Interested in Trying CrossFit? 5 Tips for Beginners

Finding the right workout program is a tough task for anyone because the ideal situation combines enjoying yourself with exercises that also pose a significant physical challenge. Trying to slog through HIIT sessions and intense bouts of lifting all by yourself often fails in the enjoyment department, but maybe that’s because it’s such an isolating approach. This certainly explains why CrossFit has become so popular. Yes, the workouts can be brutal, but devotees rave about the community support.

If you’ve ever thought about trying the program, but felt too intimidated, we have a simple guide to getting started. To get schooled in all things CrossFit, we spoke to Kelsey Cannon, CSCS, brand communications associate manager for Reebok, and a recent CrossFit addict. With her expertise, you’ll be on your way to a fresher workout routine in no time.

1. Find the right facility

CrossFit members warm up by jumping rope

Jumping rope at a gym | Source: iStock

Unlike a lot of other activities people take up to get in shape, CrossFit relies heavily on the gym and staff. These individual facilities, called boxes, are both abundant and varied, making it hard to know where to start. “Research absolutely has to be the first step,” Cannon said. When going through the process, look to see if each box has a particular focus. “There are gyms that focus on endurance work for triathletes, for example,” Cannon explained.

This can be helpful if there’s a specific fitness component you’re most interested in, but it can also make the decision process more difficult. The best way to get a feel for what a facility is really like is to walk in the door. “There’s no shame in going to a couple of gyms to try a few different ones,” Cannon said.

Perhaps even more important than the facility is the staff. You want to work with someone who knows their stuff and who you generally like. Most of us head straight for credentials, like CrossFit Level 1 or CrossFit Level 2, but Cannon said it’s not always the best indicator of how good a trainer really is. ” While certifications are important, it’s not the end all, be all,” she said. “What’s really more important is getting a feel for how attentive they are because CrossFit can be dangerous if somebody’s new to exercising and flying by the seat of their pants with nobody keeping track of what they’re doing.”

On a more personal level, Cannon typically looks for gyms that sport a certain affiliation. “I look for the Reebok branded gyms because I know they’ve basically been vetted by my colleagues,” she said. While you may or may not care about the branding, her general message is still important. If you have friends who participate in CrossFit, they’re bound to have suggestions on boxes to try and ones to avoid.

2. Make sure you have appropriate attire

Jose Bautista and David ortez wearing Reebok shoes at a CrossFit competition

Reebok CrossFit shoes | Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Like with any sport, workout gear can greatly impact the experience. You can find plenty of clothes designed specifically for CrossFit, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to rack up a huge credit card bill. Make sure you go with something comfortable and, if you sweat a lot, made with moisture-wicking fabric to prevent chafing. If you want some more specific suggestions, check out a list of picks on Men’s Fitness.

Cannon has a few rules, but they’re pretty basic. “In terms of best practices, wear secure clothing and don’t wear things that have features coming off them,” she said. Clothing needs to be functional, so save anything fancier for after your workout.

Footwear is where you need to pay the most attention. Most people use have an all-purpose running shoe or trainer for workouts, but these cushiony, thick-soled kinds of footwear aren’t ideal for CrossFit. Cannon explained, “That padding is not conducive to the types of movement you’ll be doing.”

Keep in mind these workouts involve a lot of different types of exercises. Health elaborated on the topic by saying the extra padding in running shoes leads to instability when lifting heavy weights. The solution is something much closer to the ground. “Anything that has a zero drop sole is ideal,” Cannon said.

3. Learn the basics

Deadlift instruction | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Deadlift instruction | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Once you’ve selected your box and have some essential clothing, it’s time to actually get started. It’s not as simple as just showing up to do a workout all the seasoned athletes are doing, and that’s actually a good thing. Before you get going with the rest of the group, you’ll go through a process called on-ramp. “It’s basically a class on how to work out in the CrossFit gym,” Cannon said. “They give you the A to Z, the philosophy, and pointers on moving around that specific gym.”

One thing to keep in mind about this introduction is there isn’t a set standard, so gyms can vary greatly in terms of how long and in-depth their courses are. Cannon’s was three times a week for four weeks. That might seem like a lot, but it ensured she and all the other beginners really knew what they were doing. “I would look for places that have a longer on-ramp because you’re going to spend more time getting the quality instruction on the movements you’ll be doing,” she said.

In addition to feeling more prepared in general, you’ll work closely with the trainers to make sure you’re using correct form. The workouts are intense, so the potential for injury is pretty high if you aren’t performing each move properly. One study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine found the rate of injury among CrossFit participants was almost 20% and even higher for men. However, the study also found coach involvement correlated with a lower risk of injury.

Part of the learning process is figuring out the terminology, which can be pretty confusing. Even if you have a pretty comprehensive knowledge of different weight-lifting moves, CrossFit uses abbreviations that you probably aren’t used to. Fortunately, CrossFit.com features a list of all the acronyms.

For those who are even newer to the fitness world, the specific exercises may be somewhat of a mystery. Once again, research can help you out. Cannon said most gyms post their workouts early in the day or even the night before, so you can look up video demonstrations of any moves you haven’t tried before.

4. Match the workouts to your fitness level

group of athletes doing lunges at a CrossFit facility in France

Lunges as part of CrossFit training | Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

Though going through on-ramp sets you on the right path, it’s still unlikely you’ll be ready to go for the full-blown workout right away. “One of the misconceptions about CrossFit is that you do the workout as soon as you get there,” Cannon said. “That is 0% the case.” Instead, the trainers will do what’s called scaling. This basically means they’ll cut back on repetitions, sets, or even modify an exercise to fit your abilities.

The great thing about scaling is it means absolutely anyone can get started in CrossFit, even complete newcomes to the fitness world. “You don’t need to be fit to do CrossFit,” Cannnon said. “CrossFit will make you fit no matter where you are.”

Don’t feel like you’ll be laughed at if you can only manage a fraction of what others are doing because it’s about the community as much as anything else. “They’re going to be excited you’re there and, as you get to know each other, proud of your accomplishments and how far you’ve come,” Cannon explained.

Becoming more familiar with the workouts goes beyond just feeling more included at your box, too. Once you have a good sense of the proper workouts, it’ll help you craft your own for when you’re traveling and might not have access to a facility. Cannon said some boxes even post specific travel workouts online. You can find some good examples at Reebok CrossFit One.

5. Consider a little bit of friendly competition

Deadlifts at a CrossFit gym| Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Deadlifts at a CrossFit gym | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Once you get the hang of things, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in competitions. The most widely recognized events take place at the CrossFit Games, but that competition is really for the best of the best. Prior to that event, participants have to move on from regionals. Just before regionals, though, there’s the Open. Cannon elaborated, saying, “It’s available to literally anyone who wants to participate, no matter how old or experienced you are.”

As with the regular workouts, the Open offers a scaled competition for those who are less experienced. In either case, the process is the same. For five weeks, beginning at the end of February, a set workout will be released at 5:00 p.m. PT. Athletes have until 5:00 p.m. PT the following Monday to complete the workout and submit their scores.

Because it’s such a free-form competition, each participant has to perform the exercises under the supervision of a judge, often another member at your box. “It’s just somebody to keep you accountable for the number of reps you’re doing and the quality of your movements,” Cannon said.

Once scores are submitted, you can see how you stack up against everyone in the entire world. It’s a relaxed, fun way to get started in the competition process. And if you’re not ready for that kind of pressure, you’ll have just as much fun cheering on your new friends.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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