How to Have the Best (and Safest) CrossFit Workout Ever

How do you know if someone does CrossFit? Don't worry, they'll tell you. These days, it seems like everyone knows someone doing CrossFit. Maybe you've heard a friend talking about the "WOD" he did that day or seen a coworker's tweet about a "PR" for some workout named Cindy, Angie or Fran.

Consider this your crash course on CrossFit. (Image: xavierarnau/E+/GettyImages)

Curious to see what the buzz is about? Before jumping into a class, hold up just a second. As beneficial as CrossFit can be, there are hazards to rushing into the regimen without having taken the time to learn the proper techniques. Keep reading for some know-before-you-go details.

What Is CrossFit?

The CrossFit program was developed by Greg Glassman, a longtime athlete and trainer, to improve general fitness levels rather than emphasizing sports-specific training. To Glassman, the goal of CrossFit is that an athlete should be able to perform at a higher level in various activities for both short and long durations.

Workouts typically last one hour and involve flexibility and mobility training, Olympic lifts like deadlifts and snatches and timed high-intensity exercises that include Olympic lifts, body-weight exercises, sprinting and gymnastics.

So if you like lots of cardio or prefer low-impact or low-intensity exercises, this workout probably isn't for you (and that's OK!). If, on the other hand, you love lifting weights and competing against yourself surrounded by other like-minded people, CrossFit could be for you.

What to Expect in Your CrossFit Workouts

Like a lot of workout classes, most CrossFit boxes offer the first workout free to potential new members. At this initial session, you'll meet with a coach — either one-on-one or in a group with other people who are new to CrossFit. The coach will provide information about the box and the program and take you through a brief, introductory workout.

The coach may also ask you questions about your health history and assess your fitness level, goals and any injuries you may have. They'll most likely also explain pricing and membership options.

After that, you'll want to enroll in an on-ramp program that includes a series of classes that teaches the foundational movements. As a beginner, it's crucial (and many times required) that you learn the basic movements involved in a CrossFit workout, including the air squat, front squat, overhead squat, push press, push jerk, deadlift, sumo deadlift high pull and medicine-ball clean.

On-ramp classes give you a chance to practice the exercises in a safe environment with other newbies and build a foundation of strength and endurance before adding weight or upping the intensity.

Once you're ready for the big leagues, you'll be presented with myriad WODs (CrossFit speak for "workout of the day"). While CrossFit defines itself by its constantly varying workouts, it also provides participants with several standardized benchmark workouts to measure your progress. You can recognize these workouts because they're given female names, such as Barbara, Angie and Grace.

Fran is a particularly grueling benchmark workout that consists of doing thrusters and pull-ups back to back with the rep scheme 21-15-9. It's a timed workout using either the prescribed weight or a weight of your own choosing. Beating your last time using the same weight means you've improved parameters of strength, speed and endurance.

What to Wear to CrossFit

While some CrossFitters like to make a fashion statement, what you wear to class is totally up to you. But in general, focus on wearing comfortable exercise clothing that allows for freedom of movement. Any clothing made specifically for exercise is a safe bet.

Guys can wear a pair of comfortable athletic shorts and a T-shirt, while women can wear athletic leggings or shorts and a tank or tee. And a supportive sports bra is a must. Probably the most important part of your outfit is your shoes: Athletes usually wear flat-soled athletic shoes without a lot of extra support. CrossFit-specific shoes offer just the right amount of stability for weightlifting but enough flexibility for running and jumping.

6 Tips to Make the Most of Your CrossFit Workouts

Regardless of whether you're new to CrossFit, just moved to a new city and need a new CrossFit gym or need advice on how to step up your WOD game, here are 11 expert-approved ways to maximize the time you spend at the box.

1. Evaluate the Gyms You Visit

Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you know what you're getting into. ACE-certified personal trainer Jonathan Ross recommends asking plenty of questions. Find out if the trainers are certified CrossFit coaches and ask about the process for getting beginners on board.

Avoid gyms that put the beginners in with the experienced CrossFitters. Ross urges potential members to ask about the gym's philosophy on quality of movement versus intensity. Although intensity is a foundation of the CrossFit workout, it's important that novices learn how to do the movements correctly before adding intensity.

"All of the criticism and problems with CrossFit come from people who put intensity ahead of everything else, and that's a massive mistake," Ross says.

2. Learn the Lingo

CrossFitters do speak their own language, but you'll catch on in no time. Here's a crash course:

  • The WOD is the workout of the day, usually programmed by the gym's head coach or owner.
  • AMRAP stands for "as many rounds/reps as possible" — you'll often hear this during the timed-workout portion of the class. Tracking how many rounds of the exercises you're able to complete in the allotted time allows you to score your workout.
  • Setting a PR (personal record) means beating your highest score for a given workout.

And you'll often see acronyms on the board where the WOD is written, which all refer to specific exercises you'll do during the workout.

  • FS: front squat
  • DL: deadlift
  • C&J: clean and jerk
  • BS: back squat
  • HSPU: handstand push-up
  • OHS: overhead squat
  • PC: power clean
  • PP: push press
  • SDHP: sumo deadlift high pull
  • T2B: toes-to-bar

3. Emphasize Quality Over Intensity

Although you've hopefully asked the right questions and joined a gym that puts quality of movement before intensity, it's your job to keep a close eye on your form and not sacrifice it — potentially injuring yourself — to shave time off your workout or lift a heavier weight than the person next to you. "You have to be your own health advocate," says Ross. That means reining in your ego and being mindful during your workouts.

4. Scale Your Workouts

Very few people will start CrossFit being able to do all the workouts as prescribed. When you see weights listed next to the exercises on the board, think of them as goals for the future. You might not be able to do all the body-weight exercises either, but don't worry. CrossFit was developed to be scaled to any level of fitness.

Even if you can't do a single push-up, you can modify the movement by resting on your knees to complete the workout. If you don't know how to modify an exercise, ask your coach. Scaling the workout to your fitness level is an important part of preventing injury so you can stay in the game and keep getting better.

5. Get Involved in the Community

What sets CrossFit apart from many other fitness programs is its emphasis on community. The encouragement you get from your coaches and fellow CrossFitters keeps you motivated and coming back to the gym week after week. So if you're outgoing and like to work out in groups, you should have no problem making friends and getting involved.

But even shyer types and people who typically like to work out solo will find it easy and fun to become part of the community. Try to go into each workout with a positive attitude, say hello to your coaches and fellow CrossFitters, offer encouragement to others during the workouts and attend social events outside daily workouts. You'll find that going to the gym is no longer a chore but something to look forward to.

6. Devote Time to Your Warm-Up, Flexibility and Mobility

Arriving at class late, leaving immediately at the end of the workout or doing other things when you're supposed to be working on flexibility or mobility won't make for a successful workout and may lead to injury.

CrossFit isn't just about doing the WOD; it's also about the things you do before and after the WOD that will help you perform your best. A quality CrossFit gym will emphasize this by programming a warm-up and flexibility and mobility work for members to do each day when they come in and before they leave.

In some cases, a coach will lead you through the exercises; in others, the exercises will be written on the board and you'll need to do them on your own. Think of it as mandatory extra credit.

How to Find a CrossFit Affiliate Near You

It's especially important to find the right CrossFit gym. In order to legally use the brand's name, a CrossFit gym — or "box" as they're often called — must be affiliated with the CrossFit organization. You can visit the CrossFit website to find one of the 13,000 global affiliates that's closest to you.

Since there are so many franchises all over the U.S. — and the world — class prices and membership fees will vary as much as the vibe of the individual studio. So, too, with class sizes. But visiting a few different locations (if that's an option where you live), will help you get a better sense of which box fits your preferences and your budget.

Or, you can opt to do CrossFit at home by setting up a home gym and accessing the daily workouts on the CrossFit website. But if you're a newbie, you'll definitely benefit from the coaching of CrossFit-certified trainers at an official affiliate location.

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