By J.C. Herz
Ten years ago, if you discovered CrossFit (usually online) and wanted to embrace “constantly varied functional movement, executed at high intensity,” you probably had to cobble together your own garage gym and check the Workout of the Day online. Five years ago, there were CrossFit boxes in converted auto body workshops and warehouses across the country, but it was still an underground phenomenon. Fast forward to 2014, when CrossFit’s worldwide competition attracts more than 200,000 participants and boxes are popping up like mushrooms after a rain. Now the question isn’t “Where can I find a CrossFit gym?” but rather, “There are five CrossFit gyms within three miles of my house— which one should I choose?”
The answer to this question is complicated by the variation in CrossFit gyms. Each box is independent and has its own tribal culture, depending on the leadership and coaching style of the owner, the size and location of the facility, and the makeup of the neighborhood. The suburban gym where grade-schoolers cheer on their superfit moms and dads has a very different vibe from the warehouse mega-box that caters to competitive athletes, or the urban CrossFit storefront where 20-somethings hit the local microbrewery after an evening WOD.
That said, there are some things to look for, and some red flags to avoid:
1. Look at the online profiles of the coaches and note how long they’ve been coaching— experience isn’t everything, but it matters. Certifications and prior experience can indicate a special interest in barbell training, gymnastics or sports-specific training.
2. Good CrossFit gyms have a beginner’s on-ramp class called “Elements,” “Fundamentals” or something similar. This is where newbies learn the correct form for lifts, barbell swings and other movements that might otherwise injure a rank beginner with no idea of how to safely perform them. If a CrossFit gym lets someone with no experience jump into a WOD, run don’t walk.
3. Visit a class and notice whether the coach gives every athlete feedback during the WOD. Good coaches are always watching the whole group and will give each person at least a couple of cues during a WOD. Mediocre coaches yell “3-2-1 go!” at the beginning, give “atta-boys” to the strongest athletes and only correct the most egregious lapses in form.
4. If the box participates in veterans’ or charity workouts, it’s a good sign that the owners want to foster a sense of belonging and play a positive role in their community.
5. In CrossFit’s early years, it was flamboyantly hardcore— its mascot was “Pukie the Clown.” There were coaches who made a point of displaying their gym’s puke bucket. There are still a few of those dudes rattling around. They’re in the extreme minority. Leave them to wallow in their bro pit— unless you’re into that.
6. Size matters. Large boxes have the space and staff to coach competitive athletes and run seminars on Olympic lifting, gymnastics and nutrition. But no matter how amazing the coaches are and how fantastic the owners are, a hangar-sized mega-box with 600 members will feel less personal and tightly knit than the 3000-square-foot neighborhood box with 200 members. There’s a “Cheers” factor to smaller boxes that’s almost impossible for large training facilities to match. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name— and will cheer as you set a personal record on a front squat.
J.C. Herz (@jcherz) is the author of Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness (Crown Books), a book about the science and the psychology of physical intensity, and the link between CrossFit’s ritual intensity and the genesis of sport in ancient human society. Learning to Breathe Fire is a proud supporter of TeamRWB.org, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of returning veterans through fitness. JC has also assembled a spirited tribe of CrossFit firebreathers on Learning to Breathe Fire’s Facebook page.
Photos: Shutterstock, Crossfit Inc.