CrossFit, Explained for Soft-Bodied Weaklings

crossfit explanation
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock/Nina Gonzales/Thrillist
Jacob Lund/Shutterstock/Nina Gonzales/Thrillist

How can you tell if someone is into CrossFit?

Don't worry, they'll tell you.

If the proliferation of manywebsites on the subject (not to mention the co-worker who won't let you forget he does CrossFit, bro) are any indication, the first rule of CrossFit is never stop talking about CrossFit. And while this would seem to encourage certainty about what CrossFit actually is, there are a lot of myths and generalizations to clear up about the workout regimen.

To help you decipher the intricate meanings behind CrossFit's unique language, affiliation with the Paleo diet, compression socks, and heavy grunting, we talked to a variety of CrossFit experts and coaches to finally answer the question: What the hell is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a competitive exercise program

The official definition of CrossFit is: "constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity."

So what does that mean, exactly?

According to Alyssa Ages, a certified personal trainer, CrossFitter, and founder of BeFit Marketing, the workout itself consists of "a bunch of different functional-fitness exercises, done quickly, for a set period of time and a set format."

Functional exercises are ones that mimic real-life movements, and usually require little or no equipment, like burpees, push-ups, and sit-ups, as well as movements with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, jump ropes, pull-up bars, rings, and medicine balls.

"I'd call it both [an exercise regimen and a sport], but the best term I've heard for it is 'competitive exercise,'" Ages says.

"The saying in CrossFit is that we don't use machines, we are the machines," adds Amy "Pistol" Mandelbaum, owner and head coach of CrossFit Westport. "We use barbells, dumbbells, rowers, kettlebells, and 'rigs' for pull-ups. A CrossFit box is like Tinkertoys for adults. Everything is mobile and can be configured to accommodate different movements. Many exercises are bodyweight-oriented, such as burpees, push-ups, jump rope, pull-ups, running, and more."

It's a mash-up of other workouts

All great workouts borrow elements from other fitness programs (think how barre class is built on ballet moves, Flywheel incorporates strength training by having riders lift weights mid-ride). CrossFit is no different.

"All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movements, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing, and more," says Mandelbaum

CrossFit happens in a "box," not a gym

Classic CrossFit gyms got their "box" name for their bare-bones aesthetic, Ages explains. Think four walls (one that's usually a garage door), a roof, and minimalist equipment.

"With CrossFit growing exponentially, you do get boxes that more closely resemble boutique studios -- think Brick or Solace in New York -- with amenities like fancy shower products, towel service, and coffee and/or smoothie bars," Ages says. "But you're just as likely to encounter one that has a single Trainspotting-style bathroom and a crumbling concrete floor."

Only you can determine whether calling a gym a "box" is so pretentious or strange that it supersedes your ability to participate in CrossFit.

It also has lots of other fun and/or weird acronyms that can sound like a different language

Yes, the mysterious acronym "WOD" (pronounced like a "wad" of biceps muscle you developed doing CrossFit) is short for something. Ages broke down some of the most popular CrossFit-related acronyms, which contribute to the perception that CrossFitters really do speak a different language:

  • WOD = Workout of the Day. This is the workout you'll get when you attend a CrossFit class.
  • AMRAP = As Many Rounds as Possible. Generally, the clock is set to a time cap and you want to complete as many rounds as possible of the workout before time runs out.
  • ATG = Ass to Grass. A term used for a full-depth squat.
  • RX = As Prescribed. Each WOD will have prescribed weights for you to use during the workout, but this is a suggestion. If you need to scale the workout to include lighter weights, do so.
  • EMOM = Every Minute on the Minute. One exercise or a series of exercises is performed for a set number of reps each minute. The time remaining in that minute is rest. Once the minute is up, you begin again.

It's for anyone and everyone

You might associate CrossFit with a particular body type, age, or gender. But Mandelbaum warns that stereotyping the program won't get you far.

"Anyone can do CrossFit," Mandelbaum says. "It is ageless in its approach to improving the human condition."

If that sounds ambitious and frighteningly close to cult language, well… it kind of is. What do you expect from someone with "Pistol" as her nickname?

On the other hand, it's certainly a benefit that the program truly can be adapted to any condition or age. Mandelbaum's client roster includes individuals of all ages and abilities -- teenagers, senior citizens, and everyone in between -- hoping to accomplish their goals through CrossFit.

It's social and supportive

What makes CrossFit most different from other workout programs is the community-building and social environment that each box creates, says Eugene Kang, CEO and co-founder of Country Archer and avid CrossFitter.

"There is a certain bond that develops through suffering together," he says.

He has a point; it's the same attitude that's applied to, um, the military. There's also a significant amount of competition, with reps and rounds and everything in between measured not just against yourself, but other participants. It may be competitive in nature, but the CrossFit community is an incredibly supportive one.

"The entire class will stick around to cheer on the last person finishing their workout," Ages says.

It's scalable to your strength and comfort level

CrossFit may conjure up images of super-jacked bros lifting 200lb barbells overhead, but almost every movement or exercise in the program is scalable. In other words, you can adjust whatever scary, impossible exercise the "experts" in your class are doing to something you are more comfortable with.

For example, if you haven't fully mastered a traditional push-up, you can modify the exercise by shifting to your knees. Resistance bands can help you master a series of pull-ups until you're strong enough to complete one on your own, and you can always adjust the weight you stack onto your barbell.

CrossFit is NOT the same old routine over and over

If you're looking for a workout that goes by the book or follows a generic pattern, CrossFit probably isn't for you.

"CrossFit differentiates itself by being constantly varied in both movements and time domains," Mandelbaum says. "You might have a day in the box with a four-minute sprint workout one day, and then come in the next day for a 15-minute moderate-to-fast-paced workout featuring three movements that need to be repeated in a cycle or round until the time clock runs out."

While each workout is different, there is a general format that all CrossFit classes follow, Ages says. "There's a dynamic warm-up, mobility work, strength and skill work, the WOD, and finally, a cool-down."

CrossFit isn't (always) a cult of Paleo adherents

While many CrossFitters probably do live by the Paleo lifestyle -- er, follow a diet that limits individuals to foods available during the hunter-gatherer era a la the caveman (think meats, fish, nuts, leafy greens, regional veggies, and seeds; and omits anything that comes in a box), it's a rarity in Mandelbaum's box.

"I don't recommend [following a Paleo diet] if you want to perform at a peak level," Mandelbaum says. "The body needs carbs beyond a random sweet potato!"

Above all, CrossFit is intense

CrossFit is about maximizing the amount of work done in the shortest amount of time, and its exercises focus on moving the largest loads the longest distances, Mandelbaum says.

"Intensity is essential for results and is measurable as work divided by time -- or power," she says. "The more work you do in less time, or the higher the power output, the more intense the effort. By employing a constantly varied approach to training, functional movements and intensity lead to dramatic gains in fitness."

Mandelbaum advises those curious about the sport to enter a box ready to try things you have never tried before.

"You will sweat, you will be sore, you will succeed, and you will fail," Mandelbaum says. "It is very humbling. You will also meet incredible people and join a community that is worldwide in scope but has the community mindset of a small town. My members love each other and walk out of my box with a smile on their faces every day."

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Erin Kelly is a writer, runner, and triathlete living in New York City. She still has PTSD from her first CrossFit WOD but encourages everyone to form their own experiences. You can follow her on Twitter @erinkellysays.