Reuben Mourad – For a novice, there’s no doubt about it – Crossfit can be scary. It’s a terrifying world of loud grunts, intimidating muscles, and the startling sound of the deafening dropping of weights. I’ve dabbled in Crossfit workouts before, but despite occasional drop-ins and CrossFit style bootcamp classes, I’ve never actually been a member of a CrossFit gym. Despite all my hesitations and fears, I decided to give it a shot.
Thirty days of giving it my all, and being open to whatever was thrown at me. And so, this is what I learned, after a month of sweating it out with the team at Los Angeles box, Brick, one of the country’s leading CrossFit facilities.
I was scared. There’s no denying this at all. I told one of my coaches at Brick, Amanda, about my fears going in to CrossFit, and of the intimidating heavy weights that everyone was lifting. Her response is a line that I constantly remind myself of: “When you walk into the gym and watch people in a class, just know that everyone is doing a different workout”. By that, she explained that despite there being a workout prescribed on the board, many people scaled down the actual exercises, whether it be by using lighter weights, or reducing the number of reps, or going at a different pace. I’ve got no ego when it comes to working out, and so, I was more than comfortable in dropping down and lifting a weight lighter than what was suggested. Constantly reminding myself of this key fact made me focus on myself, and on my own progress.
CrossFit isn’t about going into a gym, and lifting whatever weights you want to lift that day. It’s one of the most structured physical activities I’ve experienced, and coming from a sporting background and as an athlete, I really enjoyed being coached, and guided through a workout every single day. I came into CrossFit a total novice, and Brick’s “Academy” allowed me to learn basic CrossFit movements one on one, with a personal coach. I was taught everything from CrossFit terminology, to the structure of typical workouts. Most importantly, I was clearly instructed on key CrossFit movements, such as squats and deadlifts. Being able to strip down to basics, and focus on correct form before entering a class was invaluable, and one of the most impressive parts of my CrossFit experience. This allowed me to go into a workout with a little more self-confidence, while also knowing that I wouldn’t be hurting myself from incorrect form. In the workouts themselves, I was surprised to see a skills element in every class - that is, having a coach break down a movement at the beginning of the workout, with everyone practicing the movement, and the coach coming around to actually examine what you’re doing. Every workout had a learning element in a class like format, and I was constantly developing my technique. I’m always looking to improve my skills, and unlike a gym workout by myself, I was able to constantly communicate with my coaches to see constant improvements.
Yeah, I get that people joke about CrossFit being a cult. And I accept that I met some people during my time that really seemed to live just for CrossFit. But by the same token, it’s this sense of community that really sets CrossFit apart from other workouts. It’s incredible motivation to know that you’ll see people you enjoy spending time with each day, and if there’s one thing that I wish more people appreciated is the power of a smile or “hello” when you walk into a gym. Spending my life on sporting teams made me value the infectious motivation and positivity that working out around good people can bring. Team workouts were my favorite, as it recreated that sportsmanship and group effort mentality that I have been accustomed to, growing up. A cheer from your workout buddies as you’re just about to die at the end of a WOD, or a high five from a coach at Brick is the biggest uplifter in the world, and I learned to appreciate how powerful the idea of community can be.
CrossFit made me think about how many gym exercises I would do, that were purely for aesthetic results. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea of a pre-party-pump-up on a Friday night, but it was refreshing to work out with a different focus. At Brick, each day featured a workout that had a different focus, be it longer conditioning or general fitness, or a specific movement such as squats or snatches. My endurance definitely improved, even over the course of one month, and it was really satisfying to see my form and technique in my basic lifting movements getting better with each class.
I turned up to my first few workouts in my gym sneakers. They had been serving me well for years gone by, so I just assumed that they’d get me through CrossFit, which is why I was a little surprised to see everyone at Brick wearing a different style of gym shoe. A flatter soled shoe is preferred by Crossfitters, and it wasn’t until I actually got a pair and wore them during a workout, that I appreciated how insanely life changing they could be. A flatter sole or low heel to toe drop results in the heel not being too highly elevated, and your foot generally having a lot more contact with the ground. Performing common CrossFit movements like barbell lifts in these shoes allows you to have a significantly greater amount of stability, and in turn, gives you a more efficient transfer of energy through your feet. I couldn’t believe the difference shoes made to my lifts, and while I do still prefer lighter, more cushioned shoes for running, CrossFit shoes have totally changed the game for me when it comes to a workout.
They’re not exaggerating when people talk about how physically exhausting CrossFit is. But the most surprising part of this exhaustion is that it comes from what is often a fairly short amount of time exercising. When I compare how I feel after an hour at the gym lifting weights by myself, to how I feel at the end of a timed workout at CrossFit, it’s apples and oranges. Despite being sometimes just a matter of a few minutes, I feel absolutely beat. My body is pushed to the very limit, and I’m often feeling the effects of a workout for hours afterwards (in some cases, days). It was really reassuring to see Brick taking so much time in an adequate warm up, minimizing the chance of injury and increasing the range of motion in joints and muscles. This leads me to my next realization - stretching before and after a workout, warming up and cooling down, is invaluable. And that I need to do more of it when working out by myself.
I couldn’t, for the life of me, do some standard CrossFit movements. Things like double unders (a skill on the jump rope) and kipping toes to bar (a movement where you swing your body to bring your toes up to your hands) were two movements that just frustrated me. I knew how to do them - I just couldn’t execute it properly. I felt like I’d never get them, and it really bothered me. Then, one day, out of the blue, it just happened. After practicing and sticking with it for numerous workouts, and a little bit of assistance (Coach Caleb still insists that he’s single handedly the reason for my toes to bar success), I somehow managed to just get them. It was crazy how instant and overnight the progression from “I’m seriously hopeless at this” to “I’m actually doing this” was. The most frustrating part is that I don’t even know how that skill acquisition happened, apart from just sticking with it, and continuing to practice and practice. But, regardless, the feeling of actually achieving that skill and being able to execute it properly is one of the highs of CrossFit.
There’s no denying that CrossFit plays on the idea of competitiveness. Working through each day, I had an internal competitive streak that came out whenever I was put against the clock. I loved the pressures put on myself, and I was surprised at how much I loved this competitive pressure that resulted in me giving it my all right till the very end. It’s important to distinguish the difference between this internal competitive motivation, versus the assumption that CrossFit is all one big competition against other athletes. I realized that the only score that matters is your own, and recognizing the achievements of that score, and the progression you’re making. As one coach asked me after I was feeling a little down about a low score in one very tough workout, “Do you remember what anyone else’s score was? No? Well, they don’t remember your score either.”
I’m tall and lanky. I’m built for the rowing machine, and I know that I’m decent at it. It’s the one element of CrossFit that I’m really confident in, and I know whenever there’s a WOD with a rowing component, I’m going to have to blast through that part, to make up for my inadequacies in other sections. I really struggle with squat cleans, and I’ll take forever to do them, at a really low weight. While I’m depressed just trying not to die doing some Olympic lifting movements, the great thing about the variety that CrossFit brings is that I’ll be able to excel in my rowing, while other stronger athletes might not perform so well there. You’ll find a movement that you love (and kick ass in), and it’ll make the horrible workouts seem less painful.
I’ve spoken about how beneficial my CrossFit experience has been, but honestly, it wasn’t easy at all. I’m not just talking about the toll that it took on my body - the aches and pains from hundreds of reps on the rig, or thousands of calories on the rower. I’m talking how psychologically tough it can be too. I never ever expected CrossFit to be such a mess to my head. I knew that I’d have to mentally prepare myself for a workout, but I wasn’t expecting to think about how to tackle a workout with such detail. I’m a very strategic guy, and when I see a complex workout of hundreds of reps, I’m going to break it down in my head, and find the best way to conquer it. Having a good strategy can drastically affect your workout. Is it going to be five sets of twenty reps, or four sets of twenty five reps? Where do I want to stop and catch my breath? What movement can I make up time on? Add to this, the infuriatingly impossible task of calculating reps at the end of an exhausting workout to hand in your score, and it feels like you’re sitting pre-med calculus while being suffocated. And to cap it all off, the feeling of still working through the end of your WOD while everyone else is packing up their weights, cleaning up, and saying goodbye, is one of the most depressing ever. It’s not only a physical workout, but in so many ways, a mental one too.
It’s a well-known fact that Crossfitters have some rather spectacular physiques. It’s hardly surprising given the intensity of sessions, and the physical demand that’s required when they’re working out every single day. What I didn’t expect though, was to see my body react to the workouts so quickly. I’m not saying that I gained a Crossfitter’s v-shaped back and shoulders like coconuts at the top of my arms, but rather, I saw little growths in muscles that I had previously neglected. The sheer amount of squatting and deadlifts resulted in the smallest of changes in my legs (they grew from quail legs to chicken legs), and while tiny in improvements, it’s a physical change nonetheless. My cardio endurance also improved, and I noticed that elements like the air bike, while still painful, are a little more manageable than when I first started CrossFit. I definitely lost a little bit of fat from my midsection, and despite not being even half the size of most male Crossfitters, I’m pleasantly surprised with how I’ve progressed physically.
On a stifling hot Memorial Day, I attended my very first milestone workout, Murph. It’s an internationally known workout that is physically and mentally demanding, performed by Crossfitters every year on Memorial Day in memory of those who served for this country. Consisting of a one mile run, 100 pull ups, 200 push ups, and 300 air squats, finishing with another mile run, it’s an event that I honestly didn’t think I should attempt. My coach, Erica, insisted that I give it a shot. She seemed to have a little more confidence in me, and for some reason, I went along and suffered through it, not thinking that I’d be able to finish. The feeling, successfully finishing such an epic milestone, is one of the best I’ve had at CrossFit. Knowing that this workout that happened once a year, and a daunting moment on the CrossFit calendar for so many athletes, was something that I managed to accomplish, felt incredible. I was shocked at how I was able to use my practice, the coaching I had received, and the energy of those around me, to complete this tough workout. It wasn’t about what score I finished with - it was being able to say that I did it. While I wish I could have competed in some form of competition, the best thing about this feeling is knowing that I would be able to continue experiencing those highs with every CrossFit competition and event that I would attend in the future, and working towards completing either a CrossFit event or competition is something that I wholehearted recommend to anyone starting CrossFit.