What Is CrossFit?

Learn the basics of CrossFit in our 1-on-1 Foundations classes!

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What is CrossFit? - by Steve Dolge

At it’s most simple definition, CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program.

We at Second Wind CrossFit think of ourselves as fitness professionals who have chosen CrossFit as our preferred methodology.

CrossFit is an overall fitness regimen that is built on “constantly varied, functional movement at high intensity.”  Let’s take a look at those three aspects.

Constantly Varied

This means that we are always mixing things up.  Mixing up the type of exercise (mode) and the duration (time).  CrossFit has pulled together the best practices of a broad range of sports to create an overall fitness that does not specialize in any one thing, but does not lack in anything either.

We lift weights.  Anything where you move an external object can be considered weight lifting.  This includes, but is certainly not limited to: squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, cleans, snatches, thrusters, wall balls, kettlebell swings, etc.

We do body weight movements, also known as gymnastics.  These include push-ups, pull-ups, dips, rows, box jumps, step ups, handstands, muscle-ups, planks, etc.

We run, jump rope, row, swim, bike.  All part of a balanced CrossFit diet.

But that all represents the mode of exercise.  We also vary the time and intensity.  By mixing and matching the above exercises, we create workouts that can last anywhere from 5 minutes to 55 minutes.  (Which do you think is tougher?)

Your body has three different energy systems based on your intensity and duration.  We try to train all three.

Functional Movement

Functional movement is simply movement the way your body is designed to do it.  Some of the characteristics of functional movement include:

  • Mid-line stability.  This is crucial and one of the fundamental teachings in our Foundations course.  Your midline is your spine.  Protecting your spine is paramount in all exercises.  Learning how to properly brace your spine by activating and strengthening your core muscles while moving heavy objects is a skill that you will find useful not just in the gym, but in your everyday life.
  • Core to extremity.  Related to mid-line stability, functional movement occurs in a wave from the core muscles out to the arm and legs.  Your core is the foundation for strong movement…the platform off which you push.
  • Multi-joint.  Functional movement involves more than one joint at a time.  This is the reason you do not see machines in CrossFit gyms.  Take, for example, the leg extension machine at traditional gyms.  You sit with a padded lever across the bottom of your shin and extend the leg out straight.  Works the quads great, right?  Feels awesome.  Sure, but when do you ever move like that in real life?  That’s a single-joint exercise where you extend at the knee.  Normally when you extend the knee, you also extend the hip and ankle…like in a squat.  You squat everyday when you sit in a chair and stand up.

Functional movement patterns are universal and should be practiced the same way by Olympic athletes, kids and the retired cat lady down the street. The only things that changes are the weights and intensity.  As said by CrossFit founder Greg Glassman, “The needs of our Olympic athletes and grandparents differ by degree, not kind.”

High Intensity

Finally, high intensity.   High intensity means doing something relatively fast or heavy.  Relative is the important term there.  If I press 100 pounds over my head one time, that is a higher intensity than if I press 85 pounds over my head one time.  But my 85 pounds might be the equivalent to someone else’s 100 pounds.  Intensity is relative to the person.

Same with speed.  I might do 25 air squats in 30 seconds.  If I did 30 air squats in 30 seconds, that would be a higher intensity.  Someone else might be able to do 33.  It’s all relative.

“High Intensity” is where CrossFit gets its reputations.  Yes, plural.  Because the haters are not hard to find.  So let’s talk about them.  The general criticism against CrossFit (mainly by people who don’t do it…but that’s another story) is that you can easily get hurt.  Is that true?  Hell, yes.  If you start piling on high intensity before you have proper functional movement, your chances of getting hurt skyrocket.

Which is why we have coaches.  Qualified people who know what proper movement looks like and should feel like.  It’s why we watch you, teach you, cajole you into getting better and better.  And we teach you how to scale.

Because then you learn why high intensity gives CrossFit it’s real reputation:  results.  It’s the intensity that makes CrossFit work.

Scaling a Workout

So how do we make sure that your intensity doesn’t outpace your ability to move well?  In other words, how do we keep you from getting injured.  The best answer lies in “scaling the workout”.

Scaling simply means taking the WOD (Workout of the Day) and making it appropriate for you.  There are four ways to scale:

  1. Reps – simply cut the number of repetitions that are in the workout
  2. Time – shorten the workout, i.e. rest more
  3. Load – use the weight that is appropriate for your strength
  4. Movement – if you can’t run, walk

Let’s look at an example.  A typical workout for someone just coming into Foundations may look like this:

Run 200 meters (once around the block)
Ring Rows
Push Up
(15 squats, ring rows, push ups, 12 squats, ring rows, push ups, 9 squats, ring rows, push ups)
Run 200m

Do this as fast as you can…we are timing it.  Let’s say we have a room full of college hockey players and one woman who is 40 pounds overweight, 48 years old and hasn’t worked out since her first child was born six years ago.   We’ll call her “Pam”.   A perfectly scaled workout would be where everyone in the class, despite their physical ability or exercise background would finish generally in the same amount of time.  So how do we make it so that Pam isn’t finishing 10 minutes behind the hockey players?   By using the four scaling techniques.

I would let the boys do the workout as above and give Pam the following:

Walk/jog 200m (just once, not at the end – scale by time)
12-9-6 (scale by reps)
Ring Rows (with feet farther back – scale by movement)
Push Ups (hands elevated on a box – scale by movement)

There is no weight lifting element here, but if there were we would pick a weight she could handle, even if it was very light (scale by load).

In the end, she will get the same relative intensity as the hockey players.  She will get the same workout and the same physiological benefits.

That’s CrossFit.  And that’s why we believe CrossFit is for everyone.