CrossFit defines itself as being constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement. In other words, the movements done in a workout mirror movements done in every day life. Workouts are hard, and the workout of the day changes daily. However, beyond that basic definition of CrossFit, each gym’s version of CrossFit might look different than the next. That’s both the beauty and the issue people have with CrossFit. The room for interpretation means some CrossFit boxes are incredible, while others are lackluster.
So how do you discern between a good CrossFit box and one that, for lack of a better word, sucks?
For one, programming matters. But what constitutes good programming?
As a former box owner, I noticed that what people thought was good programming and what actually was good programming differed greatly. People who are new to the world of fitness tend to look for gyms that offer workouts that make them sweat. The more destroyed they felt after a WOD, the better.
Now to some degree, this makes sense. You should feel as though you expended a great deal of energy during your training. Being exhausted, however, is not the goal of training. It is often a bi-product, sure. But if the goal of training was simply to beat yourself up day in and day out, no one would last very long.
A favorite article of mine on this topic was put out by Whole 9 about seven years ago. They warned people to “Beware the Lure of the Sexy Metcon.” What they describe as a “sexy metcon” is any workout that haphazardly piles on rep after rep and movement after movement for the sake of making one feel as though are being a “badass” in enduring this misery and thus, most fit.
Some of CrossFit’s most known workouts are sexy metcons by definition (Murph, anyone?). But the distinction of these workouts is that they are meant to serve as performance markers to test fitness periodically. They are not meant to replace training and become the means to getting fit.
Instead, a good CrossFit box will program metcons that are, on average, about 8-15 minutes long. A lengthy 20+ minute metcon should only show up about once a week.
And while metcons should be varied, that does not mean they should be completely random. Throughout the week, you should do metcons that require you to push, pull, squat, hinge, and carry load in some capacity every day. Thus, a metcon that pairs front squats (squat) with pull ups (pull) and farmer carries (carry load). makes a hell of a lot more sense than a metcon that asks you you front squat (squat), lunge (squat), and broad jump (squat). One will make you stronger everywhere; the other will induce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
And while metcons are what draws most people into CrossFit, strength training is what should make people stay. If your box only does metcons, don’t expect to make serious gains. You will be more conditioned, but your strength will likely plateau.
A good CrossFit gym should have a strength component and this should happen before the metcon. After the warm up, the next twenty minutes or so should be devoted to building strength. Sure, it might not get you excited to know that you’ll be doing 5 x 3 back squats at 80%, but it will mean that as you get stronger, you’ll get better at CrossFit- even the metcons. More than likely, at some point, you’ll be more pumped about increasing your 1 rep back squat than you might be about the time in which you finished yesterday’s WOD.
I’ve heard stories about CrossFit gyms that spend a month focusing on gymnastics and then switch to spend the next month focusing on strength. This does not make sense. Strength training must be done regularly or progress will cease. Instead, a CrossFit box might program strength training on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and leave Tuesdays and Thursdays for gymnastics work. That would lead to gains in both areas rather than segmenting training on a bi-monthly cycle.
In addition to programming, coaching matters. In defense of new coaches, this is a skill that takes time to develop. But a seasoned coach should be more of a facilitator than a cheerleader.
Yes, your coach should motivate you while you WOD. But more importantly, your coach should teach you about training. This means helping you to understand why having the best time in class on every WOD is not always the goal. We all like to win, but if you are not using enough weight to challenge yourself, you are losing.
On the flip side, a good coach should recognize if you are using too much weight and ensure that you scale back. Rxing Fran with 95lbs is a great accomplishment, but it means nothing if your knees are caving in, your back is rounded, and you are not locking out overhead. When this happens, you are not training to get stronger and be fitter. You are endangering yourself by putting unnecessary stress on your tendons and joints and missing the purpose of the workout. A good coach will enforce proper form over “Rxing” at any cost.
Likewise, a good coach will know how to modify movements so that you are able to be successful. For instance, if you can not yet squat to depth on an air squat and are unstable when you hold a PVC pipe overhead, it would make more sense to have you work on squatting to a box while the rest of the class does overhead squats than it does to toss you a 15lb training bar and expect you to make do. Squatting to a box leads to safely increasing your range of motion. Holding a barbell overhead and trying to perform overhead squats before you are able will lead to frustration, or worse, injury.
And lastly, atmostphere matters. The root of the word competition comes from the Latin word “competere” which literally means to strive together. In an atmosphere with friendly rivalry, everyone gets better as a result of competition. When competition becomes so fierce that it becomes petty, it becomes toxic.
I’ve been in CrossFit boxes where everyone is vying to be the best once “3, 2, 1… Go” is announced, but when “time” is called, former rivals are high-fiving one another and noting the success of their competitors. This is great! It’s the essence of a good CrossFit gym and it’s that kind of a community that allows us to grow as athletes and as people.
So, are you in the type of CrossFit box that will make you fitter and stronger, teach you the fundamentals of training, and encourage you to be a member of a community?
Leave a comment and tell us about your CrossFit gym below!