Fad Fitness Wrap-Up: CrossFit Convert

From doubter to disciple in six weeks? Not quite. But close.

I’m finished with CrossFit.

But after six weeks of lunging, lifting, running, jumping, squatting, grunting, sweating and nearly puking, I can’t shake the feeling I was just getting started.

That can be the only explanation for why, after doing all that work, I still suck so badly.  Sure, my muscles—particularly glutes and core—are definitely stronger than they were at the start of this, but along the way I was modifying workouts on a regular basis to make them easier. Instead of doing toes-to-bar, for example, I did sit-ups with weights. Rather than ring dips, I did push-ups. When it was time for overhead squats in my final class, my instructor switched me to front squats. Call me old-fashioned, but this felt like, well, cheating.

One of the hardest realizations for me was that CrossFit progress is SLOW. When I started into classes, I had this idea that I’d somehow gain 10 pounds of muscle by the end of 2012. Instead, I stayed almost exactly the same weight—164 pounds—and observed no obvious changes in my physical appearance.  Make no mistake, though: Go frequently enough, and the classes will whip your ass into shape.

But there are so many skills to learn that it takes months—not weeks—of regular classes to become an efficient CrossFitter. Even after six weeks, each class brought new exercises and lifts, many of which would require time and patience to master. I’d only done one of the “Girls”—benchmark workouts with female names, like Fran, Nancy, Cindy, Angie, Linda and Helen.

CrossFit South Brooklyn, where I trained, recommends doing no more than three classes a week for the first three months or so, while your body adjusts to everything new you’re throwing at it. CrossFitNYC, the biggest gym in New York, eases its members into group classes with months of beginner classes that “use lighter weights, scaled versions of some of the more difficult movements, and include more time reviewing the basics of safe and efficient technique.”

Though it seems like a drawback, it’s also one of CrossFit’s biggest attractions: The workouts of the day (WODs) are so varied and involve so many disciplines that—unlike with Insanity’s paltry 10 workouts or, say, the narrow focus of kettlebells—you never really get bored of it.

All of that programming and personal support costs money, though. Depending on where you live, a CrossFit gym is typically two to three times the cost of a conventional gym, and sometimes more. CrossFit South Brooklyn, for instance, costs $215/month if you want to take three classes per week, and $230/month for a five-a-week plan. By way of contrast, a nearby Planet Fitness gym has a special on right now that’s $159 for an entire year.

But you definitely get what you pay for, and with CrossFit classes, that’s a supportive, motivating environment in which to learn the various disciplines. In my experience, a gym like CFSBK is the nucleus of a real community, where instructors are universally warm and encouraging (even as they torture your body), and regular extra-curricular events—paleo potlucks, movie nights and the like—are held after-hours right in the gym. And, whether you realize it or not, that level of engagement slowly makes you feel responsible to your gym’s community, like attending classes and progressing your personal fitness goals matters to everyone. It sounds a little creepy in our self-absorbed society, but it’s definitely positive pressure, and a phenomenon I’ve never before experienced at a conventional gym.

And what's better, you don’t have to broke getting in shape. In fact, CrossFit itself is free (or, as founder Greg Glassman likes to call it, “open source”), with WODs posted daily at crossfit.com alongside plenty of demonstration videos for self-instruction. There’s even a new, barebones app called Benchmark that helps you get motivated at home by sharing your benchmark workouts with your buddies in friendly competition, and soon it will help you measure your fitness by tracking your benchmark performances over time.

But, if you’re an average person with average motivation and you’re going to give CrossFit a legitimate go, I recommend at least a few months of classes at a local gym to get a feel for the rhythm of the WODs and become fairly proficient at the various lifts and movements. Otherwise, it’s easy to become frustrated with teaching it all to yourself (when all you really want is to get fit) or, worse, easy to injure yourself.

As for me, my six short weeks of CrossFit gave me some of the best workouts I've had in years, if not in my whole life—ones where my whole body was completely worked over and I wanted to puke. It's truly a full-body workout and, if you commit to it, builds more functional muscle and overall strength than any fitness program I've experienced or heard of. So do I recommend it? Hell yes.

About the Project: The Active Times' Fad Fitness Challenge is a six-week-long project in which five hapless writers will immerse themselves in five popular fitness programs—CrossFit (at CrossFit South Brooklyn), Insanity, Barre, Flywheel and Kettlebell classes—for the dual purposes of getting in shape and evaluating them for our readers. We guinea pigs will bust our butts, burn calories and discover muscles we'd long since mothballed and, if all goes well, emerge into the New Year with a well-rounded perspective of the top fitness fads. Check back every weekday from now until the New Year to come along for the ride without breaking a sweat. Click here to check out the rest of the programs.