We have been on the road for eighteen days now, a time span that has allowed us to visit fourteen different CrossFit affiliates along the way. We knew coming into this adventure that we were bound to get an in-depth perspective on today’s fitness culture from the ground level, and we’ve yet to be disappointed.
What started out in a few garages filled with just a handful of items-barbells, plates, kettlebells and rings- has evolved into a worldwide fitness movement. CrossFit boxes are popping up far and wide, and with each new community of CrossFitters our family grows exponentially. To invoke a real world image, let’s compare this growth to that of a real life family. Families are created by a parent or parents who pass their beliefs and values onto their sons and daughters. Each sibling in the family possesses this similar foundation, a set of beliefs that acts as a common base for growth. By the same token, each of these siblings most likely possesses idiosyncrasies that make them the unique individuals they eventually become. For CrossFit, the foundation is cut and dry, a definition plastered on the walls of affiliates across the world and repeated at seminars every weekend: constantly varied, functional movement, executed at high intensity. This, handed down to us from the Book of Glassman. We all have this in common, but as we have learned from our first few weeks of travel, each box has their own unique twist. Some cater toward the gymnasty and agile while others load up the barbells more often than not.
Being on the move so much allows us to encounter quite a variety of coaching styles; whether it’s hearing unfamiliar cues or complete contrasts in general programming philosophy, we’ve witnessed “constantly varied” right before our eyes. We’ve run into a box with a powerlifting focus, ones with a bodyweight/gymnastic approach, and a juggernaut Olympic weightlifting gym. While the CrossFit prescription calls for non-specialization , it hasn’t stopped some of these affiliates from sticking to their roots and centering their programming around what they do best. In almost all cases, the type of programming an athlete can find at a gym reflects the background of its’ head coaches. We’ve gotten to know several affiliate owners and/or head coaches over the last couple of weeks and had the opportunity to pick their brains about what makes their style of CrossFit unique.
At a gym in Canada, we were put through a strength session that started with heavy back squats- totally not uncommon. What came next were a couple of lower body exercises that neither of us had seen or done since our pre-CrossFit rec gym days. That’s not to say that these movements weren’t difficult- our legs were burning afterwards and made the box jumps that followed during the WOD much harder than normal. We were a bit uncomfortable with it at first but our experiences so far with both travel and CrossFit have taught us to be prepared for anything and to be happy working outside of our comfort zone. We listened to our coaches and did the movements as directed. Afterward, the two of us came to the same conclusion: strength training plays a bigger part in CrossFit than either of us had realized, and that we don’t do enough of it. We spoke with the coaches post-WOD about what drives them to coach this way, and their answers were simple. They believe that a good strength foundation is important to teach, especially to athletes new to CrossFit, because the core movements (squat, deadlift, press) are simple and set up the more complex movements to be easier later.
Complex movements, meaning weightlifting. Competitive weightlifting is an Olympic sport, so the nuances involved go much deeper than just loading a bar with weight and throwing it over your head. At CrossFit Buffalo, we were put through our own impromptu Oly class led by Danny Salvatore. Danny is USAW and CrossFit certified to coach weightlifting and the relaxed manner with which he taught the session displayed his grasp and understanding for the sport. The lift we focused on was the snatch, a complex movement that has traditionally given both of us fits. Danny was able to sharpen up our form as we warmed up, then had us transition to sets of one at ascending heavy weights. The lifts became easier and easier and for Zach, 198 lbs (or 90 kg) felt easy just days after repeatedly failing at 185 lbs . Lexi’s form was improved greatly over the course of the session and we concluded that having a coach present for movements as technical as those in Olympic weightlifting is beneficial, important and, most of all, safe.
Taste the Beast…CrossFit Buffalo
The most noteworthy concentration of any box we’ve been to so far has been at CrossFit Burlington. Obstacle course racing, as an industry, has boomed throughout the world over the last five years and CFB owner/head coach Beau Teal is an avid participant. Beau and many of his athletes run in Spartan Race events throughout the Northeast and he describes them as an incredible test of functional fitness and mental toughness. It is the Burden Run, plus mud, plus distance, plus hills. CrossFit Burlington is currently building a specific area just for Spartan Race-type training that will include a traverse climbing wall and a monkey bar rig. Combined with a running trail in the woods behind the building, a truly unique facility is under construction, connected to a CrossFit box. A former U.S. Army Captain, this type of training comes naturally to Beau and he says it complements his CrossFit training immensely.
Some sick graffiti on the wall at CrossFit Burlington
All of these specific disciplines are fun and take skill to master in their own right. But, allow us to ask what we believe is a fair question: Can this hurt CrossFit, as it pertains to its’ goal of non-specialization? We don’t believe so. Elite regional and Games athletes play to their strength during competition and do their best to cover their holes during the offseason. On that end of the spectrum, CrossFit training has become much like a full-time job and if those athletes need to specialize in order to improve a weakness, that’s just smart strategy. Most coaches, when programming for the rest of us Average Joes, consider the needs of their clients and concentrate on making them healthier and more fit for a better quality of life, rather than for competition. In other words, the gap between elite level CrossFitters and the masses is widening daily, but we believe it doesn’t hurt the quality of the program; paraphrased from the CrossFit Journal, the needs of our everyday CrossFitters and our elite level athletes vary by degree, not by kind. At the same time, we believe it is a good thing that coaches will make an extra effort to teach what they are good at; it’s the same reason a former offensive lineman is unlikely to be a quarterbacks coach later in life. Beau Teal from CrossFit Burlington was happy to weigh in on this topic and agreed. It doesn’t matter what type of equipment there is in a gym and it doesn’t matter if there is a slight lean in programming one way or the other, as long as actual CrossFit is still taking place.
“The only two things that matter,” he said, “are programming and coaching. Was the workout intense, and did you stay safe?”
At every affiliate we’ve visited so far, the answers to those two questions has been yes. We’ve witnessed some varying styles but we are realizing that this is to be expected as CrossFit grows and new perspectives are added to the mix. For people like the two of us, on a road trip to see the variance in styles, this is great; we are learning from top-notch coaches in their own respective fields of athletics and getting better each day. We suppose, for those new to CrossFit and considering beginning their own journey, that this will become a factor in deciding which affiliate to join as the sport and company both grow and more boxes begin to tailor their programming one way or the other. In any case, two and a half weeks on the road has done little to sway our opinion that CrossFit remains the best option from a strength and conditioning standpoint.
-Zach and Alexa