Don’t fear the CrossFit

(Photo source: https://www.endlesscrossfit.com)

“I gotta run a little faster; I gotta reach for the sky; I gotta come a little closer; even if I lose, I gotta try…”
— Kansas, “Inside Of Me”

“Try not.  Do.  Or do not.  There is no try.”
— Yoda

Every Saturday, my CrossFit gym invites friends to join members for workouts (“Bring A Friend Day,” as it’s called).  It’s a little bit of a misnomer, as guests don’t necessarily have to be friends — as one coach likes to describe it, “bring your friends, neighbors, coworkers, colleagues, enemies, ‘frenemies,’ whomever.”  It doesn’t necessarily have to be by invitation; anyone interested in trying CrossFit can come to these classes — a type of “try before you buy” session, if you will.

I’ve tried to get friends to go to these sessions, with mixed success.  Those who do enjoy the sessions, but I have yet to have one friend (other than my wife) try it out and join the gym.  (Admittedly, there are fringe benefits for me to get someone to sign up — a month of free membership, for example.)

What’s interesting is those who don’t try it and outright refuse my offer to join me.  (As I tell people, joining me in these sessions pretty much guarantees that I will work out on Saturday!)  I tried to tell one friend that I thought CrossFit might benefit her.  Not only did she outright refuse to take me up on it, I got the impression that she was actually scared to try it.  She would not even keep an open mind about it; she just said, “I will NOT do it.  Don’t ever ask me about it again.”  End of conversation.

My question: why???

I would never twist anyone’s arm into trying it (well, okay, maybe friends with whom I know I can get away with it), but what I don’t completely understand is why people fear it.  I get why people won’t do things like go bungee-jumping (disclosure: I am deathly acrophobic), eating exotic foods (I’ll try almost anything, although I draw the line at anything that has more than four legs, shellfish excluded — Andrew Zimmern I’m not!), or do something on a dare.  But why are people afraid to try CrossFit?

I think part of it is that it’s human nature to fear what you don’t know.  People will see these images of CrossFit (I often post what I do on Facebook) and immediately get the impression that they’re expected to be able to lift large amounts of weights, be pushed to do double-unders, or be able to do pull-ups right off the bat.  The fear of “gymtimidation” comes into play.  People who fear it are likely afraid of being embarrassed or injured.

First, one of the selling points of CrossFit is that anyone can do it.  I’ve seen people as old as eighty (and even more!) in the gym.  I once saw a guy who had the use of only one arm in a workout (it was interesting watching him on a rower and an Assault bike).  I’ve seen newbies who struggle with weightlifting form.  Even I have my own struggles; I can’t (yet) do any moves that involve pulling myself up (pull-ups, muscle-ups, rope climbs, etc.), I have trouble with movements that involve squatting (I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my knees), and I’m not exactly the fastest runner (for me, there’s almost no difference between a jog, a sprint, or a fast walk).  Heck, even some warmups can sometime leave me out of breath.

However, one of CrossFit’s selling points is that it is scalable.  You are never asked to do anything you are not capable of doing.  If you have trouble with pull-ups (like I do), you can do barbell pull-ups or ring rows.  Unable to do a certain type of weightlifting movement?  Don’t worry about the weight; instead, use a lighter weight, an empty bar, or even a PVC pipe, and practice your technique.  Whatever movement gives you trouble, there is always a way to scale it that will allow you to perform it to your capabilities.

I’m sure the fear of being injured comes into play.  As I just said, you’ll never be pushed to do what you’re not capable of doing.  But one of the selling points for me is that CrossFit emphasizes technique.  If you are not sure about how to do a movement, coaches will teach you how.  If your form has issues, coaches will tweak it so it is better.  Technique is key to anything: the better your form, the less chance you’ll be injured.

I also think the intensity is a factor.  CrossFit can get very intense.  Admittedly, there isn’t a lot that’s enjoyable about working your tail off to the point where you’re gasping for breath and end up lying on the floor.  That’s something that can scare people off.  However, how hard you work out is up to you.  Intensity is what you make of it.  But why is it so intense?

I think it’s because the majority of people who take CrossFit seriously want to improve.  People push themselves because they want to get better at what they do.  Did a deadlift weight of 305 pounds?  Next time, I’m going to try 315.  Run 5,000 meters in under ten minutes?  Next time, shoot for nine.  CrossFit is about making yourself better.  While you are not asked to do anything you can’t do, you are asked to challenge yourself and push the limits of what you can do.  Even my own gym’s motto is “(Be)tter” (as in, “be better”).  I wrote before that you have to get uncomfortable in order to improve.  Making yourself better involves going out of your comfort zone.  How much discomfort — intensity — you decide to put into it is up to you.

Finally, there’s the phenomenon that Planet Fitness refers to as “gymtimidation.”  People are embarrassed by their lesser skill level and are often intimidated by performing in front of other people who are in much better shape.  This attitude does not exist in CrossFit.  Everyone — even the elite athletes — roots for everyone else to succeed.  I remember one time watching the CrossFit Games on TV and hearing the commentator say, “CrossFit is probably the only sport in which the person who comes in last gets the loudest cheers.”  Even in events where athletes are finished, they will often go back out into the field to cheer on and encourage those who are still working through the event.  Here’s a secret: everyone, at some point in their lives, was a beginner at something.  Someone once said that one of the worst phrases ever coined was “do it right the first time.”  It’s almost never done right the first time.  Fear of embarrassment should never be a factor in trying something new.

I wrote before that CrossFit is a supportive community.  I have made a large number of friends in CrossFit, and even though I look more like a couch potato than an elite athlete, I feel as comfortable with this group as I do as any group in which I’m involved.

Although people have their reasons why they don’t want to try CrossFit, fear should not be one of them.  CrossFit can be a fun and exciting way to keep fit.  Give it a try.  Who knows?  You might just get hooked — like I did!

And if any of my local friends are interested in hitting a Saturday “Bring A Friend” WOD, hit me up!

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Memorial Day Murph

A few of us in the office were discussing plans for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.  I mentioned that I was doing this thing on Monday called Memorial Day Murph (those of you who CrossFit know what I’m talking about).  I tried to describe the workout, and I couldn’t remember the movements and rep scheme, so I looked it up.  In doing so, I came across this article that talks about “surviving” Memorial Day Murph.

First, I want to talk a little about the article.  Doing Murph as prescribed (“Rx’ed,” in CrossFit parlance) is not for the faint of heart (literally — it’s a pretty intense cardio workout).  I generally make it a point to make sure I’m hydrated (I do this, anyway) and to make sure that I’ve had something to eat before I attack it.  I also make sure that I scale.  I am not in the class of Mat Fraser, and likely never will be.  (When I was a kid, I had a dream of playing for the Yankees, too.  You probably can tell where that went.  But I digress.)  I have yet to run a full mile; I have enough trouble running a fraction of that.  I don’t remember how I scaled it last year; I might have done something like an 800m run (admittedly, I usually end up walking a good chunk of it), ring-rows instead of pull-ups (I still can’t do a pull-up to save my life — I’m working on it), and a reduced number of push-ups and squats.  Nevertheless, even scaled down, it still makes for a pretty serious workout.  But I will say that if a longtime self-admitted couch potato like me can do it, so can you.

I also want to talk about the spirit of “Murph.”  Murph is what CrossFitters refer to as a “hero WOD” — that is, a WOD (Workout Of the Day) that is named for and to honor a hero — in this case, Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005.  (Memorial Day Murph was even made into a fundraiser.)  Hero WODs tend to be intense — moreso than the typical CrossFit WOD.  Every Memorial Day, CrossFitters around the country do Murph in the spirit and honor of this fine man who died for his country.  It is a way for CrossFit athletes to honor this hero, but it’s also a reminder as to what Memorial Day is about.

And, of course, Memorial Day is known as the unofficial start of summer, and is usually accompanied by barbecue, burgers, hot dogs, and beer.  My CrossFit gym is no different; Memorial Day Murph is followed by a cookout, along with plenty of camaraderie.  Our gym members are a close-knit group, and I’m sure other CrossFit gyms are similar.

So, I’ll be spending my upcoming Memorial Day holiday hanging out with a bunch of CrossFit athletes while trying not to exhaust myself from a regimen of running, pull-ups (likely ring-rows for me), push-ups, and squats.  And a good time will be had by all.

The CrossFit family

The other day, a thought popped into my head for no reason (that happens occasionally — doesn’t it happen to you?): “I feel like hanging out with my CrossFit family.”  I don’t know why I started thinking about it, but I was thinking about the great times I’ve had hanging out with my CrossFit friends outside of the gym — bowling night, playing poker to raise money for charity, going out to dinner, and so on.  I’ve been a member of my CrossFit gym for over three years (and counting) now, and I’ve made a lot of great friends in the process.  Who would’ve thought that I, a longtime self-admitted couch potato, would happily be spending his free time hanging with a bunch of athletes at a gym?

Ever since I started doing CrossFit, I’ve heard a lot of people refer to “their CrossFit family.”  This term, much less, concept, is nothing new.  Among all my activities, I’ve heard references to “my music family,” “band family,” “SQL family,” and so on.  As it’s been often said, “family” is more than flesh and blood; it’s about people to whom you’ve gotten close and learned to trust.  We as social animals thrive on these relationships.

The fact that I’ve managed to stick to a fitness program for more than three years is a huge deal, and I believe that the support system — all these friends I’ve made — is a big part of that.  A support system of friends can make almost anything pleasurable.  I’ve met a lot of great people in CrossFit, and one of the big things is that these people make me want to go to the gym.  When you have great friends and a solid support system around you, anything is possible.

Albany CrossFit on the local news

This is an addendum to my CrossFit article from Thursday!

I got home this evening, turned on the local news, and whose face did I happen to see on TV?  None other than Shye Evan, whom I mention in my earlier article!

WNYT (the local NBC affiliate) did an article about the CrossFit Games East Regional being in town, and they featured Albany CrossFit, my gym!

Watch and enjoy!

Why I CrossFit

This weekend, the CrossFit Games East Regional will be held at the Times Union Center, which is a mere six miles away from my house.  I plan on attending on Saturday, along with my wife.  I’ve watched the CrossFit Games on ESPN, and I’m excited that I’ll have an opportunity to watch this event live and in-person at a location so close to my home.

Granted, a couple of years ago, I probably would’ve come across the CrossFit Games on TV and kept right on going flipping through channels.  It seems that you don’t truly become interested in an event until you start participating in it yourself.  Case in point: I have an uncle who enjoys watching golf on TV.  I remember thinking to myself, “how can anyone watch golf on TV?”  That was before I started playing golf myself, after which I said, “oh, that’s how you watch it on TV!”  (I used to play softball when I was younger, and swinging a bat was one of my favorite parts of the game.  I was able to hit the ball relatively well.  I thought, “how difficult is it to hit a stationary ball?”  As it turned out, the answer was, very!)

But, I digress.  I’m here to tell you why I do CrossFit, and why it might be good for you too.

I’m a pretty big guy (always have been).  I freely admit that I like to eat, and I tend to eat like crap.  I have nothing against eating healthy; in fact, I’m all for it (and I try to eat healthy when I can).  Mostly, it’s out of convenience (which, by the way, is article fodder in the back of my head; that’s another post for another day).  As a result, I’m overweight (as is most of America).  I’ve developed the classic symptoms of metabolic syndrome, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and adult Type 2 diabetes.  (This latter admission might come as a surprise to many of my friends.  I don’t make a secret of my condition, but I also don’t talk about it openly, either — this article post notwithstanding.)

However, I’d never felt compelled to do anything about it, even though I have a condition that could potentially kill me.  Strange as it might seem, the prospect of my own early death has never been (and, in a way, still isn’t) enough of a motivator for me to get off my butt to do something about it.

Until one day, that is.

I’ve been taking medication to control, among other things, my hypertension.  I’ve told people that I sometimes feel like a walking drugstore.  For the most part, it had been (and today, still is) keeping my blood pressure in check.  But there was a period where my pressure kept going up, uncontrolled even by my medications.  I was aware that it was an issue, and I was trying — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — to get it under control.

It was an August day in 2014.  I remember leaving work and I started driving home — and I realized that I was having trouble breathing.  It wasn’t bad enough where I felt I had to find an emergency room, but it was enough for me to notice.

That turned out to be the wake-up call that I needed.

The first thing I did was drive to my nearest Target store to get a new blood pressure monitor (I had one, but it had died).

The next day, I walked into Albany CrossFit, where I first met owner/manager/coach Shye Evan.  I told him about my condition.  I also mentioned that I had tried other fitness programs before, but I was never able to maintain them (the proverbial “I’ll never give this up” and end up quitting after only a few months — if I even made it that long).  I figured that what I really needed was something that was structured and included coaching.  At that time, I knew absolutely nothing about CrossFit.  In fact, when I walked in that day, I wasn’t even aware that it was a CrossFit gym.  All I knew was that I’d drive by every once in a while and I saw athletes on a nice day working out in the parking lot and on the rig they had set up outside.  I figured that they had some kind of program, and I’d check it out to see what it was about.

They had a free trial class that Saturday.  I made it a point to go attend.

Their next (mandatory, for brand-new CrossFitters) introductory on-ramp class started that September.  I signed up for it.  After I finished On-Ramp, I was ready to CrossFit.

That was almost two years ago, as of this article.

I’m still going.

A few paragraphs ago, I’d mentioned that I had tried other fitness programs, and kept them going for, at the most, a few months.  I started doing CrossFit in September of 2014.  I’m writing this article in May of 2016 — and I am still going.  That, in my mind and by itself, is enough of a selling point for me.

I even got my wife into CrossFit (she did her on-ramp class that following November).  She still goes as well.

I tell people that I have a love-hate relationship with CrossFit.  There are days when I look at the WOD (that’s “Workout Of the Day” — CrossFit is very big on acronyms) and say, “no way.”  There are some WODs that push me to the point where I’ll be thinking to myself, “oh man, I’m gonna die!”  Make no mistake: CrossFit is intense.  I won’t kid you about that.

But there’s more to CrossFit than challenging WODs.  First, there’s the coaching.  That is an aspect that has been sorely lacking in all my previous attempts at fitness.  I never played an organized sport (unless you count marching band as a sport — it’s for that reason why I’m capable of doing high-knees; I did try out for my baseball and tennis teams in high school, but never made either team), so I never had the experience of having someone (at least from a physical fitness perspective) tell me what I need to do and how I need to adjust.

(Side note: since I first met him that fateful August day, Shye has become a friend, in addition to one of my coaches.  I’ve since discovered that we have something in common: we’re both Syracuse University alumni.  We frequently talk about our alma mater, including and especially Orange sports.)

Second, there’s the camaraderie.  Since joining Albany CrossFit, I have made many friends in the gym (some of whom I’m now connected through Facebook).  I keep thinking about the Planet Fitness ads I see that talk about “lunk alarms” and “gymtimidation.”  There are plenty of people in the gym who are in much better shape than I am.  But I never feel as though I’m being judged or compared to them.  These people push me, but they push me in a good way.  You’re encouraged to push yourself.  Everyone wants you to do well.  It is not unusual to go into a gym where a WOD is in progress, everyone except one person has finished the WOD (usually, that person is me), and everyone else in the room is cheering on the last straggler to finish (or at least get in as many rounds or reps as possible).  I remember watching the CrossFit Games where only one person was left on the field, and the crowd was cheering for that person to finish.  The ESPN announcer said, “CrossFit is probably the only sport where the person who finishes last gets the loudest cheers.”  Nobody judges you in CrossFit.  The only person who judges you is yourself.

Third, CrossFit is scalable.  Not everyone is capable of doing a hundred burpees in ten minutes.  I know I sure can’t.  I recently did a WOD where I managed forty burpees in eight minutes.  But WODs are adjustable; they are adjusted to people’s abilities.  They say that everyone can CrossFit, no matter your ability.  I suppose I’m living proof of that.

Fourth, there are the strides and improvements that you make.  Before I started doing CrossFit, I was unable to do an air-squat, a tripod, or a (hanging) knee tuck.  I can now do all three, and more.

Granted, I still have a long way to go.  I still look more like a couch potato than a CrossFitter (if you didn’t know me and saw me on the street, you’d probably never know — or even think — that I did CrossFit).  I still need to work on my diet (that’s probably the one major vice where I still plead guilty).  I still can’t do a pull-up, a handstand, or a rope climb to save my life (a couple of my gym-mates set a goal for me — to do at least one real pull-up by the end of the year).  I have trouble with moves that tax my knees (I was diagnosed with osteoarthritis last November).  I still can’t do double-unders (although I can do single-unders like nobody’s business).  And I still cringe every time I have to run or do burpees.

Nevertheless, I’m physically much better off than I was a couple of years ago.  I’ve made major strides.  I’m doing things now that I never thought I’d be able to do.  I’m seeing some nice definition in my arms (it’s pretty cool to get up in the morning, look at myself in the mirror, and be able to say, “holy s**t, I have muscles!”).  And those health issues I’d mentioned earlier?  My blood pressure is back under control.  And the breathing issue I had?  It hasn’t been an issue since.

Walking into the gym that day back in August 2014 changed my life — and, I suspect, likely saved it as well.  I’d always had issues with maintaining fitness programs.  This place actually makes me want to go and work out.

CrossFit is a journey, not a destination.

I’ll see you at the gym!

(A note to my local friends: if you’re interested in trying CrossFit, let me know; I’ll hook you up!)