CrossFit: Cult or Conditioning Program?

An inside look at this hot fitness trend and its devoted following

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CrossFit is the hottest fitness trend around and probably the most misunderstood. If you've seen the rock-hard physiques of CrossFitters (if not, just Google "CrossFit Games"), you might be thinking about trying the "sport of fitness" or "training for the unknown and unknowable."

CrossFit began as a form of training used primarily by the military, law enforcement, and emergency responders. In just over a decade, it's grown to thousands of affiliates (local gym owners) and has its own world championships, the CrossFit Games, where the top men and women compete for the title of Fittest on Earth and each wins a check for $250,000. CrossFit now attracts everyone from professional athletes and Olympians to the overweight-and-out-of-shape to busy professionals trying to tone up and slim down.

At its core, CrossFit is a strength and conditioning program that's designed to improve your power, strength, agility, accuracy, stamina, speed, and endurance for anything physical—from digging a ditch, finishing a triathlon, throwing a football, or running a 10K. It combines aerobic conditioning (jumping rope, running, cycling, rowing, swimming) and gymnastics (ring dips, handstand push-ups, pull-ups, and other body-weight exercises) with weight-lifting moves (snatch, clean, clean + jerk, push press) and some old-school training elements like kettlebell swings, rope climbs, sledgehammer, and tractor-tire flipping. The WODS (workouts of the day) are random and may include any one or more of the core exercise modalities in virtually endless combinations.

A typical WOD may be an 800-meter run or row followed by two reps each of 22 pull-ups, deadlifts, and thrusters (full squats with a barbell and pushing the barbell overhead as you rise), ending with another 800-meter run or row. Another popular WOD, the "Filthy Fifty," consists of 50 repetitions of 10 different exercises including box jumps, kettlebell swings, burpees, push press, etc. Due to the constant variety of high-intensity exercises, it improves both strength and endurance while enhancing accuracy, agility, flexibility, and more. WODS are never boring and they're quick, lasting anywhere from five to 30 minutes. CrossFit WODs are all scored by either time or reps completed to add intensity and an element of competition.

CrossFit has a cult-like following because of the tight-knit community that its boxes (or gyms) encourage. Many members of the box I go to, Tamalpais CrossFit in Marin County, Calif., are like my second family. CrossFitters encourage and cheer each other on and everyone feels a great sense of accomplishment when we're done. It's a fun, exciting, and challenging way to exercise that's scalable for everyone, regardless of age, sex, or athletic ability. A CrossFit box owner in Michigan recently told me a client told him she felt more accepted at CrossFit than at her church.

CrossFit has plenty of critics who believe that randomized high-intensity training is not specific enough to produce great triathletes, runners, or swimmers. This may be true, but in the off-season, many of those who are at the highest level of their sport are using CrossFit for pre-season condition. Detractors also say that CrossFit leads to injuries. In my experience—both doing the program and teaching it—if you build a good foundation, do the exercises correctly, and don't do too much too soon, you'll greatly reduce the risk of injury—the same as with any other sport.

CrossFit is a great way to lose body fat and inches off your belly while boosting your metabolism to get a leaner physique. It may also improve your biomarkers for health like blood pressure, blood sugar, insulin, and lipids.

Getting Started. If you want to try CrossFit, find a local affiliate (http://map.crossfit.com/) and drop in to watch a class and meet the instructors.

You can also learn how to start doing CrossFit WODs on your own: http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/start-how.html.

Numerous websites, like the Traveling WOD (http://www.thetravelingwod.com/p/traveling-wods.html), are designed for CrossFitters who are unable to get to a box or their home gym. These WODs use body weight for resistance and are an excellent way to get a feel for CrossFit.

Here, three at-home WODS for beginners:

• Triplet X 10: 10 push-ups, 10 air squats, 10 tuck jumps (repeat sequence 10 times).

• AMRAP (as many reps as possible) in 20 minutes: 5 pushups, 10 sit-ups, 15 air squats.

• Run 1 mile and do 10 push-ups every minute.

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Julie Upton, MS, RD, CSSD, is a San Francisco Bay area-based registered dietitian, sports nutritionist, certified Level 1 CrossFit instructor, and writer. Her work has appeared in many national magazines and newspapers including Cooking Light, Prevention, Runner's World, and the New York Times. You can read more of her posts at www.AppforHealth.com, the website she cofounded.