If you’ve only heard of it by reputation, you may think CrossFit is a place for elite athletes or fitness fanatics — but there’s much more to it than that
I’ve always respected CrossFitters but I’ve never really understood them.
It’s a world for people with body fat percentages in the single figures, isn’t it? A place where extroverts and obsessives can do their thing surrounded by the clatter of banging weights, blaring music and backslapping?
Well, look a little closer — beyond the person walking across the gym on their hands and another throwing 60kg above their head in the corner — and you’ll find there’s a lot more to CrossFit.
What is CrossFit?
Dafydd Dennis, an ex-marine who runs Reebok Cardiff CrossFit, describes it as “constantly varied functional movements performed at a high intensity”.
To you and me, that means performing lots of different exercises at a fast pace. It mixes weightlifting and aerobic exercise. On its website, CrossFit describes itself as “a lifestyle characterized by safe, effective exercise and sound nutrition”. The basic nutrition element is based on “meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar”.
But this doesn’t mean it’s all geared to creating athletic machines. Yes, some CrossFitters — like Dafydd — are supremely fit. But one of the core principles of CrossFit is that it’s open to people of all ages and fitness levels — so the world’s fittest athletes could do it but so could your grandmother. One person at Dafydd’s gym describes herself as someone who was “morbidly obese” and a type two diabetic before she found CrossFit.
“The main focus for us is that CrossFit is infinitely scalable so regardless of ability, anybody can do it,” says Dafydd.
“Whatever background you come from, it’s obviously intimidating to go into something new.
“I was a marine and then I did CrossFit and it put me on the floor for a little while. I understand that when people come to the gym, they’re going to have that same response.”
Interest in CrossFit has soared in the last five years. It became a more popular Google search term than ‘weight loss’ in 2012 and has held its position by and large.
But the interest came with a swirl of negative headlines – words like “cult” and “religion” came up a lot and one CNN headline read “How to talk to someone who does CrossFit, if you really must”.
But those who thought CrossFit would disappear into a cloud of its own chalk dust were mistaken — there are almost 600 CrossFit affiliate gyms in the UK and everybody knows somebody who does it.
It appears the sport has tapped into something that the world of fitness was missing. It could be the camaraderie, the feeling of shared pain amongst the group. It could be the fact it tests you aerobically as well as challenging your strength. It burns fat whilst improving flexibility. Really, it ticks a lot of boxes.
The workouts are different every time and mastering a complicated Olympic lift can be far more engaging and rewarding than robotically churning out three sets of 10 lifts on the bench press.
“There are no amount of bicep curls that will even get you close to the feeling you have when you’ve finished a CrossFit workout,” says Dafydd.
“It’s an all-body assault. People come into the gym and get results they didn’t even know they wanted, which is unbelievable really. It’s all done through short, high-intensity sessions that leave you staring at the sky wondering what the hell just happened to you. That, for some, is extremely addictive.”
A typical CrossFit session
We asked Dafydd Dennis to provide us with a typical workout that his members might expect to endure on any given day.
One example, seen below, is a list of exercises that clients must perform and record how long it took them to do all of them.
The quicker, the better…
- Run 400m, 40 kettlebell swings (24/16kg), 40 GHD sit-ups , 4 rope climbs
- Run 300m, 30 kettlebell swings (24/16kg), 30 GHD sit-ups, 3 rope climbs
- Run 200m, 20 kettlebell swings (24/16kg), 20 GHD sit-ups, 2 rope climbs
(A GHD sit-up is one not done on the floor but on a back extension machine)
With its loud, unapologetic exterior, CrossFit should be intimidating — but it’s not.
If you walk in to most commercial gyms, you will invariably find the weights section dominated by men.
But almost half of the participants to complete all six workouts in the 2018 CrossFit Open – the first step on the road to the CrossFit Games (more on this later) – were women.
So why does the sport appeal to women more than simply lifting weights in a normal gym does?
Katie Cork, who gets up at 4.30am every day to train at another Cardiff CrossFit gym, ION, has been a CrossFitter for three-and-a-half years and admits she never trained before CrossFit got hold of her. Now she trains twice a day.
“I’m a hairdresser and I speak to women all the time,” she said.
“They say so often that they want to get into the gym but they never enter the weights section at all.
“As a woman in a gym, you might go on the treadmill and the bike and then go home. It is intimidating to see loads of guys in the mirror doing bicep curls.”
But things are different in CrossFit.
“When you start CrossFit, you’re all equal but you’re constantly being coached,” she says.
“They strip everything back to basics and then everyone develops at the same pace. That picks your confidence up and you’ve always got people around you helping you out.”
Cork is alluding to the community that develops in and around CrossFit gyms as a by-product of the ethos it instills in each of its athletes, which promotes encouragement and education but demands buy-in.
“CrossFitters are generally humble to a fault,” says Dafydd.
“I was first attracted to CrossFit by the camaraderie. The Royal Marines live by four commando qualities: courage, selflessness, determination and cheerfulness in the face of adversity.
“You can see that in every single person in the gym. You see people who are willing to go through ridiculous amounts of fatigue for somebody else in the name of charity, for example.
“If somebody from this place put up a Facebook status saying they were moving house, I know that 30 of my members would turn up the next day to help them.”
There’s also a desire to make a wider impact. Reebok Cardiff CrossFit has recently run the “633 challenge” (a reference to the number of UK servicemen and women who have lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq) to raise awareness and funds for those suffering with mental health conditions as a result of military service.
“At 3am, we had about 50 people in here doing clean-and-jerks [a weightlifting exercise] and whatever else, massaging each other, keeping each other going,” said Dafydd.
“We raised near £5,000 in a day for charity. I didn’t get that when I was in a commercial gym, I never saw anything like that.”
Most of us never make eye contact with another person in a regular gym, let alone become friends.
Lianne Thomas, who has been competing for five years and finished third in the UK in the Masters category during the 2018 CrossFit Open, has a theory on this.
“Those who show up for a class every day have all got the shared common goal,” said Thomas, who trains at ION.
“There is a lot of encouragement — for example, if you’re the last person finishing a workout everyone crowds around and cheers you on.
“The sense of community is pretty strong. You get that from your first CrossFit class.
“If a new person comes into the box, someone like me who has been doing it a while will take time to welcome them and make them feel at home.
“You get a sense of belonging to something. You might not be the best in the class but you’re still part of that box.
“You feel quite proud of that, it’s like being on a rugby team.
“Some of my best mates are about 20 years younger than me but I think that’s because we all train together and we have a common goal.”
Curing chronic health problems
Sure, there are ultra-fit athletes who excel at CrossFit and go on to compete, but there are also those who are simply trying to get healthy.
CrossFit founder Greg Glassman champions the lifeboat analogy: “Each gym is a lifeboat in what is a tsunami of chronic disease.”
It might sound grand but Ellen Downey, a 51-year-old from Barry who trains at Dafydd’s gym in Cardiff, is living proof of the benefits.
She took up CrossFit following medical advice to change her lifestyle. By her own description, she was “morbidly obese” and a type two diabetic.
In the two years after taking up CrossFit and following nutritional advice from her coaches, she lost almost 10 stone and no longer needs to take her diabetes medication.
“I was a very poorly controlled type two diabetic, seriously morbidly obese,” she said.
“I did absolutely no exercise at all but realised I had to make a lifestyle change. A few friends did CrossFit and they said for me to go along but I thought ‘No, I’ve seen it on the internet, it will kill me’.
“Eventually I went and met with a personal trainer. He just got the scaling right and I could do it and he respected how difficult it was for me to come in.
“I was outside in the car and it was horrendous to walk through those doors for the first time, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
“But it’s the most inclusive thing I have ever seen and, if it wasn’t, I would never have stuck at it.
“I’m not diabetic anymore, I take absolutely no medication. I was on long-acting and rapid-acting insulin but I’m not on anything at all for diabetes.”
Downey’s tale is remarkable but it only fuels the notion that this sport really can be for anyone.
She’s one of two people who attend Dafydd’s gym who no longer require their diabetic medication and that has a profound effect on the coaches.
“There’s no real bigger satisfaction than that. You’re giving them their life back,” says Dafydd.
“They’ve done all the hard work, it’s just an amazing thing to open the door to a place that allows them to do that.”
Being “infinitely scalable” helps broaden this appeal: a beginner can train next to a seasoned pro and perform exactly the same exercise, even if the weights are a little different.
The second part of Downey’s story illustrates this.
In 2017, she was diagnosed with osteomyelitis – a bone infection – in her neck. After treatment, she was left in a neck brace but was still able to do CrossFit.
She’s now been out of a neck brace for around a year but says the outcome could have been far different if she hadn’t gotten herself healthy before the infection struck.
“I thought ‘This is it now, I’m not going to be able to do any of this’ but with the support of my consultant and following strict guidelines, I could still do CrossFit,” said Downey.
“Some of my moves didn’t look anything like anyone else’s because there are certain bones and muscles I couldn’t use.
“But if I hadn’t been as healthy because of CrossFit when I got that bone infection, it would have been curtains for me. Because I was so fit when I got that infection, I was fit enough to fight it back.
“It doesn’t matter if there are things you can or cannot do, there is always something you can do instead.”
Despite the obvious upside, there are still those who decry CrossFit.
Up until a few years ago, CrossFit was the ugly duckling of the fitness family. Many thought it was a fad and those who did it were labelled ‘CrossFit w**kers’.
That level of scorn has dissipated in recent years, though it still exists to a certain degree.
Dafydd says this is partly due to the exposure given to the sport by the CrossFit games – a four-day competition that sees the 40 fittest men and women in the world go head-to-head.
The first stage of the CrossFit games starts out in gyms all over the world before each category is whittled down to the top 40 that make the actual games. In 2018, 429,157 athletes completed at least one of the workouts during the first stage of the competition.
“The CrossFit games are a huge spectacle and it was amazing to see,” he says.
“It was very clever for CrossFit to invent a programme that was hard enough for the world’s fittest athletes but we could scale it down so your grandmother could do it.
“They leverage that very well but they’ve also told everyone about all the people they’ve cured from type two diabetes.
“They’re doing that more now because it’s way more relevant. If I walk in the gym, how many people in there are going to be Games athletes and how many people just need to be better at their life?
“If you were just to do three CrossFit classes a week and eat normal, natural food, you will be fitter than most of the world’s population.”
What about injuries?
There are those who claim CrossFit is dangerous and that it exposes athletes to a greater risk of injury.
Sure, injuries occur in CrossFit but only if guidelines and coaching advice isn’t followed. Lifting weights in general can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing.
A number of studies have found that injury rates reported in CrossFit are comparable to other forms of recreational activity.
“Of course people can get injured but you just have to be sensible,” says Lianne.
“It’s not the coaches’ fault, it’s not CrossFit’s fault, it’s up to you as an individual to make sure you’ve put the provisions in place. You have to warm-up and stretch and make sure you don’t lift too heavy.”
It would appear the benefits outweigh the risk of injury and CrossFit is growing, not shrinking.
“Not many people actually understand how good the human body is designed to feel,” says Dafydd.
“You develop a mental strength from seeing something you think is impossible and then actually doing it yourself,” adds Downey.
It’s a sport that is unlocking people’s physical potential and improving their mental wellbeing.
That’s why people love it, it’s why they’re fanatical about it and it’s why CrossFit is here to stay.
Do I need to be in shape to start CrossFit?
No. CrossFit is the fitness and nutrition program that will get you in shape. No matter what your current fitness level is, you can start CrossFit. As you become fitter, your workouts will be adjusted to challege you at your new level.
Where can I do CrossFit?
You can use CrossFit.com resources to do CrossFit anywhere, even with minimal equipment.
To work with a credentialed coach in a fully equipped facility, find a local CrossFit affiliate here.
How will CrossFit make me fitter?
CrossFit says it improves general physical preparedness. It was developed to enhance an individual’s competency at all physical tasks.
Is CrossFit safe?
“CrossFit training is very safe, and sitting on your couch is dangerous,” says the CrossFit website. Credentialed trainers provide precise instructions and coaching to help people move safely and efficiently, helping them avoid the pitfalls that come from inactivity, obesity and poor nutrition.
These FAQs were taken from the CrossFit website. For more information click here.