You’ve seen them.
Those sweating men and women, triumphantly holding barbells loaded with 45-pound plates above their heads in classic Olympic poses. They do callisthenics until they fall to the mats, panting next to their comrades in exhaustion.
Since it started in 2000, CrossFit has steadily redefined fitness culture. It has popularized techniques — from the snatch to the dead lift — that historically have been the domain of only the broadest men with thighs the size of turkeys.
But today, as you may have seen in the “CrossFit Games” broadcast last month on ESPN2 or on your best friend’s Facebook feed, average people are doing these moves as well. And many are losing shocking amounts of weight in the process.
But CrossFit moves often look more dangerous, more daring, than what you find in other gyms. So a key question is: How do I try CrossFit without getting hurt?
The answer is the same whether you ask a CrossFit devotee or an expert in exercise science: You need to find a trainer who knows what he or she is doing.
Mitchell Rauh, director of the physical therapy program at San Diego State University, noted that many of the movements CrossFit employs have been around forever. He also said there are known right versus wrong ways to do them.
CrossFit did not invent the burpee, the box jump or the barbell thruster. The program’s iconic workouts weave together an eclectic mix of long-established exercises and sets them to a pace and intensity that is supposed to match each individual’s skill level.
Following proper technique is the key to avoiding injuries — and that is just as true for CrossFit as it is for any other workout, Rauh said.
“Even in a sport like running, your tissues can only handle so much when you’re just starting out,” he said.
Rauh added that a good trainer should be able to coach you in the proper form and help you ramp up your activity gradually, rather than suddenly loading on the weights and repetitions.
“If someone’s trying to give you a lot of advanced techniques and you don’t feel ready for them, you’re going to get hurt. They should be able to give you a sound, progressive protocol,” he said.
You must also bear some responsibility yourself.
When entering a CrossFit “box” — that’s what the sport calls its gyms — you need to check the natural competitiveness you may feel standing beside others who already have months or years of experience in this fitness regimen.
Dr. Leon Chang, co-owner of CrossFit Elysium in North Park, said a little self-regulation goes a long way.
“The main thing any client can do to avoid injury is to be a smart consumer, take responsibility for themselves and leave their egos at the door,” Chang said. “A good CrossFit affiliate will program with a person’s long-term development in mind. They will know how to scale or modify workouts for people as needed.”
No one would agree more than Pam Toomes, who was working out alongside her daughter, Alex, on a recent morning at CrossFit Elysium.
At 57, Toomes has been a fitness instructor for decades and underwent a hip replacement and breast cancer surgery two years ago. She was intrigued about trying CrossFit after watching Alex in the competitions that are a big part of the larger CrossFit culture. Though she can not handle nearly as much weight as her 26-year-old daughter, she said she has seen progress since coming to classes about four days per week.
“When I started, I could barely pick up the 33-pound bar. Now I’m adding weight to it. My squats are not that good yet, but I’ve definitely seen an increase in my upper-body strength,” the elder Toomes said.
Alex Toomes said she and her mother can have different abilities and still work out together, something that allows the sense of community inside a “box” to grow. She did hurt her knee a while back while participating in a CrossFit competition. The injury occurred when she was pushing herself harder than she would in a normal workout, and she does not regret it.
“I would rather have it happen doing something like CrossFit than have it happen from years of inactivity,” she said.
CrossFit, based in Washington, D.C., insists that its workouts are safe if performed under the supervision of a trainer who has earned certification through the classes it offers nationwide.
People can become a Level 1 CrossFit trainer if they take a $1,000, two-day course to learn the program’s methodology, concepts, movements, programming and nutrition strategies. After the course, which includes hands-on instruction on proper form and injury prevention, applicants must pass a 55-question, closed-book, multiple-choice test.
Those who pass gain the right to call themselves CrossFit Level 1 trainers and conduct classes.
Certification also allows trainers to run a CrossFit-affiliated gym if they receive approval from CrossFit. In addition to holding at least a Level 1 certification, affiliates must demonstrate their dedication to, and involvement in, the sport through a personal essay and regular participation in the organization’s online community. They must also pay a $3,000-per-year affiliation fee and carry at least $2 million in aggregate general liability insurance.
This system has come under criticism in recent years, especially from other exercise certification groups that offer their own, often much longer, programs for personal trainers. Some question whether people who take a two-day course and pass a multiple-choice test should be allowed to start teaching classes.
Dave Castro, CrossFit’s director of training and director of the CrossFit Games, said that there is no evidence that droves of under-prepared Level 1 trainers are starting their own gyms.
“We’ve got about 115,000 people now who have passed the Level 1 test in the past six or seven years, but we’ve only got about 13,000 CrossFit affiliates out there,” he said.
Castro, who retired from the Navy SEALs after 12 years of service and now lives in Carlsbad, has become one of the most recognizable faces associated with CrossFit.
He is on a mission to work out in every CrossFit gym in San Diego County; there are about 90.
To people who might think they are too old to try CrossFit, 57-year-old Toomes would say there is no reason not to give it a whirl. Plenty of people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s have done so.
“I would say don’t be afraid to try it. The coaches are going to know what you can do and suggest what you should do,” Toomes said.
You should be aware that most CrossFit “boxes” don’t allow you to walk in and join the workout of the day. If you are a newbie, you will likely be required to take a fundamentals class to help you learn proper technique.
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