marathon (although I seem to be the only person to have actually gained weight training for a marathon, my tip is only to worry about fuelling long runs towards the end of training and in the race itself…). Sadly, nine months of travel (on the top of said marathon training) and embracing the excesses of Cayman life led to me porking out and getting to an unsustainable position health, and weight wise.

I wanted to propose to my girlfriend, she seemed to love me despite the weight (it may have been easier to keep it off if she had obviously noticed, but she doesn’t seem to) but an exercise bike and training for various small events in Cayman only brought small reductions.

It was time to try something new.

Like many people who have not tried Crossfit, I viewed it as a bit of a cult, particularly as it seemed to have grabbed hold of several friends who seemed indoctrinated into spreading the word. I was sceptical, it was expensive, but it seemed to get results.

So I signed up for an introduction course. This was taken by perhaps the fittest woman I have ever met (and I am not saying that lightly, as I knew one particularly crazy girl from London who has now finished several full ironmen in less time than I took in my Half-Ironman…). Tarasa could easily outlift some of my friends who spent time sculpting muscles in the gym but it was explained to me that Crossfit was about all round fitness, and functional fitness at that. It’s all about “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement”.

Crossfit’s founder, Greg Glassman (a rather controversial character it seems) set out to define fitness (see in more detail here) breaking into ten skill areas:

  • Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance
  • Stamina
  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Power
  • Coordination
  • Agility
  • Balance
  • Accuracy.

Crossfit’s premise is that a person cannot be fit by excelling in only one of these areas, but you have to be good across them all to be truly “fit”. I had been attracted to triathlons with much the same idea, rather than focusing on one discipline, I could swim, cycle and run. But Glassman was shocked that “Outside Magazine crowned a triathlete (Mark Allen) as the “fittest man on earth” (see here). I would have thought winning the IronMan Triathlon 6 times should reduce that shock. But Glassman’s principle can be seen in action the development of mixed martial arts fighting – at the begging pitching the best of each discipline against each other, but now homogenising into the best “mixed” martial arts with no single focus on strength, size, speed or agility but a required mix of all.

In fairness, I’m never going to win any of the events that I enter, but I want to be generally fitter, to be able to pick up my child (one day, in the not near future!), generally enjoy physical activities and make the most of life. So I liked the overall fitness idea. In principle, who wouldn’t?

Yes, I was a bit put off by their “our way of fitness” is the only way to fitness. I have always thought that the best way to fitness is an individual thing – whatever you enjoy and will do regularly and consistently. Crossfit is also often paired with the paleo way of eating – suggesting I should cut various things like alcohol, pasta, beans, cheese and bread (amongst others) out of diet. That’s a big ask, but perhaps part of the reason I got into this situation in the first place. I have cut diet coke almost completely out of my diet, which I feel is my achievement comparable to smoking…

Crossfit workouts obviously vary, and a good Box (the term they invented to differentiate from the ordinary gym). They generally focus on doing a set number of repetitions of a variety of exercises for a total time, or doing a maximum number of repetition of exercises within a fixed time period.

Good examples are:

  • 21-15-9 reps, for time of: Front Squat with a 95lb barbell, Burpees, Pull-ups
  • 4 rounds, each round for time, of: Run, 400m, 10 Hang Squat Cleans with a 135 lb barbell, 20 Box Jumps, with a 3 min rest between each round
  • 3 rounds for time of: Run, 400 m 21 Kettlebell Swings, 12 Pull-ups

There is a broad criticism that Crossfit is overly technical, focusing on Olympic weight training moves that are not essential. Whether my Crossfit box was different, I don’t know, but these moves did not seem to be a major part of the curriculum, which included many more versatile movements like wallballs, box jumps, running, squats and pull ups. It may seem a bit silly giving someone who can’t do a series of proper press-ups a barbell for shoulder presses but the benefit is that most people can lift one type of barbell and then measurably increase weight over time – going from a push-up on the knees to full push-ups is less measurable and less instantly gratifying than adding a certain amount more weight.

The Olympic movements are tied in with another major criticism of Crossfit, that the high intensity requires and focus on doing a number of moves in a certain time loses focus on technique. Again, my box may have been different, but they were very hot on technique. I had never properly squatted before or used weights supervised in a gym and they were very insistent on technique, drilling me how I could damage myself. They also insisted on scaling, it’s not about max weight for max reps in minimum time, but about picking a weight or a challenge that you can keep doing at a high intensity with good form.

The cost (a major downside) keeps classes small which results in feeling like each workout is like a group personal training session, they pick up on lapses in technique and keep shouting at you if you take your foot off the pedal. My box was also good in running a long warm up and stretching session, introducing me to the concept of foam rolling and lacross ball pressure that introduced a new pain that was good for me.

One thing that the statistics nerd in me loved was that as their method of fitness was measurable, they introduced me to  – which allows you to track your progress and gives standardised scores to your times/weights across the population logging scores. You can

therefore track the increase in your “fitness” by completing certain key workouts and measurements, its not just a case of weighing yourself (which can be deceptive as you replace fat with muscle).

I felt a lot of benefit from Crossfit. I have long suffered lower back pain and I realised this was in large part to an underused core, the squats in particular loosening my lower back muscles. I learned rolling and exercising parts of my body interconnected and assisted with my hamstring development. I ran the fastest 10km I have run for some time without training much longer than intervals. I even lost 15lb, although my Crossfit training was interrupted slightly by a six week trial in the BVI. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the sessions, improving my fitness stats and turning myself into a morning person (I had to go before work, there is no way of getting to the last class at 1730 in my job, even in the Caribbean, but that largely freed my evenings). My all around fitness improved and I started to actually develop core muscles.

So why do I no longer do Crossfit…?

Ultimately, I want to do other things. I am now playing indoor football and squash regularly, and have started playing Gaelic football and want to train for the triathlon this year, which requires some serious time on the bike and swimming. I view Crossfit as a tool, not an end, whereas the hard-core Crossfitters view Crossfit itself as a sport – obsessed by the metrics from each exercise. This was epitomised to me when I had some calf issues. I sought the advice of the trainer – he said ideally I should stop doing sport other than Crossfit, although accepted that not everyone had that view.

I am also very lucky to have in my friendship circle a hard-core fitness enthusiast who believes in High Intensity Interval Training and organises a group workout three times a week (Monday, Wednesday and Friday), for friends including the beach on Wednesdays. It’s based on high intensity interval training, but without the equipment (or the fee) of Crossfit, mixed with endurance, a competitive element, and attended by a group of friends that are good fun and like to socialise even when they’re working out hard. The beach workout is a real highlight, living in the Caribbean the opportunity to start the day with a sunrise workout on a beach that has consistently been voted as one of the best beaches in the world (see here – just has to be taken. That, and the fact that this Wednesday my friend suggested going to the workout in his speed-boat, and wakeboarded up there (I just chilled because I haven’t yet learned to sunbathe).

morning workout (1)

The Crossfit subscription is for as many workouts as you can fit in and is planned through the week to hit different areas. I occasionally went to the Wednesday beach workout even when I was doing Crossfit, but this meant I was occasionally overtraining. In fairness, they do have flexibility, offering a carnet system to my friend who is training for a marathon, but you are not necessarily then benefitting from the whole Crossfit package of constantly varied exercise.

Quite frankly I have a long way to go simply from learning to lift my own bodyweight in various ways, before I need to turn to more complicated moves. I also suffered an injury to my shoulder during one of the Crossfit sessions that made some of the more overhead barbell work a little painful. That was probably my own fault, sacrificing technique for repetitions – but it shows the danger.

My friend’s work out group allows me to cycle on Tuesdays, play squash, tennis and football, drop the occasional session when those become too much, without feeling like I am wasting my subscription.

Yes it’s not great when it rains (we then work out in a multi-storey car-park that could be in Birmingham), but it’s free. Yes, my friend doesn’t flag every imperfection in your technique, but there is a personal responsibility to learning your own technique and he steers a balance between facilitating exercise and offering tips when asked and will comment if he sees something dangerous – but he’s not getting paid for this. I am very lucky to have that as an option, he is very knowledgeable about exercise, constantly enthusiastic and very consistent in his organisation of the group (albeit can very occasionally sub in one of the more experienced members to lead in if he has a hangover…). This is definitely something that gets me out of bed regularly at the moment and that, in my book, is the best exercise you can find.

If I was back in London, Crossfit would likely be the best option, a regular consistent workout with certainty of exercise. But whilst I’m in the Caribbean I should take every opportunity I have. Who knows, I may change again in twelve months (or less). What works for you will be the opportunity you want to take too…

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  1. Stroke and Stride – Cayman | Tubbyman Tales

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