This week marks three months since I began the most intense workout regimen of my entire life, CrossFit.
What led to me beginning CrossFit was a realization that, if left to my own devices, I would never push myself hard enough to truly make the changes I needed to in order to get in shape. Occasional jogs and going through the chest-and-biceps motions of a traditional gym simply weren’t going to get it done. I also knew that there was no shot that I’d be able to stick to a diet if it didn’t coincide with something more offensive, like physical training of some sort that demanded I take in more nutrients and less garbage.
And so on July 21st, at 258 pounds and sick of seeing my giant moon-face on TV every day, I walked into the CrossFit Lighthouse in Wantagh, Long Island and submitted to a long-overdue comeuppance. I marched my Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man-frame into a firefight I wasn’t truly prepared for. It’s 90 days later and I still have a long way to go to get back to the old me. But I’m happy to report that for the first time in years I feel like I’m back in control and can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Every day I get closer.
For those who are thinking about trying CrossFit and rewriting their own futures, below are the first ten things that will happen.
1. You will find out how truly out of shape you are. It is likely that your first few sessions at a CrossFit gym will consist of stretching and basic instruction. You will likely sweat like a pig and require numerous breaks to catch your breath even during this relatively easy phase. This is because you are engaging and stretching muscles that have been dormant for years. You will also be sucking at the air for every molecule of oxygen you can get. It will be a week or two before your lungs are really open, prepare to gasp like a newborn taking its very first breath.
2. You will realize how fat you and other regular people are compared to real athletes. This is because your certified instructors will have the physiques of comic book superheroes. You will weigh 40 percent more than them but they will be somewhere between 50 and 150 percent stronger than you. It will make no sense that such “little” guys and girls are that much more powerful than you; it’ll be rather disorienting, especially if you’re a big guy like me who thought he was “strong” walking in. The instructors are not huge or freakishly jacked like traditional body builders, but I wouldn’t want to bet against them in any contests of strength. The idea is to be able to lift heavy weights but in as efficient a manner as possible, and then to be able to run a mile while the old school body builder huffs and puffs behind you. And you, big guy, are not strong. You are fat and incidentally may be able to lift some weight up. You will learn about real strength very soon.
3. You will begin learning the lingo and using it without feeling like a dork:
- W.O.D (or WOD): Workout of the Day, this is the combination of exercises, prescribed weights and time allotment that will be the law of the land from the first class to the last. Typically a WOD will consist of one gymnastic move (pull-ups, ring rows, sit-ups, etc.), one aspect of cardio (rowing, running, jumping rope, etc.) and one Olympic power-lifting maneuver (back squats, clean & jerks, dead lifts, push-presses, etc.).
- RX: When one does the prescribed amount of weight and reps, one is said to have RX’d (as in, he or she followed the prescription).
- Box: CrossFit centers are not called gyms, they’re called “boxes” and many of them resemble just that. Typically they’ll be in warehouse-like spaces with cement walls, exposed rafters criss-crossing the ceiling and nought but a black mat covering the length of the floors. There are no smoothie bars or aerobics studios in one’s peripheral vision, just the iron bar you’ll hang from, the weights you’ll thrust up above your head and the ground you’ll drip your perspiration and occasional tears into until you feel as though you’ve become a part of the place. This is your box. There are thousands of CrossFit boxes across the country, but this one is yours.
4. Your friends and family will start Googling the term CrossFit and giving you warnings. “Oh, you’re doing that Cross thing, I think I just read something about that…” They will come across a rare disorder wherein people push themselves past the exhaustion point until their muscle fibers begin to break down and slip through the bloodstream into their kidneys. They will also come across stories about injuries and the like associated with CrossFit search terms. The reality is that these types of injuries can and do occur with any kind of training if taken too far and under the wrong type of supervision. You are equally likely to be injured while ice skating, lifting weights alone, horseback riding, surfing or doing any other type of strenuous activity if you are engaging recklessly and not taking the proper precautions. I would also note that there is an ongoing fear-mongering campaign being waged by the traditional fitness clubs and gyms. They see the proliferation of the CrossFit movement across the country as a massive threat to their membership rolls. There is no possible way that a guy doing his usual leisurely circuit around the same 12 or 15 machines in a gym is ever going to get the intensity of a workout at a CrossFit box.
5. You will get insanely good at counting. Everything in CrossFit is about reps. 20 clean & jerks followed by 10 box-jumps topped off with 30 sit-ups, then repeat five times and compete for time. Think about the counting, the counting down, the mental division of large quantities of reps into small, more manageable-seeming blocks. “Okay, let me get five more then take a breath and then just three more and then only two sets left until I’m three fifth’s of the way through the five rounds.” This is the kind of conversation you’re carrying on with yourself in the heat of the W.O.D. and you’ll become very proficient at counting backward as well — “seven more…six, five more, c’mon, four…” Whatever it takes to get you through.
6. You’ll begin to respect endurance and stamina. When you’re a kid, your idea of strength revolves around how much one can lift, what someone’s arms and chest look like, etc. If you haven’t yet grown out of this idea, you will upon beginning CrossFit. You will begin to be much more amazed at things like quad strength and lower back strength. You’ll be blown away by the ability of others to do hundreds of airsquats or hold various static positions (holding one’s body in a plank six inches above the ground or half-squatting with one’s back against the wall, with thighs perpendicular to the ground and a 20-pound medicine ball pressed to one’s chest. When you can barely get through 30 seconds in these positions but you see someone hold them for 4 to 6 minutes, all of your ideas about what being strong means will be out the window.
7. You will gain weight at first. The most frustrating part of my first month at CrossFit was the weight gain. Simply stated, because you are using muscles that have been out of the game for years, you will be building those muscles rather rapidly, and muscle weighs more than fat. So while you will definitely be shedding water weight puffiness and sweating like you’ve been on a scavenger hunt in a rainforest, the scale will be ticking up not down. This will drive you f***ing crazy. And then, all of a sudden, you will hit that tipping point where the muscle you’ve been adding is burning enough calories each night to have you start to drop pounds. Then you’ll start to see your clothes fit better and your face shrink. All downhill from here provided you keep going.
8. You’ll notice an uptick in energy, even when you’re dead sore from CrossFitting. This new-found energy bounce comes from the fact that you’re dragging less fat around with you all day and you’re breathing easier. You’re putting less wear and tear on your cardiovascular and pulmonary systems and the dividend is you can keep up with your kids and accomplish more each day. The confidence and happiness that comes along with this is self-explanatory. Wait til you see the little and unexpected ways in which these peripheral benefits creep into your daily routine at home and at work!
9. You will learn about your mental weakness. My box, the CrossFit Lighthouse, posts the Workout of the Day on their website each morning. Three weeks in, once I had learned all the various exercises, I found myself hitting up the site and deciding based on what the W.O.D. was whether or not I was going to attend that day. One day I logged on and saw that there were 3 sets of 20 burpees included, which immediately triggered an inner dialog that went something like this: “I just did burpees on Tuesday and I’m still sore, maybe tonight will be my rest night and I’ll go tomorrow and Friday instead.” I realized that I was picking and choosing the workouts like they were on an a la carte menu, “I’ll do this but I’m skipping that because my ankle is acting up.” Once I realized this about myself, I stopped going to the site. I learned what a bitch I could be, and then I learned to deny myself the opportunity going forward. This is one example of many revelatory moments that have allowed me to get to know myself much better and make the appropriate adjustments.
10. You will learn a lot about your mental toughness. You will find that you barely knew yourself at all before beginning this adventure. That you didn’t have a clue about what really made you tick, your own elemental motivations and desires. In the heat of battle, when your head is soaked in sweat and there is nothing but the clanging of metal and the grunting of others around you, you will reach inside of yourself and go to that next level. When you realize that you are 80 percent of the way through a particularly punishing workout, you will dig deep and find what you need to get through to the other side. It’s there, and maybe you haven’t had to access it in years — decades — but when you finally do…my god. There is an apotheosis underway. And on the other side of an experience like that (or a series of them), you are a lot less hesitant to step into the breach. You have gained a knowledge (or in some cases, a remembrance) of yourself and what you’re capable of. I pity the person, in life or in business, who dares to face off against you once this has taken place. It won’t be fair to them in the least.
In my first three months of CrossFit, I came to grips with who I truly was, how out of shape I had let myself become and what kind of impact a steady and compounding list of physical achievements could have on my daily life. Now I find myself fleeing from the city after work each day at top speed just to make it back in time for a class. I find myself declining virtually every opportunity to drink at happy hours and eat lavish dinners and the like. Anyone who knows me will tell you how out of character all of this is.
But I’ve found a new addiction, something that both takes everything from me — physically, emotionally and mentally — and then gives me back even more than I had before. I’m hooked, and now all I want to do is keep getting better at it.
Joshua M. Brown tweets at @ReformedBroker and writes regularly on his blog, The Reformed Broker, where this post first appeared.